Will Unibody Pickups Be the Next Big Thing?

The reentry of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline has the car-loving universe all aflutter. A pickup truck that drives more like a car and offers the looks and goodies of a crossover is a dream come true for many consumers. You can almost hear their sigh of relief.

The Detroit News is reporting that there's a sizable market for downsized pickups that offer a more comfortable ride along with a pickup bed. But haven't we've seen this already, and didn't we find out the market for such a specimen was pretty small?

The earth-shaking Honda Ridgeline was introduced in 2005 as a 2006 model when most pickups and full-size SUVs were more rugged and less civilized than they are today. Even then, the idea of a unibody pickup, with all its comparative advantages, was a niche market player. Those interested in a small pickup were not attracted to a pickup platform derived from an "evolved" minivan chassis, which is what the original Ridgeline offered. Still, the Ridgeline did provide a smoother ride and better handling than anything else in its class, but not without some significant compromises. We noted as much when we did our 2012 Midsize Shootout (the last comparison test to include the Ridgeline) in which the Honda delivered a strong third-place finish behind the Nissan Frontier and winning Toyota Tacoma.

At its peak in 2006, the Ridgeline sold 50,000 units; in contrast, the lowest numbers recorded were in 2011, when Honda averaged around 800 Ridgelines per month. Times are certainly getting better for pickup manufacturers, but does that necessarily translate into the need for more unibody pickup trucks? Maybe, since these lighter trucks get better fuel economy than conventional ladder-frame pickups; they are less expensive to make since they usually share a chassis with a sibling model; and they drive more like a car thanks to four-wheel independent suspensions. Despite these facts, have we really changed so much in the last 10 years that we're going to see demand grow for such a truck?

The thing that most automotive writers never seem to understand is that buyers don't look at pickup trucks the same way they look at cars. The vast majority usually have a specific reason for buying a pickup such as hauling, towing or getting gear to a weekend outing; room for kids and fuel economy often are secondary. Ultimately, a car is a refrigerator (a receptacle for things); a pickup is a chain saw (a tool).

Several manufacturers have been researching bringing a small unibody SUV or crossover-based vehicle with a small pickup bed to market (Hyundai, GMC, Ram and others), and from what we hear the finished product could be reasonably priced. We think it makes sense to offer a new vehicle that's functional and practical for young buyers, essentially creating a new niche underneath midsize pickups rather than providing a premium-priced option for people who don't really need a pickup.

But what about a vehicle like the Honda Ridgeline? By Honda's own admission, it's a series of compromises: less comfortable load-carrying, less towing capacity, less off-road capability and a less rugged design. These compromises seem to fly in the face of what potential buyers in this arena are seeking. If a truckmaker wants to base its engineering and marketing plan on that kind of strategy, it should have conservative goals. Not that there isn't a place for these types of vehicles, but it's sort of like making trailers for people who don't really like or need to tow anything. We know there are people like that, but the numbers are pretty small.

Does any of this mean the new Ridgeline is not a good pickup? Of course not, but the more important question is whether the Ridgeline can deliver the confidence you need to get the job done when you find yourself in one of those "What do we do now?" moments. If you can avoid those, good for you; you'll have an easier time making your best pickup choice.


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