There's a story of a pharmaceutical company in the '30s or '40s that developed an antiseptic cream that didn't sting when applied to a cut. The manufacturer thought this medical marvel would be welcomed in every household. No more iodine or other inflaming ingredients that made children cry and adults cringe. But consumers didn't buy the new antiseptic. They had been brought up by their mothers' sage-like wisdom that explained: "The stinging means the medicine is working." The message was simple, effective and deeply entrenched in young minds. So later in life, no one believed the state-of-the-art antiseptic was killing germs and preventing deadly infections. Legend says the company added a dab of alcohol to the formula. When customers started feeling a little burning, the trust returned.
I wonder if Honda will have to inject a little "sting" into the new 2006 Ridgeline because customers will find the ride so pleasant that they won't think the truck is really "working."
Who will believe that a unibody pickup with 4-wheel independent suspension, transverse-mounted V6 and all-wheel-drive that runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time can work like a truck? We've all been conditioned from early childhood that trucks have body-on-frame construction, separate cab and cargo box, live rear axles, north/south V8 engines and part-time 4-wheel-drive that runs mostly in rear-wheel-drive.
What's more telling, every generation of truck engineers for the past 100 years has been instructed that's the only way to build a pickup. It's an inexpensive, easy-to-assemble vehicle that is highly profitable, and manufacturers are not willing to change that cash-generating strategy. They point to past failures, like the '61-'63 integral cab-box Styleside pickups from Ford.
Honda wasn't bound by tradition when it assembled a small, tightly-knit group of engineers in Ohio and assigned them to build a pickup. There were cost considerations and the truck had to conform to certain Honda guidelines in safety, performance and durability. But these engineers had an open mind and clean sheet of paper when they decided to design a personal-use pickup with enough truck-like ability to meet the majority of tasks required by families.
This isn't a hardcore work truck numbed down with plush leather seats and booming stereos that is marketed to urban warriors. It was designed to first meet the needs of commuters and soccer dads, then toughened up to handle towing and payload demands of mainstream recreational owners. Bottom line: the design and execution works. This truck doesn't "sting" but preliminary indications are it "works" better than promised.
I drove the Ridgeline-and some competitive vehicles-along twisty roads and over semi-rugged hills in Southern California. I towed 5000 pounds through a lane-change course and hauled 1100 pounds through a sweeping autocross course. There's no doubt in my mind that driving impressions alone will sell this vehicle to shoppers looking for refinement, utility, handling and ride comfort, especially if they've owned a pickup before or are in the process of cross shopping.
The Ridgeline is very quiet, reasonably responsive and undeniably smoother than any other pickup on the market. But there are tradeoffs with the Ridgeline, as any experienced truck customer will discover. The first problem is finding a direct competitor.
The Ridgeline is unlike any other truck. It is in a class by itself. But Honda is clearly targeting owners of the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and Chevy Avalanche in addition to 4-door models from Toyota Tacoma, Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier and Chevy Colorado. Honda also mentions the Ford F-150, if only to acknowledge the sales leader and to show how it can measure up in certain categories to a fullsize half-ton pickup.
At just under 4500 pounds, the Ridgeline is much more nimble than a Ford F-150 SuperCrew 4x4 that weighs in at over 5500 pounds. But the SuperCrew is rated to tow up to 9200 pounds with its V8 engine. The Ridgeline is not as spirited and off-road capable as a Tacoma DoubleCab 4x4, but it has more interior volume and extra storage options. The Dodge Dakota is much more stylish than Ridgeline, but the Honda offers a brilliant navigation system and standard side-curtain airbags.
The Ridgeline will fit the exact needs of many pickup customers and meet the demands of most others who don't require severe-duty capability. Yet there is no pickup equal on the market when it comes to on-road manners and expanded utility in the bed.
Key to this remarkable balancing act is a solid frame and body structure. Honda starts with a closed-box, ladder frame, and then integrates into a reinforced unibody. The rear cabin panel is beefed for two reasons: protecting occupants from sliding cargo in the bed and adding stiffness and rigidity to the overall chassis. Honda claims the Ridgeline chassis is 20 times stiffer in torsional rigidity than the "best performing body-on-frame compact truck" and has bending rigidity that is 2.5 times stiffer.
Early reports on the Ridgeline speculated the truck would be a Honda Pilot with a bed. Not true. The Ridgeline shares only a handful of parts with the Pilot. The frame channels alone are 70 percent taller than the Pilot. The suspension design is based on the Pilot, but the components are beefed up considerably and altered as necessary to handle the extra payload and towing stress. The front suspension is a MacPherson strut arrangement while the rear is a multi-link with trailing arm. Teamed with the stiffer chassis/body, this suspension offers a quiet, controlled ride that beats any competitive claim that their truck rides like a car.
For an extra measure of safety and performance, Honda offers most of its high-tech innovations: 4-channel ABS, electronic brake distribution, brake assist, Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) and Traction Control System (TCS). Currently the only pickups that offer an electronic stability control are Toyota with its Vehicle Stability Control (VSA+ TRAC) and Nissan with its Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC). These systems are designed to manage the throttle and apply brake pressure to selective wheels to assist the driver in regaining control during certain situations.
As you can see, cross-shopping the Ridgeline will require some education into Honda's technology and vernacular. Like the VTM-4 all-wheel-drive. This is a fully automatic system that distributes torque to the wheels as needed. For the most part, the truck is driven in front-wheel-drive for fuel economy. The prop shaft to the rear turns as does the ring and pinion, but there's no open differential in the rear housing. Instead, there is a clutch on each side of the ring gear connecting to a half shaft that turns the respective rear wheel. A computer can engage the clutches when needed to vary the torque distribution front and rear or left to right side. During hard acceleration, torque is sent to the rear wheels to help keep the front from breaking loose. The computer also senses front wheel slip and adjusts the power distribution to the rear as needed. The driver can put the VTM-4 in a lock mode for medium-duty off-roading. At low speed, the maximum amount of rear torque is locked in.
The Ridgeline is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 255 horsepower at 5750 rpm and 252 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. The engine has numerous high-tech features such as variable valve timing and dual-stage intake manifold. It's certainly one of the cleanest pickup engines with a ULEV rating (ultra-low emissions vehicle). Underneath is a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Inside the cab, the Ridgeline's interior is one degree of separation from a Honda Odyssey. There are few if any traditional pickup cues on the dash. Even the center console looks as if it was lifted from a minivan. The cab is extremely functional, spacious and comfortable. There are plenty of storage options, and the rear 60/40 seat folds up to support cargo as large as a mountain bike. Sound options are not impressive but certainly accommodating with available XM satellite and available 160-watt, 7-speaker audio system. Honda also offers a satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition on a large 8-inch display.
Truck owners, however, want to know about cargo hauling and towing when it comes to trucks. The Ridgeline features a 5-foot-long composite bed that is supported with three steel crossmembers. The inside of the bed is covered with a non-slip surface. The bed was certainly designed to make motorcycle owners feel special. There are guides for the front wheels in the front of the bed, and the six tie downs are positioned to secure motorcycles. The bed is just over 48 inches wide, so it passes the obligatory 4x8 plywood test. Total payload rating for the Ridgeline is just over 1500 pounds.
The bed doesn't have provisions for 2-tier loading or cargo dividers. In the minds of Honda engineers, those are stop-gap measures. They used the extra space under the bed that was opened up with the unique chassis and suspension design to incorporate a deep 8.5 cubic foot secured storage area. The locking lid can be opened with the handle or electronically from inside the cab. The storage area holds three sets of golf clubs or a few cases of soft drinks. A drain makes cleanup easy. The spare tire is also located in the cargo compartment and is mounted on a sliding tray for easy access.
The Ridgeline's bed is also distinguished by a dual-action tailgate that will be a dream come true for busy moms who load plants at the nursery or dads who need to wash out debris from the bed. In addition to folding down in a conventional manner, the tailgate can also swing out. The bed's four courtesy lights illuminate whenever the swing mode is used (the lights can be turned on from inside the cab as well). The tailgate will support 300 pounds while the vehicle is driving. The dynamic rating is to compensate for extra forces that be magnified by hitting bumps. The Ridgeline's bed is unequaled in utility and convenience. The competition is already going back to the drawing board to develop similar features.
Honda put considerable effort into building in necessary tow features. The radiator is bigger with dual high-power fans. The Ridgeline already comes with necessary oil coolers and 7-pin wiring for a trailer brake. All the customer needs is a receiver hitch. Honda rates the Ridgeline towing capacity at 5000 pounds, but that rating also includes two vehicle occupants and 175 pounds of cargo. In the fine print of most other pickups, the maximum tow rating is restricted to certain configurations, engine/transmission/rear axle ratio choices and with just the driver in the vehicle. But Honda's research showed that 84 percent of truck owners tow less than 5000 pounds. Honda's strategy was to meet that mark in a real-world manner.
One of the keys to testing trucks is to analyze the intent of the manufacturer and see if the company delivered on its mission. Not every truck can be as fun off-road as a Tacoma with the TRD package, as fast a Dodge Ram SRT-10 or as stylish as an F-150 King Ranch. Honda has definite customer in mind with the Ridgeline, and he's not just someone who's outgrown a CRV.
We'll take a closer look at the Ridgeline trim levels, options and features in an upcoming road test. (Some information was already discussed in the Detroit Auto Show story.) I intend to test the truck the same way Honda's targeted owner might. I'm asking for a Honda ATV to take up to an off-road area, and I'll be arranging to tow a boat to the lake. I know how the Ridgeline drives. Let's just see how it works.