If you want a tough looking off-road truck, Jeep has the Gladiator, Toyota has the Tacoma TRD Pro and Ford just unveiled the knobby-tired Ranger Tremor.
And Honda has the Ridgeline.
OK, maybe the Ridgeline isn’t the world’s most intimidating truck. It has more of the personality – and the engineering – of a toughened up crossover SUV with a cargo bed.
Honda’s getting sick of always being Mr. Nice Guy, though. So, for starters, the company just unveiled a redesigned Ridgeline with a bigger, mouthier grill. Soon, the Honda Pilot and Passport are going to get similarly more aggressive looks. (The CR-V, America’s second bestselling SUV after the Toyota Rav4, will keep its friendly approachable design.)
Even that weird “Bing-bong!” doorbell tone that precedes every Honda TV ad is getting a remix as part of a new ad campaign. A new commercial shows Honda SUVs and trucks bounding up rock-covered mountain roads and, right at the beginning, there’s a “Bump-bump” bass drum riff that’s recognizable as a version of the Honda doorbell sound. It’s more like someone pounding on the door, instead.
After that, you hear former WWE pro wrestler John Cena’s deep gravelly voice telling you that, if you let yourself think Honda trucks and SUVs were delicate machines, “You’d be wrong.”
The commercial shows Pilots, Passports and Ridgelines on, mostly, unpaved gravel-covered trails. They’re not out clambering over boulders in the trackless desert or pulling themselves up out of axle-deep mud.
No one, even Honda, is claiming that these vehicles are ready to tackle truly brutal moonscape off-roading of the sort that Jeep brags about or that Ford says its new Bronco can handle.
“We’re not talking about the Rubicon Trail or anything as extreme as that,” said Jay Joseph, head of marketing for American Honda Motor Company, referring to the California trail where Jeep famously tests its SUVs, “but certainly going down fire roads or gravel roads or getting to a campsite. Our vehicles are a lot more capable than you might expect at first blush.”
In other words, if you want to go off-roading for the sheer excitement of seeing what you can drive over – or through – without getting stuck, then maybe you should just go ahead and get a Jeep. But if you want to do outdoor stuff like hiking, dirt biking or camping that would take you down unpaved trails, these Honda trucks and SUVs are up for it. That’s the message that Honda thinks people may have been missing as they use their Pilots and Passports to take their families around town and run errands.
All of this is part of an attempt by Honda to sell more SUVs and small trucks in a market that seems insatiably hungry for them.
Overall in the US, SUVs and mid-sized pickups made up more than two-thirds of all passenger vehicles sales last year, but just a little over half of Honda’s US sales. The Ridgeline, in particular, had much lower market share than competitors from Toyota, Ford, and General Motors, according to data from the automotive website KBB.com. (The comparison isn’t perfect, Honda points out, since competitors offer lower-priced stripped down trucks Honda doesn’t.)
Still, Honda’s had 10 straight years of growing truck and SUV sales in the US, Joseph said. But they made up a smaller portion of Honda’s sales in the US market overall. Part of that, of course, is because Honda just happens to sell two of the most popular sedans in America, the Civic and the Accord. Last year, the Honda Civic was the best-selling car in America that wasn’t an SUV, according to Edmunds.com.
The fact that other automakers have largely – or even completely – given up on sedans has helped Honda, but that can’t go on forever, Joseph said.
“That yields us some opportunity in the short term,” he said, “but the long-term trend is people tend to be more comfortable in light truck vehicles, whether it’s the packaging or the dream of go anywhere capability and utility.”
So Honda’s hitting that dream hard. Or at least as hard as a Honda Ridgeline can take which, according to Honda, is pretty hard.