At the Detroit Auto Show this week, Honda used its time on stage to show off the 2017 Honda Ridgeline, a resurrection of the brand name that had gone out of production in mid-2014. It was a resurrection of another kind, too. Buried in the press release about all the Ridgeline's new design, new features and new safety technology was this: "The Ridgeline also will be available for the first time in both front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive configurations."
It's been 32 years since a front-wheel-drive pickup was available in the United States. Where'd they all go?
Just a quick history note so some boring pedant doesn't flood Car Talk Plaza with hate mail: The Chevrolet S-10 EV was a front-wheel-drive pickup. However, you couldn't buy one. Introduced in 1997 and quickly abandoned in 1998, Chevrolet assembled a breathtaking 492 S-10 EVs, and actually sold 60 to fleet-only customers. The rest were leased to fleet companies and when they were returned, they were scrapped, like the EV-1 from the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
But there was a time when a whole lot of people bought front-wheel-drive pickups in the United States, and they could've taken off as a viable alternative for suburban dwellers with small garages that need to go to Lowe's for lumber every now and again. That time was the short window between 1979 and 1984.
Compact pickup trucks were a nationwide sales leader in those days. Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Datsun built their entire reputations selling small, frill-free pickups to gardeners in Southern California. The twin gas crises of 1973 and 1979 made Americans rethink the way they drove themselves, but it didn't mean that we quit going to the lumber yard or the dump. The compact pickup became a viable alternative.
Chevrolet and Ford went the "captive import" route when they introduced their own compact pickups to stem the tide of sales flooding toward Toyota and Datsun. Ford went with Mazda in 1971 to develop the Courier, a handsome little truck that had a prominent aluminum grille that mirrored that of the F-Series from that era. Chevy worked with Isuzu to work up a badge-engineered version of the Isuzu Faster pickup, which it released as the Chevrolet LUV in 1972, and continued selling until the Chevrolet S-10 debuted in 1982.
The Volkswagen Golf showed up in Europe in 1976, but it wasn't until 1979, when Volkswagen cut the ribbon on the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania plant that the company would sell one here, badged in the United States as a Rabbit. Volkswagen was eager to capitalize on the success of the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed Golf, and set out to build as many variants on the theme as it could. The first was the Jetta, a two- and four-door sedan available to appeal to an American audience that was lukewarm to the idea of a hatchback. It tested out a wagon, but that wouldn't appear in Europe until 1991. The Cabriolet came in January, apparently designed specifically for cheerleaders named Jennifer.
Right on the heels of the Rabbit Cabriolet came the Pickup, known elsewhere in the world as the Caddy. (Since "Caddy" = Cadillac in the U.S.), and most of the other small pickups had creative names like "Pickup," VW stayed with the Rabbit Pickup name here.
Between 1979 and 1984, these little trucks seemed like they were everywhere. Along with the 1.5-liter gas engine, they almost singlehandedly introduced Americans who couldn't afford a Mercedes-Benz to the feasibility of diesel power. If you find a Rabbit Pickup today, there's about a 73 percent chance it's going to be a diesel.
Like the Rabbit, the Rabbit Pickup was driven by the front wheels. When the cabin of a compact pickup is tight to begin with, the absence of a huge transmission tunnel made the interior seem more substantial. And again like the Rabbit, Rabbit Pickups were fun to drive, and provided many years of dutiful service until rust eventually tore them apart.
We only got these trucks until 1984, but they proved so successful around the world that Volkswagen continued to build them around the world on exactly the same platform from 1979 all the way to 1995 in places like South Africa, Argentina and Yugoslavia.
Dodge had its own captive import in the Dodge D50 introduced in 1979 (after 1980 it was called the Dodge Ram 50). It was a badge-engineered version of the Mitsubishi Triton pickup, and showed up at a time when Ford and Chevy were in the process of building their own pickups.
So why build a front-wheel-drive variant of the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon? Allpar.com interviewed Chrysler Corporation Director of Product Planning and Director of Body Engineering Burton Bouwkamp to find out:
"[The Dodge Rampage] was done at the instigation of [President and CEO] Lee Iacocca," Bouwkamp said. "The first Rampage was created by a custom body shop under the direction of Hank Carlini, who was Lee Iacocca's special assignment man on product. When Lee saw the Rampage model he said, 'Do it.'"
The Rampage arrived in 1982, and the following year, Plymouth began selling it own version, known as the Scamp for just the 1983 model year. Like the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, the little truck was front wheel drive, but it was pretty stout for what it was. It could handle an 1,145 pound payload for a true "half ton" rating. Compare that with the V-8 powered, body-on-frame Chevrolet El Camino, which only offered a 1,200 pound payload.
Sales were sluggish, though, and Dodge only managed to sell a handful more than 17,000 Rampages the first year. By 1984, it was selling 5,000 fewer and Dodge made 1984 the final year.
And that was the end of front-wheel drive production until yesterday's announcement that the Ridgeline would be available in a front-wheel drive edition. The original Ridgeline (2006 to 2014) spent most of its time driving around powering the front wheels, but its Variable Torque Management All-Wheel Drive system automatically engaged all-wheel drive when the system sensed any wheelslip.
When the 2017 Honda Ridgeline appears, it will be the first Ridgeline to be available solely with front-wheel drive, and the first front-wheel-drive truck available in the United States since 1984.
Part of the reason for its availability is completely self-serving: by offering a front-wheel drive, Honda can cheat in its advertising. EPA estimates aren't available yet, but Honda is laying the groundwork to claim the best EPA fuel economy in the class, but that will likely only be on the front-wheel drive. The 2016 Honda Pilot on which the Ridgeline is based, for example, features "up to" 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, but the all-wheel-drive version of the Pilot gets a mile-per-gallon lower in both city and highway fuel mileage. It also allows Honda to keep the advertised starting MSRP lower than the last Ridgeline, which started at $29,575 in RT trim.
Front-wheel-drive trucks are available elsewhere. The Chevrolet Montana -- built and sold in Brazil -- is a compact, front-wheel-drive truck, available in two-door form only. It'd be interesting to see something based on the Ford Transit Connect, a front-wheel-drive cargo or passenger van, that can haul up to 1,620 pounds of cargo. For now though, Honda's got this weird slice of the market all to itself.