On a limestone-littered trail slicing through Texas Hill Country, our 2009 edition of Honda’s Ridgeline sport utility truck (SUT) applies torque from a powerful V6 engine to all wheels so tire treads maintain a keen grip as we bump over so many sharp-edged stones.
|1. No V8s here, the Ridgeline is powered by a 250hp 3.5-liter V6.
2. Honda’s Ridgeline uses a car-like chassis and is classified as an SUT rather than a true pickup truck.
3. Honda’s VTM-4 system powers the front wheels and sends torque to the rears when slip is detected. There is also a switch in the cabin to lock power evenly to both the front and rear.
4. Thanks to Honda’s car-like suspension, there’s room for a trunk below the Ridgeline’s cargo bed.
The vehicle doesn’t slip or slide as the wheels, suspended independently front and rear, dribble across the rocky steps.
A tall stance, with eight inches of ground clearance, allows Honda’s SUT to trudge over a lot of lumpy ground far from the comfort of a paved road.
Further, it carries an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system labeled VTM-4, meaning Variable Torque Management Four for four-wheel-drive. The mechanism is constantly engaged and directs the engine’s muscle to all the wheels when needed in order to maintain traction on the tires and keep the vehicle rolling forward.
RIDEGELINE PACKS POWER AND FUEL ECONOMY
The aluminum V6 engine in the Ridgeline, with a single overhead camshaft and four valves for every cylinder, displaces 3.5-liters and uses Honda’s remarkable VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse the torque across a broad band.
Engine power channels through an intelligent five-speed automatic transaxle which has electronic controls and supports diverse demands, from high-speed highway runs to slow-speed off-road work, four-wheel traction and towing.
In many ways the Ridgeline defies classification, as an unusual multi-use vehicle which shows the beefy shape of a pickup with a truck box trailing in the rear, the trunk of a sedan tucked below that rear deck and four big doors hanging on the slab sides of the passenger compartment. It seems to function as a large and powerful pickup truck as well as a high-hiked and trail-ready sport utility vehicle. Then there’s that passenger cabin, which on our top-level RTL tester had the look and feel of a luxury sedan.
For 2009, Honda’s SUT scores a re-do with fresh body revisions, more amenities in the cabin and engine enhancements which produce a modest increase in horsepower.
The boxy vehicle, looking like it was chiseled from a solid block of metal, poses with a broad stance and a blunt and stubby face with integrated bumpers and a large grille mounted in front of a long hood.
Its substantial in size, with a wheelbase stretching more than ten feet long and the squarish body drawing out 17 feet long by more than six wide and the cab roof capping at close to six feet high.
The cabin, comparable to quarters of a big SUV, houses two rows of seats for five beneath an optional moonroof.
The pickup box in back is condensed at 60 inches long by 49.5 inches wide but extends to 79 inches with the tailgate down. It comes with a steel-reinforced bed made of molded composite material and eight heavy-duty rail cleats to secure a load of cargo. And concealed below deck is that bona fide trunk with a lockable lid.
ALL TRUCK, BUT RIDE AND DRIVE IS SEDAN-LIKE
While the Ridgeline brings the two-box format of a truck with the engine in front, a high cab in the middle and the bed in back, it differs from a conventional pickup because it doesn’t use the chassis of a truck as the foundation and its engine doesn’t drive the rear wheels.
Instead, Ridgeline springs from a unitized structure that’s innately stiff and strong, and the front-mounted engine normally directs its muscle to the front wheels although the on-board VTM-4 AWD device can send some of that torque to the rear wheels when the front ones slip.
The monocoque structure melds chassis and body into a cohesive entity that’s extremely rigid when put in motion. Factor in the long (122-inch) wheelbase and an exceptionally broad track (67.1-inches up front and 66.9-inches in back) to forge a big and flat stance. Then isolate the fully independent suspension elements with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link design with trailing arms in the rear, dial in geometry that’s similar to a car and allow generous wheel travel for off-pavement maneuvers. Add variable power rack and pinion steering and disc brakes for all corners with sophisticated computer controls for the ABS brakes, electronic brake force distribution (EBD), brake assist (BA), vehicle stability assist (VSA) and traction control system (TCS) anti-skid management.
VTM-4 CONTROLLER SHOWS THREE MODES OF ENGAGEMENT
On dry pavement, the VTM-4 system runs in front-drive mode but may shift some torque from front to rear wheels when accelerating to cruise speed. Additionally, the system constantly measures wheel rotational differences, front to rear, and may redirect torque away from slipping wheels in favor of the set which still maintains traction. For a third condition, torque is locked up 50/50 front to rear via a dashboard switch, so the Ridgeline can tackle a difficult low-speed traction situation, like an icy driveway or sandy off-road slope.
SPACIOUS, FUNCTIONAL CABIN IS ALSO LUXURIOUS ON RTL TRIM
In the spacious cabin of the Ridgeline, all aspects seem comfortable and convenient in the Honda tradition. There’s room for five passengers with twin bucket seats on the first row and a bench for three riders on the second row. A revamped multi-function console positioned between front buckets has a sliding armrest and sliding lower tray plus concealed stow spots.
The back bench splits 60/40 with lift-up seats revealing a storage compartment big enough for a golf bag. Or the bench folds up, transforming the space into a cargo bay large enough to house a mountain bike.
Honda casts the Ridgeline SUT in three trim designations — the well-equipped RT, full-featured RTS and a luxurious RTL with leather upholstery and the optional Honda satellite-linked navigation system.
Base equipment on Ridgeline RT ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and door locks to a trip computer, cruise control, keyless entry devise, power sliding rear window and 100-watt audio package with six speakers and a CD deck with MP3/WMA playback capability.
Price points for the 2009 Ridgeline begin at $28,000 for the RT and extend to $36,330 for Ridgeline RTL with the navigation equipment aboard.
Contrary to what some car companies would have you believe, Honda knows a few things about trucks and how to build them right. I know the Ridgeline doesn’t offer the payload or storage space of some of its counterparts. But those guys don’t offer the benefit of a trunk in a pickup bed or the solid reputation for quality built into every Honda.
And because the Ridgeline defies categorization when compared against compact pickups like the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado or Ford Ranger, it can get the job done but at a much higher cost, while compared against full-sized pickups like the Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado, it just doesn’t have the capabilities. The maximum tow rating of 5,000 pounds, however, is more than enough to pull a couple of jet skis.
Never too concerned about “the norm,” Honda isn’t afraid to do things a little differently. While it won’t appeal to the true truck buyer, the Ridgeline is an excellent alternative for the weekend pickup truck driver. If you work on a construction site, buy a GM, Ford, Dodge or Toyota and be done with it. But if you want a vehicle that’s reliable, fun to drive and can carry its own weight and then some, this may just be the truck for you.