Pickup trucks are supposed to be big, hulking, powerful beasts, like Bruce Banner when he gets angry. Real trucks climb mountains, haul loads and fling mud with reckless abandon.
Now that we've sufficiently hosed the page with testosterone, let's cut the bull.
Three million pickups rolled off dealer lots last year, but only a tiny fraction of them actually saw an off-road trail or a boat ramp. The rest are daily drivers that make an occasional trip to Home Depot for 2-by-4s and toilet pucks.
It was with this reality in mind that Honda designed the all-new 2006 Honda Ridgeline.
Honda started with the same platform that rides under the Acura MDX and Honda Pilot, but 93 percent of the components have been replaced or modified. The result is something of an oddity: a unibody pickup truck with a transverse-mounted V6, front-wheel drive and a flush bed built into the cab.
Typical trucks have a steel frame that provides strength, and the body and bed are bolted to it. Honda took a different tack, integrating the lower frame and upper body into a single structure. Seven high-strength steel cross members were added to the undercarriage, creating a fully boxed ladder frame integrated into the unibody structure.
The Ridgeline also has a four-wheel independent suspension, which is a unique attribute for a pickup. It's a combination of McPherson strut suspension up front and coil-sprung multilink suspension out back. Brakes are ventilated 12.6-inch front discs and solid 13.1-inch solid disc brakes in the rear, and are equipped with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Electronic BrakeAssist and ABS.
Honda's Variable Torque Management (VTM-4) four-wheel-drive system is also standard. VTM-4 channels power to the front wheels during highway cruising, but can automatically shift a variable amount of power to the rear wheels in slippery conditions. The system also transfers power to the back wheels under hard acceleration, so torque steer is never a problem. For a closer look at this unique drive setup, see the 4WD vs. VTM Sidebar.
The Ridgeline is powered by the same 3.5-liter, single-overhead-cam V6 found in the Pilot, MDX and the Odyssey minivan. The cylinder heads have been tweaked for more power, and variable-length intake runners help boost bottom-end torque.
Output is rated at 255 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 252 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission borrowed from the MDX was tweaked for truck duty, and a heavy-duty transmission cooler comes standard.
Comparing the Ridgeline's power to other pickups is tricky. The Ridgeline boasts 10 more horsepower than the Tacoma, but the Toy reaches max power at 5,200 rpm while the Honda needs to rev up to 5,750 for max power. Also, the Ridgeline's 122-inch wheelbase is shorter than that of most midsize trucks (the Tacoma's measures 127 inches), yet a hefty 4,492-pound curb weight means the Honda outweighs the Toyota by nearly 500 pounds.
Torque, which is more important for hauling loads, is a similar story. The Toyota makes 282 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm while the Ridgeline produces 30 lb-ft less at a buzzy 4,500 rpm. As a result, the Toyota feels much stronger down low, whereas the Honda picks up speed with a rush at the top of the tach.
At the track, this lack of torque showed. The Ridgeline ran from zero to 60 mph in 9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 17 at 83 mph. In contrast, the Tacoma that recently won our Midsize Truck Comparison Test ran from zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds and the quarter-mile in 16.2 at 87.2 mph.
A Better Body
Unlike most trucks that bolt the bed and the cab onto the frame in two pieces, the Ridgeline's body structure is one solid piece from nose to tail. Short overhangs, integrated flush-mount bumpers and a large billetlike grille also help the Ridgeline stand out. The shape of the bed reminds us of the awkward-looking Avalanche, but after a week we grew to like the Honda's boxy lines.
The Ridgeline's bed is equally innovative. The steel-reinforced fiberglass composite box is dent- and rustproof, eliminating the need for a bed liner. Honda raised the floor of the bed, creating a flat surface that can accommodate cargo without the intrusion of big bulging wheelwells. The bed is 5 feet long and over 4 feet wide, so it can easily swallow a standard 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood with the tailgate down.
Traditional truck owners have to choose between stowing cargo in the unsecured bed and stashing it in the cab. Honda eliminated the problem by incorporating an 8.5-cubic-foot locking trunk into the back of the bed, which is accessed by lifting a hatch in the floor. The trunk can hold a 72-quart cooler or three golf bags, and it locks with a key or the fob.
Bending over a tailgate to pull gear out of the trunk would be difficult, so the Ridgeline's tailgate is designed to open down or swing out sideways like a car door. Other innovative features in the bed include six steel tie-down hooks, four flush-mounted cargo lights and an optional power-sliding rear window.
Although the base RT and midlevel RTS models provide all the features you need, our test truck was a high-line RTL model, which includes extras like leather, seat heaters, a moonroof, an eight-way power-adjustable driver seat and an outstanding XM-equipped stereo. The front bucket seats are firm, well shaped and comfortable, and the door panels are covered in high-quality textured plastic typical of other Hondas.
The dash is textured and soft to the touch, and we love the big silver instrument binnacle filled with backlit, easy-to-read gauges. Dual-zone climate control makes finding the perfect temperature a breeze. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is easy to grip and features backlit stereo and cruise controls. Bonus features include oversize side mirrors, 12 individual storage compartments (including a brilliant expandable center console), six cupholders and four 12-volt power outlets.
Rear seats in pickup trucks are never very comfortable, and the Ridgeline's is no exception. The shape of the seat is too flat and it gets uncomfortable after about an hour. Rear legroom falls short of full-size trucks like the Ford F-150 or Chevy Avalanche, but at 36.4 inches, it bests that of most midsize pickups, including the Tacoma (32.4 inches).
The backseat splits 60/40 and folds up for increased storage space, and rear passengers get a fold-down armrest, two cupholders, two air conditioning vents and a power outlet.
The Ridgeline is comfortable, quiet and easy to drive. Steering is sporty with just the right amount of resistance and feedback, and torque steer is never a problem. The brakes are firm and responsive, and consistent 60-mph-to-0 stopping distances in the low 130-foot range proved fade was not an issue.
The ride is very soft and carlike. Honda has managed to eliminate that annoying rear-end bounce most trucks get while rolling over speed bumps or potholes. On-road handling is very responsive for a pickup.
The 3.5 V6 is very smooth and offers plenty of power for cruising. It also sounds great when the throttle is floored. But the engine's need for more bottom-end power is undeniable when pulling away from a stoplight with four passengers packed in the cab.
Our test truck didn't come with a hitch, and Honda's trailer towing kit (the hitch and wiring harness) has not been released yet. However, the truck is rated to tow 5,000 pounds and can haul 1,550 pounds in the bed, so it falls in the gray area between the midsize and full-size categories.
We visited the same off-road trails we used in our recent Midsize Truck Comparison Test. Our standard loop includes a mile of flat and muddy trails, a mild twisting uphill climb and a steep, rocky downhill descent.
The Ridgeline had a hard time. It made it through the trails, but bottomed out repeatedly (it has 8.2 inches of ground clearance, the Tacoma has 9.5). We also had to keep the VTM locked and vehicle speed below 8 mph to prevent the truck from losing traction in the mud.
We should note that the Ridgeline's 17-inch alloy wheels and all-season tires are not conducive to off-road driving. When we tried climbing the hill, the undercarriage started groaning, so we abandoned the run and returned to dry pavement.
A Truck for the Truck-Allergic
Our test vehicle came loaded with every option except navigation, and it priced out at $32,640. That feels like a deal when you consider it has heated leather seats, fully independent suspension and a killer stereo.
The Ridgeline can't tow as much as a diesel dually or off-road like a Tacoma 4x4, but it is one of the smoothest, quietest and most comfortable pickup trucks we've ever driven. If you need the space of an SUV and utility of a pickup truck, but want nimble carlike handling, the Ridgeline is an excellent choice.
Executive Editor Rich Homan:
The true test of a vehicle's ultimate value resides in the answer to one simple question: Would I recommend this to my brother-in-law? Because if everything doesn't work out, it's a nightmare — he's surly, your sister sides with him and every holiday they show up in that ugly, clapped-out Geo Metro convertible and glower at you all through dinner like you killed their cat.
No thanks, folks. Not for me.
But I made an exception with the 2006 Honda Ridgeline. Rob called me up and wanted to talk trucks. He wasn't looking for the heaviest-duty haul-all on the market, but he is a seasoned do-it-yourselfer, subscribing to Home Depot Monthly, plus he and my sister also want something they can haul camping gear and mountain bikes in. Maybe they'll buy a boat to haul, and maybe not. I suggested that he check out the new Ridgeline.
The Ridgeline easily meets anybody's first-tier set of urban-truck requirements. It's got a sweet V6, excellent road manners, significant occupant room in both rows of seats, a commanding view of the road and a seamless all-wheel-drive system.
But what sells me on the Honda truck is the little extras. Stuff like the way the rear seats easily fold up out of the way. Or the two-way — fold-down/swing-out — tailgate (a Ridgeline exclusive now that the GMC Envoy XUV is being discontinued). And, especially, the lockable trunk that's integrated into the Ridgeline's bed.
And, unlike a lot of other trucks in this class, the Ridgeline drives smaller than it is. It's nimble, not lumbering. And it's easy to maneuver through city traffic and in tight urban spaces. I feel comfortable bringing the Honda Ridgeline to my brother-in-law's attention. Maybe it'll take his mind off the Sterling 825 I set him up with.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
As a former owner of a full-size domestic truck, the Ridgeline is a hard vehicle to wrap my head around. I don't like the way it looks, can't imagine buying a truck without a V8 and question the utility of a bed that's only 5 feet long.
And that's exactly why the Ridgeline exists. There are already plenty of trucks for guys like me. The Ridgeline was built for buyers who could care less about torque and tow ratings, and in that regard it's pure genius.
It drives better than the best-handling domestic truck; has an interior stuffed full of storage boxes, cupholders and passenger space; and has an engine that delivers satisfying performance in day-to-day driving. The bed can't swallow a couch, but it's fine for plants and plywood.
I'm guessing most truck owners will dismiss the Ridgeline as nothing more than a half-hearted attempt by yet another import automaker to get into trucks, but to those who own one, it's bound to feel like the perfect pickup.
"I've had my Ridgeline RTL for two days and have put over 200 miles on it. I love it. It seems much more refined than the '05 Tacoma I was considering. I think the leather is first class. The dual-zone climate control is one of our favorite features as well as the XM radio. The wife loves the heated seats. The ride is the best of any truck I've driven. The in-bed trunk/2-way opening tailgate is one of the most brilliant ideas to come along in truck design since trucks were designed. The exterior styling has really grown on me. I was an early critic of the styling, but now I really like it. The build and fit & finish are high quality throughout." — Gearhead1, March 18, 2005
"I think I'm the typical Ridge buyer, having never owned a truck before. I love the convenience of the truck amenities without feeling like I'm losing the creature comforts of an SUV. Another Ridge purchaser at the dealership had the perfect description for this vehicle: 'it's an SUV with a hole in the back.' I think Honda did a great job designing this truck. It's obviously not for everybody (Honda never intended it to be) but it does offer a lot in the way of comfort, convenience/safety features and versatility. All prospective light-duty truck purchasers should certainly give the Ridgeline some serious thought before deciding on a more 'traditional' pickup." — Jerry Smith, March 16, 200
"I have had my Ridgeline RTL with moonroof for two weeks now, and I love it. So far it has everything I need in a truck/SUV. The ride is very nice and quiet. I used to own a Dodge Ram and this blows it away except in the power department. On my first tank of gas I got 17 mpg with mostly in-town driving. I think this is perfect for those who do not need a full-size truck but like to have a box on the back for occasional hauling duty. I can't count the number of looks I've gotten from other drivers. I believe Honda has a winner here if it stands up to the Honda reputation." — Ndjaz, March 20, 2005
System Score: 9.0
Components: Ridgeline RT and RTS models come with an AM/FM/CD/XM-ready audio system complete with a 100-watt amplifier and six speakers. Our test truck was the high-line RTL model, which additionally includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer, 160-watt amplifier, an 8-inch subwoofer behind the rear seat and standard XM Satellite Radio. One 6-inch midrange speaker resides in each door, and a pair of tweeters is sunk into the dash. The factory head unit is simple and easy to use, thanks to a large silver volume knob, clearly marked buttons for changing radio stations and CD tracks and a single "XM" button for switching over to satellite radio. Steering wheel thumb controls for volume, channel and mode make finding the perfect song even easier.
Performance: Pickup trucks aren't known for their cutting-edge stereos. Nissan offers a high-performance Rockford-Fosgate system in the Titan and Frontier, but big amps and pounding bass don't necessarily make for high-quality sound. Most other trucks make do with corporate parts bin head units and a few mediocre midrange speakers.
The Ridgeline may not be packed with the most expensive stereo gear on the market, but it offers remarkably clear sound and a bevy of high-end features. We blasted everything from country to Queen on our way to the local off-road trails, and Freddy Mercury's high-pitched wails came through loud and clear, even when the volume was cranked up to 11. Distortion was minimal, and the subwoofer provided just the right amount of bass without giving us a headache. We love the big buttons and oversized LED display, and the big "XM" button eliminated the headache of finding a "mode" button and scrolling through to the satellite radio.
Best Feature: Clear sound and an easy-to-use interface.
Worst Feature: The annoying "Display Mode" button, which has to be pushed repeatedly in order to get an artist name and song title in XM mode.
Conclusion: Clear and powerful sound, an easy-to-use interface and a wide variety of listening options make the Ridgeline's stereo one of the best in its class. If Honda adds MP3 compatibility and optional surround sound, the Ridgeline could set a new standard for pickup truck sound systems. — Dan Kahn
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