LOS ANGELES — A year ago, the mantra being pushed by Honda executives was that “cars matter” — a compelling message for a brand that derived almost half its volume from sedans and hatchbacks at the time.
But as the market continues its relentless shift toward crossovers and pickups, it turns out that trucks matter more — even at Honda.
The brand is now implementing a major change in strategy to emphasize the rugged, off-road capability of its light trucks to pick up more market share.
Honda estimates the overall U.S. auto market this year has shifted to 76 percent light trucks and 24 percent passenger cars. Honda itself has a mix of 56 percent light trucks to 44 percent cars through the third quarter. So for Honda, light trucks clearly are a big opportunity.
“As the market approaches 80 percent trucks, we have to make sure we play in that pond,” said Art St. Cyr, vice president of automobile operations at American Honda Motor Co.
Doing that, he said, will mean adjusting the styling of key models to reflect more of an off-road ability.
“We have a very strong light-truck lineup. It’s just making sure that customers realize what we have, what our capability is,” St. Cyr told Automotive News at Honda’s North American headquarters in Southern California last week. “People don’t realize what they can do.”
Honda is tackling that perception with fresh product and marketing. Vehicles such as the Ridgeline pickup, the Passport midsize crossover and the Pilot, which all share a platform, are being freshened and redesigned with a more rugged physical presence, executives said.
Last week, Honda presented the 2021 Ridgeline with revised styling that will go on sale early next year. The freshened pickup gets new sheet metal at the front to give it a chunky hood and square grille similar to most pickups. A new Honda Performance Development package adds fender flares.
Jay Joseph, vice president of American Honda’s marketing division, said the brand is targeting Ridgeline sales to grow from about 35,000 per year to 50,000 based on the redesign and marketing.
“The knock on [the current model] was that it was too friendly,” Joseph said during a marketing presentation last week. “Trucks need to have a little bit of a presence to them, and they need a little bit of physical heft when you walk up to them.”
The first 60-second spot in a new ad campaign ran during an NBA Finals game featuring the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers last week. It features the Ridgeline, Passport and Pilot, along with Honda motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, to emphasize the brand’s rugged DNA.
“We’d like to get a bigger piece of the midsize-truck pie,” said St. Cyr. He mentioned the segment-leading Toyota Tacoma, which sold nearly 250,000 vehicles last year, as a target competitor.
Although only three Honda light trucks are being featured in the new ad campaign, executives said the subcompact HR-V and compact CR-V crossovers are also being considered for the rugged styling treatment once those models are due for updates.
“We have a product plan that is appropriate for the market,” St. Cyr said. “The market is looking for a certain feel of a vehicle, so obviously we’ll play in that ballpark.”
The vehicles, he added, already match the capability of competitors for light off-road activities. But their outward appearance doesn’t reflect the vehicles’ robust mechanicals and sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems. They are not rock crawlers, but most customers don’t need that.
St. Cyr emphasized that Honda still believes “cars matter” among key demographics.
“The cars both in the Acura line and the Honda line get many first-time buyers,” he said. “Then we can move them up to light trucks.”
But the shift to a more robust truck strategy has been in the works for some time at Honda, executives said, as sedans in the overall market continued to decline year after year despite predictions that they would eventually stabilize.
This year, Honda and Acura trimmed car models and trim packages. Honda killed the Fit for the U.S. market and discontinued the coupe body style for the Civic. Acura ended sales of the RLX large sedan in the U.S. market, reducing its sedans to two. Acura’s new “flagship” vehicle is the MDX crossover, which is being redesigned for the 2022 model year.
The coronavirus crisis has further shifted consumer tastes toward trucks, in part because of generous incentives that have brought down monthly payments. Buyers also find safety in utility vehicles at a time when they otherwise may feel vulnerable to forces outside their control, analysts said.
“COVID has put an additional focus on trucks as even more consumers are buying them in response to the virus,” said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at ISeeCars.com. “Honda is getting some of that market, but less than more rugged brands because that’s what many of these ‘pandemic’ buyers want.”