Whether it was by gut instinct or careful study into pickup truck owners and their habits, the Ridgeline’s North American developers arrived at what is arguably the best execution of a pickup for an important type of buyer — those who have adopted the rural American workhorse as the latest alternative people-mover. If you’re one of the folks who has cried that most people don’t need SUVs, you’re sure to be offended by this latest trend. I might agree. But it’s my job to evaluate the vehicle on its own merits, and that’s what I’ll do.
The Ridgeline disproves the conjecture that Honda’s first pickup truck would be little more than a Pilot sport utility vehicle notched and fitted with a cargo bed. It starts with a similar unibody structure but is reinforced with a ladder-style steel undercarriage akin to the frame of a body-on-frame truck. The result is a space-efficient vehicle that’s free of the body twist common to pickups yet is capable of doing real work. By Honda’s estimation, only about 31 percent of the Ridgeline’s components are shared.
I tested a Ridgeline RTL with leather, the top trim level. The base is called the RT, followed by the RTX and RTS.
The fact that some people hate the way the Ridgeline looks is very good news for Honda. Why? Because others really like it, and a J.D. Power and Associates study revealed that polarizing car styling sells better overall than do designs that elicit no strong reaction in either direction. What I like about the Ridgeline is that it looks like one solid piece when viewed from the side. There’s no gap between the cab and the box, which is universal among other pickup trucks. One exception is the Chevrolet Avalanche, to which the Ridgeline is often compared. The sail-shaped member behind the cab does indeed resemble the Avalanche’s gusset.
The exterior variances among the Ridgeline’s trim levels are few. The RT has black side mirrors and door handles where the others’ are body-colored. It also has steel wheels with wheel covers; the higher trims have 17-inch alloy wheels. The RTX trim level is distinguished by gray-painted wheels and a honeycomb grille.
Honda considers the Ridgeline a midsize pickup, in a class with the Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. The table below compares some of the key dimensions to those of a domestic and Japanese competitor.
|Midsize Pickups Compared
|Standard payload capacity
|Cargo bed length (ft.)
|Bed width at tailgate (ft.)
|Bed width between wheel wells (ft.)
What motorists are now learning is that car-based SUVs are in many ways superior to truck-based types, especially in the areas of ride and handling. The reasons are simple: One is that car-based trucks feature four-wheel-independent suspension where the truck-based variety usually has a solid rear axle, which compromises both ride and handling. This type of suspension, and the ground clearance considered necessary in a work truck, also tend to raise the vehicle’s center of gravity and its rollover propensity. Finally, body-on-frame trucks may be strong, but they’re typically not rigid. They shudder and twist. Aside from inducing squeaks and rattles and generally lowering one’s perception of the vehicle’s quality, this flexing makes the suspension components wonder where the heck they are and to give up on the task of holding the wheels to the road.
Now, start with a rigid unibody, graft a steel frame to it, add independent rear suspension components that are always in roughly the same place relative to each other and the front corners, and you have a recipe for carlike handling. That’s the theory, at least. Honda says the Ridgeline has better lateral grip in turns than does the Honda Accord coupe. That actually sounds like an indictment of the Accord, but I can say from experience that the Ridgeline’s roadholding is nothing short of remarkable. The rack-and-pinion steering provides confidence-inspiring precision.
In case things get out of hand, the electronic stability system should keep you on course.
The ride quality is simply good. The Ridgeline is like most car-based SUVs, which have replaced the uncontrolled, bouncy truck ride with a more controlled yet firm ride. My calibrated buttocks tell me the Avalanche has a softer ride.
On my practical scale of vehicle power — which includes the designations quick, quick enough and not quick enough — the Ridgeline definitely rates as quick enough, charging into traffic without a care. The engine gets revving rapidly under full throttle, but without the fury of some of the domestic trucks’ roaring crankshaft-driven cooling fans. Basically the same high-output 3.5-liter V-6 employed in the Pilot and the Odyssey minivan, the engine delivers very even torque across the operating range. It produces 247 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 245 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm, but Honda says 90 percent of this peak torque is on tap from 2,500 to 5,500 rpm.
Honda’s use of a V-6 engine in the Ridgeline isn’t notable, but the lack of rear-wheel drive is unique for a pickup truck. To be precise, it’s a standard all-wheel-drive system, called Variable Torque Management 4WD (VTM-4), but it’s based on a front-wheel-drive architecture with the engine mounted crosswise. While cruising, the system sends 100 percent of the torque to the front wheels. An electronically controlled multiplate wet-clutch pack in the rear differential serves as the center differential, apportioning power between the front and rear axles as needed. Honda says VTM-4 anticipates slippage and automatically sends between 10 percent and 40 percent of the torque to the rear axle upon launch, and up to 70 percent when reacting to slippage at the front wheels. The stability system serves to transfer torque left and right as well.
There’s also a VTM-4 Lock button on the dashboard that holds the 50/50 torque split for the slipperiest conditions. This is available only with the transmission in 1st, 2nd or Reverse, and the amount of torque sent rearward decreases as speed increases, to prevent driveline damage. At 18 mph, all power reverts to the front axle. To be clear, the Ridgeline is designed for medium-duty offroad use. Though it has standard skid plates, it lacks the additional low gear and heavy-duty construction required for serious off-roading.
The five-speed automatic transmission behaves exactly as desired and includes a button at the end of the column-mounted gear selector that locks out 4th and 5th gears, resulting in the power needed to climb or descend a steep hill or tow a trailer without causing the transmission to upshift and downshift too frequently, which would lead to overheating.
The Ridgeline’s EPA-estimated fuel economy is 15 mpg in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway using 2008’s new, more realistic rating method. (By the 2007 method the rating was 16/21 mpg, which isn’t as far off as some cars’ older figures were.) For comparison, the 2008 Toyota Tacoma 4WD’s V-6 is rated 15/18 mpg with a manual transmission and 16/20 mpg with an automatic. (The Ridgeline offers neither a manual nor a 2WD version.)
The standard brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS and brake assist. The electronic brake-force distribution is particularly valuable in a pickup, where the load over the rear wheels can vary dramatically. I found the braking to be very good in all situations.
The unibody construction seems to give the Ridgeline a respectable ground clearance of 8.2 inches yet a reasonably low cab floor for ease of entry and exit. The lower trim levels come with cloth upholstery; the RTL features leather. The RT’s and RTX’s driver’s seat is manual but it includes a cushion-height adjustment. The RTS and RTL do the same with power. This is an important adjustment because it allows drivers of different sizes to optimize their vantage point. I’m disappointed, though, that the pedals aren’t adjustable and the steering wheel doesn’t telescope. Either feature would help drivers distance themselves properly from the airbag. The RTL’s front seats also are heated.
The Ridgeline’s high hood actually creates some blind spots in front — perhaps not a hazard on the road, but definitely an added challenge when parking. As in the Avalanche, the high cargo box creates blind spots, seemingly higher ones than in most pickups. A rearview camera or front and rear sonar-based park assist would be well worth having.
The interior ergonomics are mostly good. The gear selector is the old column-mounted style. This is good because it leaves the floor open for legs and storage provisions. It’s bad because it displaces a dedicated windshield-wiper stalk. So the wiper controls are on the turn-signal stalk where most modern cars have their headlight switch. The headlight switch is a rotary knob on the dash in front of the driver’s left knee — again, old school. If this is your only vehicle, you’ll get accustomed, but if you usually drive cars, you’re likely to wipe the window every time it gets dark out. (Of course, I didn’t do this … don’t be silly.) I also found it difficult to get the selector in “D” without overshooting it. I grew up with column shifters, and I don’t remember them being this difficult.
The storage provisions are pretty good. The large center armrest/storage console has multiple levels, including a deep bottom one. This module extends forward, increasing the interior volume. Pretty neat stuff, and it’s supplemented by a large locking glove box and a few bins in the dashboard’s center control panel. I’m surprised there are no bottle holders in the door pockets, however. Honda added an illuminated vanity mirror to the driver’s sun visor in 2007 after universal outcry.
The interior’s materials quality is generally good, with low-gloss surfaces, but pickup interiors have come a long way just in the past few years, and the hard surfaces seem outdated compared to the cushy stuff — which the Ridgeline has only on the most obvious “touch points” like the armrests. Also, the faux metal trim is easily marred. The standard rubber floormats are great for snowy climates or any owner who puts the truck to real use. It’s seldom recognized that noise levels affect one’s perception of quality, and the Ridgeline has an admirably quiet cab.
Overall, the front seats are pretty comfortable. The RTS adds a manual lumbar adjustment, and the RTL ups the ante to a powered one. It also has bun warmers, standard. The front seat headroom is decent; the legroom is workable, but the floor seems high relative to the seat, which raises my knees more than I like.
The backseat also seems to make a few compromises. Its seat cushion is a bit short, back to front. It’s also a bit firm for my taste, but sometimes seats soften as they break in. The backrest angle is comfortable, though, as is the center armrest. When raised, the armrest’s width makes the center seating position more comfortable than average. The flat floor also helps in this regard. Again, the floor is relatively high overall, which raised my knees but allowed them to clear the front seat’s backrest.
The Ridgeline hasn’t been crash tested by our preferred source, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but it has been run into a wall by the government, which gives it five stars for the driver and front passenger.
The aforementioned ABS and stability system are important active-safety features. There are also side-impact airbags in the front-seat backrests intended to protect the occupants’ torsos, and side curtain airbags that deploy along the side windows to protect against head injuries in a side impact. A rollover sensor will deploy the curtains on both sides to prevent occupant ejection.
The backseat is more than large enough to accommodate child-safety seats, so this is where they should go. Honda includes three pairs of Latch anchors, which is surprisingly rare, so whether you’re using a newer Latch-compatible seat or an older, belt-secured type, the center position is the safest for a child.
Honda has long emphasized crash compatibility, so the Ridgeline’s bumpers have structural members that extend down to prevent the truck from overriding a lower vehicle in a collision.
Once you look at the Ridgeline’s cargo and towing capabilities and innovations, it’s pretty clear that Honda “gets” the target market (at least the newer segment thereof) in ways the domestic automakers don’t. In short, the truck has just enough capability to satisfy the majority of buyers, along with some tricks to address the way regular people use — or would like to use — their personal transportation.
Taking a cue from the Element SUV, the Ridgeline’s cab accommodates a bicycle — upright and with both wheels attached — when the 60/40-split backseat cushions are raised.
Around back is where things get more interesting. For one thing, the tailgate lowers like any other, but one can instead reach under the gate’s lower-right-hand side, above the bumper, and pull a release handle to swing the gate off to the left side. Having hinges on the side in addition to the bottom made me question the gate’s sturdiness, but Honda says the lowered liftgate is actually stronger than those of its competitors.
Why would you want a swing gate as well? It lets you get much closer to the cargo bed and the trunk. Wha? Yes, this pickup has a trunk. Roughly the rear half of the floor raises to reveal a deep bin large enough for a full-size cooler, golf club bags or what have you, up to 300 pounds. This is no minor innovation. Without adding a bed cover, owners get a large volume of lockable, out-of-sight storage — a provision that’s sorely lacking in other pickup trucks. “Waterproof” is a promise that’s hard to keep, so Honda calls the trunk water resistant. I sprayed water in the bed and drove around, and the trunk stayed bone dry. There are motorcycle wheel indents to help position bikes for transport. I suppose you lose access to the trunk if you haul something in the bed, but let’s remember that the other guys don’t have a trunk at all. Advantage: Honda.
Rather than one light atop the roof, the Ridgeline has four well-positioned cargo-bed lights. Good stuff. It also bears noting that the bed surface is a steel-reinforced composite plastic, so there’s no concern about scratches or rust. I’d say this is a compromise between a painted bed with a plastic bedliner and the Nissan Titan’s factory spray-in liner. Spray-in is fine, but when it’s scratched, it’s scratched. When the Ridgeline’s gets scratched, at least there’s no surface metal underneath to rust. Though the least impressive, the plastic bedliner has proponents among leasers and people who expect to resell the truck. Removing it after years of use reveals a new-looking and more inviting finish.
The bed is 5 feet long and just more than 4 feet wide. It’s an efficient 4 feet because the rear wheel housings are practically nonexistent, and the box sides are only slightly farther apart. When lowered, the 18-inch-high tailgate, plus gap, adds about 20 inches in bed length. Honda says this is long enough to haul 4-by-8-foot sheets of building material. Whenever possible, I try to use vehicles the way owners might and test manufacturer claims. So I headed out to the home store to pick up some drywall sheets. They fit exactly as advertised, with less than 2 feet of overhang. The choice of six cleats, rated to 350 pounds each, made tie-down a simple task.
I figured that the overhanging drywall, though more brittle than plywood or pressboard, would survive the trip. It did. I shot some photos, reflected on the experience and reached two conclusions:
First, though the Ridgeline is a capable and more fuel-conscious pickup than some, I recognized that, for me, it would be tough to justify driving (and parking and fueling) a pickup truck all year ’round for a once- or twice-yearly trip to the home store, or — perish the thought — for the sake of image. U-Haul rents full-size pickups or cargo vans for in-town use for about $25 per day plus mileage in most areas of the country.
And second, it was at this moment that I realized I don’t actually need any drywall.
How the Ridgeline fares against the competition depends on what you consider the competition. Comparisons to the Avalanche are natural because there are some styling similarities, but the Avalanche is a full-size truck and its midgate allows the cargo bed to extend into the cabin, fully containing 8-foot stock with the tail gate raised. Honda looked into the idea but determined the sacrifice in structural rigidity wasn’t worth the payoff. So the Ridgeline is really just a crew cab pickup, arguably midsize. Honda says its main competition is the Toyota Tacoma Double Cab.
According to the respective manufacturers, the Ridgeline’s maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds and the Tacoma Double Cab 4×4‘s is 3,500 pounds standard and up to 6,500 pounds with an optional tow prep package. Standard on RTX and optional on the other trims, the Ridgeline’s tow package includes a Class III hitch receiver, but the truck already has supplemental cooling systems for the transmission and power steering fluid and is pre-wired for 4- and 7-pin harnesses. For comparison, the Avalanche’s towing capacity extends north of 8,000 pounds.
The Ridgeline’s payload is a maximum of 1,549, compared to the Tacoma’s 1,415. Bear in mind that trucks can’t accommodate their maximum payload and towing capacities simultaneously. Also, occupants factor into the totals. My Ridgeline RTL’s tire-and-loading placard cited 1,480 pounds as this trim level’s limit for occupants and cargo combined.
I’ve addressed most of the Ridgeline’s notable features in the other sections, and all of them are detailed in the standard and optional features pages (click the buttons at the upper left of this page), but I’ll mention a few things about the navigation system. The Ridgeline offers what I consider the most ergonomic and arguably the best navigation system available. First off, it’s a touch-screen. Unfortunately, many automakers, including Honda, are moving toward knob-based interfaces, and I decry it across the board. The menus are mostly understandable and intuitive. There’s a separate, physical rocker switch to zoom in and out — rather than little onscreen buttons that are easy to miss on some such systems. Having said all that, I admit that this feature looks outdated. There’s no nifty real-time traffic display and the resolution isn’t state of the art; text and graphics have jagged edges that have been eliminated from more modern generations.
The most common question I hear about the Ridgeline is: “Do the kind of people who want a pickup truck really want to buy it from Honda?” I understand why people ask the question. Understanding the answer, which is yes, requires you to see that a broader segment of Americans is now choosing pickups for personal use. Honda claims to have 5 million customers in its “product family,” which also includes motorcycles, ATVs, lawnmowers, snow throwers and weed whackers. According to the company’s research, 65 to 70 percent of these family members own trucks, and roughly 60,000 Honda cars per year are given up for a truck.
I can’t evaluate this truck without commenting on what it says about the domestic automakers, who have seen their monopolies on other vehicle segments fade and now stand to experience the same in the critical, high-profit pickup truck segment. The Detroit Three have been content to continue serving the work-truck buyer, adding towing and hauling capacity, features, and even comfort and luxury with each redesign.
Now look at the Nissan Titan, Ridgeline and 2007 Toyota Tundra, the most recent Japanese additions to the segment. The Titan has an access door that opens 180 degrees, cargo storage in the rear quarterpanel and a factory-option spray-in bedliner, and it was one of the first models with an MP3 input on the dashboard. The new Tundra has a roll-down rear window and a review camera option. The Ridgeline has a combo tailgate/swing gate and a trunk in the cargo bed. None of these features is ingenious, but Nissan, Toyota and Honda bothered to think out of the cargo box and implement them. The question for Detroit is, where’s your innovation?