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U.S. truck market, which generates big earnings, proves tough to crack for Honda, Toyota.

By Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

When real estate broker Greg Harla set out to buy a pickup, he was torn between the smooth-handling Honda Ridgeline and the Ford F-150 King Ranch with stitched leather seats. It came down to legroom and looks -- and he felt the F-150 offered more of both.

"I'm 6-foot-5, and the problem with the Ridgeline was that, while it was comfortable for short distances, it doesn't have the legroom the Ford has," said Harla, of Milford, Conn. In addition, "the Ridgeline was too radical-looking."

Since its March debut, Honda Motor Co.'s first pickup for the U.S. market is slow to gain traction. Nissan Motor Co.'s full-size Titan pickup also has fallen short of sales targets in this all-American segment, which accounts for 18 percent of the U.S. light-vehicle market and is proving tough for outsiders to crack.

Even mighty Toyota Motor Corp., which has pounded Detroit's automakers in the midsize and luxury car markets, keeps going back to the drawing board after stumbling with undersized and underpowered early truck offerings, such as the T100.

Detroit automakers have lost a lot of territory to foreign rivals in the U.S. car market. But they are holding their ground in big pickups -- a rich source of profit -- by responding swiftly to their customers' changing demands and offering good service and a wide variety of models and engine sizes.

Since 1996, Japanese brands have increased their share of the overall pickup market by 2 percentage points, to 15 percent. But now, equipped with bigger and better vehicles, the Japanese are mounting a fresh challenge in one of the Big Three's last strongholds.

Nissan fired the first volley in 2003, when it introduced the brawny Titan in the most lucrative segment -- versatile full-size pickups that double as rugged work vehicles and personal transportation.

In 2004, Nissan sold just under 84,000 Titans in the United States, missing its target for 100,000 sales annually. "We knew it would be a heavily defended segment, and it was," said Jed Connelly, senior vice president for Nissan North America Inc.

Detroit brands -- led by Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and GMC -- sold 2.1 million full-size pickups in 2004, a 3 percent gain over the previous year.

Displaying none of the complacency that led to their market share losses in the car market, Detroit's automakers are rolling out new trucks, including the Chrysler Group's restyled 2006 Dodge Ram 1500 and Ford Motor Co.'s showy Lincoln Mark LT pickup with chrome touches on the exterior and a wood-trimmed cabin.

"A trucker is a special sort of person," said Darryl Hazel, president of Ford Motor Co.'s Ford division, whose F-Series is the country's most popular truck line. "You have to earn your spurs in trucks."

The Japanese will turn up the heat next year, when Toyota rolls out a bigger, beefier, Texas-built Tundra. It's Toyota's most ambitious foray into the pickup market, and executives at the Japanese automaker appreciate the enormity of the challenge.

"This is similar to what we did with Lexus in the 1980s," when Toyota first ventured into the premium car market, said Jim Farley, vice president for marketing at Toyota Motor Sales USA.

"But what would that have looked like if Cadillac and Lincoln then had excellent reputations?"

In the pickup segments, "you have the excellence of the hometown heroes that's undeniable and proven," Farley said.

Toyota has done a lot of homework in preparation for the launch.

Two months ago, Paul Williamsen, a Toyota product education manager in California, visited the automaker's test track and proving grounds in Shibetsu, on the windswept northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. "I was surprised to see five, six large American camping trailers in the parking lot -- I'm talking mid-20-, up to 30-foot-long things," Williamsen said.

"It's proof how serious these guys are about testing and evaluating the truck to meet the needs of this market."

The Japanese automaker also is beefing up sales training courses in California for its 1,200 U.S. dealers and their employees. "Truck customers have high expectations and a deep need for product knowledge," compared with car buyers, said Williamsen.

"You have to deal with a customer asking, 'I've got Brand X trailer in size Y -- will this thing haul it?'"

Top Toyota engineers and designers have spent months in the United States developing a feel for the culture and activities that generate demand for pickups.

"The pickup truck is very largely a North American product," Hazel said. "It's part of the culture here. You have individual entrepreneurs who make their living with it."

The Japanese don't build full-size pickups in Japan, which is one reason they didn't target the segment earlier. "It takes a real effort to make what you don't sell in your home market," Hazel said.

Honda didn't even have a truck chassis when it decided to build a pickup. Its engineers strengthened and modified the Pilot sport utility vehicle's chassis and attached a boxed truck frame to the structure. The result is a vehicle that's more rigid and handles more smoothly than most pickups, which have separate cabs and truck beds.

"The Ridgeline rides, handles and stops better than any truck I've driven," Jerry Garrett wrote in a review for the New York Times.

The July edition of the influential Consumer Reports magazine rates the new Ridgeline tops in the compact pickup segment.

Don Poley, sales manager at LaFontaine Honda in Dearborn, said customers are taken aback by the Ridgeline's $28,000 base price.

"It's more than (the price of) a domestic -- but once people get in the vehicle, drive it, they realize they've got a high-quality vehicle."

Other Japanese pickups also are winning kudos. Four Wheeler magazine chose the Titan as its 2004 Truck of the Year. Toyota's Tacoma compact pickup and current Tundra earn high marks in J.D. Power and Associates' quality surveys.

But domestic brands win the top awards in all pickup classes. In the mid- and full-size truck categories, Ford's Explorer Sport Trac and the F-150 earn the best scores, while the GMC Sierra won in the heavy-duty segment.

"The Japanese truck manufacturers won't have an easy time of it," said Jim Stewart, assistant director of sales at Grande Truck Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Customers who rely on trucks to run their businesses tend to be fiercely loyal, he said.

But, he added, customers who want trucks for personal use are less reluctant to switch brands and dealers. Rising sales of crew cab, or four-door, pickups suggest that group is growing rapidly.

Even in Texas, attitudes are changing, according to a recent survey by the consulting firm CNW Marketing in Bandon, Ore. This year, 20 percent of prospective pickup buyers in that state would consider a Japanese brand, up from 4 percent in 2000.

Sales data from R.L. Polk & Co. show that Nissan's Titan and Toyota's Tundra have a greater proportion of Hispanic buyers, a group with a growing presence in key truck markets.

Nissan says the Titan's 1.1 percent share of the Texas vehicle market is greater than its 0.7 percent share nationwide.

Said Nissan's Connelly: "We've done very well in Texas."

You can reach Christine Tierney at (313) 222-1463 or [email protected].
 

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I think the issue is that the consumers are not well educated. The fact tha the Ford Sport Track earns high marks with consumers is proff of this.

It's a matter of time before JDM makers start to eat big chunks away from the big 2.5. Think of the civic and accord, camry and corolla, maximas and sentra when they first started.
 

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"Since its March debut, Honda Motor Co.'s first pickup for the U.S. market is slow to gain traction."

Wonder how she squares that statement with the reports we've seen saying the Ridgeline is on Honda's target for 50,000, and they may possibly ramp up production this year?
 

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Do you really think that someone who writes for Detroit News is going to be subjective? ;)
 

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I dont think you are going to improve your "advertising dollar" in the Detriot News if you say the Asians are better. :D

I am amazed by the number of Titans that I now see on the Texas highways. I think all 80k must be in the Dallas area. I still do not see many RL's. I think that the word is just getting out.
 

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I'm not sure where the numbers are for Honda being on target for their 50,000 units. March - 3,800, April 3,600, May 3,300.

If you average that out you get about 43,000 for a 12 month period.

I just bought one so I'm an owner too, but they are slow to start and they are not making their 50,000 at this point.
 

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Even if Honda reaches the 50K unit level in Sales, it is a small dent against the 2.1M of the Big 3. I waited for 2 years to buy a truck in anticipation of the Ridgeline's arrival. I even convinced my Dad to wait and see this Honda 1/2 ton truck. For the price I was underwhelmed and this if from a 22 year Honda owning family. Don't get me wrong, I think the Ridgeline is a nice vehicle, but it was not worth the wait for someone who antcipated a truck. Especially disapointed that the Ridgeline is rated at basically the same EPA fuel mileage (-1 mpg) as my V8 powered Chevy Crew Cab. If IMA sounded like it was even remotely on the horizon, that would have helped, but those pipedreams sound DOA at this time.

There is a big difference between builidng great cars, as Honda and Toyota do, and builiding trucks. I traded my Odyssey in on a Silverado last month.
 

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I did extensive research and test driving before selecting my Ridgeline and I am coming out of F150 I owned for 7 years of problem free and comfortable use. I had one criteria above all others and that was safety for my 2 small children and Ridgeline offered best overall rear passenger protection. However, Tundra drove equally well on road, had better working capacities and had the V8 we all would love Honda to offer. Even though Toyota offered the side impact airbag curtains in their advertising, this feature was not available in the U.S. in any package, so Honda won my purchase.
 

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flcma99 said:
There is a big difference between builidng great cars, as Honda and Toyota do, and builiding trucks. I traded my Odyssey in on a Silverado last month.
Get back to us in a few months... :p
 

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Toyota has made good trucks for a number of years, they tend to be less than full size & alittle under powered. Nissan Titan/Armarda have a powerful engine & high towing capacity, but have been plaqued with high disc pad wear & disc warping, with no fix upto this month. They have finally got the parts for a permanent fix. Also the gas milage is awful, & poor quality interior materials.
The "big three" are building & refining their trucks continually, remember that they are true trucks built for serious hauling. towing ect. They are having problems with high production cost & management are tring to reduce both health & retirement benifits. GM is already building engines for it Equinox in China, whats going to be next. Remember if GM management gets its way, we all could be next.
Honda has made a great mid size family hauler, good gas milage, comfortable, quiet & a great ride. But I don'nt see them hauling stuff around a building site yet.
I hope the big three get thir act together & continue to build good trucks. Hopefully they now know that Asian pickup are going to nothing but get better with each new model
 
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