The 2012 Honda Ridgeline is a sensible choice as a personal or lifestyle pickup, but if your character is defined by a classic-truck image, then it may be a risky choice.
To be perfectly clear, the Ridgeline is not a truck for tradesmen with demanding towing or payload requirements. It is, however, a comfortable utility vehicle with an excellent ride that is suited to commuters, soccer dads and other less rigorous customer bases that simply want the added convenience of a modest-sized open cargo bed.
Since the Ridgeline is classified as a pickup, it invariably draws comparisons to all popular compact and full-size pickups. And, invariably, traditional truck owners crucify the Ridgeline's rather obvious disadvantages without even acknowledging its well-engineered advantages.
The Ridgeline is by no means an incompetent pickup, even for hard-to-please segments in the truck market. Since my last drive in a Ridgeline during the truck's introduction in 2005, it has gotten a minor face-lift, a few more horsepower and more amenities.
Highlighting the 2012 lineup is a new Sport model that finally addresses a lingering disfigurement on the Ridgeline since birth: its ugly grille. The new black honeycomb design with a black surround is a welcome relief from the silly "heating element" style on the original model and the cleaner (but still ho-hum) 2009 redesign. Matched with 18-inch black alloy wheels, fog lamps and blacked-out headlight and brake-light housings, the Ridgeline Sport offers a more consistent, if not spirited, appearance.
On the downside, no one can argue that the Ridgeline would be a long shot in a beauty contest. Its thunder-thigh silhouette is a stark departure from the familiar cab-and-box profile to which we've grown accustomed. But it's those meaty side sail panels and unibody construction that give the Ridgeline a rigid chassis. Combined with a four-wheel-independent suspension and hefty four-wheel disc brakes, the Ridgeline offers superb ride and handling qualities for a truck that isn't really a compact or full-size pickup. Consider its turning circle of 42.6 feet. That falls between a Toyota Tacoma Double Cab at 40.7 feet and a Ford F-150 Super Cab at 47 feet.
You'll find similar middle-of-the-road numbers when comparing specs. The Ridgeline has a 5,000-pound towing capacity, but that rating includes two vehicle occupants and 175 pounds of cargo. Automakers not complying with SAE J2807 towing standards usually rate their towing capacities with just a 150-pound driver, so Honda is quite a bit more realistic in its assessment. Gross vehicle weight rating is 6,050 pounds with a payload capacity of more than 1,500 pounds for most models.
The Ridgeline's 3.5-liter V-6 engine is now rated at 250 horsepower with peak torque of 247 pounds-feet. Recent changes to the engine to reduce friction and aerodynamic improvements to the body improve gas mileage a tick to 15/21 mpg city/highway. In our 495-mile test through city traffic, congested freeways and open back roads, mileage came in at a respectable 19.8 mpg.
Backing up the V-6 is a five-speed transmission and all-wheel-drive system that basically runs in front-wheel drive until extra traction is needed. There were no off-road jaunts with this test, but previous rides have included runs in the dirt. Off-roading is easily the Ridgeline's weakest truck attribute compared to other 4x4 pickups. However, the fully automatic Variable Torque Management system works well in tricky situations like ice and snow. Combined with electronic stability control and a host of other safety features, the Ridgeline delivers a strong sense of confidence backed up by being named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
While the Ridgeline may struggle in a few brute-truck performance categories, it shines when comparing convenience and comfort options. The spacious cab offers numerous storage areas, including one under the 60/40-split lift-up rear seats. With the Ridgeline's 2009 makeover, the interior moved away from its minivan persona. The dash edges are crisper, the lighting is more aggressive, and the steering wheel is more chiseled.
The best-known feature is the lockable in-bed 8.5-cubic-foot trunk that can be used as an ice cooler. Access to the truck is through a dual-action tailgate that opens down like a traditional truck or from the side like a station wagon. The 5-foot bed sports four cargo lights and eight cleat-style tie-downs that can hold strap hooks and wrap rope tightly. The bed was clearly designed with motorcycles in mind, as there are three indentions against cab to center the bike's front wheel. Despite its short length, the bed is wide enough for 4-foot-wide construction materials to lie down flat.
The Ridgeline Sport starts at $30,925, including an $830 destination charge. The Sport falls between the base RT and the midlevel RTS, which adds features that include a power driver's seat, dual-zone climate control and seven-speaker stereo with a six-disc CD changer. The upscale RTL comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, moonroof, leather seating, satellite radio, 115-volt outlet and heated front seats. An RTL with navigation sends the starting price above $35,000.
As a functional and convenience exercise, the Ridgeline meets a high standard. As a workhorse judged against traditional truck styling cues, it will draw snickers and insults. But the real criteria for evaluating pickups should come down to this: Does the truck perform as the designers and engineers intended, and does it meet the expectations of the targeted customer?
The Ridgeline is an innovative utility vehicle with strong credentials. It has won numerous awards and earns strong marks in many surveys on quality, value and satisfaction. Right now the only problem is mixed messages about future production of the truck. The Ridgeline has place in the pickup market. Let's keep it there.