A New Definition of "Small"

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Nov 13, 2014

If I was feeling crueler or perhaps just more energetic I could bore you within an inch of your life by offering a detailed explanation of the federal government’s new (as of 2012) CAFÉ – or Corporate Average Fuel Economy – standards and their workings, the fruits of which are just now becoming clear. Suffice it to say the new rules – worked out by the Obama administration in close consultation with the automobile industry -- counter-intuitively appear to encourage not just the more fuel-efficient cars we’ve heard about (54mpg by 2025!) but also the continued reign of big pickups and SUVs, the sort that the headlines might have led alarmists on the political right and even some of you greener types out there to imagine were going away. Though surely improved, American trucks still don’t get great gas mileage and they won’t, but guess what? They’re here to stay.

Small is relative. (Adapted from "Apatosaurus scale" by mmartyniuk, Wikipedia)

A case in point would be the new “baby” GMC Canyon four-door pickup I’ve been driving this week, or its big-boned twin sister, the Chevrolet Colorado. With four full doors and high-riding, four-wheel-drive, the new, “small” GM pickup I drove stretches close to 19-feet long and weighs 4,400 lbs., which is a quite a bit larger than previous “small” GM pickups and not really what you’d call small by any definition. In 2005, an automotive generation ago, for instance, even the biggest of crew cab Colorado’s were about a foot shorter and 700 lbs. lighter. Preceding generations of small GM pickups were even more petite.

Who are you calling big-boned? The Chevrolet Colorado. (General Motors)

What gives? Well, for one, there’s this thing about these government/private partnerships and the modern regulatory state that anti-government critics tend to forget. The private side of the equation inevitably helps write the regulations they will attempt to live by and in the effort to make them as delightful and bearable as possible for themselves, they usually make sure to get what they want. Pickup trucks and SUVs were too profitable to get sent the way of the DeSoto and find themselves forcibly marched into oblivion. Hence, a new regulatory scheme that encourages pickups and SUVS – still the primary engine of American automakers’ profitability – to stay large while discouraging lighter and often equally or more practical station wagons and cars.

It would, of course, be disingenuous to ignore that many Americans want their rigs big – given half the chance (i.e, cheap credit, easy terms and falling gas prices) we revert back to type and order them up by the hundred thousand-load. As always, Detroit is ready to accommodate us. For the simple reason that they’ve spent almost a century conditioning people to pay more for big things than small ones, even if big ones cost more or less the same to manufacture as small ones.

What’s harder to fathom is why America’s newest small pickup had to be quite so big. Though they’ve been trimming weight from their so-called full-size trucks, they’re still huge and you would’ve thought they already had the big and tall market covered. But as the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier continue to grow ever larger and with the Ford Ranger no longer on sale, GM decided it was time to let out the Colorado/Canyon’s waistband once again.

Like you haven't put on a few since high school? The GMC Canyon. (General Motors)

Its build quality seems considerably improved over small Chevy pickups of the past. The materials gracing its interior have come up two or three notches from the depths of their former crappiness to stand as pleasingly average. And the truck I drove claimed 24 highway miles per gallon, a 3-mpg improvement over its similarly equipped 2005 predecessor. However, over 235 miles of mostly highway driving I never broke 20mpg. But even if I had, this is not exactly earth shattering, Save the Planet stuff.

It has been said that only an idiot drives a pickup truck in New York as personal transportation. And one day last week, just after taking delivery of the Canyon at my suburban home, I had no choice but to become that idiot. Running late for a lunch meeting I ventured into Midtown Manhattan in the Canyon 4x4. My feeling of mild, subdued embarrassment quickly turned to irritation and then outright anger when I was turned away by four, consecutive underground garages with vacant spaces on the grounds that my “small” pickup was too large for them to house. Finally, I found a spot that would lodge my butch charge while I went to my meeting. Except they wanted me to pay them a 30-percent “oversized vehicle surcharge.”

It's small enough to fit into a compact space; therefore it must be a compact car. (Casey Bisson, Flickr)

“But,” I protested, “this is the new small GM pickup!” The South American attendants looked at me like I was crazy, made identical hand gestures to indicate “muy grande” and then cracked up laughing. I had to smile myself, just as I did when I came home and attempted to park the Canyon in the parking space that often comfortably houses my quite large 1968 International Travelall. The GMC stuck half a foot out into the street.

Other than, wow, my only conclusion is that there’s got to be a market out there for a still smaller pickup than the Canyon/Colorado, the kind of small, handy thing they used to sell by the shedload. Or perhaps those new CAFÉ regs don’t allow them to build them. It wouldn’t surprise me.

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