Alabama-made Honda Ridgeline tackles pickup market high and low

Alabama-made Honda Ridgeline tackles pickup market high and low
The 2017 Ridgeline was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show and will be built in Alabama. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

With a seemingly indestructible reputation for reliability and low prices, Honda has been the default choice for a generation of drivers. Its Accord alone would be a sizable company, and its CRV is the best-selling SUV in the game. The automaker even sold 128,000 minivans in the U.S. last year.

But the brand’s pickup business, the quintessential American vehicle, has been a total clunker.

Honda is hoping to change all that with the unveiling of the 2017 Ridgeline, a midsize truck that gets better mileage and handles better than most pickups on the market, said Jeff Conrad, general manager at American Honda Motor. But those features are just half of a two-pronged attack.

“We think we’re onto something big here,” Conrad said. “Whoever builds the better mousetrap gets the mice these days.”

Honda has been making the Ridgeline since 2005, but the latest overhaul is long overdue. Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan said the company barely changed the truck in the decade it’s been around. “If they’re ever going to do it, now’s the time,” Tynan said. The pickup will hit dealerships in the first half of this year, although it’s marked as a 2017 model.

The Ridgeline’s U.S. sales peaked in 2006 at about 50,000, which would be a bad month for Ford’s F-150. Since then, the model fell steadily until Honda stopped production in 2014.

“It was our first foray into the truck market,” Conrad said. “We used it as a learning experience.”

Just as Honda was shutting down assembly lines, competitors were cranking up. Late that year, General Motors rolled out two pickups that hit another gear in the midsize market, the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon. A few months later, Toyota unveiled its reworked Tacoma.

From 2013 to 2015, the U.S. market for midsize pickups grew 57 percent, some 130,000 vehicles in all. “I don’t know why it always seems to take Honda so long to redo their products,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader.

Conrad explained that much of the technology in the new Ridgeline, including its Apple Car Play infotainment system, wasn’t available two years ago. Also, Honda engineers were busy drawing up the HR-V, a small utility vehicle that arrived at dealerships last May. “While we always have a wish list of when we like to bring things out, certain realities come into play,” Conrad said.

And to be fair, the company may deserve some respect for trying to crack the pickup market, what with an all-star model in virtually every other segment of the auto industry.

Because of a hefty surcharge on imported trucks — the so- called chicken tax — most carmakers from outside the U.S. don’t bother building pickups at all. The only way to make it work financially is to build the trucks in America, which Honda does at its Lincoln, Alabama, plant.

And while the new Ridgeline may be every bit as American as a Chevrolet Silverado, sublime handling and respectable mileage aren’t usually high on the list for truck shoppers. Realizing as much, Honda’s new rig has some tricks.

The bed of the new Ridgeline has the first audio system of its kind, a 400-watt outlet to plug in a flatscreen television, and a trunk tucked underneath that comes equipped with a drain plug in case some beverages and melting ice find their way in there.

“It’s the ultimate for tailgating, the ultimate for a weekend party,” Conrad explained. Come for the quiet cabin and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, stay for the Coors Light shotgun contest.

Fittingly, Honda’s first big play to sell its new pickup is at the Super Bowl. Watch for a 60-second Ridgeline spot during the big game, on Feb. 7.

To contact the author of this story: Kyle Stock in New York at [email protected]

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