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THE ART OF THE PICKUP TRUCK, Part One

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

I didn't really need a new pickup truck... which, paradoxically, made this the best time to shop for one.


Some things are quintessentially (if not specifically) American– the lever-action rifle, long associated with cowboys and red-plaid deer hunters of yore; pit barbecue cookery, from Texas Brisket to

St. Louis Ribs to Carolina Smoked Chicken; and the Pickup Truck.


Regular readers might recall last year's essay about car shopping (CAR SHOPPING WITH DANNYM.) Well, the time has come to again apply the lessons I previously shared... and perhaps ponder the changes in the ever-evolving economy that have made some of those lessons obsolete. Of course, some truisms I've absorbed during during my 6.5 earthly decades constitute truths eternal... like this nugget in particular, from my deer hunting mentor DavidB. after I harvested a rather small buck: "Gotta shoot'em when you see'em, 'cause you CAN'T shoot'em when you DON'T see'em!" And also another notion, which I learned myself through painful experience: "The best time to look for a new car or a new job is when you don't need one." Taken together, they've advantageously guided me through numerous vehicular and employment transitions.


I've long been perfectly happy with my 2020 Toyota Tacoma 4WD pickup truck. It has reliably gotten me to work on time, nicely facilitated shopping for lumber, shrubbery, etc., and it has never broken down. Based on Toyota's reputation and my personal experience, its current 50,000 odometer tally was but a down payment on its potential lifespan, and it would surely remain a perfectly good Ph.D. graduation gift (as promised) for my daughter in early 2025. But I always keep a sharp eye on long-range social, political, and economic trends in general as well as specific developments in the auto industry, and I've seen enough signs that the best time for me to switch vehicles might be... RIGHT NOW.


For one thing, our U.S. economy, presently saddled with $33 trillion in debt, is, according to many observers, looking increasingly vulnerable to complete and total collapse. Indeed, the acclaimed investor Dr. Michael (“The Big Short”) Burry just shorted Wall Street (and, by extension, the entire U.S. economy and perhaps Western Civilization itself) to the tune of $1.6 billion. With one my retirement investment accounts completely invested in the market and my 65th birthday just two weeks away, it seemed a prudent time to move some money around.


And then there's the auto industry itself. My poor Tacoma has long suffered the scorn of the motoring press for being "too boring," i.e., too safe and reliable. CAR AND DRIVER ranks it 7th (and dead-last) in its category; others in the industry are similarly dismissive. As someone who pilots 120'-long, 50-ton, 34-wheeled vehicles down the highway for a living, I tend to seek excitement in places beyond the pavement, where a mere second of uncertainty or a sudden surprise can foster mass casualties. Despite the nearly unanimous negative reviews, my current iteration of the Toyota Tacoma is extremely popular among buyers who value, as I do, its reliability... an increasingly important consideration in a time when the wait for replacement parts is often measured in multiple months.


So what does Toyota do? Stick to what works and keep their loyal customers happy, or cave to the snarky blatherings of the automotive press? (Spoiler Alert: The latter.)


A few months ago, Toyota excitedly announced the imminent arrival of the "All New & Improved!" 2024 Toyota Tacoma lineup. Based on my experience, this means that it will likely be 30-40% more expensive than its immediate predecessor and laden with new bells and whistles that I (and surely others) will find utterly useless. So I started shopping hard for one of the last a new 2023 Tacomas.


* * * * * * *


Small pickup trucks used to be widely available. I bought my first Toyota pickup in 1995, before they had even self-identified as "Tacoma." It was both tiny and fun to drive. Similar versions of the 4-cylinder, 2-seat pickup from Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Datsun (predecessor marque of Nissan) likewise enjoyed broad popularity in America. The wonderful little Ford Courier debuted in 1972 as a Ford-badged Mazda, and in 1983 it morphed into the Ford Ranger. Volkswagen, meanwhile, offered a pickup version of their ubiquitous Rabbit from 1979-84 that was famous for its durable and miserly (> 50 mpg) if under-powered diesel power plant.


By the end of the 20th Century the field was full of affordable and fun little pickup trucks. There was just one problem– there wasn't much room for profit on these vehicles, especially as compared to the increasingly popular and shamelessly overpriced SUVs. And so small pickups started vanishing from the market, and those that remained steadily grew bigger and more expensive. Those tiny little pickups of yesteryear– including my multiple and beloved Tacomas– have ballooned into "mid-size" pickups twice the size and quadruple the price of those from the early 1990's. Even so, I was ready to purchase the right 2023 Tacoma, if I could find one. However, my diligent search revealed that those meeting my specs had completely vanished from showrooms nationwide. Sight unseen, I already knew I didn't want a new and improved 2024.


And so, Dear Reader, it seemed like was time for me to open my mind, expand my horizons, and explore new ground.


I've never held any fondness for, nor entertained any interest in, the vehicles produced by the Dodge/Chrysler Corporation... quite the opposite, actually, because of one particular experience. Andrea and I began team-driving the USA in a tractor-trailer in 2010, right when the Ram pickup truck brand spun off from Dodge to become a stand-alone marque. And among our many and varied driving assignments, we were occasionally tasked with heading down to Laredo on the Mexican border to pick up a load of Mexican-built engines, and then bringing them to the Ram factory in Warren, Michigan... where they were bolted into vehicles that would be sold as "American-Made." We thought at the time that this practice was a little sleazy, and the factory itself was a messy, dirty hell-hole. I recall telling people that after seeing the factory I wouldn't want a Ram if it were given to me.


But two things eventually softened my stance... good reviews, and, of all things, an especially touching Super Bowl commercial:

We're all suckers for certain things, I suppose, but I figure any company with the balls to air an ad like this during Super Bowl 47 in 2013 deserved my further attention. Viewers were stunned, much like

they were during the Apollo 8 crew's reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968.

(See And So This Is Christmas… for the link.)


Good reviews, of course, count more than good commercials. I noticed that several of my co-workers– guys who know a lot about trucks– drive Rams. And try as they might, the motoring press had trouble finding fault with Ram's lineup... especially one version that seemed to be conceived with ME in mind. As usual, I did some homework... a LOT of homework.


And then, having identified my quarry, the hunt was on.


TO BE CONTINUED...



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