It’s not as if the first-generation Honda Ridgeline was ahead of its time.
It made its debut in 2005, just as gas prices were transitioning from “Whoa, this is getting a little expensive,” to “WTCrap is going on here?!” Not only was it not ahead of its time, it was one of the timeliest automotive introductions in history.
There could not have been a better occasion to bring out a more civilized, more efficient pickup. We named it a comparison-test winner, then ordered one for 40,000 miles of fawning.
That Honda’s reimagined pickup seated five far more comfortably than any of its crew-cab contemporaries and rode incomparably better should have kick-started a revolution. And it nearly did. In barely over a month at the beginning of 2008, Toyota and then GMC debuted similarly conceived unibody pickup concepts. GMC’s erstwhile chief told us then that he expected the entire compact-truck market to go unibody.
But after the tumult of that year, the automakers backpedaled to the safety of familiarity. Toyota continued churning out the Tacoma, General Motors kept on building the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon, and the Ridgeline faded into obscurity, tumbling from 50,193 sales in 2006 to a low of 9759 in 2011 before getting canned after the 2014 model year.
Good Idea, Weird Idea
But the Ridgeline was a good idea—a good idea packed with weird ideas: the dual-action tailgate, the in-bed trunk, the flying-buttress cab, and the dramatically sloping edge topping each bedside. Many of those good and weird ideas remain in the new generation, but Honda reversed course significantly on the one that it most blames for the Ridgeline’s subpar sales: exterior design. What used to be adventurously overstyled now looks far more conventional, a Pilot with the roof lopped off aft of the second row.
The structure is shared with the Pilot crossover—and related to the underpinnings of the upcoming next-generation Odyssey—but nearly every major component is beefed up to handle pickup duty. Engineers tell us the front structure is 17 percent stronger than that of the Pilot, while the rear is 31 percent sturdier.
The Ridgeline’s maximum payload of 1584 pounds virtually ties that of the segment-leading and recently redesigned Colorado, while its 5000-pound tow rating brings up the rear of the class. (And that’s only for all-wheel-drive models; front-drivers are rated to tow 3500 pounds.)
Engines of Change
Our experience with the nine-speed automatic transmission in the Honda Pilot hasn’t been entirely satisfactory. So we were pleased that Honda has employed a six-speed in the Ridgeline. With the nine-speed, shifts vary in quickness and smoothness as speed builds, whereas the six is consistently swift and seamless.
With 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, the 3.5-liter V-6 tops the outgoing truck’s engine by 30 horsepower and 15 lb-ft. It’s smooth and unobtrusive, a perfectly acceptable if uninspiring engine for a mid-size pickup.
Honda predicts best-in-class acceleration, but we’ll see. The Ridgeline is proof that unibody doesn’t mean light as much as sturdy means heavy. The company claims—and our experience so far bears out—that the Ridgeline is stiffer than its competition, but the result is a curb weight of 4500 pounds, heavier than the GM twins, the Nissan Frontier, and the Toyota Tacoma. The last Chevy Colorado we tested was a touch lighter and carried 25 more horsepower.
Honda claims best-in-class fuel economy of 19/26 mpg city/highway and 22 combined for front-drivers and 18/25 city/highway and 21 combined for models with all-wheel drive. But that requires interpreting the class as omitting GM’s gasoline and diesel four-cylinders, both of which better the Honda V-6.
Got Baggage? Ridgeline Has Cubbies
As before, the interior of the Ridgeline positively embarrasses the competition. It feels enormous and comfortable front and rear. The flip-up rear seat remains, providing yet another yawning, weather-protected storage cavity when raised and hiding up to 2.9 cubic feet—enough for at least one golf bag—beneath seated passengers.
The primary storage location, the bed, now is four inches longer than before, at 64 inches, which makes it longer than those of the crew-cab Tacoma and the short-bed Colorado but 10 inches shorter than a long-box Chevy. And the Ridgeline is the only truck in the class that can take a four-by-eight-foot sheet of building material (or a four-by-eight-foot medieval triptych) laying flat between the wheel wells. Of course, you’ll have to drop the tailgate to accommodate an eight-foot load, so invest in some good plastic wrap.
It’s also the only truck in its class with a bed that doubles as a giant speaker. In top trim levels, six so-called “exciters” are mounted behind the bedsides. If you think of these as speaker magnets that use the panels to which they’re affixed as cones, you’re pretty close.
The upside is that they’re waterproof and impact proof. The downside is that the sound quality is a little low-fi, and bass is nonexistent. Which, if you have any friends who tend toward techno, is not a downside at all. But for doing what one does with a truck bed—standing around leaning on it—it’s a good means of reproducing country music. Honda expects that you’ll use the 400-watt power inverter that upper trims have in the truck bed to power a big-screen TV at tailgate parties, during which the bed speakers should wow all of your inebriated neighbors.
Neither does any competitor have the Ridgeline’s clever tailgate that either drops like a regular truck’s or swings open to the driver’s side like an old-fashioned station wagon’s. Nor do they have the Ridgeline’s in-bed trunk beneath the load floor.
And most important, none of them come anywhere close to the Ridgeline’s ride quality. All it takes is one bump in the Honda to realize that GMC guy from 2008 should have been right. According to Honda’s research, less than 10 percent of mid-size truck buyers ever tow more than 5000 pounds. Therefore, less than 10 percent need anything beefier than a Ridgeline.
The Honda Ridgeline enjoys a ride that no live-axle, body-on-frame vehicle could dream of. It’s all lightness and composure, carlike body control and smoothness. Here, too, the distinction between light-truck-duty Ridgeline and even-lighter-duty Pilot is appreciable.
Whereas the Pilot can wallow and feel a little sloppy, the Ridgeline’s firmer tuning gives it a more controlled ride. The soft brake pedal and light steering are perhaps a little too smooth, but at least their operation is progressive. And in this segment, vague controls are a norm that only the Colorado and Canyon deviate from.
Listening to Honda’s engineering team rattle off their list of best-in-classes, we couldn’t help but detect a hint of exasperation in their voices. They might as well have said, “For the love of God, people, buy our truck!” Tech features are another area in which the Ridgeline’s more civilized roots place it ahead of the class’s top sellers.
Adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning and automatic braking, lane-departure warning and assist, and blind-spot monitors are all available. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but no matter how much tech you pack in, we’re a long way from accepting Honda’s touchscreen infotainment system, which is organized about as logically as the tiles on your Samsung Galaxy’s home screen when you turned it on for the first time in the store.
The March of Profits
The 2017 Ridgeline will go on sale this June. The RT, RTS, Sport, RTL, and RTL-T trim levels are offered with either front- or all-wheel drive (an $1800 upcharge), while the RTL-E and Black Edition are strictly all-wheel drive. For $30,375, the entry-level RT includes a rearview camera, keyless start, a tilting and telescoping steering column, and a seven-speaker stereo with Bluetooth, auxiliary device, and USB connectivity. At $32,415, the RTS adds keyless entry, remote start, and tri-zone climate controls. The $33,915 Sport nets black exterior trim, red footwell lighting, and gray-painted wheels.
Luxury starts creeping in with the $34,680 RTL, which gets leather seats (heated in front), with 10-way power adjustability for the driver and four-way for the passenger. An acoustic windshield cuts interior noise to let occupants hear those little motors work.
Tech begins to arrive at $36,830 in the RTL-T. That one includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen navigation/infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, a second USB input for the front and two USB charging ports for rear-seat passengers, and Honda’s LaneWatch blind-spot camera system.
But the full complement of safety tech doesn’t come into play until the $42,270 RTL-E. Here, the Honda Sensing system includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure prevention, blind-spot monitors, and automated emergency braking. Additionally, you get blue ambient lighting, a heated steering wheel, a sunroof, a power-sliding rear window, and truck-bed audio, plus eight traditional speakers and the 400-watt in-bed power inverter. Like the RTL-E, the $43,770 Black Edition is fully loaded.
But it’s as sinister as a Ridgeline can look (until accessory lift kits become available), with black paint, exterior trim, and wheels as well as a black headliner and red ambient lighting.
No matter how it’s outfitted, the Ridgeline is a no-brainer of a truck: unmatched in smoothness and comfort, and full of innovation well beyond its unibody construction. It deserved far more sales than it netted in its inaugural generation. Here’s hoping this one realizes its full potential.