That's right, the photos don't lie — the Honda Ridgeline is a truck. If you told us a dozen years ago that Honda would produce a pickup (or that Porsche would make an SUV, for that matter), we would have looked at you as if you had two heads. Then again, if you told us back then that light trucks would make up nearly half of all vehicle sales, we would've looked at you as if you had three. Until fairly recently, Honda had always focused its efforts on small- and medium-sized passenger cars, leaving the Japanese-brand truck market to Mazda, Nissan and Toyota. But when Honda did exhaustive research on the pickup truck market, the company discovered, among other things, that nearly 25 percent of Honda CR-V owners also owned a pickup. While visions of potentially lost market share slam-danced in their heads, the powers that be at Honda decided to produce a pickup, and the Ridgeline truck was born.
After spending a day on-road, off-road and towing and hauling things with the 2006 Honda Ridgeline, it seems that the top-selling Japanese carmaker has yet another well-developed vehicle in its lineup. Before you go thinking, "Big deal, they probably took the Pilot platform and dropped a crew cab pickup body on it," consider this: over 90 percent of the Ridgeline's platform is exclusive, and the same goes for the interior. The body panels are 100-percent unique to this vehicle. Evidently, Honda took its foray into the pickup market seriously.
Using a combination of unibody and full ladder-style frame architecture (meaning a pair of fully boxed frame rails with no less than seven cross members), the Honda Ridgeline is stout indeed. Honda's engineers boast that the Ridgeline has 20 times the torsional rigidity and over twice the resistance to bending compared to the top-selling midsize pickup. When we heard this, we thought, "Great, but it must be a porker," but as it turns out the 4,500-pound Ridgeline weighs about 1,000 pounds less than a Ford F-150 and only about 400 pounds more than a Toyota Tacoma Double Cab. Honda's preliminary crash testing promises top scores in all areas — frontal, frontal offset and side impacts. Furthermore, the Ridgeline was designed to be "crash compatible" with cars — as in the truck's bumper lines up with rather than sits above the bumpers on most passenger cars. If the two hit head-on, maximum crash protection would be granted to both vehicles.
Developed in Ohio for the U.S. market, the Honda Ridgeline has styling that is a departure from the traditional "3 box" (engine compartment, cab, cargo box) pickup truck school of design. Structural integrity is greatly improved due to the integrated design; rather than having the box as a separate piece, the Ridgeline unites it with the cab. In profile, the downward slant of the Ridgeline's cargo box reminded us a little of the mid-1970s' Chevy El Camino, or the more modern Chevrolet Avalanche.
Looking at the rear, you'll notice that the tailgate's top edge is lower than the bed sides; this simple trick allows better rearward visibility. When backing up the Honda Ridgeline, it's possible to see an object sitting 5 feet behind the tailgate; in an F-150 that blind spot extends to 10 feet. Cold-climate residents will appreciate the heated windshield wiper rest. Embedded in the windshield under where the wipers lay, the heater automatically kicks on when the truck is started up in freezing weather so as to unstick the wipers from the glass.
Inside the cargo box is a tough composite bed that's virtually immune to scratches and dents, and this was aptly demonstrated when a small front-end loader dumped a load of rocks into the Ridgeline's bed. When company officials removed the rocks, the bed was unscathed. For comparison, they had a steel pickup bed on display that had been subjected to the same torture — its dented and scratched surface looked as if someone having a very bad day had taken a ball peen hammer to it.
Those who make frequent Home Depot runs should know that 4-by-8 sheets of building materials will sit flat on the cargo floor (as opposed to on top of the wheel wells), as there is a generous 49 inches between the Ridgeline's wheelwells. This rugged bed can haul up to 1,100 pounds of payload, making the Honda Ridgeline truck a true half-ton pickup. Shallow channels in the bed allow stable hauling of motorcycles, and four lights provide generous illumination when loading it up at night. The tailgate, which can swing open or drop down, can support 300 pounds.
One common gripe among pickup owners is the lack of secure storage outside the cabin. Thanks to its independent rear suspension, the 2006 Honda Ridgeline has enough space under the bed to allow a locking trunk to be incorporated. Measuring 8.5 cubic feet, the trunk's boxlike interior shape makes full use of the capacity. It also features illumination and a drain plug for quick cleanups or use as a cooler.
Getting into the cabin is eased via large, strategically located grab handles and a reasonable step-in height. Firm, comfortable seats are found in the front and rear. Well-shaped buckets coddle the driver and front passenger, while those in back enjoy a large, fold-down center armrest; generous knee, hip- and toe room; and a decent seat back angle. The rear seat is split 60/40 and each bottom can be flipped up to optimize cargo-carrying options.
A class-exclusive power-sliding rear window, sliding console armrest and an abundance of storage compartments are just a few highlights of the Ridgeline's accommodating cabin. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags, a tire-pressure monitoring system and three LATCH positions in the rear for the kiddie seats. Everything looks and feels solid, maintaining Honda's reputation for top-notch interior refinement.
A quick scan of the dash and console reveals that the various controls and instruments are large and intuitive with the exception of the on/off button for the cruise control, which is buried down low on the left of the dash. It took us no time at all to get used to the Ridgeline's layout. Upscale options include a navigation system and XM Satellite Radio.
During our half-day's drive we were impressed by the Ridgeline's quiet demeanor and easy handling dynamics. Low wind and road noise levels along with the smooth, responsive drivetrain and composed handling made for enjoyable motoring. In short, the Honda Ridgeline truck felt more like a big Accord than a pickup — a compliment to say the least. The 3.5-liter V6 puts out some respectable stats, 255 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque and it's the only engine available on the Honda Ridgeline. Teamed with a five-speed automatic with well-spaced gearing, the V6 furnished more than adequate performance around town as well as healthy passing and cruising power on the open highways. Of course, that was just with two people in the truck — no cargo in the bed and no trailer behind.
Concerns over how the Ridgeline would fare with the bed loaded and while pulling a trailer were admirably addressed by the Honda folks, who set up comparisons with other trucks for both tasks. The first demo consisted of putting 1,500 pounds of identical payload (bags of rock chips) in the beds of a Ridgeline, a Toyota Tacoma V6 Double Cab and a Ford Explorer Sport Trac. Driving each truck through the coned-out course in a large stadium parking lot was most convincing. The Ford felt the least confidence-inspiring — you could feel the weight shift in the bed and wiggle the rear suspension of the truck when it was pushed a bit. The Toyota was almost sporty with minimal body roll, though the ride was a bit stiff and you still felt the weight in back when you pressed it. The Ridgeline seemed unaffected by the payload; there was no sensation of imbalance just the same smooth, no-surprises handling it exhibited with the bed empty.
Next up was the trailer tow event which consisted of two trucks, the Honda Ridgeline and a Ford F-150 XLT SuperCrew 4x4 with the 5.4-liter V8. Frankly, we were puzzled that the Honda people didn't go with the smaller 4.6-liter V8 in the Ford, so as to put the Ridgeline in the best possible light. These guys really do believe in their product, as they not only provided an F-150 with the bigger V8, but also hooked up both trucks to 5,000-pound trailers, the stated maximum towing capacity for the Honda Ridgeline.
The Honda did itself proud on the large, oval course marked off with cones. As expected, the F-150 had a little more snap right off the line. But once rolling, the Ridgeline's acceleration felt equally strong through the midrange and when the gas was decked at 45 mph to simulate a freeway on-ramp merge. As we noted on our drive route, the Ridgeline is a fine freeway runner, as it cruises at 75 with little effort. For those who care about such things, the Ridgeline's fuel economy estimates of 16 city and 21 highway mean this truck won't put as big a hurt on your gas card (and on our finite fuel supply) as a V8-powered pickup.
The Honda Ridgeline's four-wheel disc brakes were up to par as well. Equipped with the first four-channel ABS in a pickup, the Honda's stoppers felt powerful as they brought the truck and trailer down from 60 mph swiftly, with a firm pedal feel and no untoward body movements.
After our road drive, we also had the chance to play in the dirt. Here, we put the Ridgeline's automatic all-wheel-drive system (dubbed VTM-4 for Variable Torque Management 4-wheel drive) to the test, where it proved its worth during some fairly steep, rutted ascents. Although this system is similar to the one used in the Acura MDX, it has been beefed up considerably for "heavy-duty truck" usage.
This exercise also showed how well the Ridgeline's independent rear suspension (a first in a pickup truck), 8.2 inches of ground clearance and short approach and departure angles (24.5 and 22 degrees, respectively) worked. During one particularly entertaining portion, we drove over a series of laterally opposed bumps and ruts, which had one tire rolling down into a well of sorts while the other went over a bump on the other side. This "frame twister" also showed how robust the Ridgeline's structure was — no squeaks, creaks, rattles or shakes invaded the cabin.
Rather than baffle potential customers with dozens of trim level and body style combinations, Honda realizes that most people want four big doors and certain features on their trucks. To that end, Honda is going to offer the Ridgeline in one body style (crew cab) and three trim levels (base RT, midlevel RTS and leather-lined RTL). Power windows, power locks, cruise control, air conditioning, a CD player and three power points are featured on the RT. The RTS adds a power driver seat, deep-tinted glass, a security system and a six-disc CD changer. In addition to the leather seats, the RTL (just think of the "L" as standing for leather) also provides heated front seats, HomeLink garage opener system, dual-zone climate control, a compass and XM radio.
Although old-school truck purists may sneer at its lack of a solid rear axle and V8 power, the vast majority of modern-day pickup intenders should appreciate the Ridgeline's many attributes. With its manageable size, solid performance, carlike ride and handling and all-around quality, the Honda Ridgeline should be another successful market segment invasion for the respected Japanese manufacturer.