DETROIT -- When Gary Flint approached his bosses at Honda Motor Co. with a plan for a pickup, they were all for it.
But they told Flint he couldn't have the traditional mainstays of many Big 3 pickups: a V-8 engine, a separate body-on-frame platform or a Detroit-sized budget.
No problem, said Flint, 48, a former GM engineer.
The Ridgeline pickup that Flint guided to production shows how Honda uses creative engineering to enter new segments.
The truck, which went on sale March 1, is an upscale four-door pickup. It's the only pickup that has unibody construction reinforced by a steel frame.
For now, the Ridgeline poses little threat to the mighty Ford F series or Chevrolet Silverado. But it adds another profitable vehicle to Honda's lineup. And it's one more import-brand nameplate chipping away at the Big 3's market share.
Early demand has been solid. The pickup is on track to hit its annual production target of 50,000 units. Honda's factory in Alliston, Ontario, can produce as many as 60,000 Ridgelines if demand is high.
The Ridgeline is powered by Honda's 3.5-liter 255-hp V-6 combined with a five-speed automatic transmission. It offers about the same fuel economy and towing capability as a V-6 Ford F-150 or Dodge Dakota.
But the Ridgeline is expensive, and it's complex to assemble. The unibody has many braces, brackets and reinforced areas that require more welding than traditional pickups.The base model starts at $28,215 including freight. Add some popular options - such as a high-end stereo, alloy wheels, heated seats and a sunroof - and the sticker can rise to $35,000, a high price for a V-6 pickup. Similar
V-6 trucks from the Big 3 sell for about $7,000 less.
Despite the high price, one analyst says Honda's first pickup could be influential.
"Ridgeline sets a new a paradigm in terms of body structure" for a pickup, says Lindsay Brooke, a senior analyst with CSM Worldwide, in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Unibody light-duty pickups allow automakers to build the vehicles on the same lines as sedans and some SUVs, saving vast tooling and production costs, Brooke says.
Flint, an 11-year Honda veteran, would not say precisely how much the company spent to bring the Ridgeline to market.
But he did say that Honda approved a budget of about $40 million to modify the old Odyssey minivan assembly line in Alliston. That money also paid for tooling to stamp Ridgeline body panels. The project's total cost came in well under $250 million, Flint says.
A core team of 37 engineers, led by Flint, did the engineering design work on the truck over about four years. In one of his assignments at GM, Flint helped engineer the Chevrolet S10 pickup.
"Compared to General Motors, (the Ridgeline's cost) is peanuts," Flint says. "But that's why we make money. We are very, very frugal and very, very careful. I don't even throw out used pencils. It's an extremely different mind-set between Honda and General Motors."
Honda typically creates vehicles very efficiently, Brooke says.
"For decades, they've mastered the art of developing new vehicles without creating all-new ones, using many carryover parts and common assembly processes," says Brooke.
In his 15 years at GM, Flint became an expert in composite materials for body panels, such as sheet-molded compound. Flint's projects at GM included the Pontiac Fiero, Chevrolet S10 and 1984 Chevrolet Corvette.
Ironically, it was a secret project at GM in 1980 that sowed the seeds for the Ridgeline's unibody chassis.
Flint and a team of GM research engineers built a car that used a steel space frame and a fiberglass body.
"That's where the core of my unibody knowledge comes from," he says. "We micro-analyzed body construction. I know in detail what the best way to build a body and a structure is. And it is not a frame. A frame is the worst way to build a car. That is why we don't build cars that way anymore. It was done because it was cheap."
In a regular pickup, the cab and bed are bolted to a steel frame. But Flint says that method adds very little to the stiffness and rigidity of the vehicle. That's why you can see the bed move when a truck goes over bumps. Also, he says, the cab and bed in a regular truck bear only a small portion of the load when a truck is towing and hauling.
Using the platform of the Odyssey minivan and Pilot SUV as a starting point, Flint and his engineers developed a frame that attaches under the welded unibody. The frame - substantially less bulky than a standard pickup frame - runs the length of the vehicle and has seven structural cross-members. No other pickup has a similar design. Hauling and towing loads are spread across the unibody chassis and the steel frame.
The Ridgeline can tow a payload of up to 5,000 pounds, which is close to the Dodge Dakota and Ford F-150 V-6.
Flint says he started with no preconceived notions about the Ridgeline.
Sales of the $28,000 Ridgeline are off to a good start. Honda expects to sell 50,000 in 2005.
Since the mid-1990s, pickups have become bigger and more luxurious. They also have become the primary vehicle for many families. How trucks are used have changed, but the way they are built has not.
From focus groups, Flint learned that buyers liked some traits of pickups and SUVs but couldn't find one vehicle that addressed all their needs.
His goal with the Ridgeline: a comfortable interior for front and rear passengers, a large cargo bed and lockable storage space. The interior especially has been singled out by reviewers. Washington Post auto writer Warren Brown says the Ridgeline "has the comfort and seating space of a luxury sedan designed for five people; an array of cleverly located storage bins, nooks and crannies reminiscent of a well-executed minivan or station wagon; and, of course, it has Honda's legendary high-quality fit and finish."
And its in-between size gives it a shot at luring customers from both full-sized pickups and their smaller cousins. For example, the Ridgeline is only 11 inches shorter than an F-150 SuperCab. But it's almost 5 inches wider - for a spacious interior - than the Dakota Quad Cab.
But Flint did more than listen to focus groups. He did his own research using a Japanese concept called sangen-shugi, which means "go to the spot."
Honda engineers can't just show their bosses diagrams and drawings. They have to design parts that solve problems.
Parking lot research
"During the Ridgeline's development I spent an hour every Saturday morning at Home Depot with my tasty beverage, and I watched people load things in the parking lot," Flint says.
He took notes as he watched people struggling to load their purchases. Making the vehicle easier to use and blending the best attributes of trucks and SUVs became two core goals of the Ridgeline.
The Ridgeline, the result of Flint's research, is not aimed at buyers looking for a traditional pickup. Instead, it is aimed at Honda's upscale customers who occasionally need to tow and haul heavy loads.
These customers, he says, want the usefulness of a pickup in a package that offers the quietness and comfort of a sedan.
"If you look at the growth in the truck segment, it isn't the hard-core truck user," Flint says. "It's consumers who want passenger-comfort features that they are used to in their previous vehicles."
Flint's team added innovative features, some of which are bound to be copied. Perhaps the most talked-about item is the locking storage space built into the bed of the truck.
Because Flint added an independent rear suspension - a first for a pickup - the Ridgeline has no long beam axle or leaf springs under the bed. That freed up room for the concealed storage trunk. The spare tire also is stored under the bed.
Other innovations include: the tailgate, which opens out or down and requires much less energy to open and close; a built-in towing package; and secure storage space under the rear seat.
If the Ridgeline carves out a niche in the market, other automakers could well copy some aspects of it. For now, it gives Honda a much-needed pickup at a reasonable cost.
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]