The 2021 Honda Ridgeline receives a testosterone makeover, morphing from a friendly-looking pickup truck to one that exudes more ruggedness and capability. This is step one of Honda’s new light truck strategy of beefing up—and talking up—the capabilities of its utility vehicles in a world eschewing passenger cars at a rapid pace. Look for the brand’s SUVs to follow suit, too.
Honda has not kept up with the trends. Today, light trucks account for 70 percent of new-vehicle sales in the United States. Light trucks, however, account for just 53 percent of Honda’s sales mix. The Japanese automaker still relies heavily on cars, especially those of its Civic and Accord model lines.
The redesigned 2021 Ridgeline, which goes on sale early next year, kicks off the brand’s new strategy and ad campaign. Despite its car-like unibody construction, the midsize pickup is more capable than it looks and it is time to tell that message, Jay Joseph, vice president of automobile marketing for American Honda Motor Co, said.
2021 Honda Ridgeline Looks Like a Truck
The design change—the 2021 Ridgeline is all-new from the A-pillar forward—should increase sales. Loyal Ridgeline buyers like the carlike ride and features, but Honda executives think getting the message out that the truck can easily handle some off-roading conditions will tap into a wider audience.
Honda research revealed the gap: the Ridgeline has built-in ruggedness, durability, and robustness but its friendly exterior belies that, Joseph said. Since its inception, the Ridgeline has been dismissed by some as a trucklet because it does not feature body-on-frame construction, a V-8 engine, locking differential, transfer case, or solid axles. But Honda counters that the truck’s all-wheel-drive system can send power to all four wheels, and while it won’t cross the Rubicon, it will easily handle the gravel roads and campsites that most buyers will tackle. Instead of muscling its way out, it thinks its way out, Joseph said. “It will get you there and back.”
The bigger problem is that the Honda name is not synonymous with off-road capability. As a result, vehicles such as the Ridgeline and Honda Pilot three-row SUV are not reaching their full sales potential, Joseph said.
Honda sold 33,334 Ridgelines in the U.S. in 2019. Joseph thinks the redesigned truck could easily sell 50,000 a year, as soon as next year if the economy stabilizes.
Tougher Looks Coming to Honda Pilot and Passport
The branding strategy will carry over to Honda’s SUV lineup. Honda will follow the 2021 Ridgeline up with an updated Honda Passport, the two-row midsize SUV that is based on the Pilot.
And the Pilot is up for renewal. The third-generation Honda Pilot dates back to 2015 and a new model is due soon.
Styling for the SUVs will take cues from the new Ridgeline and the messaging will center on capability both on- and off-road. “We want to wear rugged on our sleeves better,” Joseph said.
It won’t stop there. Look for the emphasis on capability to work its way down the lineup, including the juggernaut Honda CR-V, which was the 2018 MotorTrend SUV of the Year, and the smaller Honda HR-V.
Honda Ridgeline Type R?
Joseph would not talk about potential hybrid or plug-in hybrid versions of the Ridgeline; however, he was open to talking about future performance models. Asked about a Ridgeline Type R—after all, Acura is adding Type S models to all future models—Joseph said Honda needs to capitalize more on its Baja Ridgeline racing success. “Off-road Baja Ridgeline needs to be connected to the Ridgeline people can buy or else we’re leaving money on the table.”
“[An off-road performance Ridgeline is] something we’ve talked about but [there are] no plans for anything like that at this time and I don’t know that it would necessarily be a Type R,” he told MotorTrend. “Type R to us means as close to race-ready as we can put on the street.” But it is this conversation that led to the HPD package for the Ridgeline, which serves to better connect the Baja Ridgeline race truck to the truck buyers drive on the street.
“We need to leverage the power of the HPD name,” he said of Honda Performance Development, a subsidiary that specializes in engines and production racing parts. HPD does everything from go-karts to Indy-winning car engines, Joseph said. “We need to take advantage of our performance credibility as a marketing tool.”
Honda focused on the Ridgeline first for an HPD package because it has the most potential, Joseph said. But they are not ruling out other vehicles, especially the Pilot and Passport.
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