In the 57 years since its founding, Honda has built everything from motorcycles and lawn mowers to sports cars and SUVs. But the one arena it hasn't ventured into is that of the pickup truck. Until now.
The Honda Ridgeline, which starts arriving at dealers in March, is not only significant for being Honda's first pickup. This truck packs so many innovations between its wheel wells it practically redefines what it means to be a pickup.
The centerpiece of the Ridgeline is its bed, which, instead of being detached from the cab, is fully integrated into the cab. This one-piece structure gives the Ridgeline 20 percent more torsional rigidity than traditional body-on-frame trucks, according to Honda. Indeed, during my day-long test drive the Ridgeline exhibited none of the shuddering over bumps so many 4x4 pickups are guilty of. The four independently sprung wheels (a first for this segment) contribute to the smooth ride.
Instead of a traditional steel bed, the Ridgeline features a dent-resistant steel-reinforced composite bed. Better still, the wheel wells don't intrude into the bed, making the Ridgeline the only midsize pickup that can fit a 4x8 plank flat on its floor (though it will stick out the back).
By far the Ridgeline's coolest and most helpful feature is its In-Bed Trunk, a locking compartment built into the bed floor, which can swallow a 72-quart cooler or three golf bags. You can even dispense with an ice chest and dump ice and cans directly into the trunk, which has a drain hole for easy cleaning. The trunk, which is equipped with bag hooks, solves the age-old problem of where to transport groceries in a pickup (and does away with the need for a space-hogging lock box).
Accessing the trunk is a cinch, thanks to the dual-action tailgate, which can be swung open like a door or dropped like a conventional tailgate. Despite the fancy hinges, the tailgate can support 300 pounds when dropped. With the tailgate lowered, the 5-foot-long bed expands to 6.5 feet, which is long enough to carry two dirt bikes or an ATV. The Ridgeline offers a healthy 1,550-pound total payload capacity and a 5,000-pound tow rating.
Further bucking truck tradition, the Ridgeline offers only one cab style (four-door), one bed length (5 feet), and one drivetrain: a 255-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.
Honda's fully automatic "VTM-4" four-wheel-drive system operates in front-wheel drive during dry-pavement cruising, and engages all-wheel drive when needed for improved stability and maneuverability. Unlike typical 4x4 systems, which engage four-wheel drive after wheel slippage is detected, the VTM-4 system anticipates the need for four-wheel drive and engages the rear wheels before slippage begins.
Additional torque is sent to the rear wheels for improved acceleration, especially on low-friction surfaces and during towing. A "lock" button on the dash enables the driver to engage maximum rear-drive torque for climbing up steep (28-degree) slopes.
Although it's the same length as a compact pickup, the Ridgeline is as wide as a full-size truck, giving it an interior spaciousness in league with its full-size counterparts. The 60/40-split rear seats flip up and latch to the walls to provide enough space for a mountain bike (with the front wheel removed) or a 54-quart cooler in the second row.
The cockpit features a huge speedometer, oversized knobs and door pulls, and a column-mounted shifter. The fit and finish is refined, but some of the plastics feel cheap.
The menu includes three trim levels - RT, RTS and RTL -- with prices ranging from $27,700 to $31,490. All models come standard with front, side and curtain airbags, antilock brakes, stability and traction control, air conditioning, tilt steering, power locks, mirrors and windows (including sliding rear window), CD audio system, cargo tie-downs and bed lamps.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the Ridgeline's chock-a-block styling as gimmickry. But closer inspection reveals this one-of-a-kind truck is more about function - and meeting real needs -- than about frivolity. It's as well-suited for hauling hay as it is for hauling humans; and it's backed by the Honda name.