Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has entered the world of pickup trucks and is relying on composites to give it something extra to boost consumer interest.
The Ridgeline midsize truck made its debut Jan. 10 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit carrying a sheet molding compound bed - much like fellow Japanese automaker Toyota did last year with its SMC bed in its newest Toyota Tacoma.
As an extra feature, though, the company also is using SMC in a lockable, weatherproof trunk tucked underneath the bed.
``We couldn't have done this with steel, and even if we could have, it would have been too expensive and too heavy,'' said Robert Zum Mallen, manager and principal engineer of body design for Honda R&D Americas Inc.
Composites got its breakthrough commercial use in truck beds in 2000 when Ford Motor Co. used SMC for its Explorer Sport Trac. It expanded into General Motors Corp. for the Avalanche sport utility truck and briefly was offered as an option for the Silverado pickup truck, but won no major new business until last year, when Toyota placed SMC in the bed of its Tacoma.
For Honda, composites became an integral part of the company's plan to draw more buyers.
``When we went to the consumers, one of the biggest complaints they had for trucks was with the lack of secure storage in the bed,'' said Danny Cheung, principal engineer exterior design.
The trunk is big enough to hold a large cooler or three golf bags, while molded-in ridge lines and integrated seams direct water away from the storage space to keep items dry.
Meridian Automotive Systems is producing the SMC bed from seven separate molded parts at its Huntington, Ind., plant, including the headboard, side walls, tailgate and the entire load floor.
``A lot of stuff had to be reconsidered on this,'' said Jim Roman, director of sales for Dearborn, Mich.-based Meridian. ``A great deal of design went into it.''
Honda and its suppliers used the material to mold in a number of features.
The spare tire slides into its own storage spot within the trunk, with structural ribs holding it in place. There are integrated hooks to hold grocery bags and slots to fit dividers into the trunk for smaller items.
In the interest of corporate synergy, the team also made sure the ribs along the box floor fit perfectly the tires of Honda's off-road motorcycles. while the entire box was tested to hold a full-size Honda all-terrain vehicle, with molded-in tie down spots at the front of the bed.
Honda put the material through rigorous testing to make sure it could stand up to hard wear.
The team dropped rocks from a front-end loader and plopped a heavy toolbox onto the bed at its sharpest corner.
They checked the bed's ability to stand up to the weight of everything from lawn and garden equipment to a refrigerator.
``For lack of a better word, we really beat the hell out of this thing,'' Cheung said
Drains built into the bed provide an escape route for water, and the designers even added a drain plug into the trunk, so truck owners could either hose it out or turn it into an impromptu cooler.
``All of us working on this have kids and toys,'' engineer Ken Lantz said. ``We wanted something we could play with ourselves.''