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Just weeks before Ford rolls out its new Ranger pickup, the automaker finds itself in a strange position: playing catch up on trucks.
"Ford is a huge truck seller," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive. "They have built up a huge loyal truck buyer audience, and this group will look at the Ranger as another great Ford pickup truck."
With pickup buyers wanting trucks that have greater capability and more technology, Ford has packed the Ranger with plenty of features, including a 10-speed transmission and towing capacity of 7,500 pounds. Both will be tops in the midsize category. And with a base model starting at just over $25,000, Ford believes the Ranger will have no problem attracting customers.
"We expect the buyers to come from new customers who want an open bed and a truck small enough to garage, but who also want to get out on the weekend," said Brian Bell, marketing manager for Ford.
There's no doubt Americans have rediscovered smaller pickups. A decade ago Toyota's Tacoma defined the midsize truck category as Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler's Ram focused on building bigger, more capable and more expensive full-size pickups. In 2011, with the country recovering from a recession and auto sales still lagging, Ford dropped the Ranger and said it would concentrate on its top-selling F-Series lineup of trucks. At the time, few argued with Ford's strategy.
A few years later, General Motors made a bigger push for midsize trucks with all-new versions of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, two models that hit showrooms just as Americans started buying more SUV's and trucks.
The timing was fortuitous. Since 2013, midsize pickup sales have doubled and are expected to top a half million vehicles this year, according to the auto website Edmunds.
Did Ford miss the boat by failing to bring back the Ranger sooner?
Brauer calls ignoring the midsize truck market a mistake.
"I think it is one of the reasons possibly why Mark Fields isn't at the helm [at Ford] anymore because this was seen as a miss, " Brauer said.
Instead of rehashing past decisions, Ford executives are looking to the future and predicting the Ranger model will hit the sweet spot of a hot segment. Sales of midsize pickups have jumped 22 percent this year, but the Ranger will face stuff competition. In addition to the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, the new Jeep Gladiator will hit showrooms next spring. Given the popularity of the Fiat Chrysler's Jeep brand and the Gladiator's bold look, industry analysts will not be surprised if the new truck attracts people who otherwise would consider buying a traditional looking pickup.
It will be one of the story lines the auto industry will be watching closely next year. Ford, a company that has lead the full-size pickup market for more than 40 years thanks to the long-standing popularity of F-Series, will soon find out if the Ranger rides high with Americans who want a smaller truck.
— CNBC's Meghan Reeder contributed to this article.
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