By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Honda’s take on the old Chevy El Camino (and Ford Ranchero) probably came along a few years too soon.
In 2006, when the first Ridgeline appeared, real trucks (body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive with real 4WD, not AWD) were like the pre-Chicxulub crater T-Rexes of the late Cretaceous era: Abundant and dominant.
Then came the asteroid – in the form of doubling gas prices and a doubled-over economy. Big trucks with big engines and big appetites aren’t as popular lately.
The car-based crossover SUV surge has also shown people who really don’t need heavy duty (or real 4WD) that a car-based machine rides and handles better than a truck-based machine.
The Ridgeline – like the small mammals scurrying underneath the feet of T-Rex – has survived this long and may yet prosper, now that conditions are more favorable.
WHAT IT IS
The four-door, five-passenger Ridgeline is a unique vehicle: part mid-sized car, part mid-sized pick-up. It is fundamentally car-based in terms of its underlying architecture, so it rides and handles more like a car than a truck. But it has a truck-like five-foot bed out back – composite lined, too – as well as more ground clearance (8.2 inches) than a car and full-time all-wheel-drive. So it’s great in snow, a perfect Home Depot Mobile and also a suitable familymobile.
Prices start at $29,250 for the base RT and run to $34,830 for the top-of-the-line RTL.
Since there’s no other vehicle on the market right now that’s like it, it has the market to itself.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The Ridgeline enters its sixth year in production largely the same as before, with a few tweaks to the powertrain that result in slightly better gas mileage on the highway and a new Sport trim that’s priced only a few hundred bucks above the base RT but comes with a lot of extra stuff, including black powder-coated 18-inch wheels, matching blacked out grille up front and black-trimmed brake lights out back, fog lights, a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and all-weather floor mats inside. Base price for this new Ridgeline trim is $29,995.
Does most of the things most people need a truck to do without actually being a truck.
Easy to drive and pleasant to drive.
Six years in production and known to be solid.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Can’t do a few of the things that a real truck can, like deal with severe off-road conditions or pull a heavy trailer.
Kind of slow. Takes a solid 9 seconds to make it to 60.
Kind of piggy. Despite being car-based and having only a 3.5 liter V-6, the Ridgeline’s max-effort fuel economy is just 15 city, 21 highway – only slightly better mileage than several V-8 powered mid-sized trucks can manage.
Unique. You either love the looks (and the concept) or you hate it.
UNDER THE HOOD
All Ridgelines are powered by a SOHC 3.5 liter, 250 hp V-6 teamed up with a five-speed automatic and full-time all-wheel-drive.
Unlike “real” trucks, the Ridgeline’s drivetrain is front-wheel-drive based – and biased. Most of the time, most of the power goes to the front rather than the rear wheels. And of course, the AWD system does not have a two-speed transfer case and so, there’s no Low range gearing.
Honda does fit the Ridgeline with a driver-selectable locking differential, though – which is very useful on slick/snowy roads.
As mentioned up above, 0-60 takes about 9 seconds, which is slower than most current mid-sized (and more powerful) real trucks. In 2006, 250 hp was decent. Six years on, 250 hp is on the weak side – especially in a vehicle that weighs as much as the Ridgeline does (4,505 lbs.).
As a result of the weight – and partly also because the Ridgeline has a less efficient five-speed automatic vs. the more effectively geared six-speeds that are now common – fuel economy is merely so-so: 15 city, 21 highway. This is a slight (1 MPG) uptick over 2011 but nothing to brag about relative to real trucks. For example, the V-8 powered (4.7 liters) 2012 Dodge Dakota will give you about the same mileage: 14 city, 18 highway. But you’ll also get 52 more hp (302) and much better acceleration.
Towing is also a weak – well, not-so-strong – point.
You can pull up to 5,000 lbs. with a Ridgeline and the bed will take 1,550 lbs. A Dakota (and other mid-sized trucks) can typically pull close to (or even more than ) 7,000 lbs.
On the other hand, the Ridgeline can pull – and carry – significantly more than most cars, crossover wagons and minivans – which usually max out around 3,500 lbs.
ON THE ROAD
Though the Ridgeline looks like a medium-sized pickup truck – and is marketed as such by Honda – it lacks two things most of the vehicles it competes against have or offer as optional equipment : A V-8 engine and a “real truck” 4WD system with a two-speed transfer case and Low range gearing.
Instead, the Ridgeline has a full-time AWD system and a car-ish V-6 engine. These aren’t defects, just differences – but they do put the Ridgeline at a disadvantage when the talk turns to off-road capability, towing numbers and other “real truck” bragging points.
My take on this is it’s Honda’s fault for putting the Ridgeline in the position of having to defend itself on these points instead of touting itself as an alternative to the traditional pick-up that can work better for the recreational user.
For instance, Honda’s Variable Torque Management full-time all-wheel-drive system arguably gives the Ridgeline a leg up over 2WD and even 4WD pick-up trucks in most real-world driving scenarios. Remember: 4WD is optional on most trucks – and a 2WD truck can be more helpless in poor weather than a front-drive passenger car. And more, most “real truck” 4WD systems are part-time and not intended for use on dry, paved roads. Most of the time, you’re driving around in 2WD (or should be) even though you’ve got 4WD.
The Ridgeline’s lighter-duty AWD system isn’t the best choice for going off-road if “off-road” means deep mud or wilderness trails and rock-crawling. But it should have no trouble getting you out of the driveway – and down the (paved) road – when it snows. And it provides a handling advantage when it’s dry – and you’re cornering.
Wet pavement, too.
So on those days when it’s not snowing, you’ll enjoy a smoother ride and more precise, car-like handling characteristics (thanks to the fully-independent suspension) than most “real” trucks (many of which have solid rear axle suspensions) can give you.
Though engineers have worked near-miracles with modern pick-ups to make them more agreeable to soccer moms and suburbanites, there’s only so much you can do with the basic layout – at least, without also compromising off-road capability, He-Man tow ratings and so on.
It’s a Catch-22 situation.
Unless you redefine the equation – which is just what Honda has done.
AT THE CURB
Ridgeline offers a roomy and comfortable five-passenger cab with four full-size doors and a clever five-foot-by four-foot cargo bed with flush mounted lights, multiple tie-downs, composite liner and an additional 8.5 cubic foot lockable storage area tucked into the floor of the bed. This little cubby has a drain plug, too – so you can fill it up with ice and a 12 pack of whatever. Or use it to stow live bait – and carry home your catch. It’s also a great place to stash expensive tools, etc.
The tailgate folds down and to the side – which serves to extend the usable length of the bed when it’s folded down (as for hauling dirt bikes or a 4×8 sheet) or give you “wide-open” access to it. I used my tester to carry a gas-powered tiller and various unwieldy/oversized stuff down the road to a buddy’s house – and the Ridgeline was as useful for this job as my Nissan Frontier pick-up. Maybe more so, since my truck doesn’t have an integrated composite bedliner like the Ridgeline does.
Additional versatility is provided by the multiple 12V power points in the cab, about a dozen storage bins and an expandable, “deep dish” center console.
The interior is spacious and user-friendly, with oversized rotary knobs to control important functions like the fan speed and AC/heat settings. The materials and finishes are dullish and plasticky, but that can be a plus in terms of wiping down spills and keeping the truck clean and decent-looking after six or seven years of use. I personally really like the column shifter, too. It may not be as “sporty” as a console-mounted floor shifter, but it’s easier to use and frees up space on the console.
There’s 36.4 inches of rear seat legroom and 39.1 inches of headroom. A six-foot-three, 200 pound guy (me) can sit back there happily for hours at a time.
The Ridgeline’s very comfortable to drive – and it’s also very safe. The sudden instability/loss of control/susceptibility to rolling over that has long been an issue with pick-ups and truck-based SUVs is not an issue for the Ridgeline. Back in ’06, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded the Ridgeline the best ratings possible in both its Static Stability Factor and Dynamic Rollover tests – making it the first four- door pickup to ever receive NHTSA’s 5 star rating.
It’s also a safe bet. We have six years of track record to go by and – so far – the Ridgeline has proved itself to be a well-built/durable vehicle. It may not be the latest thing – but it’s a not a lemon. I’ll take that over “latest thing” any day of the week.
It also has a fiercely loyal – if small – following. There are Ridgeline clubs and owner’s groups, all of them devoted to this latter-day El Camino and a great resource if you ever need advice or help. See here for more info.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Granted, the Ridgeline’s not a mechanical Pro Bowl linesman like a V-8 Dakota or even a V-6 Nissan Frontier. But that’s not what this vehicle is about – even though Honda hasn’t done a particularly good job of making that clear.
If you really need a “real” truck – fine, go get you one. There are plenty of choices.
But if you need or just want something different – and in its own way, better in several key areas than a traditional truck – at least give the Ridgeline a look.
You might find it suits you better than a “real” truck.