2017 Honda Ridgeline First Drive Review - Tacking Into the Wind

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson

Honda is playing the long game when it comes to its cute little pickup truck. After selling the original, first-generation Ridgeline for an almost-unheard-of nine years (for perspective, the ninth-generation Civic lasted an incredibly short five years, including a mid-cycle emergency refresh), the second coming of the unibody, light-duty hauler is here.

And guess what? It’s absolutely phenomenal — but there’s a massive catch.

Roll back the calendar to 2004. American Honda dropped its furthest divergence yet from its high revving, nimble, economy cars with the Honda SUT Concept. It was a teaser for what was to come — “an all-new sport-utility truck … based on Honda’s Global Light Truck Platform,” Honda said at the time. A year later, in 2005, the Ridgeline was born.

Its sail-like cab-and-bed design was reminiscent of the much larger Chevrolet Avalanche, but its proportions were more Explorer Sport Trac than anything with full-size girth. Unlike the Sport Trac’s truck frame donated by the Ranger, the Ridgeline was engineered with a unibody architecture — and it showed. No matter how square and flared Honda designed the Ridgeline’s wheel wells, the average joe knew something was different with Honda’s pickup right from the start.

Twelve years after its initial debut in Detroit, the second-generation Ridgeline — this time skipping the wasteful and typically dragged-out concept-to-production reveal trickle — arrived at the North American International Auto Show.

Gone was the bed sail, replaced by a seam between its bed and cab (it has a purpose, supposedly, and we’ll get to that point in a bit). Also gone was the Ridgeline’s angular, flat face, replaced by one derived directly from the new Pilot, a three-row crossover adept at transporting family offspring to a multitude of sports.

The Ridgeline’s face isn’t the only part derived from the Pilot, either.

A crossover-based pickup, quantified and compared

Pickup buyers are a fickle bunch. They like numbers, especially easy numbers that can be used to quantify how much more of a man they are compared to their pickup truck-owning friends. So, let’s see where the Ridgeline places in a game of Pickup Top Trumps.

Under its Pilot-esque hood sits the same 3.5-liter V6 as the Pilot, which produces the same 280 horsepower and 262 lbs-ft of torque. Same horsepower. Same torque. Same single overhead cams. Same valvetrain featuring Honda’s famous i-VTEC. The new engine bests the outgoing Ridgeline’s V6 by 30 horsepower and 15 lbs-ft of torque, but cranks up fuel economy thanks to trick cylinder deactivation, a new six-speed automatic transmission and a new two-wheel-drive option aimed at Californians who don’t know snow outside a movie set or theater bathroom. Front-wheel-drive Ridgelines are rated at 19 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway for a combined figure of 22 mpg. Adding all-wheel drive brings those figures down 1 mpg.

Compared with the competition, the Ridgeline is equal on power, torque, and number of gears with the segment-leading Toyota Tacoma, but the Honda beats the Taco for EPA-rated fuel economy. If it’s torque you’re after, the aging Nissan Frontier’s 4.0-liter V6 offers more twist, but it does so through fewer gears while drinking more dino juice. The GM twins, when equipped with the ubiquitous 3.6-liter V6, produce more horsepower and similar torque through the same number of gears as the Ridgeline, but — again — the GM trucks burn more fuel in the process.

So far, that’s a V6 fuel economy win for the Ridgeline, a torque win for the Nissan, and a horsepower win for the Colorado/Canyon.

What about towing and hauling?

Maximum towing and payload ratings for the Ridgeline (in RT AWD trim, which is the base model Ridgeline with all-wheel drive) are 5,000 pounds and 1,584 pounds, respectively. On-paper towing capacity comparisons are a no-contest: every other truck in the segment bests the Ridgeline by 1,000 pounds or more. However, Honda claims “a class-leading overall payload capacity of up to 1,584 pounds” — a claim that is not entirely accurate.

The Ridgeline is available solely powered by a V6 engine as a quad-cab pickup, meaning it has two full-size doors for rear passengers. Therefore, Honda only compares its truck with other V6-powered, quad-cab pickups in the segment. Even in this guise, the Ridgeline is not the payload leader; it’s beaten by the GMC Canyon V6 4×2 with a payload rating of 1,620 pounds, a full 155 pounds more payload capability than a comparable two-wheel-drive Ridgeline at 1,465 pounds. It isn’t until you add AWD/4×4 to those trucks that the Ridgeline comes out ahead of the Canyon by just 34 pounds.

“The Honda Ridgeline is quad-cab, short-bed truck powered by a V6 and available AWD, and it offers a class-leading payload of 1,584 pounds in that segment,” stated Honda western regional public relations manager Davis Adams in an email with TTAC.

Let’s call a spade, a spade. The Ridgeline is not the midsize class leader when it comes to payload, but those looking for best-in-class payload (and towing) capability probably aren’t shopping for a Ridgeline. So, maybe the lie is a moot point. I’ll let you be the judge.

(Interestingly, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon — as identical as they are — have differing payload ratings.)

It’s not just mechanical measurements that quantitatively define a pickup’s DNA. The Ridgeline, being a unibody vehicle, does offer some other measured benefits over its competitors.

Just like the Pilot, the interior of the Ridgeline is vast. Front-row space in the Honda is either on par with or, in the case of shoulder room, flat out annihilates its competitors. The only exception here is legroom. Some competitors post greater numbers than the Ridgeline, but I didn’t have an issue with my size 11s and 32-inch inseam. Also, unlike the Tacoma, where your legs are more-so positioned in front of than beneath you, the Ridgeline provides a more upright and neutral driving position for your lower extremities.

It’s in the second row where massive gains are seen in interior space. In almost every measurable dimension, the Ridgeline offers more space and more comfort to second-row passengers. Sit in the back of a Tacoma for a 20 mile trip, then do the same in a Ridgeline. The contrast is stark.

At the end of our game of Pickup Top Trumps, the Ridgeline is roomier, more fuel efficient, just as powerful, a competent hauler, and a less-capable tower in comparison with its competitors.

Ridgeline isn’t a “by-the-numbers” pickup

As much as we can compare the Ridgeline with other trucks in the midsize pickup segment on paper, Honda’s offering is a completely different animal versus its competitors.

For starters, all-wheel drive supplants the typical four-wheel drive of other trucks. It’s a full-time system that requires no input from the driver, unlike the previous-generation Ridgeline that sported an all-flummoxing VTM-4 LOCK button. The system allows Honda to offer torque vectoring on the Ridgeline, a freak-of-nature feature in the pickup truck segment that gives the unibody truck an unfair advantage when it comes to handling.

During the first drive event, Honda laid out a number of courses to test the new Ridgeline: a towing/hauling test, an off-road course, and a dirt handling track. Time and time again, I went back to the handling track, each time trying to get the Ridgeline out of shape in some of the higher speed bits. I achieved no such feat. The Ridgeline, instead of plowing through the corners like the other trucks, would activate its traction control system and add just enough power to the outside rear wheel to rotate it through the corner. It felt like magic.

The Ridgeline doesn’t give up ride comfort for its handling prowess either. It’s easily the most comfortable ride in the segment, and it’s all because Honda has thrown convention to the wind when it comes to how to frame its trucklet. Small cracks in the road don’t cause the Ridgeline to shudder, and large road anomalies are smoothed out with aplomb by the Ridgeline’s decidedly car-like ride.

The off-road course, while not particularly challenging, did offer some perspective between the Ridgeline and its closest competitors. It began with demonstration: one of the car wranglers drove a Ridgeline atop two mounds, leaving the left rear wheel dangling from the truck’s rear suspension. On a typical truck, such a maneuver would produce visible flex in the chassis, particularly where the cab and bed meet — but not on the Ridgeline. There was no flex whatsoever, even though your eyes may trick you into thinking its cargo bed is separate.

Which brings us to the side of the truck and the much talked about faux seam between the cab and the bed. The previous Ridgeline didn’t have such a seam, instead sporting the sail-like bed. However, due to the stamping process and how Honda wanted to style its truck, a rear panel covers the unibody providing strength for the bed.

There are two practical reasons for this particular panel’s existence. One, it means Honda can stamp a smaller panel, and that keeps costs down. The second directly benefits consumers: should an errant object come in contact with the exterior bed panel to create significant damage, it can be replaced on its own without cutting and welding in a section of new panel. Just pop off the old metal and affix the new one. Problem solved.

The non-practical reason behind the seam is just as simple. The Ridgeline looks grotesque without it.

Headwinds

“It looks dorky,” she said after looking over my shoulder while I edited photos from the Ridgeline launch.

“Why do you say it looks dorky?” I asked with genuine interest. You see, my girlfriend isn’t a car or truck person, but even she saw something amiss with Honda’s newest pickup.

“It looks like a van or something turned into a truck,” she replied. “It isn’t a truck.”

It’s this short exchange with a person who lays no claim to being an automotive expert or enthusiast that perfectly sums up Honda’s pickup-truck headwinds.

Not only does the Ridgeline not look like a typical pickup, Honda has gone out of its way to make it look exactly like the Pilot. There’s no denying the family resemblance. Inspect the competition and the familiarity is limited to just other rough-and-tumble products. The Tacoma looks kinda like a 4Runner. The Canyon looks like its bigger-brother Sierra. And the Honda looks like a seven-seater crossover that’s associated with Professional-Grade Mommying and not Professional-Grade Construction.

It’s that association that Honda must break in order for a customer to open their mind — and wallet. The Ridgeline, for all intents and purposes, is an earth-shattering product; an earth-shattering truck, if you don’t need the towing capability of others. I implore you to drive one if you’re in the market for a smaller pickup — but do it with an open mind. Leave all your preconceptions at the competitor’s lot across the street.

However, you’re buying into a future of ridicule with the Ridgeline. “That’s not a real truck” will be uttered like a scored vinyl by those who know less than you. Honda has effectively forced us into an ultimatum: do you take the smart buy or one that reaffirms your inner man?

If you pick the Ridgeline, you’re a better man than me.

Disclosure: Honda flew me from Halifax to San Antonio and put me up in a nice, downtown hotel to drive the Ridgeline. The automaker proceeded to fill our face holes with more meat and cheese than you’d find on a beef and dairy ranch. I also found my most favorite donut place in the world down the street from the hotel, Shipley’s Donuts, where I bought a dozen donuts on my own dime and shared them with Frank Bacon et al.

[Images: © 2016 Mark Stevenson/The Truth About Cars]








Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

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  • 415s30 415s30 on Jun 24, 2016

    It's a great truck or people who don't need a huge truck, most people don't. I have a 2006 CRV and it's good for me because I don't tow anything, handles well in and out of the city.

  • Quadrum Quadrum on Jun 30, 2016

    i am driving my 3rd ridgeline, and am a mechanical contractor, albeit an owner running a business. i have used all 3 ridgelines as work vehicles, usually delivering or picking up materials, as well as my primary vehicle ( a 993 and superformance cobra are fun vehicles, a bmw x1 more used, so i am a car person) and find it a much better vehicle than my previous chev pu's or an errant ranger. it tows adequately my boat, 2000#, and a small backhoe trailer, 4500#, so my work experience is that it is an adequate truck. i have records of all fuel put in the 3 ridgelines, and the 05 got approx 15.5 mpg, the 10 approx 19.4 mpg, my present 13 18.9 mpg, in mostly semi-rural non- hyway driving. it gets better mileage than all my pickups(own 4)by 2-8 mpg. so much for the comments that the mileage is less than other pickups. my brother's 15 ram 1500 regular cab short box w/hemi is very good, at 15.7 mpg, but i do better with the ridgeline. i just drove a 17, and it is far superior to the old model, much more comfortable, and quieter at speed- the pilot front end is superior to the blunt old design. as soon as the ridgelines are plentiful, and discounted, (i'm cheap), i will be purchasing one. for work. can't wait.

  • Lou_BC Question of the day: Anyone actually care to own an old TVR?
  • Bd2 First, this was totally predictable. 2nd, Genesis already does have hybrids in the form of a 48V mild hybrid, but more performance oriented (supercharged and turbocharged), so not really helping with regard to fuel consumption. 3rd, Hyundai's hybrid systems don't really help as there currently isn't one that would be suitable power-wise and the upcoming 2.5T hybrid system would have to be heavily reworked to accommodate a RWD/longitudinal layout. 4th, it seems that Genesis is opting to go the EREV route with the GV70 the first get the new powertrain.
  • Bd2 Jaguar's problem was chasing the Germans into the mid size and then entry-level/compact segments for volume, and cheapening their interiors while at it.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Aja8888 I expected that issue with my F150 starting at 52,000mi. luckily I had an extended warranty and it saved me almost $8,000. No more Fords for me, only Toyota.
  • Lou_BC I saw a news article on this got a different read on it. Ford wants to increase production of HD trucks AND develop hybrid and EV variants of the SuperDuty. They aren't scaling back EV production. Just building more HD's and EV variants of HD's .
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