Honda’s Alabama-built pickup truck is beating Ford at its own game

Honda’s Alabama-built pickup truck is beating Ford at its own game
The 2017 Honda Ridgeline is popular among those who traditionally buy trucks and those who don't. (Honda)

Forget game theory, futurist, and cash-flow models: When it comes to product strategy in today’s auto industry, things need not be so complicated.

Just make some trucks, and Americans will buy them – lots of them.

It helps, of course, if you make a very good truck. Honda did just that when it rolled out a thoroughly redesigned version of its Ridgeline pickup in June 2016. Trailing a string of strong reviews, the carlike, Alabama-built pickup has been hugely popular among people who buy trucks, and even among those who don’t.

Honda’s Alabama-built Ridgeline is a hot selling pickup truck. (Honda)

“This is a very capable truck that meets the needs of a vast majority of buyers,” says Jeff Conrad, general manager of American Honda Motor Co. “For somebody who doesn’t care about towing 8,000 pounds … it’s perfect.”

In the past 12 months, Honda has sold almost 40,000 Ridgelines in the U.S., accounting for one of 10 vehicles in the midsize pickup segment. Not only did Honda swipe share from established rivals, but it appears to have brought in new buyers – drivers who traditionally were more inclined to buy an Accord than a Toyota Tacoma.

Conrad said Honda could have easily sold more trucks, but the Lincoln plant where it welds them together is already operating at full capacity.

Of course, there’s a big gap in these sales statistics. Ford, the heavyweight champion of the truck game, hasn’t sold a midsize version in the U.S. since 2012. It didn’t want to cannibalize the perpetually stellar sales of its full-size F-150. Plus, it has a nifty line of vans to accommodate painters, plumbers and other small business – at least that’s the justification former Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields offered a couple of years ago.

Ford has since changed tack. Sometime in 2019, it will unveil an “all-new” version of the Ranger, a little pickup it makes in Argentina, South Africa and Thailand, and sells pretty much everywhere except the U.S. Mike Levine, head of product communications in North America, says this newest iteration of the truck, which used to sell in the U.S., will be built in Michigan.

Waiting two years to bring back the Ranger “is what works for us,” says Levine. “We’ve put the focus on F-Series today, including the F-150 … making it more capable and also more fuel efficient.”

In truth, Honda may not have given the green-light to its ambitious Ridgeline if Ford hadn’t abandoned the U.S. small truck market. The Ranger was dominant in the U.S. right up until it vanished, and it’s still a top choice abroad behind Toyota’s Hilux. This is the kind of incessant game theory that makes or break careers in the auto industry – wheels within wheels.

In 2011, the last year Ford made Rangers in the U.S., it won one in three midsize truck sales, almost 71,000 vehicles in all. Its closest competitor was the Nissan Frontier with 51,700 units. Levine adds that the Ford Ranger remains the second best-selling midsize pickup truck globally. With the new Ranger coming to the U.S. and Canada in two years, North American consumers will have the option of buying a midsize truck that’s “affordable, functional, rugged and maneuverable,” he says.

The Honda Ridgeline is enjoying success since its redesign and relaunch. (Honda)

But Ford may have to change its formula a bit if it wants to capture some of Honda’s appeal. Most notably, the Ridgeline features the so-called unibody construction that sedans get, giving it more of a feel for the road than most trucks, which have bodies that are bolted on to the frame.

While the front of the Ridgeline is all business – planted on the road – in the back, it’s a party. The tailgate swings out horizontally, like a door, in addition to dropping down traditionally. There’s a 400-watt outlet for plugging in something like a large-screen television, a series of speakers in the bed and a compartment under the liner that just happens to be the size and shape of a large cooler. Honda calls it an “in-bed trunk,” though perhaps with a wink, because unlike most trunks, it has a drain.

At recent car shows, Honda has thrown pretense out the window and filled these tubs with ice and booze, albeit fine champagne rather than light beer. And that’s the real clue to where Honda is headed with the Ridgeline while Ford waits for 2019: “We didn’t want to try to out-tough the tough guys,” Conrad says. “Ford and GM have been doing their type of advertising for many, many years. It’s not really the nature of our truck – or our buyers.”

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