Honda is nothing if not persistent. It took the Japanese automaker several tries before it cracked the code on the U.S. minivan and SUV markets. Now it’s determined to make a credible stand in the midsize truck segment as it launches the second-generation Ridgeline pickup truck.
Three decades ago, Americans bought more small trucks than full-size models. But until recently, midsize pickups were little more than an asterisk on the sales charts.
Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles no longer offer smaller trucks in the U.S. Honda left the market when it pulled the plug on the original Ridgeline at the end of the 2014 model year.
The new Ridgeline debuts during a period of resurgence for midsize pickups. General Motors recently launched new midsize offerings, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.
“Pickups are smoking hot, and GM has had a real hit with their Colorado and Canyon,” said Dave Sullivan, an AutoPacific analyst. “Honda’s prospects are good. Now that the Ridgeline finally has familiar pickup styling, sales can only go up from where they were.”
Sales of midsize pickups surged 48 percent to 356,886 last year, according to tracking service Autodata Corp. They are up another 17 percent through the first four months of this year, at a time when the overall U.S. auto sales rose only 3.4 percent.
A separate forecast by consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. projects sales of midsize pickups will peak at about 461,400 in 2019.
It helps, said Honda division chief Jeff Conrad, that the American market is “rapidly shifting from cars to trucks.”
In recent months, pickups, minivans and utility vehicles, overall, have been running between 58% and 60% of the American market, but that’s a problem for a traditionally car-focused brand like Honda, Conrad said.
“We don’t want to miss out,” Conrad said.
The 2017 Honda Ridgeline isn’t your typical truck. It’s actually based on a car-like unibody platform, albeit one strengthened to handle as much as 1,500 pounds of cargo and a trailer of up to 5,000 pounds. Honda is betting its approach will appeal to buyers who might already have a car-based crossover-utility vehicle, such as its own CR-V, and want to balance functionality with a more car-like ride than the typical body-on-frame truck can offer.
“We’re not going after the buyer looking to take this vehicle climbing up rocks,” Conrad said.
Nor is Honda targeting commercial users. The maker has an almost genetic phobia of fleet sales and, at most, it expects only a modest number of Ridgeline buyers will use the truck for contracting and other business services.
Honda will market the Ridgeline as a weekend lifestyle vehicle for people who want the hauling capacity but still want a comfortable daily driver that has decent fuel economy.
The first Ridgeline started fast, selling about 50,000 units in 2006. But sales quickly fell to about a third of that level. The truck was hurt by poor fuel economy, its quirky design, an unrefined cabin and a dearth of technology.
The new truck has a more classic pickup silhouette. Inside, the 2017 Ridgeline is roomier, with more refined materials and detailing.
The truck adds a variety of new technological features, including a Wi-Fi hotspot and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are numerous new safety features that family buyers would expect, as well, including the Honda Sensing suite of technologies, which includes forward collision warning, active cruise control and lane keeping assist.
A pickup still needs to be functional, and the unibody platform, with its multilink independent rear suspension, not only provides a more car-like ride but also plenty of space. Among other things, there’s a hidden “trunk” under the cargo floor big enough for an 82-quart cooler. The bed itself is wide enough to fit 4×8 sheets of plywood or drywall flat between the wheel arches. And the Dual-Action Tailgate makes for easy access, swinging down or out like a door.
As for fuel economy, the 3.5-liter i-VTEC V-6 — making 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque – delivers 19 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway – as much as 6 mpg better than the old model. The all-wheel-drive model will trim a single mpg off those numbers, to 18 and 25. Aiming to increase Ridgeline’s appeal in warmer climes like California, Honda is adding a new front-drive model.
“Honda may not become the largest volume player in the segment, but offering a competitive truck product will help maintain its ability to be a full-line, or at least a nearly full-line, automaker,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “Plus, midsize pickups are currently among the highest profit margin products on the market,” another good reason to want back in.
The 2017 Honda Ridgeline officially goes on sale in June and will carry a base price of $29,475 plus $900 for delivery fees for the front-wheel-drive version.