‘Keep on Truckin’ no longer has a rugged definition

I drive a 1999 Toyota Tacoma pickup with almost 200,000 miles on it. It’s not much to look at, but over the years it has hauled uncountable loads of firewood, plants and mulch all over Bainbridge Island, carried college furniture to and from Spokane and Santa Barbara, and survived two teenage drivers. So I have a soft spot in my heart for pickups and the lucky people who own one.

The other day I read an article on Axios about pickups called “From Workhorse to Joyrides.” The gist of the article was that while pickups continue to be popular vehicles, their size and use has been steadily evolving.

In 2022, the top three best-selling vehicles in America were pickups with the Ford F Series trucks occupying the top of the list as they have for some 40 years. In 1980, fully half of the pickups sold in this country fit within the small-to-midsize range. By 2010, sales of small trucks had nearly vanished and sales of full-sized pickups dominated the market. In addition, those small pickups that are selling are no longer all that small; today’s small pickups are the same size as the mid-sized trucks of the 1980-90s.

With the clear movement toward larger, more powerful pickups, you’d assume that a lot of people are doing lots of hauling, towing and off-road driving. And you’d be wrong. While pickups are getting bigger and more powerful, the average size of the beds has been steadily shrinking. A third of full-sized pickups sold today are never used for hauling and two-thirds are never used for towing.

So what are they used for? 87% of full-sized trucks today are used primarily for shopping, running errands, commuting, Sunday drives in the country, and for taking up whatever parking spot I may be trying to get into at Town & Country. The length of the cab and seating area in today’s pickups on average make up 63% of the total length of the vehicle while the bed makes up only 37%. Twenty years ago, the cab made up only 36% of the length while the bed made up 64%.

I guess the extra cab space is necessary to hold the dry-cleaning and take-out dinner containers. My own little truck has a 7-foot bed and a small cab with only a token jump seat behind that is so small and uncomfortable that even the dog refuses to ride in it and instead insists on sitting next to me in the passenger seat, which wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t also have the habit of constantly changing the buttons on my car stereo.

Large pickups have replaced minivans as the vehicle of choice for suburban families. The marketing of big trucks touts their “power and ruggedness” while minivans continue to pitch their functionality, economy and reliability. The average truck sold today weighs twice as much as the average sedan and is about 7 feet higher off the ground than older trucks like mine. [Note to self, confirm this claim — it might be closer to 10 feet.]

What does all that mean? I have no idea. While I love my truck, I am not someone you’d describe as “powerful and rugged,” which seems to be the self-image targeted by big-truck marketing. When I drive through Winslow in my little pickup I do sometimes turn some heads, but that’s mostly because of the alarming shade of blue that my truck is painted and the notably rattling and clanking sounds it makes while in motion or, occasionally, when parked.

I’ve noticed that owners of today’s oversized, souped-up trucks generally keep their vehicles washed, waxed and vacuumed. The inside and outside of my truck look like an extension of the junk drawer in our kitchen. It used to have a family of raccoons living in it during the winter, but they recently found an old metal trash barrel that offered better aromas and a higher resale value.

Big truck marketing emphasizes how easily they operate off-road; my truck doesn’t handle all that well on pavement. My truck has a “Check Engine” light, but next to it is a “Game Over” light that has been glowing steadily since the Obama administration.

It used to be said that men like trucks and women like clothes. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that now trucks are marketed to, and purchased by, women as much as they are to men, and that men like clothes just as much as women do (present company excluded, of course).

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper.