By on June 9, 2005

 Toasteriffic schnoz says you ain't in Marlboro Country no more.Strolling through one of Honda's vanilla dealerships and coming across the new Ridgeline is a bit like happening upon Mike Tyson supping Earl Grey tea at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Not that you'd say it out loud, but the word that springs to mind is 'fugly'. Which doesn't really do Honda's first-ever pickup truck justice. For better or worse, the Ridgeline is right hook to your aesthetic expectations, instantly redefining the pickup genre in both form and function.

Even at first glance, the Ridgeline's design makes it abundantly clear that we're not in Marlboro Country anymore. Dead on, the pickup's pointy proboscis mates an overgrown heating element salvaged from a fancy toaster with a pair of disagreeably squinty headlamps. Dramatic, over-square fenders, scalloped door skins and signature buttresses (connecting the Ridgeline's cab with its five foot composite bed) continue the outré theme. Out back, the look is somewhat cleaner, courtesy of a body-colored step bumper bracketed by elegant, wrap-around tail lamps. Unusually, the Ridgeline's tailgate lip is slightly lower than the bed's side rails; which greatly aids rearward visibility when reversing.

 Butress butress golly! (Also available on the Chevrolet Avalanche.)Inside, Honda's newfound proclivity for exaggerated design continues with an oddly peaked instrument binnacle hood, elephantine carabiner-esque metal-effect door pulls and oversized knurled switchgear. The expanding-drawer center console offers drivers a wide selection of compartments to lose things in. Fortunately, the Ridgeline's ergonomics are as sensible as the design is extreme. All the controls are well-designed and well-placed, though many plastics feel decidedly discount in light of the RTL's price tag and raised specification. Our army-surplus green tester came loaded to the sills with power leather chairs, dual-zone HVAC, moonroof, sat-nav and a thumpin' six-cd stereo with XM. The flip-up seat squabs in the back are the cabin's only real disappointment; they're stiffer than a porn star and more tiresome than a Senate filibuster.

The Ridgeline is the first mass market pickup built with a closed-box hybrid ladder frame (picture a traditional pickup ladder frame mated to a unibody like stinkbugs in heat). This novel architecture delivers much greater bending resistance than the average pickup, which enhances the truck's payload capability. It also leaves room for a sophisticated independent rear suspension, employing a multilink with trailing arm and anti-roll-bar. At a stroke, Honda's boffins have finally solved the genre's mid-corner axle tramp and stiff-legged ride (especially when the bed's vacant).

 Honda finally gets down with its bad self.The new technology also raises the handling bar. While the Ridgeline is no S2000, it'll certainly scupper Toyota Tacomas in the twisties. The Ridegline's remarkable rear end composure gives drivers enough confidence to take liberties with the speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion helm. And while the 17" 245/65 Michelin LTX's high profiles take a toll on ultimate cornering progress, they break away predictably and with minimal drama. For the truly overzealous, Ridgeline's standard stability control is a comforting safety net, and it isn't overly intrusive when driving at 8/10ths.

In fact, the Ridgeline's handling envelope is similar to Honda's own Pilot. Unlike the latter, the Ridegline will gamely tow up to 5,000 lbs. worth of 'lifestyle accessories' and hobbyist detritus. (Figure a couple of Ski-Doos or something small, fragile, and smote with Lucas electrics.) Of course, you'll have to leave stump pulling to conventional full-sizers, but don't expect urban cowboys to be crying into their soy lattes about it.

 At the end of the day, it's an strange-looking thing that'll Git 'Er Done.The Ridgeline's party trick is its first-for-a-pickup integrated trunk. It's a clever invention that inspires illicit thoughts of border-trafficking in even the most law-abiding of citizens. The lockable coffer will also swallow a weekend's worth of camping provisions for two, or enough Canadian pharmaceuticals to keep grandpa's nursing home in hydrocortisone for months. Access is easy, courtesy of a clever dual-action tailgate that swings wide like a car door. Better still, the tailgate can support some 300lbs. when lowered, an important detail given the Ridgeline's abbreviated bed.

Although it's down a couple of cylinders on the big boys, Honda's 3.5L V6 still has sufficient grunt to haul your sundries without complaint. Whether or not it could charge through mountainous terrain when loaded with ALL and sundry remains an open question. Unlike Honda's other 3.5L installations, the Ridgeline's drivetrain offers genuine aural character. The five-speed slushbox's super-smooth kickdowns create the kind of meaty growl that pickup truck aficionados covet. And when it's time for the soundtrack to stop, the Ridgeline's four-wheel discs– nannied by four-channel ABS, stability control and electronic brakeforce distribution– are the business.

In the end, the price of Ridgeline's utilitarian brilliance is aesthetic overload. Which makes the Honda Ridegline a fine choice for iconoclasts, provided they don't mind enduring the occasional truck guy barb about its (ahem) challenging visuals. To which there is only possible retort: "She ain't much to look at, but she sure can cook". Or, if you prefer, Ridgeline is Japanese for Git 'Er Done.

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