Versus the competiton:
Offering some pickup truck utility with the ride, handling and fuel economy of a minivan, the Honda Ridgeline sounds like it should be a hit, but its awkward styling and an embarrassingly outdated interior have kept it from being one.
A Honda pickup truck always sounded like an oxymoron, like something that couldn’t or shouldn’t exist. But the Ridgeline has been around since 2006, a boxy, four-door crew cab that’s always seemed like the answer to a question nobody asked: What if Honda built a pickup? The truck itself is built off Honda’s minivan/SUV platform — it’s essentially a beefed-up Odyssey underneath, with standard all-wheel drive and a 3.5-liter V-6 engine. The company has announced that 2014 will be the last model year for the Ridgeline as we know it, with the truck taking a brief hiatus for 2015 and returning as a totally redesigned 2016 model. The changes from 2013 to 2014 are minor and include the addition of a Special Edition model with blacked-out trim similar to the Sport model; see the changes yourself here. With the current Ridgeline run coming to a close, a quick evaluation of the truck seemed in order. Has it aged well? Is it still too quirky for mainstream America, or has familiarity bred acceptance?
Approaching the Honda Ridgeline, one has to admit that it looks like nothing else on the road. Even eight years into its model run, it has a distinctive shape to it — but that may just be other automakers intentionally not making anything that looks like this. A boxy front end — with headlights and grille that both look too small — runs back to fenders that seem out of proportion with the rest of the truck. Then there’s the issue that the front and rear fenders are completely different shapes, and that the cargo bed’s side walls slope from the rear of the crew cab toward the tailgate … it looked odd when it arrived in the market, and it still looks odd today.
My test truck was a Honda Ridgeline RTL model, a well-equipped “luxury” version that features a chrome grille, 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires and fog lights. The Sport trim level looks more menacing, with its blacked-out trim and mesh grille, while a Special Edition (Honda Ridgeline SE) model tops the line for 2014 with different alloy wheels, tires and trim. To view our most recent video review, click here.
The Honda Ridgeline may be awkward to look at, but it drives surprisingly well on pavement. My time with the truck included significant highway mileage, city commuting, blizzards and ice storms, and the Ridgeline soldiered through all of it. The only powertrain available is a 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. It’s an aging powertrain, as these days most engines this size make upward of 300 hp, and six-speed transmissions are now commonplace. It is smooth, however, with reasonable torque for most situations and undeniably refined operation. Acceleration and passing maneuvers are quick and free of drama, with the engine providing a muted soundtrack when pressed, as long as you’re not carrying a heavy load.
As you might expect, ride and handling are fantastic when compared with a conventional ladder-frame pickup. No bucking, no choppiness, no discomfort — again, when there’s nothing in the bed and you’re on well-maintained roads. It rides and handles like a midsize SUV or minivan, because that’s basically what it is. The Ridgeline took the cratered asphalt of Detroit’s urban streets with ease, and highway behavior was also smooth and controlled. It’s main nemeses are choppy dirt roads, where the four-wheel independent suspension is not able to handle rapid-fire inputs. Steering feel is a bit numb and heavily boosted, but it’s still worlds better than most pickups we’ve driven. Another minor complaint is wind noise, especially around the top of the windshield and the base of the windows. The Ridgeline roars at highway speeds, making for an interior din that can be louder than desired.
The Honda Ridgeline features a full-time all-wheel-drive system with a locking rear differential. A differential to lock the front and rear axles is not available, contributing to the Ridgeline’s “soft-roader only” credentials. It spends most of its time in front-wheel-drive mode, transferring torque to the rear wheels if it detects slippage. Maximum tractive force can be had by shifting the transmission into 1st, 2nd or Reverse gear and pushing the VTM-4 button on the dashboard. Below speeds of 6 mph, as much as 70 percent of available engine torque can go to the locked rear wheels. As speeds increase (presumably meaning you’re out of trouble), less torque is sent to the rear wheels; once speeds exceed 18 mph or you manually shift out of those gears, the locking differential is disabled and the all-wheel-drive system defaults to a normal setting. This type of technology is good for getting out of unplowed driveways or muddy ruts, but the lack of a locking center differential or a low-range gear, plus the speed-limited operation, mean the Ridgeline isn’t really suited for any difficult terrain. Think of it as a good all-weather vehicle, but not a good trail vehicle.
Honda makes the argument that the Ridgeline’s fuel economy is one of its strongest assets, but since the truck was introduced significant improvements in full-size pickup truck fuel economy have been realized. The Ridgeline is rated 15/21/17 mpg city/highway/combined. During my week with one, we netted an average of 18 mpg, including considerable highway duty from Detroit to Chicago and back. That’s decidedly mediocre, given that every other competitive pickup on the market (and we’d classify the Ridgeline as a midsize, rather than a traditional half-ton truck) gets the same or better fuel economy. In fact, the Ram 1500 gets an estimated 16/23/19 mpg with four-wheel drive and the company’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, while the Chevrolet Silverado does equally well, with 17/22/19 mpg. You can even get a much more powerful Ford F-150 with a twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 and still achieve the same fuel economy as the Ridgeline — 15/21/17 mpg — but with mountains more torque and horsepower. Even when compared with its more direct truck competitors, the Ridgeline has no advantage in fuel economy, matching the Nissan Frontier 4.0-liter V-6’s ratings and coming in slightly worse than the Toyota Tacoma V-6’s 16/21/18 mpg rating.
The Honda Ridgeline was introduced in 2006, and while the exterior got a mild update in 2009, the interior looks unchanged from the day it was born. The plastics are hard, the knobs are soft, the seams are sharp and primitive, and the electronics are several generations out of date. The interior design is unique — just as boxy as the exterior — but it’s also chunky and butch in a way that matches the truck’s overall design aesthetic. It almost feels retro-Japanese, like something out of the 1980s. The transmission lever is a column shifter, something that has almost disappeared in the modern day. It’s unusual, but not bad to use, and its location on the steering column allows for considerable storage in the adjustable center console.
From a comfort standpoint, the Ridgeline does quite well. The seats are big and relatively supportive over long distances, with a decent amount of room in front and back for five occupants. The rear seat bottoms fold up in a 60/40 split to allow for bulky items like suitcases or groceries in back. Visibility to the front and sides is quite good, but rear sight lines suffer considerably from the downward slant of the cargo bed’s side walls, which obscure obstacles like parking meters quite thoroughly, making parallel parking a nightmare.
It’s a good thing this is the Ridgeline’s last year in this iteration, as it is glaringly obsolete in terms of electronics design, function and connectivity, especially compared with other Honda models. What the Ridgeline doesn’t have reflects its age more than what it does: My test car lacked automatic headlights, any parking sensors, blind spot detection, automatic door locking, keyless entry or start, a USB port, iPod integration, Bluetooth streaming audio, a telescoping steering wheel — the list goes on. Want to play music from your iPhone? You’ll need a cord to connect the headphone output to the Honda’s aux jack. It’s like stepping into a brand-new, 8-year-old car; it’s state-of-the-art 2006. On the plus side, there isn’t much to distract you from the duties of driving.
My test vehicle featured a small touch-screen navigation system that, like the rest of the electronics, features graphics that are woefully out of date — almost embarrassingly so. When the navigation system isn’t being used, the big display switches to a clock — your choice of an analog-style clock face or a digital-style clock radio, rendered in graphics that are barely one step more advanced than an original Nintendo.
From the rear doors forward, the Honda Ridgeline is just another SUV, not all that different from Honda’s own Pilot. From the doors back however, it’s truly unique. The cargo bed is a steel-reinforced plastic tub with some unique properties. The tailgate can either open down conventionally or swing to the side, allowing easier access to a recessed, waterproof, lockable closed-box well that’s located aft of the rear axle. It’s a deep well, and was useful when filled with a load of frozen goods from Costco, kept nice and cold in there due to ambient winter temperatures.
The Honda Ridgeline has never been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested it, giving it a rating of good in every test but stopping short of calling it a Top Safety Pick due to the lack of collision-warning systems. The Ridgeline features six airbags and a standard stability control system, but none of the additional electronic safety systems that have filtered into the market this decade. See a list of the Ridgeline’s safety features here.
The Ridgeline spans a decent price spectrum, starting at $30,405 for a base model with steel wheels, standard all-wheel drive, cloth interior and not much else. My test model was an RTL, featuring heated leather seats, a moonroof, satellite radio and power, heated folding mirrors. It came in at $38,210, but you can option a Ridgeline up past $40,000.
Ridgeline competitors are scarce, given the novelty of the truck. There are no other minivan-based pickups on the market, at least not in the U.S. The Toyota Tacoma may come closest in size and mission, as a midsize pickup on a traditional rear-wheel-drive frame that features an optional 4.0-liter V-6, but with a much more conventional four-wheel-drive system and a choice of two bed lengths. A comparable model would be the Tacoma’s 4×4 double cab with the V-6 and short wheelbase, which starts at $27,865. Nissan offers its own aging compact pickup, the Frontier, with an even more powerful 4.0-liter V-6 and similar setup for cabs and lengths, starting at $34,720 for a comparable 4×4 crew-cab SL. Compare the Ridgeline with the Toyota and Nissan trucks here. Comparing the Honda Ridgeline with popular full-size domestic pickups like the Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-150 just doesn’t make sense, as it is such a different animal in every respect.
The idea behind the Honda Ridgeline body-type isn’t a bad one — provide a high-riding, cargo-hauling, light-duty utility vehicle that’s much more pleasant, reasonably sized and fuel-efficient than a traditional pickup truck for people who only sometimes need a pickup truck. The problem is that the Ridgeline just doesn’t do the things that pickup buyers need them to do, and its uncompetitive fuel economy, dated technology and awkward styling make it far from top-of-the-line and choosing one a difficult proposition. Here’s hoping the 2016 version makes a better case for its existence.