Just when composite boxes in North American pickup trucks appear to be dead, along comes Honda Motor Co. Ltd. with a design that not only revolutionizes the functionality of a pickup bed but also ensures profitability for suppliers involved in the program.

The Honda Ridgeline pickup was one of the most important vehicles unveiled at this year's North American International Auto Show, because it is Honda's first entry in a segment that means everything to Detroit's auto makers.

Honda manages another design coup by building in a waterproof “trunk” underneath the box that is large enough to hold a fullsize spare tire and three sets of golf clubs. The entire box, including the underfloor storage bin, is composite-based.

Honda's partners for the program are Ashland Specialty Chemical Co., which supplies the raw material, and Meridian Automotive Systems, which molds the components of the box at its Huntington, IN, facility for shipment in 5-piece kits to Honda's assembly plant in Alliston, Ont., Canada.

Meridian produces the bed's side panels, headboard, inner tailgate, bed floor, cargo lid and the storage well, itself, from sheet-molded composite (SMC). Steel-reinforced composite is used for the bed floor assembly. Three steel crossmembers lie beneath the cargo floor to provide additional reinforcement.

Meridian began production in January, and the '06 Ridgeline arrives in Honda showrooms in March.

The Ridgeline is not a fullsize pickup and does not pretend to be. The composite bed measures a mere 5 ft. (1.5 m) in length, or 6.5 ft. (1.9 m) with the tailgate down, and can accommodate up to a half-ton (0.4 t) of cargo.

What it lacks in hauling capacity it makes up in innovation. The tailgate, for instance, drops flat like a traditional pickup and also swings open, like a station wagon, to allow access to the underfloor storage bin.

Meridian is thrilled to be part of the Ridgeline program, says David White, the supplier's vice president-sales. The in-bed storage bin, which significantly boosted Meridian's content on the program, was Honda's idea.

The Ridgeline program is vastly different from General Motors Corp.'s ill-fated Pro-Tec composite box a few years ago. Although innovative, GM's box was optional (on the Chevy Silverado) and expensive, and dealers were not motivated to sell it.

The Ridgeline's box, on the other hand, is standard, so volumes are expected to be much higher and more predictable. Honda expects to sell 50,000 Ridgelines in the first year of production.

White says Honda studied exhaustively the use of a composite box for the Ridgeline. Likewise, Toyota Motor Corp. put together a similar business case for the SMC box as standard equipment in the all-new Tacoma pickup. ThyssenKrupp Budd Co. molds the Tacoma's box in one piece.

Even though Honda and Toyota are extremely demanding, White has nothing but praise for the Japanese auto makers in their eagerness to collaborate with suppliers.

“At Honda and Toyota, (supplier) profitability is not a bad word,” White says. “Philosophically, they get right down to the numbers. When they understand the numbers, they allow you (suppliers) a reasonable profit. You can't always say that for the Big Three.”

Meridian will make money on the Ridgeline program, he says. “And Honda says if the program goes well, it will open the door for us for other business,” White adds.

The supplier contends the Ridgeline bed could not have been produced cost effectively with sheet metal.

Honda designed the Ridgeline around a composite box from the beginning of the program, which allowed Meridian to approach the job “with a clean sheet of paper,” White says.

For GM's Pro-Tec program, however, suppliers and the auto maker needed to clear significant manufacturing hurdles because GM's truck plants were not prepared to handle composite boxes.

Pickup-box programs that convert from sheet metal to SMC usually reduce mass of the respective parts by 20% to 40%, Meridian says.