The Ridgeline is Honda’s unique take on a pickup truck. Unlike its Detroit competition or offerings from Toyota and Nissan, this vehicle is built on a unibody architecture instead of a dedicated ladder-style frame. These car-based bones give the Ridgeline significant advantages over the opposition. But is a modified minivan tough enough for the jobsite or is this tool best left in the sandbox?
|1. The Ridgeline may be a Honda but it’s built in Lincoln, Alabama. Even its engine and transmission were made in the USA, with 70 percent of its parts content from the U.S. and Canada.
2. Fuel economy is low at 15 MPG in city driving and 21 on the highway; that works out to an average of 17 MPG.
3. “Under the hood is a 3.5L V6 with 250 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque. It’s saddled with a five-speed automatic transmission.
4. At right around $30,300 to start, including destination and delivery charges our tester stickered for more than 38 grand.
The Ridgeline blends the functionality and comfort of a crossover with the open-bed versatility of a small pickup. A boxy design gives it a spacious interior with room for five, not to mention a host of clever touches.
The vehicle’s most innovative feature is likely its tailgate. On other trucks they fold down creating a flat, horizontal surface. Of course the Ridgeline can perform this trick as well, but Honda engineers weren’t satisfied. They figured out a way to make the gate open sideways as well. A hidden handle located immediately under the vehicle badge allows it to swing open like a car door. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering and something other trucks should offer because it makes it easier to reach items loaded in the back.
Since the Ridgeline is based on a front-wheel-drive architecture there’s no bulky driveshaft sending power to the rear wheels, nor is there a heavy-duty live axle. This space-saving design actually enabled Honda to put a storage compartment under the bed. This truck literally has a trunk, and a decent-sized one at that. Just don’t get a flat tire while carrying a heavy load because the spare is buried in the storage bin.
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SPEEDS AND FEEDS: THE NUMBERS GAME
Contained within the vehicle’s clothes dryer-shaped front end is a familiar powertrain. The Ridgeline is hauled around by a 3.5-liter VTEC V6 that delivers a neat 250 horsepower with nearly as much torque. It’s reasonably muscular, but an extra 30 ponies wouldn’t hurt. Surprisingly this engine is the star of the show and it really shines out on the road. For a mainstream vehicle from a mass-market manufacturer the Ridgeline practically sounds like an IndyCar. Stomping on the accelerator gives the bent-six free reign to sing its lungs out and she howls like a saber-toothed tiger.
Most automakers work exhaustively to block all powertrain noise from entering a vehicle’s cabin. The result is a library-quiet interior, but the engine noise that does percolate through all the sound deadener is less than inspiring. Vehicles from other mainstream manufacturers typically respond with muted indifference, wheezing like an asthmatic at a cat show. In stark contrast the Ridgeline sounds like it was born to run, broadcasting a reedy-sounding intake snarl for everyone’s enjoyment. Sure, it’s a little bit louder but the tradeoff is well worth it.
For extra grip in slippery situations the Ridgeline features what Honda calls a “Variable Torque Management 4-Wheel Drive System.” It’s standard on every trim level and even incorporates a locking rear differential, which should allow the vehicle to handle some light-duty off-roading. If you’re the curious type up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque can be transferred to the rear wheels.
The engine may be a winner but unfortunately the transmission is not. There’s nothing wrong with how this automatic functions. It’s smooth, swift and was never caught off guard in AutoGuide testing. The problem is it’s only a five-speed. By today’s standards it’s at least one gear short. Transmissions from competing companies have more ratios to shuffle than cards in a euchre deck.
The underachieving gearbox is probably a major reason for the Ridgeline’s disappointing fuel economy. The window sticker reads 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. Those figures result in an EPA average of 17, which is spot on. According to its digital readout the truck delivered 16.8 MPG in mixed driving. Kudos to Honda for being honest. This is a quite sore spot for other automakers right now.
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Despite delivering accurate real-world fuel-economy, the Ridgeline falls behind some of its newer competition. The thriftiest Ford F-150 for instance delivers up to 23 miles per gallon on the highway, and that’s with an extra 52 horsepower on tap. It’s the same story with the 2013 Ram 1500. Thanks to an efficient Pentastar V6 and a brand-new eight-speed automatic transmission it delivers knockout fuel economy of up to 25 MPG.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
From its exterior styling to the dashboard layout, cubism was clearly an inspiration for Ridgeline designers… emphasis on “cube.” The vehicle looks like a stack of boxes. And while it’s not going to win any beauty pageants it does offer heaps of functionality and more storage compartments than a tackle box.
Continuing that hip-to-be-square theme, the truck’s interior is a bizarre mélange of shapes and surfaces. It almost looks as if the driver- and passenger-sides of the cabin were designed by completely different people.
In typical Honda fashion the gauges are large, clean and unambiguous. Also, the huge center console is loaded with storage cubbies; it even slides forward and back for greater flexibility.
When it comes to driving, the Honda Ridgeline is a completely competent vehicle. Acceleration, while far from giggle-inducing, is perfectly fine. The ride is a little stiff but it’s by no means inappropriately so. The only real complaint about how it moves centers on the steering, which feels a little robotic, but again this is far from a deal breaker. Altogether the truck is as solid as a granite countertop, with no unwanted jiggles, squeaks or rattles to report.
The Ridgeline starts at just about $30,300, including shipping-and-handling charges. The unit provided to AutoGuide for testing was considerably richer, a Warren Buffett-like $38,110. But in a world of platinum-level pickups topping 52 grand that price probably isn’t so bad. Besides, it was a top-of-the-line RTL model with navigation. Naturally in that trim it came with all kinds of other niceties including a power-sliding rear window, leather-clad seats and a Class III trailer hitch allowing it to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
With surprising versatility and a car-like driving experience the Honda Ridgeline is a vehicle that probably meets the needs of most truck buyers out there. Today’s “light-duty” pickups are so ridiculously capable most owners never come close to utilizing their full potential. When’s the last time you saw a Chevy Silverado loaded to the gunwales with crushed stone or a Toyota Tundra scraping its bumper on the asphalt dragging a 30-foot trailer?
Today’s full-size pickups are gross overkill for America’s suburban truckers. All these customers need is a vehicle to haul bags of mulch home from the nursery or schlep a few bicycles out to the trail for a Saturday ride, duties perfectly suited to the Ridgeline.
Honda has the right idea with this vehicle and should be commended for entering what’s probably the toughest segment in the automotive business. Loyalties to truck brands literally span generations, and it’s no mean feat to crack this market.
Despite its minivan looks the Ridgeline is a fully functional light-duty pickup that offers buyers shocking levels of ingenuity and versatility. Still, it isn’t perfect; a more sophisticated transmission would be greatly appreciated as would improved fuel economy. But with Honda’s recent success overhauling the Civic and revamping the Accord the company will probably nail it with the next generation Ridgeline.