Will Unibody Pickups Be the Next Big Thing?

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The reentry of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline has the car-loving universe all aflutter. A pickup truck that drives more like a car and offers the looks and goodies of a crossover is a dream come true for many consumers. You can almost hear their sigh of relief.

The Detroit News is reporting that there's a sizable market for downsized pickups that offer a more comfortable ride along with a pickup bed. But haven't we've seen this already, and didn't we find out the market for such a specimen was pretty small?

The earth-shaking Honda Ridgeline was introduced in 2005 as a 2006 model when most pickups and full-size SUVs were more rugged and less civilized than they are today. Even then, the idea of a unibody pickup, with all its comparative advantages, was a niche market player. Those interested in a small pickup were not attracted to a pickup platform derived from an "evolved" minivan chassis, which is what the original Ridgeline offered. Still, the Ridgeline did provide a smoother ride and better handling than anything else in its class, but not without some significant compromises. We noted as much when we did our 2012 Midsize Shootout (the last comparison test to include the Ridgeline) in which the Honda delivered a strong third-place finish behind the Nissan Frontier and winning Toyota Tacoma.

At its peak in 2006, the Ridgeline sold 50,000 units; in contrast, the lowest numbers recorded were in 2011, when Honda averaged around 800 Ridgelines per month. Times are certainly getting better for pickup manufacturers, but does that necessarily translate into the need for more unibody pickup trucks? Maybe, since these lighter trucks get better fuel economy than conventional ladder-frame pickups; they are less expensive to make since they usually share a chassis with a sibling model; and they drive more like a car thanks to four-wheel independent suspensions. Despite these facts, have we really changed so much in the last 10 years that we're going to see demand grow for such a truck?

The thing that most automotive writers never seem to understand is that buyers don't look at pickup trucks the same way they look at cars. The vast majority usually have a specific reason for buying a pickup such as hauling, towing or getting gear to a weekend outing; room for kids and fuel economy often are secondary. Ultimately, a car is a refrigerator (a receptacle for things); a pickup is a chain saw (a tool).

Several manufacturers have been researching bringing a small unibody SUV or crossover-based vehicle with a small pickup bed to market (Hyundai, GMC, Ram and others), and from what we hear the finished product could be reasonably priced. We think it makes sense to offer a new vehicle that's functional and practical for young buyers, essentially creating a new niche underneath midsize pickups rather than providing a premium-priced option for people who don't really need a pickup.

But what about a vehicle like the Honda Ridgeline? By Honda's own admission, it's a series of compromises: less comfortable load-carrying, less towing capacity, less off-road capability and a less rugged design. These compromises seem to fly in the face of what potential buyers in this arena are seeking. If a truckmaker wants to base its engineering and marketing plan on that kind of strategy, it should have conservative goals. Not that there isn't a place for these types of vehicles, but it's sort of like making trailers for people who don't really like or need to tow anything. We know there are people like that, but the numbers are pretty small.

Does any of this mean the new Ridgeline is not a good pickup? Of course not, but the more important question is whether the Ridgeline can deliver the confidence you need to get the job done when you find yourself in one of those "What do we do now?" moments. If you can avoid those, good for you; you'll have an easier time making your best pickup choice.

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01 Structure - Front 3.4 II



The coming Fiat Toro will be the best truck ever. It will put Ram on top.

In a much smaller foot print it a few in this class might make it as a low volume seller.

But why would you have this if you have to go rent a truck all the time do much more than a few bags of groc or golf clubs.

While there will always be a need for full-frame HD trucks, I can definitely see unibody crossover pickups in the near future for mid-size and even perhaps light duty full size versions. Vans have been built that way for years and are hugely successful.

Since small trucks aren't about towing (see Toyoyta's survey). Arent about handling large/heavy loads, and very rarely leave the pavement along with rising CAFE standards, along with the need for better mileage and rising fuel prices a unibody makes tremendous sense.

Since small truck buyers are about pretending they tow/work their trucks and riding high looking good and at least havein off road capability a unibody will not sell.

I agree fully with redbloddedxy on this subject.

Eventually a car maker will do this successfully, i.e., sell a ton of them. Nobody has so far but that does not mean that buyer's and conditions can't change.

Every young family in the suburbs that I talk to wants--or already has--a new F150 crew or something like it. Based on the parking lots in my neck of the woods, RAM and GM get their share of interest too.

It's not too hard to imagine that kind of buyer being persuaded by the softer ride, easier parking and better FE that a mid size unibody design can offer.

People who have always owned trucks (like me) are going to be a hard sell, though. I love the durability that a full sized pickup or SUV (Suburban) offers. My trucks all gave me long lasting service, except one that had tranny troubles right from the box. Ten years and hundreds of thousands of miles.

We don't really know yet if the Honda's and similar unibody trucks will hold up quite like that.

If it happens, I don't see Honda being the manufacturer being able to carry the torch. I've never owned one, but they have a great reputation and seem to build a very good car. With the first gen Ridgeline viewed as a failure by many, they don't have much of a reputation as a truck builder. If Ford introduced a unibody Ranger to the US, I think it would build major confidence in the segment. More would be willing to consider a unibody truck, and more Ridgelines would sell!

Just need to figure out where to put the rainbow sticker.

Any benefit you could get from a unibody pickup (inexpensive, fuel efficient, easy to drive and park in town) will be a non-starter because of government regulations and the manufacturer trying to maintain their profitability within them. The little VW Rabbit-sized trucks you see in other countries that are cheap to buy (maybe only relatively compared to traditional trucks), get great fuel economy, and are easy to park in crowded areas check all the reasons why you would want a unibody truck, except maybe ride quality but that is simple to engineer.

Yet you won't get any of those benefits except maybe ride quality. Those little trucks are too small to pass safety standards here, unless you reengineer them and stuff thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment into them. Between that and emissions, making them compliant would negate any price savings. Because of CAFE standards soon you won't be able to buy a regular cab truck so forget having the option for a small truck. Maybe you can get efficiency from them but will not save as much as they become larger and heavier to comply with regulations, which is dumb trying to save a couple hundred dollars in fuel each year while paying thousands extra on the vehicle itself.

So there you have it. I didn't realize I was going to accurately describe the new Ridgeline but I did. It's big(ger than compact), expensive, not amazingly fuel efficient, and maybe feels better to drive. Thanks government, you know best!

If Ford introduced a unibody Ranger to the US, I think it would build major confidence in the segment. More would be willing to consider a unibody truck, and more Ridgelines would sell!

Posted by: cjm | May 27, 2016 8:49:26 AM

Honda has now established itself has the leader in this segment. Ford would only we copying Honda at any attempt of a unibody truck.

The Ridgeline growth success will depend on if its new set of compromises will bring in additional customers, or will it just be the replacement cycle for the old-Ridgline customers who (seemingly) all passionately love their Ridgeline. For me, the old Ridgeline could not do what I needed it to do, and it could not do what I wanted it to be able to do (but probably never use). I see the potential of the new Ridgeline. So far there are not enough facts, and I find this marketing-contrived absence of facts trying to create a sense of suspense is creating my own strong negative bias against it (feels like being manipulated). The new Ridgeline now needs to be even more special to be considered, and as a past owner of Hondas, I believe the Ridgeline will be good at a lot of things, but it will be really special at nothing.

I would like GM to change the Colorado to a Unibody. It would probably be a big success. Reading their lightening strategies I would think they could invent a way to weld Steel, Aluminum, and paper-mache for pennies on the dollar.

..... and more to the point of the article, the total sales success of any new "Truck" of whatever platform will need to fill the buyers needs (actual function) and potential lifestyle need (future plans, group acceptance, self definition, etc.) across a broad slice of the population or it will be just another limited niche old-Ridgeline.

The first gen Ridgeline's market acceptance is not much of an indicator of addressable market size.

I considered the 2006 Ridgeline, until my wife called it "Aztec Ugly" (see Pontiac Aztec) and my friends laughed. Pretty hard to drop $40K on one after that.

The current midsize trucks are more rugged and more "cool". But you can't fit a sheet of plywood or drywall between the wheel wells, heck my wife's ATV won't fit either (it's 44" wide at the wheels). How stupid is that?

As far as fuel economy goes, there is something amiss. The front drive lighter-duty truck should get better gas mileage. For people who are prime targets for the "crossover trucks", this will be an issue, unlike the target crowd for traditional trucks.

@Papa, I agree with most of that, but the keyword here is FE, because media outlets seem to en train everyone that FE rules, when it comes to pickup trucks, most owners have that drilled in their head now that they need a truck that can do it all and get good FE. For this pickup, and any in the small segment pickup, they better blow the doors off the bigger 1/2 ton Diesel like the ram, when it comes to FE, or this wont ever work....same with Ford and the Twins talking about going to diesel as well for the 1/2 tons, when you start seeing those trucks get 30 mpg highway, the Honda and others need to get 35+ to be relevant.....

My opinion is, that it makes more sense to go with very strong Unibody structure than heavy frame and aluminium cabin for the light duty trucks. The automation , assembly and no need to invest billions for dealing with aluminium is the key to get better pricing and profit. Look what happened with Ford truck pricing just in 2 years. You need to get a second mortgage just to buy a truck.
Toro is one example how to do that properly. Very strong unibody to handle 2000 lbs, light and efficient and easier and less expensive to build.
It would be the king of efficiency with new FCA's 2.2 Diesel.


Here is a Tiro comparison with other brands . It will work very well with bed extender for many, for every day use.


@I am ram, put it on top of what?????

Funny thing I've discovered is that almost ALL the ridgeline owners I've talked to LOVE THE Ridgeline and plan on purchasing the new one.

I had a neighbor who took almost 4 cords of hardwood from me off in his ridgeline+ trailer, in 3 trips. Loaded ithe bed to the roofline as well.

So I don't think it's a does it work type problem, its more of a "perception/visuals" marketing problem.

@I am ram, put it on top of what?????

Posted by: Done | May 27, 2016 11:41:01 AM

You should stop talking to yourself, it just makes you look retarded kid.

If a vehicle has a reasonable size bed with a payload limit over 1200 lbs. and can tow up to 5000 lbs. it's a truck... I can't figure out why many of you insist it has to be a body on frame design to be considered it a "real truck"??? If these up and coming unibody trucks can get the job done with better fuel economy and quieter, nicer handling ride, then all the better. I don't judge a “book” by its cover, but rather by its character/content. If these unibody trucks can do the work need, who cares how it’s constructed…. Really! The only area that the Ridgeline lacks is the true off-road worthiness that a small percentage of truck enthusiast want or need.

I drive a 2002 F-150 Lariat SuperCrew and will be looking to replace it in a couple of years. One thing for sure, it’s replacement will NOT be a full size truck as every brand has become bloated and now exceeds my needs (with regards to payload/towing spec’s). Waste not, want not… The mid side market has my full attention with regards to towing/payload numbers and the slightly better fuel economy and sticker price. Right now, I’d buy a Colorado or Tacoma crew cab long bed if given a choice, but wouldn’t completely rule out a Ridgeline either and here’s why… My wife just bought a 2016 Honda Pilot EX-L and man does it drive nice with plenty of power. On top of that, the interior quality is great and it’s quiet with all the modern tech. If the new Ridgeline (based on the ’16 Pilot) has these same qualities, than it should sell its self with only one exception…. It lacks the rugged looks of the other mid-size offerings. I absolutely HATED the looks of the 1st gen Ridgeline and while the new Ridgeline is a vast improvement, I’m still not crazy about it.

Truth be told, I’m waiting for the return of the Ford Ranger to the North American market. If the 2018/19 returns with a crew cab long bed option (which I can’t imagine it not having) then sign me up….. unibody or body on frame, it’s all good.

The problem with the Ridgeline is the price and fuel consumption. The pick up use as much as a V8 and cost more than some full size models.
I think to succeed in this market company need a cheaper option than a full size with a better fuel economy. Not everyone need the capacity of big rig the markwet is there but Honda miss the bullseye. (Plus its base on a van platform)

You are right about that. Honda is not going to take market over , because of that.
If Toro priced properly from 20 to 35 k , it will be big success.

yeah a 310 deere loading a Honda.....

For the mid-size segment, yes, there is some credibility here.
For full-size, no way. Need the frame for towing and endurance,
...and long-term restoration. When unibody rusts out, it's done.

1/2 of trucks are sold on lifestyle image alone. You make it unibody and that rugged image is removed from the picture.

"In a much smaller foot print it a few in this class might make it as a low volume seller.
"But why would you have this if you have to go rent a truck all the time do much more than a few bags of groc or golf clubs."
-- Posted by: Scott | May 27, 2016 7:34:03 AM

While you made your point, you have it exactly backwards. If you don't NEED a large truck on a regular basis, why own one? It becomes a waste of space and energy to own a vehicle you can't even fit into the average parking garage any more. Even a full-sized crew cab truck today can't carry a 4x8 sheet of plywood in the bed with the tailgate up any more unless you pay a ridiculous amount for the extended bed in the trim level you want or get a base work truck that doesn't offer the comfort you want. Go ahead and rent if you need to carry something bigger than this can handle; I'll bet you don't rent more than one weekend a year in the process.

“If Ford introduced a unibody Ranger to the US, I think it would build major confidence in the segment. More would be willing to consider a unibody truck, and more Ridgelines would sell”
Posted by: cjm | May 27, 2016 8:49:26 AM

I enjoy reading fiction, that’s why I like PUTC! I mean saying the words “Ford” and “build major confidence” in the same sentence, where else would you read something like that?

Ford building confidence on May 25th...


Ford building confidence on May 23rd...


Ford building confidence on May 18th....



Ford building confidence on May 15th....


Ford building confidence on May 3rd....


Ford building confidence on April 27th....


Shouldn’t we call this military grade confidence?

BOF SUV's based on Global Pickups are the big thing here. People cannot buy enough of them.
Uni bodies are a no go and more a NA thing
These tow 6,000lb and very comfortable on and off road

I'm having the uni-body conversion done to my F-150

Anyone here thinking of modifying their last model F-series should start by cutting those wheel wells to a more square opening. That will be the first operation in transitioning it from such a feminine looking truck.

Unibody pickups may be be the next thing in compact/midsize pickups and maybe van-based (ie Transit, Promaster, Sprinter) pickups. Full-bred half-ton pickups/trucks and and higher would more like remain body-on-frame. More than likely if compact (read COMPACT, not mid-size because they're the smallest offerings currently in the US) pickups were to re-enter the market, unibody would make the most sense as it would yield significantly higher fuel economy, smaller engines, much less expensive, and not expected to pull a house load of weight. I would like to see a competitor to the Honda Ridgeline, like the Fiat Toro. They make unibody everything else, and it wasn't that long ago that the last passenger car in produced, the Ford Crown Victoria, was body-on-frame (does that make it a truck with a trunk?!). Whether to buy a truck unibody or body-on-frame should depend on personal needs, not status or manhood.

There is no question that a uni-body or hybrid frame vehicle can get the job done, at least in the sub8500# class. Take a look at the frames under the big Euro-style vans. Thinner material, stamped and welded into a large section frame member. Add to that the ever stronger passenger cell, that may just as well carry the load. The Jeep MJ trucks wee great- they had some rust weaknesses, but that stuff is fixable. MB is rolling out their new Metris van that even has a 2500# payload with IRS. IN the Fatherland you can get it with AWD. So you don't "need" a frame to haul loads.
What you DO need is advantages that show up on paper, not just once you actually put someone behind the wheel. The old Ridgeline didn't do that- it cost as much and more than a comparable Toyota or Nissan, used as much or more fuel, weighed more, and only came in one configuration. Even if 4wd Crew trucks are the volume leaders in the segment, offering the others still moves extra units. I would be surprised if the Ridgeline remained the only midsize truck to use integrated construction. I think even the full-size market may see some of that. Sure, people will cry blasphemy when it happens, but they cried that, too when 4wd trucks first moved to IFS.

you act like unibody trucks are a new thing. Jeep Comanche. capable and unibody construction

I believe we are in the last generation(s) of body on frame pickups and SUVs. I'd expect that all of the mid-size pickups will switch to unibody by 2025. Full size trucks will start the transition as well, probably starting with the next F150. They will sell like hotcakes. The unibody Explorer and Pathfinder saw sales increase after the switch. For vehicles like the 4Runner they will retain their off road capability (even add to it) during the switch to unibody. The Wrangler and Wrangler Pickup are the last generation of body on frame. The next gen after that will be unibody. The next gen 4Runner (6th gen-2018) will retain body on frame, but the gen after that will be unibody. Most Millennials don't know the difference between BOF and Unibody, so they will sell.

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