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Americans love large vehicles. Can Ford Maverick lead a small-truck revival?

With the all-new Maverick revealed this week, Ford Motor Co. will be at the forefront of the revival of the compact pickup segment — a move that experts say brings both advantages and challenges.

The introduction of Maverick, which has a starting price of just over $21,000 including destination fees, provides a replacement for the entry-level sedans Ford has phased out of its North American lineup. Ford is pitching the vehicle to consumers who haven't owned a truck before, including those in smaller rides such as sedans or crossovers.

"It's a really good business decision, considering that they've already walked away from the car segment," said Vanessa Ton, senior industry intelligence manager for Cox Automotive. "So they have to have more models in their lineup, and I think with the price point of this vehicle, that brings other people into the segment."

But the resurrection of a segment that fell out of favor in recent decades could be an uphill climb, experts said, as early entrants including Ford and Hyundai vie to catch the attention of American consumers whose taste in vehicles leans toward large trucks and SUVs.

Appealing to new customers

Maverick is based on the same unibody chassis as the Ford Escape and Bronco Sport SUVs and will be built at Ford's plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, alongside Bronco Sport. It adds a compact option to a truck lineup that features the Ranger as a midsize option and F-150 as the full-size.  

The entry-level version in the three-trim series starts at $19,995 without destination fees, making it the lowest-priced vehicle in Ford's U.S. lineup. The available models top out at about $35,000. It gets 40 mpg city and 500 miles of range, and comes standard with a gas-electric hybrid powertrain.

The 2022 model year is slated to go on sale this fall. Ford's marketing team has said the Maverick is geared toward younger and more diverse customers compared to those for its other trucks. They're marketing it as a truck for people who didn't know they needed a truck.

They have said target Maverick customers want a vehicle that's flexible and versatile, capable of hauling yet also slotting into a city parking spot. They want an attractive ride equipped with some technologies, but they're looking for value and don't necessarily want to pay a premium for the latest features.

"It's attractive to non-truck owners because it gives them an unexpected level of versatility that they wanted," said Chief Marketing Officer Suzy Deering. She noted that since 2009, the market share for sedans in the U.S. has plummeted by more than half while trucks and SUVs have increased 73%.

“The Maverick customer is pretty different from all of our typical truck customers," said Heath Hilliard, creative exterior designer at Ford. "Our customers are going to be coming from a sedan, a crossover. They live in urban areas, and so they need a pickup truck that’s way easier to get in and out of it.”

"Overall," he said, "it's just a much more manageable truck for a lot of people."

Small truck market

Cox recently conducted research to gauge how aware consumers are of the compact pickup segment and found that automakers might face some challenges. Researchers found that only 31% of consumers are even aware that compact trucks will be launching this year, and only about 20% may consider buying one in the future.

Nearly one-third of consumers, for example, said they would not consider a compact truck over an SUV for any reason, "indicating the compact truck is likely a niche segment with a unique selling proposition," Cox said in its report.

But one trend in the segment's favor is that Americans are crazy about trucks, and small trucks such as Maverick could bring advantages over competing sedans, SUVs, and larger trucks for budget-conscious drivers who don't want to sacrifice cargo space. Indeed, cargo space is the top factor for consumers who said they would consider a compact truck over an SUV, Cox found.

“Everybody seems to want a pickup truck," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader. "There’s a lot of room for a smaller, less expensive one."

F-150, the best-selling truck in the country, sells for about $50,000 on average, she noted, while the midsize Ranger averages nearly $40,000. 

“I think the appetite for an affordable, city-friendly truck is probably as high right now as it’s been in awhile," said Karl Brauer, executive analyst. “I think what Ford is banking on, and they’re right to bank on, is the idea that it’s more of a non-traditional truck buyer’s product, and that they can pull in some people who otherwise weren’t thinking about a truck."

Purchase consideration for pickup trucks last year surpassed cars for the first time, according to Cox's report: "Trucks are top of mind with American shoppers, and the Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz may find their footing in this market with the right volume projections, pricing and regional allocation."

Santa Cruz, widely regarded as Maverick's primary competitor, is slated to come to market first this summer. But experts said Ford could hold an advantage: "Because of their truck heritage and how well they do with F-150," said Ton, "I think it gives it that halo effect to bring additional success to Maverick."

And Cox's survey suggested that consumers find Maverick more appealing than Santa Cruz.

"Ford is doing the right thing by being one of the first to bring back this compact truck," said Ton. "When you're the first, you can set the bar on utility, you can set the bar on features, set the bar on what you want this segment to project and what it's perceived as."

But experts say there's plenty of room for growth. Cox found that consumers would be interested in similar offerings from competing brands including Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda and Nissan.

"I expect the segment is going to grow," said Ton.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski