The automobile industry is built on innovation and continuous improvement. But at the same time, the auto industry often clings to old technology long after a better option has come along. Pickup trucks are a case in point – why do the automakers still make trucks with ladder frames and solid rear axles? That’s the way Henry Ford built the Model T over 100 years ago.
The real answer is because it’s really inexpensive to build trucks the old fashioned way, and truck buyers don’t mind. Buyers expect a truck to drive like – well, like a truck. So the automakers keep the production lines profitably humming, and they probably will for many years to come.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. For several years now, Honda has produced the Ridgeline – a truck-like vehicle based on its popular Pilot mid-size crossover SUV. Because of that lineage, the Ridgeline is not built like other trucks. Instead of classic body-on-frame architecture, the Ridgeline is built on a unibody platform of steel stampings that are welded and bolted together. That’s the main thing you need to know, because every difference between the Ridgeline and the other mid-size trucks is based on that fact. Now for 2017, Honda has largely reengineered the Ridgeline to compete head-to-head with the leading mid-size pickups from Toyota, GM, and Nissan.
The ladder of technology
Conventional automobile frames are called ladder frames because – spoiler alert- they look like ladders. You have two long parallel frame rails, and then a bunch of cross-members that tie the main frame rails together. That’s how people used to make horse-drawn wagons, and so the early automakers just kind of went with what they knew. But a truck’s wheels exert all kinds of mechanical leverage at the four corners, so a ladder frame tends to twist in cornering and over bumps. Conversely, a unibody frame can be made more rigid because the arches of the roof and cowl reinforce the floorpan.
Once a vehicle design makes the switch to unibody construction, a whole bunch of improvements become possible. Where a conventional truck uses the same kind of solid rear axle that we’ve been using for over 100 years, it’s easy to put a modern suspension on a unibody. Honda’s engineers were able to put a multilink independent rear suspension in the Ridgeline, which greatly improves ride and handling without substantially reducing the load-carrying or towing ability.
Let’s cut to the chase: People who buy trucks want them to be able to work hard. For a direct comparison, consider the two most recent offerings in the mid-size truck space. The Chevy Colorado and Toyota Tacoma were both introduced within the last two years, and both use traditional body-on-frame design with solid rear axles. Maximum towing capacity on these vehicles is 7,000 pounds for the Colorado and 6800 pounds for the Tacoma.
Towing with the Ridgeline is boring, and that’s the way towing should be.
Towing with the Ridgeline is boring, and that’s the way towing should be. If towing is ever exciting, something is very wrong. In our testing, we navigated a boat ramp with 4,800 pounds of boat and trailer, and the Ridgeline handled it with ease. The independent rear suspension helped the Ridgeline feel stable and confident pulling the trailer, and there was plenty of engine power. We also pulled a double-axle flatbed with some ATVs on it, and the Ridgeline just stepped up and made the towing experience a no-brainer.
Payload and bed design
The competitive numbers on bed loading capacity are closer. The Tacoma will haul up to 1,620 pounds, while the Chevy can handle 1,630. The 2017 Ridgeline is rated for 1,584 pounds of cargo in the bed, but there’s more to it than simple weight. Because of the unibody design, the Ridgeline has much smaller, almost vestigial wheel housings protruding into the bed. It’s the only mid-size truck with more than four feet between the wheel arches, so you can put a sheet of plywood or drywall down flat in the bed. The Ridgeline bed is 5 feet, 3 inches long to the tailgate, and 7 feet long with the tailgate down.
While we’re talking about the bed, take a moment to appreciate a few features. First, Honda has developed a bed surface that looks like a spray-in liner. It’s a reinforced polymer that stands up against abuse. The competition has a metal bed that you have to protect with a liner. To demonstrate the material’s toughness, the Honda staff used a scoop loader to drop 1500 pounds of big rocks into the bed from about 5 feet up. Then they took the rocks out and the bed surface wasn’t dented and even barely scuffed.
Second, the tailgate opens two ways – down like a conventional tailgate, and it also swings out like a door to let you get closer to the bed. That gets us to the third point – because the unibody chassis gave Honda some room to work with, there’s a “trunk” under the rear end of the bed. It’s made of plastic and will hold a big 82-quart cooler, or you can just dump ice in there. It’s got a drain plug at the bottom. The spare tire is also under there, so you’ll never have to dive under the truck to change a flat.
Finally, the Ridgeline can be optioned with speakers in the bed. They’re behind the bed walls and actually use the bed material as the speaker cone. The sound is great, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Engine and drivetrain
The things that are different and unique about the Ridgeline don’t stop with the chassis and bed. The drivetrain is fundamentally different from other trucks. While all the competitive mid-size trucks offer a V6 engine as an option, the 3.5-liter V6 is standard on the Honda with 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That’s a little less horsepower and torque than Colorado or Tacoma, but the Honda wins on fuel economy with 25 mpg highway, 18 mpg city, and on 0 to 60 acceleration of about 6.5 seconds.
Engine performance is where any similarity with the competing trucks ends, because the Ridgeline is fundamentally a front-wheel-drive vehicle. That is a mortal sin for many pickup owners, but moving up to AWD costs only $1,800 at any trim level, so most buyers will opt for that system. Toyota and Chevy offer a traditional 4WD system – which is to say, they are Rear-Wheel-Drive vehicles that have a transfer case added to the driveline. That means most of the time you run around in RWD, and then engage the 4WD when needed. Technically, the GMC Canyon has optional full-time on-demand AWD, but the Chevy Colorado does not. One benefit of a 4WD system is that you can put it in low range to crawl around on really rough terrain, and the Honda doesn’t have that. But unless you’re seriously into heavy duty off-roading, you’d have to consider if it’s really needed.
Instead of 4WD, Honda’s AWD uses an advanced torque-vectoring electronically-controlled rear differential to route power to any wheel that can use it. The independent rear suspension helps keep all the wheels planted, so power delivery is great both on and off the road. By using torque vectoring, the Ridgeline offers great traction and impressive scrambling and climbing abilities. The driver can select driveline modes for sand, mud, or snow, changing the power delivery strategy and traction control settings. This is an SUV-type AWD system, but it works well in real-world truck driving.
One area where the Ridgeline stands head and shoulders above the competition is in safety features. Because of its SUV heritage, all the modern essentials are there. You can get rearview camera, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, road departure mitigation, collision mitigation braking, forward collision warning, blind spot information, rear cross traffic monitor, and auto high beams. The competing trucks offer only a fraction of those features. Finally, because of the unibody construction, Honda expects a 5-star safety rating from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus from IIHS.
Exterior and interior styling
One thing that always kept buyers from thinking of the Ridgeline as a truck was the unusual bodywork. The sides of the vehicle were one-piece stampings from the front fenders all the way back, and the sides of the truck bed sloped down in a very un-truck-like way. Honda has changed to a more conventional truck design this year, and it’s a good thing. The bed fenders are now separate from the cab section and the bed walls are flat from the back of the cab to the tailgate. In case you’re wondering, the only cab configuration in the Ridgeline is a full four-door crew cab that seats five, which is what most buyers choose.
The interior of the Ridgeline is unremarkable. True to the vehicle’s SUV heritage, you get a nice big sunroof, which is not typical in a truck. The seats are very comfortable and the touch surfaces are nice enough, but there’s plenty of hard plastic. The infotainment is all there, complete with navigation and touchscreen and everything you might want except for real buttons and knobs. Overall, the interior is far more SUV than truck.
Pricing and options
The Ridgeline starts at $30,375 for a FWD base model, or $32,175 for AWD. You still get a lot of features at that price, but it’s not the truck you want. Really, the sweet spot starts at $38,630 with the RTL-T edition. That gets you a nicely equipped vehicle with navigation and the 8-inch touchscreen interface with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. From there the tech and safety features pile on until you get to the top luxury Black Edition at $43,770.
The total price walk on the Ridgeline is little more than $10,000, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to skimp. Certainly the best value is in the top third of the price range. At that, the Ridgeline is an expensive truck, but no more expensive than a comparably equipped competitor.
The human experience
This review has offered a lot of technical information about how the Ridgeline is built and why it’s different from other trucks. But what you care about is the practical driving experience, and that’s where the Ridgeline really sets itself apart from the competition. The Ridgeline is fully capable, yet still sophisticated. Most trucks offer a fairly primitive ride and minimal comfort compared to a car or SUV, but the Ridgeline is smooth and comfortable. The Ridgeline cab is quieter than other trucks on the road, and the vehicle soaks up the bumps like a passenger car.
The net result of all that is the most livable, comfortable truck you’ve ever had. Typically, truck owners trade off comfort and ride quality for utility, but the Ridgeline is a truck that you can drive off-road, pull a trailer, venture across the continent, or just go out for a nice night on the town. This is a truck that can be your only vehicle with no compromises.
- Excellent ride and handling
- Good engine power
- Good towing/hauling capacity
- Excellent bed design
- Hard plastic interior surfaces
- Infotainment system needs real knobs