Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
The 2009 Honda Ridgeline is about as much truck as the average suburbanite will ever need. Throw out image and machismo and Honda's relatively new pickup — it debuted for 2006 — makes a whole lot of sense. The Ridgeline is not a serious off-roader, and its 5,000-pound tow rating is half that of full-size trucks like the Toyota Tundra, so if you're a full-time contractor in a rural area, the Ridgeline likely won't work for you.
But if your main uses for a truck entail trips to Lowe's, hauling to the recycling center, towing motorcycles or jet-skis, soft-roading or weekend ski trips, Honda's pickup will fill the bill perfectly. It also hauls a family of five around town in just as much comfort as the average minivan.
Strictly speaking, the 2009 Honda Ridgeline is a pickup, although it's also unlike a typical pickup in many ways. Most trucks use body-on-frame construction, in which the cargo bed is separate from the cab. This construction has benefits in terms of towing and hauling, but the trade-off is generally a reduction in chassis stiffness and ride comfort. The Ridgeline is more like a crossover SUV, and its basic underpinnings are shared with the Honda Odyssey. The composite truck bed is carved out of the area that would house the cargo hold or third-row seat of a typical SUV.
Similar to the Chevrolet Avalanche, the Ridgeline lacks the Avalanche's innovative midgate, but it's also more than a thousand pounds lighter, which makes for great ride and handling benefits. The bottom line is that Honda's only pickup does 90 percent of what most suburban dwellers need from a truck, and it does so without foregoing a comfortable ride and useful interior space.
The 2009 Honda Ridgeline pickup comes with just one engine and transmission choice: a 3.5-liter V6 that's good for 250 horsepower, routed through a five-speed automatic transmission. All Ridgeline trucks also come standard with all-wheel drive, and this combination moves the Ridgeline from zero to 60 in 9 seconds flat. A full-size Toyota Tundra with a 5.7-liter V8 is much quicker, but the Honda never feels slow in normal driving.
Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard, but they bring the truck to a stop from 60 mph in a disappointing 141 feet. The Ridgeline's stopping distance is notably longer than that of other trucks we've tested, including midsize trucks like the Nissan Frontier as well as full-sizers like the Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram. When stomping the brake pedal, there's plenty of initial bite from the tires but not much in the way of real grip.
The lack of grip affects the handling as well, which is predictable and exhibits notably less body roll than a minivan or SUV, but understeer is always present when you're really pushing the truck's limits. Stability control keeps things in check, but when it kicks in it is obvious and crude. In everyday driving situations, however, the Honda pickup feels surprisingly brisk and nimble for a truck, and the V6 is also very smooth.
Honda's Ridgeline delivers the qualities typical truck owners will expect, such as an elevated ride height and a prominent road presence, and when properly equipped, it also has a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. The Ridgeline offers 8.2 inches of ground clearance, which is about an inch less than the larger Chevy Avalanche.
Lack of low-range gearing means the Ridgeline isn't for hard-core off-roading, but the standard Variable Torque Management (VTM-4) all-wheel-drive setup works transparently on wet or snowy roads, and includes a VTM-4 Lock feature to lock the rear differential at low speeds (below 18 mph) to aid in any off-pavement snags. In combined city and highway driving, we recorded a 16.4 mpg average. The EPA estimates the 2009 Honda Ridgeline's mpg as 15 city/20 highway/17 combined. That's similar to a V8-powered two-wheel-drive full-size pickup, so those looking for big gains in mpg will likely be disappointed.
The Ridgeline's interior isn't especially attractive but it is very comfortable. Both front and rear seats are supportive and perhaps a little firm, but the underlying firmness never made our drivers feel uncomfortable. Headroom is plentiful and the driving position nearly perfect, offering a commanding view of the road and just enough elevation to make even those used to driving full-size SUVs happy.
While there are few extras beyond the common driver seat adjustments, everything the driver needs falls to hand nicely — the straightforward arrangement is elegant in its simplicity. There's plenty of legroom in the rear-seating area, so installing a forward- or rear-facing child seat is no problem, and rear air-conditioning vents are standard.
There is noticeable road noise from the tires, but very little wind or engine noise makes its way into the cabin. The exception is when the V6 is really being pressed, when a controlled growl is audible. From a ride and handling perspective, the Ridgeline is remarkably smooth and refined for a truck. The Honda's carlike unibody construction and independent suspension eliminates the usual shaking and bouncing that plagues most pickups.
One thing the 2009 Honda Ridgeline does well is provide plenty of storage bins and cubbies inside. From the convertible center storage bin to the open bins above the glovebox to the small nooks below the radio, this truck has a place for just about everything the average person would bring into an automobile. Many of these storage areas are lined with a durable and easy-to-clean rubber material, making the Ridgeline all the more family-friendly.
There aren't as many storage areas for rear-seat occupants, but each door has a large cupholder that can easily handle a medium-size water bottle, and the rear center armrest folds down to reveal an extra pair of cupholders. The rear-seat bottoms fold up flush with the rear seatbacks in a 60/40 split, easily opening up the whole rear seating area for cargo. Even when the rear seats are down, their tubelike support legs create an under-seat storage space great for smaller items such as kids' backpacks.
The audio system is easy to use and the plain labeling makes pressing the right button the first time very likely — one well-placed physical button that simply says "XM" is a perfect example. However, on vehicles without a navigation system, the screen is too small to display any meaningful information. Opt for the Ridgeline with navigation and the color screen displays audio information like bass and treble adjustments. The nav system is basic and doesn't include a lot of bells and whistles like live traffic information. One nice touch, though, is a clearly labeled rocker switch that's used for zooming in and out of the map. Like the rest of the Ridgeline's interior, it doesn't look fancy but works very well.
The Ridgeline's 5-foot-long bed certainly works well enough but it's a one-size-fits-all proposition — Honda's only pickup does not offer different bed and cab configurations. Though it's roughly the same size as that of a compact pickup's regular-size bed, what makes the bed ultimately more useful than even a full-size pickup is that there's a large lockable, watertight trunk under the floor of the bed. At the bottom of the plastic-lined storage area, a drain plug turns it into a large ice chest. It'll also hold a few sets of golf clubs.
Accessing the bed or trunk is made easier by a tailgate that folds down like a typical truck gate or swings to the side like an old-school station wagon door. This type of flexibility makes the 2009 Honda Ridgeline feel like a combination of both family-friendly minivan and down-and-dirty pickup.
Design/Fit and Finish
Honda's Ridgeline is built like a typical Honda inside and out. Body panel gaps are tight and the exterior has a functional if not dramatic look. The same is true of the interior. The clear message is rugged, tactile and durable. However, the Ridgeline is such a different kind of vehicle, we wish Honda would have taken a few more chances — something to make it stand out visually. Inside, there are some interesting features such as the round climate control display and the intentionally oversized door pulls, but those cool touches are almost hidden in a sea of monochrome gray. A few splashes of color or metallic-looking trim would really help. Even the gauges, though functional, are boring to look at.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Honda Ridgeline is best for suburbanites who use the family pickup for equal parts school carpool, daily commuting and runs to the local home improvement chain. Anyone who needs light-truck cargo and towing abilities in a slightly tidier package should consider the Ridgeline. Those who need real off-road ability or a higher tow rating should opt for something like the Chevy Avalanche.
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