Editor's pick: Originally published Jan. 15.

Honda (HMC - Get Report) this week took the wraps off the new-generation Ridgeline, a medium-sized pickup truck that actually looks like a pickup truck. 

That opinion of the new Ridgeline's styling may sound like damning with faint praise, though Honda would be the first to concede its initial try at a pickup truck in 2005 failed rather miserably, mostly because of its looks. 

Indeed, that Honda Ridgeline turned out to be such a flop that the automaker discontinued it altogether two years ago. But the new Ridgeline, with much more conventional styling, could do far better. It goes on sale later this year. 

The top three Japanese automakers collectively have secured only a tiny chunk of the U.S. pickup market, the only important automotive category in which the Japanese industry hasn't become prominent. Yet Honda, Toyota (TM - Get Report) and Nissan (NSANY) keep plugging away, attracted by the chance to partake of outsize profit margins from the bigger vehicles. 

Referring to research about shoppers who passed on the previous pickup, Jeff Conrad, senior vice president of the Honda division said: "They said, 'You know ... I want an innovative truck but I can't get by the styling.' So we changed that. And we said, 'Hey the pickup truck segment likes a traditional look,' so we gave this a traditional look." 

Ford (F - Get Report) , General Motors (GM - Get Report) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU - Get Report) each earn a sizable percentage, if not a majority, of their profits from full-size and medium-size pickups. They've dominated the segment because they've devoted their best engineering and marketing talent into designing highly rated, exceptionally able models, and because their customers tend to be highly loyal, returning again and again to the Ford, Chevrolet or Ram brands. 

Honda, a conservative automaker that has never -- that's correct, never -- posted an annual loss, nevertheless sees potential in the U.S. pickup market, as do its two Japanese rivals. Last year, Toyota introduced a new version of its popular Tacoma medium-size pickup, and Nissan has a new generation full-size pickup coming later this year. 

Still, within the full-size category, where Honda doesn't have an entry, Toyota and Nissan together captured less than 10% of the U.S. market last year. 

In the midsize pickup category, which is a fraction of the full-size segment, Toyota and Nissan Frontier dominate with more than half the sales, but GM is coming up fast with its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon models. Ford has said it's reviving its midsize Ranger in a few years. 

The pickup truck is an idiosyncratic, fuel-hungry (compared to cars) facet of American culture. Nowhere else in the world is there consumer affection for such vehicles as in North America, which has probably been a lucky thing for the U.S. auto industry.

 

 

Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.