There is a segment in the market for pickup trucks that are not fullsize models. Since the 1960s they have been known as “compact” pickups. The industry now would like us to know them by a different name: midsize pickups.

Regardless of the moniker, compact pickups, conceived some say as early as the late 1950s as less burly alternatives to the cumbersome fullsize pickups of the day, once were keenly targeted alternatives for buyers who didn’t want – or need – the fullsize experience.

But as America started to supersize its lifestyle and expectations in the 1980s, the attractiveness of compact pickups began to recede. Sales peaked in 1986 at a not-inconsiderable 1.5 million units.

This year alone, segment sales through July were off 12.4%. General Motors Corp.’s all-new Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, launched for ’04, are staring at sales declines of some 50% compared with their predecessors, and sales for Ford Motor Co.’s Ranger are off 24.9% vs. an unspectacular ’03.

Auto makers have turned their attention to more profitable segments, driven by buyers for whom it seems compact pickups don’t fit anymore.

Toyota expects all-new Tacoma to gain share in shrinking segment.

New-product programs and innovation languished in lockstep with the segment that Toyota Motor Corp. predicts will hit just 820,000 units this year. Which makes all the more remarkable alignment of product-development orbits that sees three all-new compact pickups launched for ’05.

If there really is such a thing as a midsize pickup, it’s been the Chrysler Group’s Dodge Dakota, and the all-new ’05 model continues with the Dodge trump card: the availability of the only V-8 in the segment.

Okay, it’s not the almighty Hemi, but 4.7L worth of overhead-cam V-8 – plus a high-output variant – makes the new Dakota the clear choice for pickup buyers who relish power.

But the Dakota also sports an all-new, stiffer structure and the shapely sheet metal the previous-generation Dakota lacked. Interiors are a step above, too, and Dodge brags a Dakota with a V-8 can be had for less than $20,000.

Toyota has been a perennial segment benchmark with its Tacoma, which always has represented a touch of extra refinement and a nod to users who are not as work-truck oriented.

This year’s redesign for Tacoma includes a new 245-hp 4L DOHC V-6, markedly larger interior volume and a heavily sculpted X-Runner variant that underscores a new high-performance motif (Toyota claims the X-Runner out-corners a Nissan 350Z).

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. weighs in with an all-new Frontier, which, like most of the trucks here, was overdue for a re-do.

The Frontier now leverages a version of the Titan fullsize pickup’s body-on-frame layout, and out goes the dog-eared 3.3L V-6, replaced by a chesty 4L DOHC V-6 derived from the hugely successful “VQ” architecture. The new Frontier also has grown, largely to provide better interior accommodations.

With all this new action, Toyota says it expects the segment to approach 900,000 units next year. It may not be the heyday of 1986, but any increase is welcome for the moribund compact – uh, midsize – pickup segment.

An increase on that order would be nothing less than a major resuscitation; something less might be the bellwether that compact pickups may be going the way of affordable sport coupes in the U.S. market.

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com