Honda admits with restyled 2017 Ridgeline that looks matter

With the debut of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline earlier this month, Honda admitted that styling matters. Design clinics and focal groups reinforced this information which the automaker took when it restyled the 2017 Ridgeline.

It took Honda nine model years, but the automaker learned the lesson. That’s why the new Ridgeline enters the highly competitive mid-sized pickup market ready to reel in customers and take names. The totally restyled Ridgeline no longer has the boxy style of the model that entered the market in 2005 as a 2006 model. Instead, the 2017 Ridgeline is sleek, and it looks like a truck, not a sports ute that would be a pickup.

Honda learned its lesson – you can add features and innovate, but you can’t change the design of a pickup without, eventually, feeling the consequences. Indeed, the first-generation Ridgeline sold briskly at first, topping out at nearly 60,000 sales. However, when the books closed on model year 2014, the automaker had barely moved 9,000.

So, the automaker and its stylists went back to the design screen. They held clinics and focus groups in California and Texas where the consumers were shown various pickups, sans labeling. Among the findings, two stood out:

  1. Pickup buyers “made assumptions about toughness and payload based on the gaps in the wheel arches between the tire and the truck body,” said Sunday’s Automotive News.
  2. The height of the bed is important.

An incidental finding was that if the pickup features a standard trailer hitch, buyers assumed that it could tow more. Another interesting finding was that the first generation Ridgeline wasn’t entirely a misguided effort. The researchers covered key body parts with a spray-painted. Surprisingly, they found that with the changed lines, the first generation Ridgeline was well-received.

“Those things were honestly kind of ‘aha’ moments,” Jim Loftus, a Ridgeline engineer, said at the media launch early this month. They were “big surprises to us as a project team” The team heard the messages and then went back to work where they integrated them “into the next-generation Ridgeline.”

For example, the team used a slight back-to-front tilt to make the bed appear that it was higher in the rear than the front. The team increased the gap between the wheel arch and tire by lifting the chassis about an inch to make the Ridgeline seem taller. Another change, the standard trailer hitch, yields a sense of toughness and capability. All-wheel-drive models can tow up to 5,000 pounds (front-drive versions 3,600).

Time and again during the development process, design decisions were made because of the looks of the first-generation Ridgeline. Potential buyers found the flying buttress styling employed off-putting. Indeed, slow sales in the years following the 2006 debut were attributed to the Ridgeline’s flying buttress styling.

There were other factors, though, that also contributed to weak Ridgeline sales. For example, it debuted just two model years before the bottom fell out of the car industry as the recession caused car and truck sales to tank. Those buyers who could and did make the decision to purchase stayed with the tried-and-true body-on-frame design and its predictable lines. Buyers also shied away from the Sports Utility Truck idea that the Ridgeline represented. Indeed, Chevy’s Avalanche and the Ford Explorer SportTrac never caught on as expected, either. The SUT was to be an amalgam of the utility of a pickup and the comfort of an SUV.

“I think the challenge we faced with the old Ridgeline, part of it was the styling that wasn’t so accepted,” Jeff Conrad said at the launch Conrad is general manager of Honda. “And, when the market did turn, it was very difficult to sustain that or get it back.”

With the launch, Honda has some high hopes for the new Ridgeline. Most notably, it would like the new model to use the former model’s peak sales – 50,193 – as its sales floor and start to add from there. The automaker has reason to be bullish on its potential as the new model does hold some firsts in its segment that include:

  • Top fuel economy
  • Top passenger volume
  • Best crash ratings
  • Roomiest cargo bed

One would think that with this attention to detail, change and innovation that Ridgeline should take off on its own. However, Honda is realistic about its potential and buyers. “We’re not after the buyer that is looking to take this vehicle and climb rocks up the side of the mountain,” Conrad said. Instead, the average customer is likely to be someone who is looking for a vehicle like the Honda Pilot, the Ridgeline’s base platform, but with something more.

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