Now in its third year of production, the midsized Honda Ridgeline is what you get when a car company designs and delivers an unconventional and versatile crossover utility truck for an active crowd that hopefully has a thing for Honda motorcycles and ATVs.

The Ridgeline is full of surprises; from its unibody chassis to its independent coil-over rear suspension to its dual-hinged tailgate, which drops down but can also swing to the side for entry.

The 5-ft long bed includes an 8.5 cu-ft trunk (a first for a pickup) and can accommodate up to 1,554-lbs of payload. With the tailgate down it can carry two of Honda's largest off-road motorcycles or one full-sized Honda ATV. Hence, the match made in off-road heaven.

The Ridgeline is the largest Honda ever produced. It garnered huzzahs from the automotive press by being named Motor Trend's Truck of the Year and the North American Truck of the Year when it debuted in 2005.

Changes are minor for the 2008 model year. The Ridgeline adds a new wheel design and fabric interiors only come in a single style. The Ridgeline saw only aesthetic changes in 2007 as well, like body-colored door handles and new exterior colors. When you're left to tinker with the little things, it's a sign the vehicle's mechanicals are working out.

I tested a 2008 Honda Ridgeline RTL equipped with the Ridgeline's standard 247-horsepower 245 lb-ft of torque 3.5-liter SOHC V6 engine. It's the only engine available and it offers a good compromise between performance and fuel economy. The Ridgeline hits 16-city/21-highway and can pull up to 5,000-lbs. There's no Fuel Flexible Vehicle (FFV), nor ethanol (E85) options.

Honda is expected to add a clean burning V6 diesel engine option for the Ridgeline by 2010. I can't wait to see what impact that motor has on power, towing, and fuel economy.

The gas V6 moves the truck on and off-road with the assistance of Honda's nifty Variable Torque Management (VTM-4) 4WD.

The fully-automatic VTM-4 drive system provides front-wheel-drive during dry-pavement cruising, for improved fuel economy, but can send up to 70-percent of the torque to the rear wheels in slippery conditions. It also works like a 'virtual' limited slip differential by using the Ridgeline's Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) traction control and ABS systems to reduce throttle and brake any slipping wheel, while directing power to the partner wheel with more traction. In very low traction situations, the driver can push a VTM-4 lock button on the dash to manually engage both rear wheels to get the truck moving. The maximum torque delivered to the rear wheels allows the Ridgeline to claw up a 28-degree (53-percent slope) dirt grade.

All Ridgeline models come equipped with independent front and rear suspensions for maximum ride control and comfort. Standard transmission and oil coolers, dual radiator fans, and pre-wiring for 4 and 7-pin trailer hook-ups set the Ridgeline up for light-duty towing needs.

I drove the Ridgeline from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, known for its steep grades and breathtaking views.

On the highway, the Ridgeline was one of the quietest and easiest handling pickups I've driven. And on Yosemite's steep and winding asphalt the 3.5-liter V6 engine smoothly exerted serious incline power up Glacier Point road without thrashing or whining. With the proactive VTM-4, there was no skidding on any dips or turns. The brakes were responsive without being overly sensitive. I also experienced the Ridgeline going to work on ugly washboard chip-sealed roads, absorbing the jitters and jounces without jarring the driver and passengers like a leaf-spring and live axle truck would. The Ridgeline felt like a very well-planted SUV, not an open bed pickup.

But for off-road capability, the unibody Ridgeline offers only medium performance relative to its nearest body-on-frame competitors, like the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. The Ridgeline's long wheelbase and independent rear suspension - that gives it its awesome in-bed trunk and excellent road manners - hinders it from traversing anything tougher than a fire road or having a breakover angle greater than 21-degrees.

2008 Honda Ridgelines are available the following trims: RT, RTX, RTS and RTL.

The top of the line RTL trim level I drove had monotone leather seating surfaces, a standard power moonroof, standard XM Satellite Radio, HomeLink remote system, an interior compass in the rearview mirror, heated front seats, and the Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System with voice recognition and MP3/ auxiliary input jack. If you want to save a little money, the step below RTS trim level adds alloy wheels, a seven-speaker 160-watt audio system with subwoofer and six-disc, in-dash audio system with steering wheel-mounted controls, dual-zone automatic climate control and an eight-way power driver's seat.

The Ridgeline's easy-to-read meters and gauges were simple to figure out without having to dig through the manual. The interior air and seats heated up in seconds on frosty mornings. I fell in love with the Navigation system because of how easy it was to use on the fly. You don't have to be computer-savvy to figure this one out. In fact, you don't even have to stop driving (although Honda recommends you do).

The second row seating is re-configurable for people and/or cargo, and does so easily. Combine all the excellent space with the GPS, and you could go garage sale hopping, off-roading with friends and equipment, and dining at a new-to-you restaurant, all in one day - no extra maps, no extra space, no planning necessary.

A vehicle like the Honda Ridgeline walks a fine line in true-trucking circles, between being innovative and strange. The Ridgeline mostly being the former. Honda hasn't held back in putting its own unique stamp on what a pickup should be, and in doing so Honda has likely brought new, non-traditional truck buyers into the segment. It's moderately popular. Almost 40,000 Ridgelines have sold year-to-date in 2007.

I originally had a distaste for the uneven and untraditional body lines and proportions. But after living with the truck for a week, my only lingering design criticism is a hope for bigger headlights that wrap around the sides of the vehicle, to balance out the bulk - just another aesthetic improvement.

All in all, the Ridgeline is a surprisingly sporty drive. It certainly had those fun Honda qualities and genetics. It's versatile in the sense of its multi-purpose abilities, but not in the sense of its engine and trim options when compared to other vehicles in its class. But then again, the cargo handling accessory list is extensive. You could package this vehicle with options to package anything.

The Ridgeline doesn't have to worry about what it is and it isn't - a platform of innovation, car-like smoothness, and functionality sells this truck.