Dare to be different: Four simple words that led us to try out for the track team when all our friends were playing basketball or to vote for a Democrat in Texas. Honda uses this same approach in developing its cars with mixed results. On the plus side are models like the Accord, a quick and efficient sedan or coupe availing its buyers to a spacious, well-appointed vehicle. Then there's the Ridgeline, the market's only unibody pickup that combines alienating looks with one of the truck world's best rides. For 2009, Honda has improved things with a bit more power, added features and a mild facelift, making this a worthwhile consideration for light-duty buyers. In terms of class-leading efficiency and capability, the Honda Ridgeline steers the notion of being different in the wrong direction.
New for 2009
It'd be hard to decipher what's different about the 2009 Ridgeline with only a quick glance. The blocky and polarizing style is still the truck's trademark, but it has been toughened a bit. Tweaked front and rear bumpers add 0.2 inches to the overall length. The updated model has also been treated to two additional tie-downs in the bed, a standard trailer hitch, daytime running lights, a rearview camera integrated with the navigation system, a new bed extender and an interior designed to be more ergonomically friendly. In regard to the powertrain, the camshaft has been worked over to add more torque down low, the gear ratios have been revised to improve acceleration and the intake valves have been enlarged.
Models and Pricing
Buyers interested in Honda's pickup truck can choose between three well-equipped trims. Unlike its rivals from Toyota and Nissan, the Ridgeline exists only as a four-wheel-drive crew cab model.
Starting things off is the RT, priced from $28,670, including a $670 destination charge. Its features include a trip computer, a Class III trailer hitch, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, and something that's not standard on most so-called entry-level trucks, a power sliding rear window. Honda has also tacked on a slew of safety items, such as front-, side-impact and side curtain airbags; electronic stability and traction control systems; a tire pressure monitor; and front active head restraints. The sound system cranks out a measly 100 watts, but it's compatible with MP3 and WMA files.
Next in the Ridgeline family is the mid-range RTS model, starting at $31,775, including destination. The RTS offsets its higher asking price with a seven-pin wiring harness for towing and body-colored exterior trim. Tunes are courtesy of a 160-watt audio unit tied to a subwoofer, a six-disc CD changer and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls; an auxiliary input jack allows you to play tracks from your iPod. Rounding out the list of upgrades are a dual-zone climate control system, an eight-way power driver's seat, deep-tinted rear glass, all-weather floor mats and 17-inch alloys replacing the RT's steel wheels.
The best-equipped Ridgeline is the RTL, which starts at $34,650, including the $670 destination charge. This is the model you'll want to consider if leather upholstery, heated front seats and a power moonroof are on your wish list. Of course, you also might be interested in the 18-inch alloys rolling on 245/60 all-season tires, fog lights, satellite radio, a Homelink universal garage door opener and a 115-volt power outlet.
So far, the trio of Ridgeline trims has covered most of the bases, except for one glaring omission. That's what distinguishes the RTL with Navigation, which starts at $37,000 (including destination) and features a touch-screen nav system with Bluetooth technology. This is the model we drove.
In typical Honda fashion, the 2009 Ridgeline isn't available with any packages per se, other than a set of chrome alloy wheels that'll set you back about $2,000. However, a number of accessories -- from side steps to a bed extender -- can be had. The list also includes a $225 full-size spare tire that replaces the standard spare, a worthwhile investment for anyone traveling off the beaten path.
Under the Hood
Equipment levels vary among the 2009 Honda Ridgeline's trims, but they're all packing the same heat under the hood. That's where you'll find an aluminum 24-valve, 3.5-liter, VTEC V-6 pushing 250 horses at 5,700 rpm and 247 pounds-feet of torque at 4,300 rpm. Those figures are up from 2008's 247 horsepower and 245 pounds-feet of torque. In comparison, the Nissan Frontier's 4.0-liter V-6 boasts 261 ponies and 281 pounds-feet of twist; the Toyota Tacoma's V-6 comes up short in horsepower but, more importantly, offers 266 pounds-feet of torque.
A five-speed automatic transmission with a heavy-duty engine cooler is standard across the Ridgeline lineup as is a Variable Torque Management four-wheel-drive system, or what Honda refers to as VTM-4. An electric locking rear differential comes on all models, a feature that's available only on the Frontier's PRO-X model and as part of the Tacoma's TRD Off-Road package. Unlike most pickups, which use coils up front and leaf springs out back, the Ridgeline's suspension consists of front MacPherson struts and a rear multi-link setup with trailing arms. Other hardware bits include four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist as well as a rack-and-pinion steering system with a heavy-duty cooler.
Put it all together and you've got a truck weighing about 4,500 pounds, roughly equivalent to a comparable Frontier but 300-400 pounds heavier than a similar Tacoma. The Honda can carry up to 1,546 pounds and tows 5,000 pounds. That's a better payload rating than you'll get from a four-wheel-drive Nissan or Toyota - 1,348 pounds and 1,415 pounds, respectively. Towing is another story with the Frontier pulling up to 6,100 pounds and the Tacoma up to 6,500 pounds.
Though we didn't have the opportunity to test the Ridgeline under heavy load, we did manage to rack up a few hundred miles in less than 24 hours, giving us a clear indication of how the truck performs during routine driving. As noted, the 2009 model offers added power, and the transmission has been updated to deliver more low-end torque. Unfortunately, those changes don't translate to anything you'll feel with your right foot. Off-the-line acceleration is satisfactory and the tranny executes smooth shifts, but put the pedal down and the response is more casual than get-up-and-go. The 3.5-liter V-6 does put out enough grunt for high-speed passing and merging. The engine is connected to a well-modulated throttle and goes about its business with a fair level of refinement.
With an engine response that will leave its drivers content but not impressed, one might assume noteworthy fuel economy comes as part of the package. The 2009 Honda Ridgeline carries EPA ratings of 15/20 mpg city/ highway. We recorded 15.1 mpg. The majority of our time behind the wheel was spent during off hours cruising along Southern California's freeways with a bit of light off-roading and short bursts of city driving tossed in. The result was disappointing, but in the Ridgeline's defense, the Tacoma and Frontier are rated about the same. That's not saying much when full-size Fords and Chevrolets can offer similar mileage along with greater power, capability and more sophisticated six-speed transmissions.
Ride and Handling
Honda has dropped the old-school, body-on-frame truck thinking and replaced it with technology that delivers a better ride than you'll find in most any current pickup, including the coil-sprung Dodge Ram. The Ridgeline uses unit-body construction with an integrated boxed frame, meaning it's designed more like a car or crossover vehicle. On roadways with expansion joints, there's none of the rear-end bounce associated with many trucks, nor does the driver need to worry about axle hop on bumpy corners. Next to its competitors, the Ridgeline could be considered a well-mannered sedan. The steering is sufficiently responsive, and the truck can hold its own when tossed into a corner with some verve.
Given how future owners will likely drive their new Hondas, we returned to a washed-out fire road, one we'd previously traveled with a four-wheel-drive Frontier. There was no hard-core off-roading here, so the lack of a genuine low-range gear was not an issue (a locking rear differential is standard). We immediately noticed how smooth the ride was compared to our earlier trip, and as a result, we were able to cruise up the road at a quicker pace and with more confidence. During the steep downhill run, we noticed a bit of shuddering from the ABS but no fade or loss of brake response.
Comfort and Convenience
Honda engineers fitted their pickup with an innovative locking, waterproof in-bed storage compartment that's good for toting up to 8.5 cubic feet of gear. This is a crafty way to increase carrying capacity. Some owners have noted that the location of this compartment is a problem when the bed is full, especially with a load that can't be easily removed such as loam or mulch. Furthermore, the compact spare is packed in there, too. You'll have to schedule those flat tires for times when you're traveling light. Despite the criticisms, Honda has managed to create storage space where there once was none (and even today is matched only by Dodge's RamBox). Ignore what's underneath the load floor and you'll be looking at a box capable of accommodating a standard sheet of plywood. Access can be gained by dropping the tailgate in traditional fashion, or swinging it outward from the passenger side - great for unloading next to a curb.
There's more to appreciate inside the truck, including a rear bench seat with gobs of storage underneath; lift the seat bottom and you can transport bulky items without leaving them exposed in the bed. The storage continues with a deep glovebox, a huge extendable center console and front door pockets (rear door pockets not available). The layout of controls in our RTL with Navigation wasn't an issue, with two rubber-grip dials for the climate control system and well-marked buttons for the radio and navigation unit, which includes an integrated rearview camera. We'd prefer a simple tuning knob and an illuminated switch to tell us when the a/c was on (the script in the display screen can be hard to see), but those are minor points.
Comfort was hit or miss. Our 5-foot-8-inch author had a hard time finding a suitable driving position despite the power seat and adjustable steering column. However, others hopped in and got comfy right away. There's plenty of room for drivers of most sizes and shapes, and passengers should have room to stretch regardless of whether they're riding up front or out back. The padded armrests are a nice touch, but Honda wouldn't be hurting anyone's feelings with a few more padded surfaces -- not to mention leather upholstery that jumped up a grade or two.
In a future Ridgeline, we'd like to see an extended cab or regular cab added to the lineup, for those who prioritize hauling capacity over interior space.
Honda has added even more content to its Ridgeline pickup for 2009, and you won't find us complaining about the bump in engine output. The truck offers arguably the best ride and handling package in its class, while providing innovative features such as the dual-action tailgate and an in-bed storage compartment. In addition to the dearth of torque and the lack of a low range setting, the Ridgeline, like all similarly-sized trucks, needs to deliver better fuel economy. For about the same price, full-size pickups are now achieving nearly identical EPA ratings while boasting greater towing, hauling capacity and passenger space with V-8 engines. In this light, the case for a midsize rig isn't terribly compelling, especially one that trails its rivals in the areas of power and capability.
Test Vehicle: 2009 Honda Ridgeline RTL with Navigation
Price as Tested: $37,000 (including a $670 destination charge)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 250 at 5,700 rpm
Torque: 247 pounds-feet at 4,300 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy: 15/20 mpg city/highway
PickupTrucks.com's Observed Fuel Economy: 15.1 mpg
Ground Clearance: 8.2 inches
Payload Capacity: 1,486 pounds
Towing Capacity: 5,000 pounds
Also Consider: Chevrolet Colorado, Chevrolet Silverado, Ford Ranger, Ford F-150, GMC Canyon, GMC Sierra, Mazda B-Series, Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma, Toyota Tundra