DETROIT -- It's the end of the road for the Ranger in the U.S.
Ford is ending production of the smallest pickup it makes, a truck that helped the company battle more fuel-efficient Japanese imports when it was launched in 1982. The last American-made Ranger will roll off the assembly line in Minnesota today.
After peaking in the mid-1990s, sales of the Ranger have fallen over the last decade, hurt by neglect as Ford focused on more profitable large pickups. The Ranger's styling grew stale, it lost its fuel economy edge and the price wasn't much lower than beefier siblings like the F-150.
Other companies aren't so sure it's time to ditch small pickups. Toyota, General Motors and Nissan all plan to continuing selling small pickups in the U.S., citing high gas prices and loyal buyers.
Still, sales of small pickups topped out at 1.2 million, or 8 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S., in 1994, according to LMC Automotive, a consulting group. About a quarter of those were Rangers, which appealed to guys for their manly styling and zippy ride.
Sales have been sliding ever since. LMC expects small pickup sales to total 297,000 this year, or 2 percent of the market.
Vehicles need styling updates to help keep up sales. Jim Oaks, a retired state trooper from Salem, Ohio, who runs a website for Ranger enthusiasts, said current models have almost exactly the same interior as one he bought in 1996.
Pricing also has been a problem. The Ranger started out as a cheaper alternative to bigger pickups, but as Ford added features, like upgraded transmissions or satellite radio, prices crept up.
A top-of-the-line, two-door Ranger with a V6 engine starts at $22,340, or just $600 less than a base model F-150. Automakers' incentives, including zero-percent financing and other deals, erased that price premium altogether, making bigger trucks more appealing.
Small pickups have lost their fuel-economy edge as automakers improve the efficiency of engines in bigger trucks. The Ranger, which also offers a four-cylinder engine, can get up to 27 miles per gallon on the highway, but an F-150 with a more powerful V6 can get 23.
Gas costs didn't matter much to buyers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when pump prices were cheaper. But when gas spiked and the recession took hold in 2008, drivers who didn't need pickups to haul things stopped buying altogether.
Demand for large and small pickups suffered, with sales of small models dropping by nearly half between 2007 and 2009.
"You really have to start questioning whether to commit the tremendous capital and resources," said Ford U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle. He said the company expects many Ranger customers to shift to F-150s.
The end of Ranger production means the closure of the St. Paul, Minn., plant where it is made. Ford will sell a new version of the Ranger outside the U.S. Those trucks will be built in Thailand, South Africa and South America.