Honda learned the hard way with the original Ridgeline -- on sale from 2005 through 2014 -- that you can be innovative with the features and bones of a truck, but not the design. It took that lesson to heart while developing the latest model, going to extraordinary lengths to get the visual details right.
The effort started early in the second-generation Ridgeline's design process. Honda held clinics in California and Texas with pickup buyers and showed them a variety of trucks without their brand labels.
The research found that buyers made assumptions about toughness and payload based on the gaps in the wheel arches between the tire and the truck body, and the height of the bed. If a pickup had a trailer hitch, people assumed it could tow more.
Honda even included the first-generation Ridgeline with a spray-painted piece of cardboard covering up the flying buttress in the design clinics. Even that was well-received by potential buyers.
"Those things were honestly kind of "aha' moments or big surprises to us as a project team," Jim Loftus, a Ridgeline engineer, said at the media launch here in early May. "And of course, we went back and incorporated all of those messages into the next-generation Ridgeline."
Engineers tilted the Ridgeline up about half a degree from back to front to make the bed look like it was sitting higher. They also increased the gap between the wheel arch and tire by lifting up the chassis by about an inch.
"Based on the understanding that people are going to make some assumptions just visually, we said, you know what, we need to raise this up just to convey that image," Kerry McClure, chief engineer on the Ridgeline project, told Automotive News.
A trailer hitch is now standard on all new Ridgeline models, not only to convey a sense of toughness (all-wheel-drive models can tow 5,000 pounds), but also because the structural elements needed for a hitch were already in place.
The first-generation Ridgeline, for all of its segment-busting innovation and carlike ride and handling, never landed on many shoppers' lists because of how it looked.
The flying buttress style was partly due to a desire -- especially among executives in Japan -- to make it visually obvious that the Ridgeline was different and not a traditional body-on-frame truck.
There was also evidence at the time that a new school of truck design was emerging -- think Ford Explorer SportTrac or Chevy Avalanche. When the recession walloped the auto industry, buyers shied away from the unconventional, and Ridgeline sales plummeted.
"I think the challenge we faced with the old Ridgeline, part of it was the styling that wasn't so well-accepted," Jeff Conrad, general manager of Honda, said at the Ridgeline launch.
"And when the market did turn, it was very difficult to sustain that or get it back."
With the changes in place on the new version and a laundry list of segment bests (fuel economy, passenger volume, crash ratings, cargo room in bed), Honda is bullish on the Ridgeline's prospects.
The company hopes annual sales will work their way up to the previous version's peak of 50,193.
But Honda is realistic about the kind of buyers it's going to attract. "We're not going after the buyer that is looking to take this vehicle and climb rocks up the side of the mountain," Conrad said.