Ford did it, folks. The new Maverick right-sized pickup is a bonafide hit. An inexpensive small truck that gets 40 mpg and is bursting with personality and useful features inside and out. As such, it’s clearly aimed at a different buyer than the F-150; the launch video of the new Ford Maverick opens by asking, “Who is the Maverick for?” and answers that question by showing a group of young, attractive, city-dwelling creatives hustling and bustling about town. The very first feature mentioned is its tight turning radius, even before touting its impressive interior storage or 40+ mpg fuel economy. It seems designed to slot right into the urban lifestyle. But is it really?
The Maverick is tiny by the standards of a modern pickup truck, but take it out of that context and it’s nearly two feet longer than a Volkswagen Golf or even a new Ford Escape (and an inch longer than the seven-seat Ford Explorer). Length is just one dimension, of course, but look closely at the tension between Ford’s design priorities and the reality of owning a car in a city, and it’s hard to deny the Maverick is really designed more for the suburban lifestyle than an urban one.
That doesn’t mean it can’t serve a city-dwelling creative well, of course, and it does on several key fronts. But now that the Maverick is here and still in high demand, it’s a good time to check in on how the promise of a compact pickup truck is playing out in the real world—and how Ford might further refine its approach to really nail the idea of a cheap truck built for the city.
Ford set out to grab young, entry-level buyers with the Maverick. Maybe some of these folks always wanted a truck and couldn’t quite stretch their budget, but many are people who wouldn’t have considered a truck before. According to a Ford representative, early data from JD Power shows 70 percent of buyers are coming out of non-trucks, mainly from sedans and small SUVs. A quarter of buyers identify as women, more than double the measly 10 percent share of the pickup market as a whole. TheMaverick’s marketing reflects this; it doesn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill truck campaign.
City life is the focus—as I mentioned, the very first point in Ford’s Maverick announcement video is how easy it is to maneuver and park. Ahead of its wildly impressive 40 mpg fuel economy figure, ahead of the full-size bed, ahead of its clever interior storage. More than half of the photos in the Maverick’s media gallery are shot in a built environment: city streets, a garden center, a performance venue.
Its midsize brother, the Ranger, on the other hand? Just two of 36 photos have the Ranger on a paved surface and it’s only ever pictured in the wilderness. It’s not that much bigger than a Maverick, longer by less than a foot. But Ford clearly wants you to think of them as trucks made for entirely different purposes.
Urban-centric marketing goes hand in hand with what a Ford representative told me is the Maverick’s top priority: value. People who live near public transit don’t need a truck for a daily commute, especially with pandemic-prompted remote and hybrid work settling in as the new norm. In the head versus heart debate of a new vehicle purchase, that $20,000 base price makes a very convincing case for itself.
Every piece of marketing material—from videos to photos—features young, hip people in cities. That economy car price tag, while good for everyone, is great for cash-strapped millennial and Gen Z renters. Ford clearly wants the Maverick to appeal to city people, and it’s pretty much there with price and features. Whether or not it actually fits in as a convenient urban runabout in practice—well, I’ve got some concerns there.
The Ford Maverick has a nice low cowl height for great visibility and pedestrian safety, and it’s no wider than a Toyota Camry. Check and check. But It’s a lot longer than you might think, more than two feet longer than its platform-mate the Bronco Sport, and half a foot longer than something like a BMW 5 Series. The Maverick’s tidy width, low cowl, and tight turning circle make it maneuverable in town, but that length could make it extremely irritating to street park.
In the absence of official data (government and academic sources I consulted are more concerned with parking supply and behavior on a macro scale), I visited a few dense neighborhoods where I live in DC—Shaw, Adam’s Morgan, and Columbia Heights if you’re curious—and took bumper-to-bumper measurements of parking spaces. Plotted below, this data suggests an S-curve relationship between the size of your car and the time it takes to find a spot, which is fairly linear for vehicles ranging from 170 inches to about 200 inches. Let’s break down what that means.
A Ford Bronco Sport is about 173 inches long and can fit into about 75 percent of the spots in my dataset, assuming a 16-inch buffer between cars. The 200-inch long Maverick can only fit into about 20 percent of spots. This means if it took a Bronco Sport driver the DC average 10 minutes to find a spot—per traffic data provider INRIX—a Maverick driver could expect to spend more than a half-hour spiraling through the neighborhood in those same conditions. The Hyundai Santa Cruz, with its smaller bed, is only six inches shorter than the Maverick, but that translates to saving about 12 minutes finding a spot. That’s an enormous difference, especially if you’re street parking on both ends of a trip. A Maverick owner could park opportunistically and walk to their destination, but a 2018 study from the University of Michigan’s Dr. Robert C. Hampshire and UCLA economist Dr. Donald Shoup shows that people generally never do this.
Garage users should have an easier time, but the Maverick struggles even here since it doesn’t fit into a compact spot. There’s no ubiquitous definition for how big a compact spot is, but most municipalities set it around 192 inches long, or 8 inches shorter than the Maverick. This might force Maverick owners to risk getting clipped hanging out into passing traffic, or leave in frustration if all full-size spots are taken. Still, an off-street spot is a requirement for a pleasant ownership experience in cities. Is it reasonable to ask a person in the market for a $20,000 car to shell out at least $300 a month just for parking? I don’t think so.
Parking is the driving experience in many cities. The above 2018 study estimated that 15 percent of urban traffic at any given time is looking for a spot, as high as 45 percent in certain places, and it can be an incredibly annoying process. A survey by traffic data provider Inrix showed that 61 percent of drivers found parking frustrating, and 34 percent even abandoned a trip due to parking problems. That frustration will turn to outrage when folks have to pass up spots because their truck is just a little bit too big.
The data I gathered isn’t universal, but it’s also far from unique; it reflects life in a congested city. The neighborhoods I sampled are similar to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, The Mission in San Francisco, Northern Liberties in Philadelphia, and untold dozens more. It doesn’t show that the Maverick is completely unparkable but it is big enough to potentially turn every cross-town trip into an ordeal.
Ford told me that after value, a buyer's next priorities were real-truck styling and credible capability. These priorities come with a host of small design tradeoffs that cumulatively add up to a suburb-sized footprint—essentially, Ford made it as small as it could while preserving certain attributes it believes are key to winning over both new and existing truck buyers. To better understand the compromises and choices, I spoke with Ford engineer Keith Daugherty.
Daugherty confirmed that a 1,500-pound payload was a primary design target throughout the development process. In order to be able to haul a load that heavy safely, you need to spread it over a greater area. This influences everything from the size of the bed to the wheelbase, and even details like the steering ratio. Ford could’ve made the Maverick smaller and more nimble, but that could have made the truck nervous and darty hauling on the highway. The Maverick will be many owners’ first truck, and engineers wanted it to handle confidently with a full bed. Since it’s already smaller than alternatives like the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota Tacoma, Ford decided it wasn’t worth sacrificing any payload to double down on maneuverability.
Even that impressive 40 mpg figure is tailored to suburban needs. People who live in transit-rich cities don’t drive that often. To use my city as an example again, the average DC driver only covers a hair over 7,000 miles a year, about half the national average, according to insurance comparison site The Zebra. City people only get about half the benefit of that hybrid powertrain as a daily commuter would.
Ford finds itself in a tricky position after exiting the car market in 2020. By far and away its best American market economy car is now a pickup truck, with all the packaging compromises that come with attaching a 4.5-foot long box to a four-door cabin. The Ecosport is utterly charmless, gets worse fuel economy, can’t carry much, and is a dead man walking. The Bronco Sport offers trucky styling but is significantly more expensive at $27,000. The Escape Hybrid gets similar fuel economy but starts close to $30,000. The Maverick is now Ford’s entry-level vehicle.
This is hardly a bad spot for Ford to be in; the Maverick is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive ICE vehicles of the last decade. It’s the most affordable way to get into the 40 mpg club. It has an honest, well-equipped, and clever interior. The infotainment is usable. And it has personality! Colors! It’s not just another anonymous blob. It’s just unfortunate that these qualities couldn’t come in a package truly sized for city life, not just close enough to fit if you really need to make it happen.
2020 was a bad time to exit the small car market, as Ford famously did. People are flocking back to urban cores after some early pandemic flight, and owning a car offers a tantalizing escape from the ever-encroaching walls of a remote worker’s apartment and the city at large. Car buying in cities like New York jumped 20 percent in 2020, and city dwellers were 15 percent more likely to report that the pandemic pushed them into a car purchase.
I don’t begrudge Ford’s decision to concentrate on its strongest products. Focus sales were slipping and never close to segment mainstays like the Honda Civic, for example. But it does leave Ford in a position of having to market a pickup truck to city dwellers instead of a quality compact, like casting Dave Bautista as the lead in a Clueless reboot. He’s got talent and he’d do his best, but he’s hardly an ideal fit for the role. Ford just needs to decide that the urban market is worth serving with more than one exceptional vehicle and to size the next one a bit more aggressively for that purpose.
Don’t hold your breath for a single-cab Maverick, though—that ain’t happening. A far more realistic scenario is a super base version of the Bronco Sport. The Maverick shares a platform and important components like rear suspension arms with the handsomely truckish CUV and pulled its hybrid powertrain from its platform sibling Escape. I could imagine a facelifted Bronco Sport, shorn of expensive off-road equipment and equipped with the Maverick’s hybrid powertrain, landing just north of the Maverick’s MSRP. The Bronco Sport is about three times easier to park than the Maverick and is extremely desirable in its own right. Something like that might be just what the city-dwelling creatives ordered.
Eli Fitch is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer covering cars and games.
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