First Look: Honda’s Ridgeline Truck

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After a two-year break, Honda’s returning to the American pickup market — the midsize segment specifically — with a truck based on its Pilot SUV. If you think that a unibody build makes this machine a lesser truck, think again. During a test drive in and around San Antonio, we found the Ridgeline full of surprises, on-road and off.

1. It looks more trucky, but the Ridgeline’s still a pickup for iconoclasts.
The first-gen Ridgeline had a weird kind of flying buttress between the cab and the bed that made it look, well, different than the rest of the pickups in the parking lot. Though the new Ridgeline loses the buttress and gets a more traditional pickup profile thanks to a more rigid multi-material unibody that doesn’t require it, the Honda is still the only truck in the U.S. market that’s not a traditional body-on-frame build. At the Ridgeline’s San Antonio launch, Honda told us that the old truck’s styling — not its capability — was shoppers’ biggest complaint.

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2. On the highway, you might forget you’re driving a truck.
It’s a pretty drastic change to drive a few miles in one of the Ridgeline’s mid-size competitors, the Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma, and get into the Ridgeline. The Colorado — and moreso the Tacoma — have a kind of floaty feel you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever driven a pickup. The Ridgeline’s driving dynamics are smooth but more direct, and handling that will be familiar to drivers coming over from a crossover. On the highway its 3.5-liter V-6 provides plenty of pick up and passing power, and its trick all-wheel-drive vectoring — which instantly alters the power it sends to all four wheels — allowed us to pull off a last-second turn that likely would have been much hairier without the tech.

3. The wide-open interior feels pretty epic.
The Ridgeline’s five-person cabin is a big plus (remember, it’s based on the Pilot SUV, a vehicle that plays in a segment where the race to pack in more interior smarts is more competitive). There’s space to spare up front, and the rear seats can flip and fold to fit a mountain bike, with its front tire still on, or stow a golf bag under the seat — even with passengers sitting on it.

4. Yep, it tows.
A frequent message-board diss on the old Ridgeline was that it wasn’t a real truck because it couldn’t haul the same loads as its competitors. That’s still the case — due to the Honda’s unibody construction, its 5,000-pound towing capacity is less than the Tacoma’s 6,800 pound or the 7,000 pounds of the Colorado. But Honda argues that its rating is well within the range of what a mid-size truck buyer actually needs: The company’s research showed only 6 percent of buyers in the class ever tow more than 5,000 pounds. During the press drive, the Ridgelines proved capable of hauling a trailered 22-foot boat, a pair of dirtbikes mounted in the bed, and a trailered side-by-side ATV.

5. Its off-road skills are better than you might think.
It was clear when talking to multiple Honda execs that they fully expect frequent hardcore off-roaders to continue to buy Toyota Tacomas (they’re a freakishly brand-loyal bunch.) But a hilly, rutted off-road course proved that the Ridgeline’s unibody frame and independent rear suspension are stout enough to handle unsettled routes. Its AWD setup, controlled digitally by that electronic limited slip differential — which allows some slip in mud and sand modes — actually makes the Ridgeline a robust, capable, and predictable off-road machine. One note: The Ridgeline’s ground clearance is 8 inches, a full 1.4 inches less than the Tacoma’s — and less than the Subaru Crosstrek’s. We didn’t bottom out on Honda’s pre-prepped course, but that might be a sticking point for some.

6. It has smarter tech.
While the Chevy Colorado gave the laggardly mid-size truck segment a massive tech push, the Ridgeline takes it even further. By opting for “Honda Assist,” you get a Ridgeline that uses a camera and radar to allow for adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, and pedestrian avoidance. The semi-autonomous cruise system makes the Ridgeline feel even more like a car. (It’s the same as the new Civic’s, after all.) Neither the Colorado or the Tacoma have that tech. We do have a couple quibbles with the Ridgeline’s cabin tech: There’s no dedicated volume dial, which is annoying, and the 8-inch color touchscreen is a fingerprint collector.

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7. It packs plenty of tailgate tricks.
Honda is going to position the Ridgeline as the ultimate tailgating machine courtesy of a few design tricks. First, there’s an in-bed trunk behind the rear axle you can use to hide a 82-quart cooler. Body-on-frame trucks can’t spare that space. You access it via a dual-action liftgate, which opens traditionally (top down) or by swinging out like a door. You can also opt for a power outlet in the truck bed, with enough wattage to power a giant flatscreen TV. And the highest trimline, RTL-E features audio exciters that essentially turn the bed’s side headboards into speakers, streamlining the gadgetry you’d need to host a party anywhere.

8. It’s still a niche product.
Honda’s proven the Ridgeline goes above and beyond what most mid-size segment buyers ask of their trucks. But its best assets — on-road handling and a smart cabin — might not be likely to sway Chevy and Toyota buyers. What might? Either a lowball price or sky-high fuel economy figure. The Ridgeline has neither. A bare-bones 2WD model starts at $29,475; loaded models top out at around $42,000 — comparable to the Chevy and Toyota. And while the Ridgeline’s fuel economy is impressive — we got 25 mpg on a highway drive in an AWD model — some might expect more separation between the unibody Ridgeline (21 mpg combined) and body-on-frame models like the Colorado (20 mpg combined). But like the last Ridgeline, those who buy it will likely love the truck — Honda reports most previous-generation Ridgelines still belong to their original owners. If more buyers intending on a crossover or SUV instead try out a Ridgeline, this Honda truck could be a hit. 

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