Honda makes a U-turn to catch U.S. truck, SUV trend

(Reuters) – Honda Motor Co 7267.T is redesigning the looks and the marketing for its sport utility vehicles and trucks to appeal to U.S. consumers who are paying premiums for rival automakers’ vehicles that offer a more rugged, off-road adventure image.

Since the 1970s, Honda has been synonymous in the United States with understated, well-engineered and highly efficient cars such as the Honda Civic and Accord. Honda’s SUVs, minivans and its Ridgeline pickup truck are built on the smooth-handling chassis of those sedans.

But over the past five years, U.S. consumers have shifted toward larger vehicles with all-wheel drive, beefed-up suspensions, big grilles and body armor designed for plowing over desert paths and mountain trails – though most such vehicles never leave pavement.

Ford Motor Co’s F.N new Bronco sport utility and its F-150 Raptor model are chasing this trend. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV FCHA.MI is expanding its Jeep brand to harvest more profit from a segment it dominates.

More than 70% of vehicles sold in the United States last year were midsize trucks and SUVs, while 53% of Hondas sold fit those categories. Honda does not sell a large pickup that competes with the Ford F-150, and is therefore shut out of one of the U.S. market’s most profitable segments.

“We are not on trend with the rest of the industry,” Jay Joseph, Honda’s U.S. automobile marketing vice president, said during a conference call.

Honda on Thursday unveiled a new look for its midsize Ridgeline pickup, giving the vehicle a bigger grille and other off-road cues. A new advertising campaign launching on Friday shows the Ridgeline hauling dirt bikes and charging down unpaved roads in the Rocky Mountains. Former wrestler John Cena gives the ads a “tough guy” voice.

Honda is hoping the new approach will boost Ridgeline sales to 50,000 trucks a year from about 33,000 in 2019, Joseph said.

The automaker has forecast a 68% decline in global operating profit for the current fiscal year that ends March 31, mainly due to the sales lost to the pandemic.

Honda’s Passport midsized SUV will be one of the next models to get the off-road makeover, Joseph said. The five-seat Passport is outsold nearly seven to one in the United States by the Jeep Grand Cherokee, according to sales data compiled by Automotive News.