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

By Joseph White
DETROIT (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co <7267.T> is redesigning the appearance and marketing of its sport utility vehicles and trucks to appeal to U.S. consumers who pay premiums for competing automakers' vehicles that offer a more rugged off-road adventure image.
Since the 1970s, Honda has been synonymous in the United States with restrained, mature and highly efficient cars such as the Honda Civic and the Accord. Honda's SUVs, minivans and Ridgeline pickup trucks are based on the smooth running gear of these sedans.
Over the past five years, however, U.S. consumers have turned to larger vehicles with all-wheel drive, improved suspensions, large grids, and body guards designed to be plowed over desert and mountain trails - although most of these vehicles never leave the sidewalk.
The new Bronco sports program <FN> from Ford Motor Co and the F-150 Raptor model follow this trend. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV <FCHA.MI> expands its Jeep brand to generate more profit from a segment it dominates.
More than 70% of vehicles sold in the US last year were mid-size trucks and SUVs, while 53% of Honda sold fell into these categories. Honda doesn't sell a large pickup truck that competes with the Ford F-150, so it's excluded from one of the most profitable segments of the US market.
"We're not trending with the rest of the industry," said Jay Joseph, US vice president of automotive marketing for Honda, during a conference call.
Honda unveiled a new look for its midsize Ridgeline pickup on Thursday that gives the vehicle a larger grille and other off-road features. A new ad campaign kicking off Friday shows the Ridgeline towing dirt bikes and storming down unpaved roads in the Rocky Mountains. Former wrestler John Cena gives the ads a "tough guy" voice.
Honda hopes the new approach will increase Ridgeline sales from around 33,000 in 2019 to 50,000 trucks a year, Joseph said.
The automaker has forecast a 68% decline in global operating profit for the current fiscal year ending March 31, largely due to sales lost due to the pandemic.
Honda's midsize SUV Passport will be one of the next models to receive the off-road makeover, Joseph said. The five-seat passport is sold almost seven for one in the US by the Jeep Grand Cherokee, according to sales data from Automotive News.

(Reporting by Joe White in Detroit; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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