Honda Upping its Truck Game

Maker expanding MDX production to 2nd plant, more to follow.

by on Feb.11, 2015

The 2014 Acura MDX has readily outsold all its competitors in the three-row luxury SUV category.

The only one of the major Japanese automakers not to offer a full-size pickup, Honda has long seemed reluctant to enter the lucrative truck market. But with buyers snapping up its SUVs and crossovers as fast they roll off the assembly line, Honda is finally getting serious.

It will introduce two utility vehicles at the Chicago Auto Show this week, a complete remake of the Honda Pilot, as well as an update of the Acura RDX. And, the maker says, it will invest $85 million to expand production of the bigger Acura MDX to a second plant in East Liberty, Ohio.

Keep on Truckin'!

Honda’s U.S. growth “will be driven heavily by our light truck business, such as HR-V and Pilot,” Executive Vice President John Mendel said during a Wednesday morning teleconference.

The new 2016 HR-V will become the maker’s smallest crossover vehicle, filling a niche below the Honda CR-V, the best-selling small utility vehicle in the U.S. It will be one of a growing array of pint-sized utility vehicles – going up against competitors such as the Nissan Juke – targeting Millennials and other urban buyers who want a nimble, fuel-efficient vehicle for the work week that also can handle a more rugged weekend experience.

(Honda making “dramatic shift in design” with new Pilot. Click Here for the story.)

Honda is also getting ready to re-launch the midsize Ridgeline pickup it dropped several years ago due to weak sales and poor reviews. Teaser images have hinted at a less quirky design than the old model, and the new Ridgeline is expected to offer a more upscale interior and increased capabilities.

“We’re remaking the entire truck line,” said Mendel, adding that, “It started with the (updated) 2015 CR-V last fall — the best-selling SUV in America.”

Barring some critical design flaws – or increased flak over its problems with faulty Takata airbags – analysts say Honda should remain a powerhouse in the utility vehicle market. The Pilot has been nearly as big a hit as the CR-V, generating sales of 1.4 million vehicles since its introduction in 2002.

Significantly, Honda and its Acura division took more top honors than any other manufacturer in the U.S. News & World Report Best Cars for the Money awards announced Wednesday, leading six of 21 vehicle segments. That included three of the Japanese maker’s utes, the CR-V, and both the Acura RDX and MDX.

(For more on the Best-Cars awards, Click Here.)

The expansion of the East Liberty plant will allow for both greater flexibility and the addition of a second source of production for the MDX, a product many analysts credit with keeping Acura alive during the years when it could barely sell its passenger car models.

Mendel called the $85 million price tag, a “relatively small investment in terms of the return we get on building more luxury SUVs. It’s a very efficient way to increase capacity.”

But he declined to say how much capacity will increase at the mid-state facility, or how many MDX utes East Liberty will produce.

Few would be surprised if Honda were to add more truck products to its line-up, perhaps at the smaller end of the utility spectrum for Acura.

What you won’t see is a true “truck-truck,” as industry insiders like to call vehicles based on a body-on-frame design. That’s the classic approach used for many of the biggest utility vehicles and for virtually all pickups.

The original Ridgeline was the exception, opting for a more car-like unibody design. Indeed, Honda officials seemed unhappy even calling it a “truck.” And that wasn’t lost on potential buyers who questioned the ruggedness of the Ridgeline which was launched for the 2006 model-year and pulled from the Honda line-up two years ago.

Despite that poor reception, Honda is planning to stick with the same formula, the next Ridgeline sharing the same unibody Global Midsize Platform as both the new Pilot and the MDX – “but tuned differently,” according to Marc Ernst, the chief engineer on the new Pilot program.

You’re likely also to hear Honda singing a different tune when the new Ridgeline comes out. Expect the maker to be far more willing to describe it as a “truck.”

It will have to prove itself, though. After years without much change, there’s suddenly plenty going on in the midsize pickup market. General Motors has scored an initial hit with its new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon models, and Toyota recently showed off a next-generation Tacoma pickup.

Competition will also heat up in most utility segments, so despite Honda’s investments, it will be facing some tough challenges in the years ahead.

(Chevrolet trucks into Chicago with the Colorado GearOn Special Edition. Click Here to check it out.)

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