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Japan gets serious about fun trucks
When it comes to work trucks, Americans buy American. So the Raider and Ridgeline are made for play.
January 11, 2005: 2:32 PM EST
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money staff writer

Detroit (CNN/Money) - Honda Motor Co. rolled out its newest car for the U.S. market yesterday, notable for its unexpected trunk space. That's because the trunk is located in the bed of the company's first pickup truck, the Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline  
2006 Honda Ridgeline

The Ridgeline is built from a car platform rather than the traditional body-on-frame truck platform.

Also this week, a new version of the Dodge Dakota pickup truck made its debut. It's name is Mitsubishi Raider.

The Japanese automakers at this week's North American International Auto Show have been steadily making inroads into just about all segments of the U.S. auto market in the last couple of decades.

They now dominate traditional car models. They have two of the four best selling minivans, and five sport/utility vehicles that topped the 100,000 mark in U.S. sales last year.

But pickups, which account for about one of five U.S. new vehicle sales, are where buyers remain more committed to the traditional Big Three than any other segment, and it's where the Japanese automakers have tread most cautiously.

Even when they have well reviewed products like the Nissan Titan, the first full-size pickup offered by a Japanese automaker, or the Toyota Tundra, the MotorTrend 2005 Truck of the Year, sales are a fraction of what's garnered by their U.S. competitors.

"We are aimed at a different target customer than Dodge," said Daniel Sims, general manager of design for Mitsubishi Motors' U.S. unit. He said the midsize Raider isn't aimed at those who buy pickups for work.

"We are going after the import truck buyer. It's more of a commuting and lifestyle vehicle."

The exterior of the truck and interior of the cab are very different from the Dodge Dakota, he pointed out, although drive train, engine and frame borrow from their corporate cousins. DaimlerChrysler AG, which owns Dodge, also owns a controlling stake in Mitsubishi, and Dodge is building the Raider at its Warren, Mich., plant. The truck, which is the first U.S. Mitsubishi vehicle to offer a V-8 engine, should roll into showrooms in October.

Honda officials are also quick to concede the Ridgeline isn't likely to be a professional contractor's pickup truck. Built on the same platform as the company's larger SUVs such as the Pilot and the Acura MDX, the truck is considered midsize but looks much smaller than even its SUV cousins, let alone competing midsize pickups. But it's the largest pickup Honda has any plans to offer, according to spokeswoman Sara Pines.

2006 Mitsubishi Raider  
2006 Mitsubishi Raider

"We're looking at a type of person who has weekend needs of a pickup," said Pines. "It might not be doing heavy-duty construction needs every day. But it can tow 5,000 pounds, and it has half-ton cargo capacity. Still the most distinctive feature is the lockable trunk found underneath the bed near the rear of the truck.

Honda is also planning a relatively conservative launch of only 50,000 vehicles, with the truck hitting showrooms in March.

Even Nissan, which says it's on target to sell 100,000 of the new Titan pickups in its current fiscal year ending in March, says reaching typical U.S. pickup truck buyers is a challenge for Japanese manufacturers.

"We knew going into this that the full-size truck market is a uniquely American market, with a fiercely loyal customer base," said Nissan spokesman Frederick Standish. "Cracking that market is a fairly daunting proposition. I think before we did this, there was a lot of doubt whether a Japanese company could make a fully competitive V8 pickup."

Toyota, which showed a full-size pickup concept vehicle at last year's auto show, is in the process of building a new plant in Texas to build full-size pickups, so Nissan won't be the only Japanese automaker in this market for long. But with 2.5 million full-size pickups sold in the United States last year, it'll be a while before any import has more than a fraction of that market, Standish concedes.

Toyota's plant should open in 2006 to produce the 2007 Tundra full-sized truck. The plant will have a production capacity of about 150,000 units on top of the 100,000 already being built in Princeton, Ind.

But Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt says Toyota expects to make relatively few converts among Big 3 pickup costumers.

"We're probably bringing new buyers into the pickup segment," he said. "The three Japanese companies are more likely to have people move from their cars or SUVs into pickups than change the mind of a Ford buyer."

Still, the market is big enough to absorb the new buyers, he added.  Top of page

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