It's not enough to be a one trick pony anymore.
The pick-up truck has been the backbone of our society for as long as we can remember. The humble workhorse has moved farmers and families for generations, yet for most of its life there was little evolution to the simple recipe. After all, if it wasn't broken, why fix it? The pick-up most certainly wasn't broken – but now we live in an era where evolution is a must in order to survive, and the pick-up sits on the edge of a precipice – one where it needs to move with the times in order to remain relevant in a SUV-loving world.
We've entered an era now where we've seen Mercedes-Benz produce a mid-sized pick-up. It's a peculiar thought, one many never thought would ever see fruition, and yet here it is. Well, not here, as the X-Class isn't coming to the US, at least not for the foreseeable future. It's just one of several mid-size pick-ups we're not getting, but it signals the dawn of a new era, and the end of another along with the changing of public perception towards the pick-up. Of the current crop, regardless of size, pick-ups tend to focus on practicality and a hard-working nature.
Form truly follows function, and indeed the rest of the package does too – including comfort. But when carrying heavy loads over poor terrain is your priority there are bound to be certain compromises, comfort being the biggest of all. The current batch of pick-ups have technically advanced through the years to try and provide some modicum of comfort, but body-on-frame pick-ups are traditionally uncomfortable – they lack the body control and resolve of unibody constructed vehicles, with an inherent 'shuffle' to the way they ride, the body continually squeaking and shifting on rubber bushings connecting it to the frame. Just about every single pick-up on the market suffers this ailment.
Sub-par ride comfort and poor handling are other sacrifices made for the sake of practicality. They're all one-trick ponies – focusing wholeheartedly on practical aspects – and why shouldn't they? They're the unassuming, humble working class of society. But in much the same way that purist sports cars no longer sell in vast numbers, the traditional pick-up may be heading the same way. There are those that value the honest nature, those that love the single-minded focus and attention to detail of the particular task at hand, but for the most part, the average buyer wants more. They want a vehicle for all occasions. It's why the Porsche 911 has evolved into the all-round sports car, capable of daily commutes and weekend canyon-carving.
Evolution is needed if pick-ups are to remain relevant to the mass buying public, and the inspiration for such evolution comes from a most surprising source. Honda's Ridgeline may well have surprised the market when it launched as a mid-sized pickup of front wheel drive origins. Now in its second generation, the Ridgeline has developed into the pick-up for a new generation – setting the standard for what other pick-ups will need to do in order to succeed in the future.
I'm not suggesting Chevrolet release a front-wheel drive Colorado – nothing of the sorts, as it still baffles me that the Ridgeline is underpinned by what is essentially a family MPV. But in an era where Mercedes market the X-Class as the world's first premium SUV, it's the Ridgeline that provides all the aspects that truly define premium, in a segment that doesn't really understand what premium actually is. If the modern pick-up is to succeed, it's going to need to learn a lesson from the Ridgeline – it's going to need to become the jack of all trades with the ability to appeal as much to urbanites as it does to those who use it for its original purpose. The modern pick-up can no longer afford to be a one trick pony.
Front wheel drive is still a conundrum, but the Ridgeline handles many other aspects of the pick-up in a way that benefits the segment. The unibody design, for example, sets a standard that others would be wise to follow. The primary reason for this being control and refinement. By removing the rubber bushings that link a body to a ladder frame chassis, and by linking the two directly, other pick-up manufacturers can vastly improve the body control, with responses to steering inputs being immediate rather than delayed by virtue of the various connective tissues found in regular pick-ups.
The unibody design of the Ridgeline also ensures there's less noise permeating through the chassis – less squeaking and rattling from the framework underneath. The use of a unibody design also aligns better with the current trend of platform sharing. At present, pick-ups can only share underpinnings with large SUVs of similar purpose – but they suffer the same handling and refinement issues. However by moving to unibody designs, manufacturers could utilize the same platform for multiple SUVs, crossovers, MPVs, and pick-ups – reducing production and development costs.
While the foreign market Nissan Frontier (Navara) has been hailed for its coil-spring rear suspension, it was actually the Ridgeline that offered this first. In doing so, the Ridgeline actually set the standard for ride comfort – playing to the needs of those who use pick-ups more for recreational purposes than hardcore working purposes. While we're unlikely to get the X-Class and new Frontier anytime soon, other manufacturers would be wise to follow the Ridgeline's example in equipping coil springs all round. Imagine a Toyota Tacoma equipped with coil springs – or a GMC Canyon, or Chevrolet Colorado – proven nameplates equipped with comfort never before seen.
Mechanically, all these improvements would vastly improve the pick-up – particularly the mid-sized one – but there are other facets to the Ridgeline that need to be emulated too – as to only focus on mechanics would be to not move forward at all – which is part of the reason pick-ups remain one trick ponies.
While the Ridgeline's underpinnings have been the cause for much of the attention it's garnered, what has made it a success has been the versatility and refinement it possesses as a commuter vehicle. From behind the wheel of the Ridgeline, you'd be hard pressed to tell that you weren't driving an MPV or SUV – not just because of the way it drives but because of the interior refinements. Gone are the days when utility was all that mattered – ergonomics and comfort are now equally as important as outright capability. Car-like appointments, soft touch materials, leathers, and the likes are all elements that ensure the Ridgeline is top of its class.
The Ridgeline isn't just dressed up nicely though, it's equipped to match all the finishings, both inside and out. It may seem gimmicky, but the Ridgeline's truck bed speaker setup is immensely clever – turning the load bed into a giant speaker that furthers its appeal among the masses. It combines this with additional under-bed load space and the option to equip a power outlet in the truck bed, with an inverter, that's strong enough to power more than just small appliances. The Ridgeline is more than just a simple work-horse; it's fully capable as one, but what it really is, is a modern means of transportation that caters to every family need, 5 days a work week.
It also doubles as a recreational vehicle the two days a week when adventure and utility matter most. What the Ridgeline signifies is a true changing of the guard – negating the need for compromise in the pick-up segment and adding duality of purpose. If the rest of the pick-up world is to succeed, to truly move forward with the times, they need to emulate the Ridgeline's duality of character and purpose. It's no longer enough to be a dedicated workhorse – one must become the master of all things utility and of all things luxury, all in one cohesive pick-up shaped package.