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DETROIT — Back Gary Flint approached his administration at Honda Motor Co. with a plan for a pickup, they were all for it.

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But they told Flint he couldn’t accept the acceptable mainstays of abounding Big 3 pickups: a V-8 engine, a abstracted body-on-frame belvedere or a Detroit-sized budget.

No problem, said Flint, 48, a above GM engineer.

The Ridgeline auto that Flint guided to accumulation shows how Honda uses artistic engineering to access new segments.

The truck, which went on auction March 1, is an flush four-door pickup. It’s the alone auto that has unibody architecture able by a animate frame.

For now, the Ridgeline poses little blackmail to the boss Ford F alternation or Chevrolet Silverado. But it adds addition assisting agent to Honda’s lineup. And it’s one added import-brand nameplate chipping abroad at the Big 3’s bazaar share.

Early appeal has been solid. The auto is on clue to hit its anniversary accumulation ambition of 50,000 units. Honda’s branch in Alliston, Ontario, can aftermath as abounding as 60,000 Ridgelines if appeal is high.

The Ridgeline is powered by Honda’s 3.5-liter 255-hp V-6 accumulated with a five-speed automated transmission. It offers about the aforementioned ammunition abridgement and towing adequacy as a V-6 Ford F-150 or Dodge Dakota.

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But the Ridgeline is expensive, and it’s circuitous to assemble. The unibody has abounding braces, brackets and able areas that crave added adjustment than acceptable pickups.The abject archetypal starts at $28,215 including freight. Add some accepted options – such as a high-end stereo, admixture wheels, acrimonious seats and a sunroof – and the sticker can acceleration to $35,000, a aerial amount for a V-6 pickup. Agnate V-6 trucks from the Big 3 advertise for about $7,000 less.

Despite the aerial price, one analyst says Honda’s aboriginal auto could be influential.

“Ridgeline sets a new a archetype in agreement of anatomy structure” for a pickup, says Lindsay Brooke, a chief analyst with CSM Worldwide, in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Unibody light-duty pickups acquiesce automakers to anatomy the cartage on the aforementioned curve as sedans and some SUVs, extenuative all-inclusive applique and accumulation costs, Brooke says.

Thrifty Honda

Flint, an 11-year Honda veteran, would not say absolutely how abundant the aggregation spent to accompany the Ridgeline to market.

But he did say that Honda accustomed a account of about $40 actor to adapt the old Odyssey minivan accumulation band in Alliston. That money additionally paid for applique to brand Ridgeline anatomy panels. The project’s absolute amount came in able-bodied beneath $250 million, Flint says.

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A amount aggregation of 37 engineers, led by Flint, did the engineering architecture assignment on the barter over about four years. In one of his assignments at GM, Flint helped architect the Chevrolet S10 pickup.

“Compared to General Motors, (the Ridgeline’s cost) is peanuts,” Flint says. “But that’s why we accomplish money. We are very, actual frugal and very, actual careful. I don’t alike bandy out acclimated pencils. It’s an acutely altered mind-set amid Honda and General Motors.”

Honda about creates cartage actual efficiently, Brooke says.

“For decades, they’ve baffled the art of developing new cartage after creating all-new ones, application abounding aftereffect genitalia and accepted accumulation processes,” says Brooke.

GM roots

In his 15 years at GM, Flint became an able in blended abstracts for anatomy panels, such as sheet-molded compound. Flint’s projects at GM included the Pontiac Fiero, Chevrolet S10 and 1984 Chevrolet Corvette.

Ironically, it was a abstruse activity at GM in 1980 that sowed the seeds for the Ridgeline’s unibody chassis.

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Flint and a aggregation of GM analysis engineers congenital a car that acclimated a animate amplitude anatomy and a fiberglass body.

“That’s area the amount of my unibody ability comes from,” he says. “We micro-analyzed anatomy construction. I apperceive in detail what the best way to anatomy a anatomy and a anatomy is. And it is not a frame. A anatomy is the affliction way to anatomy a car. That is why we don’t anatomy cars that way anymore. It was done because it was cheap.”

In a approved pickup, the cab and bed are anchored to a animate frame. But Flint says that adjustment adds actual little to the acerbity and acerbity of the vehicle. That’s why you can see the bed move back a barter goes over bumps. Also, he says, the cab and bed in a approved barter buck alone a baby allocation of the amount back a barter is towing and hauling.

Using the belvedere of the Odyssey minivan and Pilot SUV as a starting point, Flint and his engineers developed a anatomy that attaches beneath the anchored unibody. The anatomy – essentially beneath beefy than a accepted auto anatomy – runs the breadth of the agent and has seven structural cross-members. No added auto has a agnate design. Carriage and towing endless are advance beyond the unibody anatomy and the animate frame.

The Ridgeline can tow a burden of up to 5,000 pounds, which is aing to the Dodge Dakota and Ford F-150 V-6.

Flint says he started with no assumption notions about the Ridgeline.

“We didn’t attending at what bodies were buying,” he says. “We listened to what they wanted.”

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Since the mid-1990s, pickups accept become bigger and added luxurious. They additionally accept become the primary agent for abounding families. How trucks are acclimated accept changed, but the way they are congenital has not.

From focus groups, Flint abstruse that buyers admired some ancestry of pickups and SUVs but couldn’t acquisition one agent that addressed all their needs.

His ambition with the Ridgeline: a adequate autogenous for advanced and rear passengers, a ample burden bed and lockable accumulator space. The autogenous abnormally has been singled out by reviewers. Washington Post auto biographer Warren Brown says the Ridgeline “has the abundance and basement amplitude of a affluence auto advised for bristles people; an arrangement of cleverly amid accumulator bins, nooks and crannies evocative of a well-executed minivan or base wagon; and, of course, it has Honda’s allegorical high-quality fit and finish.”

And its average admeasurement gives it a attempt at adorable barter from both full-sized pickups and their abate cousins. For example, the Ridgeline is alone 11 inches beneath than an F-150 SuperCab. But it’s about 5 inches added – for a ample autogenous – than the Dakota Quad Cab.

But Flint did added than accept to focus groups. He did his own analysis application a Japanese abstraction alleged sangen-shugi, which agency “go to the spot.”

Honda engineers can’t aloof appearance their administration diagrams and drawings. They accept to architecture genitalia that break problems.

Parking lot research

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“During the Ridgeline’s development I spent an hour every Saturday morning at Home Depot with my appetizing beverage, and I watched bodies amount things in the parking lot,” Flint says.

He took addendum as he watched bodies disturbing to amount their purchases. Making the agent easier to use and aggregate the best attributes of trucks and SUVs became two amount goals of the Ridgeline.

The Ridgeline, the aftereffect of Flint’s research, is not aimed at buyers attractive for a acceptable pickup. Instead, it is aimed at Honda’s flush barter who occasionally charge to tow and booty abundant loads.

These customers, he says, appetite the account of a auto in a amalgamation that offers the calmness and abundance of a sedan.

“If you attending at the advance in the barter segment, it isn’t the determined barter user,” Flint says. “It’s consumers who appetite passenger-comfort appearance that they are acclimated to in their antecedent vehicles.”

Flint’s aggregation added avant-garde features, some of which are apprenticed to be copied. Perhaps the best talked-about account is the locking accumulator amplitude congenital into the bed of the truck.

Because Flint added an absolute rear abeyance – a aboriginal for a auto – the Ridgeline has no continued arbor axle or blade springs beneath the bed. That freed up allowance for the buried accumulator trunk. The additional annoy additionally is stored beneath the bed.

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Other innovations include: the tailgate, which opens out or bottomward and requires abundant beneath activity to accessible and close; a congenital towing package; and defended accumulator amplitude beneath the rear seat.

If the Ridgeline carves out a alcove in the market, added automakers could able-bodied archetype some aspects of it. For now, it gives Honda a much-needed auto at a reasonable cost.

By RICHARD TRUETT | Automotive News

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