Will your next pickup have a unibody?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Once upon a time, midsize sport utility vehicles like the Ford Explorer meant truck-like, body-on-rail construction. Not anymore. Today, there isn’t a truck-based midsize ute to be found as SUVs dominate vehicle sales and consumers demand the same ride quality as the sedans they replaced.

Will midsize pickups follow suit?

The unibody 2017 Honda Ridgeline, now in its second generation, has reignited speculation among manufacturers and industry analysts that the next generation of midsize pickups won’t be based on traditional truck platforms, but on car-like unibodies like their SUV siblings.

“It’ll be a long trend, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see competitors with unibodies,” says James Jenkins, ex-Honda product planning manager and new Honda public relations chief. “Ten years ago, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander were the only SUV unibodies, and now you can’t find a body-on-frame in that segment. The benefits of unibody far exceed body-on-frame for midsize pickups, too.”

Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer agrees.

“You once needed body-on-frame to get the stiffness you needed in a truck,” he says. “You now have the engineering and CAD/CAM (computer) capability to create a very stiff unibody that’s as capable as any body-on-frame. Yet it’s lighter and has better ride quality.”

The Ridgeline debuted to rave media tester reviews in San Antonio last week as it demonstrated best-in-class ride, cabin room, quietness and V-6 fuel efficiency while holding its own against class leaders Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon in off-road ruggedness and towing capability.

But, industry insiders caution, it’s too soon to write off the body-on-frame truck. Its inherent benefits mean the unibody won’t be the slam dunk it was in SUVs.

Not coincidentally, Ridgeline is based on the Honda Pilot, which revolutionized three-row family SUVs in 2003. While the “original SUV” 1984 Jeep Cherokee wowed customers with its unibody chassis, most manufacturers used existing truck platforms as the backbone for popular SUVs like the Explorer, Chevy Blazer and Toyota 4Runner.

“A unibody pickup was born out of necessity for Honda,” says IHS Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley, because Honda did not have a truck division. To meet growing sport ute demand, the Japanese company turned to the car-like technology it knew best.

By 2011 even the best-selling Explorer was forced to follow suit as customers flocked to the more spacious, smoother-riding unibody competitors.

Toyota and Detroit’s Big Three would not comment on whether they are developing unibody pickups, though GMC showed a Denali XT hybrid concept truck with unibody architecture at the Chicago auto show in 2008.

Brauer and other analysts say that the towing demands of the full-size truck market mean that Ford F-150s and Chevy Silverados will be body-on-frame for the foreseeable future. Yet, the capabilities of these rugged big trucks will make it hard to convince customers that smaller trucks can get the job done on a unibody chassis.

“Die-hard truck guys will say it isn’t a truck unless it’s body-on-frame,” says Jason Gonderman, editor-in-chief of Truck Trend magazine. Indeed, the first Ridgeline, introduced in 2006, was met with lukewarm sales.

“You have to change consumer perception that a truck that rides as good (as the Ridgeline) on the road is as capable in other things,” says Brauer. “Ninety-five percent of truck buyers will never come up with a situation that this truck can’t handle better. And when you’re not doing trucky stuff, this vehicle is far better.”

Yet even as it shows unibody promise, the new Ridgeline shows its limitations. Unlike its competitors, which can adapt body-on-frame to different cab and pickup box configurations, the Ridgeline will be offered only in a crew cab with a 5-foot box beginning at $27,000. In so doing it concedes 30 percent of the midsize pickup to the smaller, cheaper, “extended cab” offerings from GM and Toyota that start at $20,000.

“The retooling for a unibody is just too expensive to offer different cab alternatives,” says Honda’s Jim Loftus, Ridgeline performance manager.

Nevertheless, Honda is bullish on a segment it sees as part of the broader U.S. market transformation to SUVs.

“The truck segment is up to 60 percent of sales — mostly driven by crossovers,” says Honda’s Jenkins. “Midsize pickup demand is up to 350,000 in unit sales, and I see it growing. People look in their garage and say, ‘I don’t need a big pickup truck.’ ”

Who will be next to go unibody?

Analysts agree that a midsize unibody truck makes the most economic sense for GM — once its generation of Colorados and Canyons cycles out — because the company already makes so many SUVs on its midsize, Lambda and C1XX unibody platform.

But KBB’s Brauer thinks a Fiat Chrysler brand will be the first to jump, given its history of innovation — like Ram’s first-in-class coil-spring 1500 pickup. “I think we might have a unibody Jeep Comanche,” he says. “If you give (FCA’s Sergio) Marchionne a good business case, he’ll take it.”

“Hyundai really wants to get into this segment,” says IHS Automotive’s Brinley of another Asian manufacturer that does only unibody construction. “The Hyundai Santa Cruz concept [a pickup] is out there. Hyundai may be next.”

The answer is not whether, but when. “There is potential there. Trucks don’t need to be body-on-frame,” says Brinley. “You don’t get as beat up with the unibody. There’s space for both.”

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Email: hpayne@detroitnews.com. Twitter: @HenryEPayne