The mid-size Honda Ridgeline is like no other pickup truck available. Now in its fifth season, it still vies for the title of most innovative pickup.
Honda's best attributes are here in a pickup: refinement, fit-and-finish and innovation. The Ridgeline features an easy-to-reach, locking storage box under its bed.
But the differences between the Ridgeline and more conventional pickups go all the way to the core.
The Ridgeline is the first mainstream pickup with fully independent rear suspension, which improves ride quality considerably. Other pickup trucks have traditionally been built with a separate nose section, cab section, and cargo bed, bolted to a separate ladder frame. Honda's pickup uses both a one-piece unit-body and a steel ladder frame welded together. Its cab and bed are built as one piece, with separate subframes for the engine, front suspension and rear suspension. Ridgeline's rigid design is more resistant to twisting and bending than traditional pickups.
We've found the Ridgeline to be one of the nicest pickups to drive when measured by comfort and ease of use. It's smooth, quiet and very maneuverable, with a load of useful features.
The Ridgeline cannot do the work of a full-size pickup, but its 1500-pound payload and 5000-pound towing capacity are enough for many buyers.
The Ridgeline has been around since 2006, but it was significantly updated for 2009 with a more powerful engine, several equipment upgrades, and freshened styling inside and out. A trailer hitch became standard on all models, and the optional navigation package was expanded to include Bluetooth and a rear-view camera. Other new features included the addition of a 115-volt power outlet on the RTL, an MP3/auxiliary input jack on the RTS and RTL, and MP3/WMA compatibility for all audio systems. Active front seat head restraints and daytime running lights were added to Ridgeline's already long list of safety features, and two more cargo tie-down points (for a total of eight) were added to the pickup bed. In all, Honda claimed to have made 50 significant changes. There have been no further revisions for 2010.
The Honda Ridgeline doesn't look or act like any other pickup truck we've driven, and it shouldn't cost an arm and a leg to own or operate. It makes pleasant, comfortable daily transportation, and it's as much pickup as many drivers will ever need.
The Honda Ridgeline's uniqueness starts with its appearance. With pickups, you need a cab and a cargo box, so form to a considerable extent follows function. Yet Ridgeline doesn't look quite like any pickup before it. The grille, the front end, the cab shape, the buttresses coming down off the rear of the roof to join the integrated pickup bed, all seem to have been deliberately designed to be different, and different can be good or bad. Styling has never been our favorite Ridgeline attribute, before or after the 2009 facelift.
At least the front end of the latest version has a bit more contour. The grille opening, once rigidly rectangular, now narrows a bit at the bottom as it dips into the top of the bumper; and is now boldly outlined in chrome instead of body-color plastic. The grille insert has been simplified: The Honda H still features prominently at the center, but rather than something that looked like an old television antenna, it is now flanked by a pair of flattened wings. These wings are black on the Ridgeline RT and show up against the black mesh grille mostly because of the difference in texture, a handsome, sophisticated touch. On Ridgeline RTS and RTL, however, the wings are painted silver, which to our eye spoils the effect, ultimately trading the previous weird grille for one that's just plain clunky.
Beneath that, the top bar of the bumper has narrowed (a necessity, given the deeper grille), and the bar below that is now recessed, emphasizing by default the bumper's corners. As before, each corner is opened by an air slot, but the new slots are much larger, more like rectangular scoops, and are half-filled by accessory lights on RT and RTS and filled up by fog lights on RTL.
At the rear, the taillights have been thankfully simplified; and a bold, black molding now defines the top of the bumper, dipping down under the license plate at the center in a way that suggests the business end of a Texas Longhorn. Honda calls the new look more chiseled. To us, it looks lighter, less bluff, less toy-like, more mature.
Ridgeline's unchanged profile still shows a lot of metal sculpting from end to end that conventional pickup trucks with separate beds don't have. The RT's wheel covers look reasonably like five-spoke alloys (at least from a distance) and don't detract from the Ridgeline's appearance. The RTL comes with real, rugged-looking 18-inch alloy wheels with two flattened machined surfaces on each of five spokes, while the RTS retains 17-inch alloys in a six-spoke pattern similar to what we've seen on Ridgelines since 2006.
The cargo bed is made of steel-reinforced SMC plastic, not steel with a sprayed-on or slipped-in liner. The bed is five feet long with the tailgate up, and six and a half feet long with the tailgate down, enabling it to carry two dirt bikes or a large ATV. A tubular aluminum cargo bed extender is available for longer loads. There are four large retaining chocks, one in each corner of the bed, to help secure large pieces of cargo; and a total of eight cargo tie-down points.
The two-way tailgate is unusual, but it works great. It will drop down in familiar fashion, top to bottom, and it also opens like a door, from right to left. There's a hidden latch on the lower right side and hinges on the left, so users don't have to lean across the tailgate to store or retrieve items in the bed or the storage trunk. The tailgate is retained by a conventional cable on the left and a patented, hidden retainer on the right.
The storage trunk, even more than the tailgate, distinguishes Ridgeline from other pickups. This covered, sealed and lockable bin beneath the bed works like the trunk in a sedan. It offers 8.5 cubic feet of secure storage, which according to Honda is enough space for a 72-quart cooler or three sets of golf clubs. The compact spare tire mounts forward of the storage trunk in a sliding, locking tray. The trunk is fitted with a drain plug for those times when ice turns to water, or when accumulated crud needs to be hosed out.
Inside the Ridgeline, Honda has turned down the brightness a bit, primarily by removing the bright metal ring from around the speedometer, as well as the bright ornament from the end of the column-mounted gear selector. The steering wheel hub is still outlined in bling, but has been subtly re-shaped so that the single down-spoke is both more narrow and slightly concave. Ridgeline's three-dimensional gauges now have a finer, lower-contrast look; there's also less contrast between the color of the climate control knobs and the plastic that surrounds them.
The Ridgeline offers as much comfort, space and convenience as any half-ton pickup available. Bucket seats come standard in front with a center console. We found the driver and front passenger seats to be roomy, comfortable and supportive, with plenty of adjustment range for rake and travel.
Anyone who has owned a late-model Honda will feel familiar with the layout inside the Ridgeline. We mean things such as nice, even seams throughout, good quality soft plastics, convenient switch placement and large, easily readable instrument graphics. All models feature illuminated vanity mirrors for the driver and front-seat passenger. The big, raised pull rings around Ridgeline's door-release levers are one of a kind and kind of cool. They're certainly effective for hefting the doors shut.
The navigation system, with its DVD data base and eight-inch screen, is a paradigm for size, brightness, contrast and overall ease of use. The voice commands work well; alternately, the menus are simple, effective and easy to master. Yet in the Ridgeline, one of our few gripes applies to the screen's placement. It's off center a bit toward the front passenger, and flat, so in certain light it can be difficult for the driver to read. The driver has to almost lean sideways toward the center of the vehicle for a better look.
The rear doors are shorter than the front doors, standard practice in this segment, but there's no problem getting in or out.
The back seats are quite comfortable for two adults, with a 24-degree backrest angle, more like a front seat. The rear seat is nearly as roomy and versatile as those in front. A six-foot male driver would be able to fit behind himself in the back seat with reasonable leg room and knee room.
The rear seat splits and folds, 60/40, to stash fairly large pieces of cargo in the cab. The under-seat storage space, something like an airliner's, is great for backpacks or briefcases.
The Ridgeline's unusual exterior design reduces outward visibility. The buttresses where the cargo box meets the cab create a blind spot for glancing over the shoulder.
The Honda Ridgeline delivers a truly pleasant driving experience, for a truck. The goodness flows from the stiffness of its unibody-on-ladder-frame construction. Factor in subframes that cradle the engine and suspension, helping isolate the cab from harsh road shocks, and Ridgeline can be a joy to operate when compared to other trucks.
The stiffness of the body and chassis contribute to crisp, sure handling over twisty two-lane roads. The combination of all-wheel-drive and vehicle stability electronics allows a driver to attack curves in spirited fashion with less worry about getting a wheel wrong. The Ridgeline feels lighter on its feet when compared with the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and Chevy Colorado.
The steering is surprisingly heavy but we like it. It's more responsive and communicative than that in most trucks. This pickup is quieter and more refined than the competition, which we drove on the same day over the same course, without a lot of jarring inputs reaching the driver's seat or palms. Independent suspension front and rear is a first in the pickup market and the ride over choppy surfaces and even off-road is excellent. The back end is less likely to feel like it's losing grip when bouncing over potholes and washboard surfaces.
The drivetrain, the combination of engine, transmission and all-wheel drive, is impressively smooth and quiet. With four doors, five seats, all-wheel drive, and independent front and rear suspension, the Ridgeline is a relatively heavy vehicle, but the 250-hp V6 engine is generally up to the task. Its power comes low enough in the revs to be useful in a loaded truck, and it's flexible overall, without the roughness at high rpm that you'll notice in some truck engines. Unladen, with only the driver inside, we never encountered an instance when we wished for more power. Yet one wonders if that might change when Ridgeline is loaded to its approximate 1500-pound payload (it varies slightly model-to-model), or pulling the allowed 5000 pounds.
More recent models do produce a bit more power (the figure was originally 247), and up to 10 more pound-feet of torque as low as 2500 rpm, thanks mainly to a new cam profile, larger intake valves, a deeper-breathing dual-stage intake manifold, and a fairly long list of other refinements, all of which were adopted for the 2009 model year.
Also for 2009, transmission gear ratios were revised (gears 3 and 4 were made approximately 5 percent lower) to take maximum advantage of the changes to the engine. The five-speed automatic works very well with the engine. It shifts up smoothly, and will run the engine to its redline during full-throttle acceleration. On occasion it was a tad slow to shift down two or three gears, but overall its performance did not prevent us from enjoying the drive.
The brakes were sure stoppers, and the ABS works unobtrusively. We haven't tried them with a heavy load or a trailer, however.
Overall, Ridgeline impresses with its tightness and smoothness. It's more maneuverable, more enjoyable to drive, than any full-size pickup.
If you're contemplating a multi-use or commuter pickup, the Honda Ridgeline should top the shopping list. From its styling to its tailgate and storage innovations to its combination of body-on-frame isolation and unibody stiffness, the Ridgeline borders on revolutionary. It's reasonably priced, and should be reasonably economical to operate. Ridgeline is pleasant to drive in all circumstances, and as much truck as many buyers will ever need.
NewCarTestDrive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from San Diego, with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit, and John F. Katz commenting on Ridgeline's styling.