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Honda’s Ridgeline lesson: Looks matter

Research on visual cues led to some ‘aha’ moments for Ridgeline team

ANTONIO — The shadowy teaser image Honda released in late 2013 said very little about the second-generation Ridgeline that’s due to go on sale in June. But it did reveal the most important element the automaker was intent on fixing: its styling.

Honda needed only a silhouette to show that the polarizing “flying buttress” profile of the original Ridgeline was gone, replaced on the forthcoming 2017 model with the conventional cab/bed style found on nearly every pickup built in the last 100 years.

Honda learned the hard way with the original Ridgeline — on sale from 2005 through 2014 — that you can be innovative with the features and bones of a truck, but not the design. It took that lesson to heart while developing the latest model, going to extraordinary lengths to get the visual details right.

The effort started early in the second-generation Ridgeline’s design process. Honda held clinics in California and Texas with pickup buyers and showed them a variety of trucks without their brand labels.

The research found that buyers made assumptions about toughness and payload based on the gaps in the wheel arches between the tire and the truck body, and the height of the bed. If a pickup had a trailer hitch, people assumed it could tow more.

Honda even included the first-generation Ridgeline with a spray-painted piece of cardboard covering up the flying buttress in the design clinics. Even that was well-received by potential buyers.

“Those things were honestly kind of “aha’ moments or big surprises to us as a project team,” Jim Loftus, a Ridgeline engineer, said at the media launch here in early May. “And of course, we went back and incorporated all of those messages into the next-generation Ridgeline.”

Engineers tilted the Ridgeline up about half a degree from back to front to make the bed look like it was sitting higher. They also increased the gap between the wheel arch and tire by lifting up the chassis by about an inch.

“Based on the understanding that people are going to make some assumptions just visually, we said, you know what, we need to raise this up just to convey that image,” Kerry McClure, chief engineer on the Ridgeline project, told Automotive News.

A trailer hitch is now standard on all new Ridgeline models, not only to convey a sense of toughness (all-wheel-drive models can tow 5,000 pounds), but also because the structural elements needed for a hitch were already in place.

The first-generation Ridgeline, for all of its segment-busting innovation and carlike ride and handling, never landed on many shoppers’ lists because of how it looked.

The flying buttress style was partly due to a desire — especially among executives in Japan — to make it visually obvious that the Ridgeline was different and not a traditional body-on-frame truck.

There was also evidence at the time that a new school of truck design was emerging — think Ford Explorer SportTrac or Chevy Avalanche. When the recession walloped the auto industry, buyers shied away from the unconventional, and Ridgeline sales plummeted.

“I think the challenge we faced with the old Ridgeline, part of it was the styling that wasn’t so well-accepted,” Jeff Conrad, general manager of Honda, said at the Ridgeline launch.

“And when the market did turn, it was very difficult to sustain that or get it back.”

With the changes in place on the new version and a laundry list of segment bests (fuel economy, passenger volume, crash ratings, cargo room in bed), Honda is bullish on the Ridgeline’s prospects.

The company hopes annual sales will work their way up to the previous version’s peak of 50,193.

But Honda is realistic about the kind of buyers it’s going to attract. “We’re not going after the buyer that is looking to take this vehicle and climb rocks up the side of the mountain,” Conrad said.

2017 Honda Ridgeline
Honda is returning to the midsize pickup market with the 2nd-generation Ridgeline, which uses the same unibody platform as the Pilot crossover and the upcoming Odyssey minivan. By avoiding the traditional body-on-frame construction, Honda can deliver a smooth, comfortable ride and nearly all the capability midsize-pickup buyers look for. The biggest change is the styling, which ditches the much-hated “flying buttress” look for a more conventional design. Honda hopes to reach annual volumes of around 50,000, citing estimates that 20 percent of Honda owners also have a truck in their garage. But if demand does hit that level, Honda could face capacity constraints because the Ridgeline will be built at the same Alabama plant that is currently maxed out building the Pilot.
Powertrain: 3.5-liter, V-6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard on all but the highest trims; all-wheel drive is a $1,800 option.
Technology: Optional 8-inch touch screen with navigation and real-time traffic updates, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Apple’s Siri Eyes Free voice commands
Safety: 6 airbags, standard backup camera, optional blind-spot monitoring, pre-collision warning and braking, lane-keeping assist, rear cross-traffic monitor
Target: 50,000 units a year
Competitors: Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon
Strengths: Carlike ride, handling and interior comfort; excellent cabin space, class-leading fuel economy, unique in-bed storage space and dual-action tailgate
Weaknesses: Doesn’t project the tough image some truck buyers seek; low ground clearance; unibody construction not as hardy as body-on-frame
Bottom line: Over 2 days of on- and off-road testing outside San Antonio, the Ridgeline proved why Honda is eager to show off this truck. The interior space, comfort and handling make you forget there’s a bed in back. The powertrain is smooth and robust, even when towing. It has enough off-road chops to meet the needs of all but the truest off-road warriors. Now that the styling isn’t a turnoff, Honda has a truly innovative vehicle that’s a contender for buyers who are honest about what they need from their truck.

2017 Ridgeline 2WD 2016 Toyota Tacoma V-6 double cab 2WD
Wheelbase 125.2 in. 127.4 in.
Length 210 in. 212.3 in.
Width 78.6 in. 74.4 in.
Height 70.2 in. 70.6 in.
Curb weight 4,242 lbs. 4,230 lbs.
Engine 3.5-liter V-6 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower 280 @ 6,000 rpm 278 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque, lbs.-ft. 262 @ 4,700 rpm 265 @ 4,600 rpm
Tow rating 3,500 lbs. 6,700 lbs.
Ground clearance 7.3 in. 9.4 in.
EPA mpg 19 city/26 hwy. 19 city/24 hwy.
Base price* $30,375 $28,885

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