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In the past, most die-hard pickup truck enthusiasts dismissed any unibody truck as “not a real truck.” This is one of the reasons why the Honda Ridgeline never sold well, as for a long time, it was the only pickup truck built as a unibody unit. All other trucks are built body-on-frame, which gives the truck more capability.

But last year, something happened that has caused a resurgence in unibody trucks: Both Ford and Hyundai launched their compact pickups. For 2022, Ford Maverick and Hyundai Santa Cruz join the larger Honda Ridgeline as unibody trucks. Does this help give more credibility to the Ridgeline, or will truck enthusiasts continue to poopoo these trucks as glorified SUVs?

There will be some who dismiss them — especially since Ford’s history with unibody trucks is not great. But with the Santa Cruz and Maverick selling so well, you have to wonder if there will be a unibody upswing.

1961-63 Ford unibody trucks

Ford tried a unibody truck with the two-wheel-drive “Styleside” Ford F-100 and F-250 from 1961 to 1963. It did not go well. Based off the Ranchero, Ford made an error assuming post-war truck consumers would want something closer to a Ranchero than a typical F-100.

So, what went wrong? Payload. As customers loaded up their unibody F-100 and F-250, it caused the body to flex. In turn, this caused the rocker panels to twist, which lead to misaligned doors that wouldn’t close properly — or at all in some instances.

Learning from the past

Ford quickly learned from the 1961-63 misstep and hasn’t offered a unibody F-Series since. Thus, the recently launched Ford Maverick is Ford’s first unibody truck in decades. This small truck, based on the C2 platform (Bronco Sport, Escape), is a unibody construction but has reinforced advanced high-strength steel to handle the additional bed weight, so it won’t fail like the old unibody F-series trucks.

In the Maverick, the body structure is designed to deliver rigidity and stiffness. It does so with a reinforced box that runs under the upper box side rail. That reinforced rail structure ties the C-pillar (cab back) to the D-pillar (tailgate) and provides bed to cab reinforcement, thus eliminating the issue that Ford encountered in the 1960s with its unibody truck.

This is slightly different than what Honda does with the Ridgeline and Hyundai with the Santa Cruz. Those two unibody trucks have a reinforced “buttress” area near the C-pillar that accomplishes the same thing as the Maverick version – two different methods, same end result.

Payload captain

When the unibody Ford Maverick was in production discussion, I wonder if anyone was concerned about history repeating itself. They must have been, since Ford has clearly stated payload and max towing numbers that are safe for the body — and they aren’t the same as the F-Series.

The 2022 Maverick hybrid has a maximum payload of 1,500 pounds and a max towing capacity of 2,000 pounds (the EcoBoost non hybrid maxes towing at 4,000 pounds). Meanwhile the Santa Cruz has a max payload of 1,748 pounds and max towing capacity of 5,000 pounds (with the 2.5-liter turbo AWD setup).

The Honda Ridgeline splits the difference between the two competitors with a payload of 1,530 pounds and towing capacity of 5,000 pounds.

That’s the charm of the unibody truck. It’s not meant to be worked that hard.

Upside to unibody 

Believe it or not, there is some upside to the unibody design that plays well with this new segment of consumers. The most obvious is fuel efficiency. Since unibody trucks weigh less than body-on-frame trucks, the overall fuel economy is better.

They also have a lower center of gravity, making for a smoother ride and less potential for a rollover.

Downside to unibody

In addition to payload and towing limitations, unibody trucks will also have less off-road ability. Although an FX4 package is available on the Maverick, these compact pickups aren’t built to be dedicated off-roaders due to lower ground clearance.

Smaller bed sizes are also the norm for unibody trucks. Specifically, the Maverick has a 4.5-foot bed, the Santa Cruz has a 4-foot bed and the 2022 Ridgeline has a a bed that’s a little more than 5 feet. However, Ford does offer a Flex Bed situation on the Maverick, and that extends the cargo area out over the tailgate in a number of different configurations.

The bottom line on unibody trucks

I never get into the machismo discussions of what is and isn’t a truck. The Maverick, Ridgeline and even the Santa Cruz have a bed and, therefore, are trucks in my book. Plus, they fill a niche that bigger trucks can’t. The two big areas of interest are the size (just right for city and suburban dwellers) and the price.

Today’s F-150, Ram 1500 and Silverado 1500 can get pricey quick. Many want a truck but can’t afford the cost of a new one, so Maverick and even the pricier Santa Cruz can hit a sweet spot. They’re right-sized and right-priced.

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Jimmy Dinsmore

Jimmy is News Editor for PickupTruckTalk with an expertise in new vehicles. He is also a Ford Mustang historian having authored the book Mustang by Design (available on Amazon). His second book, about the history of Ford's F-Series truck comes out next year.

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1 Comment

  1. George April 8, 2022

    Who among automakers will DARE to make a unibody with a 4×8 capable bed and (gasp) only two seats? Why does a workhorse have to haul a family these days and don’t DIYers and small businesses have an actual need for hauling materials around? Come on.


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