Honda is a world champion in the sedan and SUV segments, but the Japanese giant has never been a truck contender.
The company pulled its only truck, the slow-selling Ridgeline, from the market in 2014. Now it has brought the perky pickup back to America as a 2017 model.
It’s a winner, but it’s a little weird. For better or for worse — and mostly for better — it’s not really a pickup truck at all.
Sometimes referred to as a “sport utility truck,” the Ridgeline compares favorably to traditional pickups in multiple ways.
It’s really quiet, for one thing, and almost entirely free of the wind and tire noise that make most trucks a drag to drive on the freeway.
It’s really plush, too, fitted with electric power-assisted rack and pinion steering and independent four-wheel suspension that together provide a cushy, comfortable ride.
Unlike a lot of small- and mid-sized trucks, some of which require a stepladder to gain entry, the Ridgeline sits at slide-in height. That means the ground clearance isn’t great — 7.8 inches — but front and rear leg room and head room are generous, and the backseat passengers will like having their own climate control zone.
It motors like a sedan, too, jumping from zero to 60 in a reported 6.4 seconds and accelerating with agility into passing position.
The Ridgeline borrows its powertrain from other products in the Honda domain. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound feet of torque, can also be found in Honda’s Pilot and sister company Acura’s MDX.
Like the MDX, the Ridgeline comes in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive configurations. The model I drove was a top-of-the-line RTL-E version, with AWD.
Despite its suburban SUV characteristics, the Ridgeline performed beautifully off the road as well. After a comfortable asphalt adventure drive to Death Valley, I loaded the truck with passengers and made an assault on Titus Canyon.
Running south into Death Valley National Park from near the town of Beatty, Nev., this challenging road is 24 miles of rock, loose gravel and deep sand. It climbs through the rugged Grapevine Mountains to an altitude of 5,200 feet before dropping via an increasingly narrow slot canyon down to the Death Valley floor — with nothing in between but abandoned mines and the ghost town of Leadfield.
I didn’t expect the road to conquer the Ridgeline, but I did expect the truck to struggle a bit. And, it didn’t.
Over three hours of canyon carving, I wasn’t even required to engage the special sand, snow or mud driving modes. I left it in “normal” and let the Ridgeline work out the high spots and soft sections all on its own.
A very basic two-wheel-drive Ridgeline can be had for about $30,000, with the AWD version available as a $1,900 upgrade. The RTL-E costs quite a bit more. But it comes standard with a host of amenities.
Some are for comfort, like the leather interior, heated steering wheel, heated front seats and illuminated cup holders. (This is attractive, but what problem, exactly, does it solve?)
But others are for utility. The dual action tailgate swings down, like most tailgates do, but it also swings out, like a refrigerator door. It opens to reveal a locking, in-truck “trunk,” which has 7.9 cubic feet of storage space. I found that big enough for two overnight bags and a laptop. (The “compact” spare tire is down there, too.)
And despite the short look of the bed, Honda says it will accommodate a 4x8 sheet of plywood, and I proved it will carry a motorcycle — with the tailgate down, anyway.
A trailer hitch is standard, and the workmanlike truck bed comes standard with an array of tie-down cleats. The bed is lighted, which is very handy for loading things at night. It also has exterior speakers and a 400w AC inverter, which would allow you to plug in a big-screen TV, play music and find other ways to disturb the peace or ruin a camping trip.
The interior is similarly practical. Despite a dizzying array of buttons on the steering wheel — 20 of them, by my count — most of the vehicle’s functions are intuitive and within easy reach. Although I had persistent difficulty getting the Ridgeline and my iPhone to get along, the audio quality was very good. (The Ridgeline is Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatible.)
The RTL-E trim level also comes with a battery of safety features, which were among the weakest of the truck’s accessories. Included were a rear cross traffic monitor, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, collision mitigation braking and adaptive cruise control.
When engaged, though, the cruise control and accident avoidance systems were very intrusive. The Ridgeline braked sharply when a car, perhaps eight car lengths ahead of me, slowed slightly — and then accelerated sharply once the danger had passed. It did this multiple times.
The truck also had difficulty staying in the middle of the lane, skewing from side to side within the lane.
The Ridgeline fares less well in comparison with traditional trucks in the cargo and towing areas, and this may hurt sales with buyers who are cross-shopping mid-sized competitors like the Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado or Nissan Frontier.
And it really doesn’t compare with the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in America, which just marked its 40th straight year as the country’s best-selling truck.
While Honda’s specifications put the Ridgeline’s cargo capacity at just under 1,500 pounds, an F-150 carries more than twice that. The Ridgeline’s towing capacity is 3,500 pounds for the 2-wheel-drive truck, and 5,000 for the AWD. The F-150 pulls three times that.
The Ridgeline, which is made in Alabama at the same plant that builds the Pilot, Odyssey and MDX, differs in one significant way from traditional trucks. Whereas Silverados, Titans and Tacomas are a two-piece body and bed on top of a frame, the Ridgeline is a “unit body” vehicle: body, bed and chassis are a single molded piece of metal.
But what the Ridgeline shares with its brother trucks, and with too many SUVs, is relatively poor gas mileage. The EPA numbers on this model are 18 miles per gallon for city driving and 25 miles per gallon on the freeway. But even with the “Eco Assist” engaged, for hours of freeway miles, I couldn’t get the Ridgeline above an average 19.5 miles per gallon.
Honda executives have said they are not going after the F-150, or any of the other traditional trucks, by bringing back the Ridgeline. They’re chasing crossover owners, and Honda fans, who want an attractive, light-duty pickup that’s as easy to drive as a sedan and as useful as an SUV.
They’ll have competition. Ford announced at this week’s annual Detroit auto show that it will be reintroducing the light-duty Ford Ranger pickup truck for 2019. Honda may be getting back into this market just early enough to grab some market share.
2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E AWD
Times’ take: Plush lightweight pickup truck
Highs: Easy to operate, fun to drive, capable off-road
Lows: Light duty capacity limits workplace applications
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger pickup truck
Base price: $41,370
Price as tested: $42,270
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, AWD
Torque: 262 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 18 miles per gallon city / 25 mpg highway / 21 mpg combined