PIPE CREEK, Tex. -- On a limestone-littered trail slicing through Texas Hill Country, a 2009 edition of Honda's Ridgeline sport utility truck (SUT) applies torque from a powerful engine to all wheels so tire treads maintain a keen grip as we bump over so many sharp-edged stones.
The vehicle doesn't slip or slide as the wheels, suspended independently front and rear, dribble across the rocky steps.
A tall stance -- the chassis ground clearance amounts to eight inches -- allows Honda's SUT to trudge over a lot of lumpy ground far from the comfort of a paved road.
Further, it carries an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system labeled VTM-4, meaning Variable Torque Management Four for four-wheel-drive. The mechanism is constantly engaged and directs the engine's muscle to all wheels when needed in order to maintain traction on the tires and keep the vehicle rolling forward.
And Ridgeline packs plenty of power.
The aluminum V6 engine for Ridgeline, with a single overhead camshaft and four valves in every cylinder, displaces 3.5 liters and uses Honda's remarkable VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse the torque across a broad band.
The V6 scores tall power numbers -- 250 hp at 5700 rpm plus 247 lb-ft at 4300 rpm.
Engine power channels through an intelligent five-speed automatic transaxle which has electronic controls and supports diverse demands, from high-speed highway runs to slow-speed off-road work, four-wheel traction and towing.
Classify Ridgeline as an unusual multi-use vehicle which shows the beefy shape of a pickup with a truck box trailing in the rear but four big doors hang on the slab sides of a passenger compartment and the trunk of a sedan tucks below that rear deck.
It seems to function as a large and powerful pickup truck as well as a high-hiked and trail-ready sport utility vehicle. Then too there's that passenger cabin which seems like a luxury sedan plus enough room in the trunk to stow up to three sets of golf clubs.
For 2009, Honda's SUT scores a re-do with fresh body revisions, more amenities in the cabin and engine enhancements which produce a modest increase in horsepower.
The boxy vehicle, looking like it was chiseled from a solid block of metal, poses with a broad stance and a blunt and stubby face with integrated bumpers and a large grille mounted in front of a long hood.
It's substantial in size, with a wheelbase stretching more than ten feet long and the squarish body drawing out 17 feet long by more than six wide and the cab roof capping at close to six feet high.
The cabin, comparable to quarters of a big SUV, houses two rows of seats for five beneath an optional moonroof.
The pickup box in back is condensed at 60 inches long by 49.5 inches wide but extends to 79 inches with the tailgate down. It comes with a steel-reinforced bed made of molded composite material and eight heavy-duty rail cleats to secure a load of cargo.
And concealed below deck is that bona fide trunk with a lockable lid.
While Ridgeline brings the two-box format of a truck with the engine in front, a high cab at the middle and the bed in back, it differs from a conventional pickup because it doesn't use the chassis of a truck as the foundation and its engine doesn't drive the rear wheels.
Instead, Ridgeline springs from a unitized structure that's innately stiff and strong, and the front-mounted engine normally directs its muscle to the front wheels although the on-board VTM-4 AWD device can send some of that torque to the rear wheels when the front ones slip.
The monocoque structure melds chassis and body into a cohesive entity that's extremely rigid when put in motion. Factor in the long (122-inch) wheelbase and an exceptionally broad wheel track (67.1 inches up front and 66.9 inches in back) to forge a big and flat stance.
Then isolate the fully independent suspension elements with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link design with trailing arm in the rear, dial in geometry that's similar to a car and allow generous wheel travel for off-pavement maneuvers.
Add variable power rack and pinion steering and disc brakes for all corners with sophisticated computer controls for the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD), brake assist (BA), and vehicle stability assist (VSA) with traction control system (TCS) anti-skid management.
That VTM-4 controller shows three modes of engagement.
On dry pavement, the system runs in front-drive mode but may shift some torque from front to rear wheels when accelerating to cruise speed.
Second, the system constantly measures wheel rotational differences, front to rear, and may redirect torque away from slipping wheels in favor of the set which still maintains traction.
For a third condition, torque is locked at rear wheels via a dashboard switch, and Ridgeline tackles a difficult traction situation at slow speed like an icy driveway or sandy off-road slope.
In the spacious cabin of Ridgeline, all aspects seem comfortable and convenient in the Honda tradition.
Capacity extends to five passengers in an arrangement with twin bucket seats on the first row and a bench for three riders on the second row.
A revamped multi-function console positioned between front buckets has a sliding armrest and sliding lower tray plus concealed stow spots.
The back bench splits 60/40 with lift-up seats revealing a storage compartment big enough for a golf bag.
Or the bench folds up, transforming the space into a cargo bay large enough to house a mountain bike.
Honda casts Ridgeline the SUT in three trim designations -- the well-equipped RT, full-featured RTS and a luxurious RTL with leather upholstery and the optional Honda satellite-linked navigation system.
Base equipment on Ridgeline RT ranges from air conditioning and power controls for windows and door locks to a trip computer, cruise control, keyless entry devise, power sliding rear window and 100-watt audio package with six speakers and a CD deck with MP3/WMA playback capability.
Price points for the 2009 Ridgeline begin at $28,000 for the RT and extend to $36,330 for Ridgeline RTL with the navigation equipment aboard.