The Ford Ranger is poised to return to the domestic market in 2019, accompanied by all the fanfare befitting a junior American icon. Unless the Blue Oval totally botches the job, everyone anticipates the reborn Ranger becoming a big seller in the midsize truck market.
However, there’s already a smaller pickup syphoning off volume from its rivals before the Ranger can avail itself. While sales of most midsize truck models have been cooled by the gentle breeze of market stagnation, Honda’s second-generation Ridgeline has returned with a vengeance, enjoying favorable reviews and posting sales volume not witnessed in over a decade. While Honda still doesn’t move nearly as much midsized metal as Toyota’s Tacoma (which sold 191,631 units in the U.S. in 2016), the Ridgeline proves there is space in the marketplace for more than just body-on-frame offerings.
“This is a very capable truck that meets the needs of a vast majority of buyers,” Jeff Conrad, general manager of American Honda told >Bloomberg. “For somebody who doesn’t care about towing 8,000 pounds … it’s perfect.”
Unfortunately, a large portion of truck buyers actually do care about towing capacity — especially on larger vehicles. But just how big a factor it is for the fluctuating midsize truck segment is debatable. The Ridgeline seems perfectly serviceable for persons of the small-business persuasion and anybody wanting a daily driver that can haul a reasonable load from time to time. It also has garnered loads of accolades and awards for its above-average interior, unparalleled safety, and superb handling characteristics. But it isn’t necessarily the “truck guy’s” pickup.
This is strongly reflected by the type of people buying them. Honda isn’t just stealing sales from its rivals, it’s bringing new buyers into the midsize truck market. In the last 12 months North American buyers have purchased over 40,000 Ridgeline pickups, and the automaker claims it could have sold more if the factory wasn’t already operating at full volume.
Buyers, especially former sedan shoppers, don’t seem to mind that Honda is offering a chopped-and-screwed Pilot as its pickup alternative. In fact, their shared DNA may be the Ridgeline’s greatest strength. At the very least, the manufacturer seems to understand its pickup is a different from the rest of the pack. It doesn’t sell the vehicle with a bevy of truck-like options and the majority of its television spots have featured wholesome DIY home projects, instead of promising masculine off-road adventures. Ads have also focused on the quality of its ride and fuel economy, rather than how lumpy you can make the tires.
“We didn’t want to try to out-tough the tough guys,” Conrad says. “Ford and GM have been doing their type of advertising for many, many years. It’s not really the nature of our truck — or our buyers.”
This leaves us wondering how Ford will handle the Ranger’s return. Honda is offering something the competition isn’t and, while it doesn’t check all of the boxes, there are good reasons to consider one in you’re in the market for midsize pickup. But it may not be a big enough blip on Ford’s radar to force changes on the upcoming truck. The assumed methodology for bringing the Ranger back into the U.S. is to facelift the existing global market vehicle, start American production, then pop champagne corks. However, if Ford doesn’t want Honda to continue its encroachment, it may want to consider offering something that sets it apart from body-on-frame competitors — because that strategy seems to be working.