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2017 Honda Ridgeline Test Drive Review
Meet the industry’s only unibody pickup and quite possibly the most unique light-duty truck on sale.
Honda likes to build cars, yet it’s also proficient at building motorcycles, airplanes, lawn mowers, generators, and even homes. With so many corporate divisions, it’s fair to assume Honda engineers don’t really behave like normal engineers. Their Honda Ridgeline is a pickup truck that’s actually an open-faced minivan. It hauls lots of stuff but feels entirely like a car. It doesn’t really compete in the light-duty truck segment. But Honda’s specialty is making seemingly foreign concepts work, as the all-new 2017 Ridgeline demonstrates.
Look and Feel
Unlike every other pickup on sale, the Ridgeline comes only as a 4-door Crew cab with a 5-foot, 4-inch bed. Compared to the first Ridgeline, which ended production after the 2014 model year, the second-generation Ridgeline dresses up like a real truck. The old Ridgeline had rounded-off body panels and two buttresses that connected the cab to the bed. It was a pleasant sight, even if suggested weakness (and in the macho world of truck advertising, strength rules). For 2017, despite sharing about half of its parts with the Pilot SUV, the Ridgeline adopts a traditional squared-off bed that’s cut off from the cab. It’s not actually separated like a body-on-frame truck. The point is to reduce repair costs if any of the side panels get hit. Any significant dent in the previous version meant replacing not just the bed panel but part of the cab. It also gives the rugged impression that most pickup buyers want, even if they don’t need it. There’s enough chrome, large headlamps, and big tires to keep up appearances, except on our $43,770 Black Edition tester—a fully loaded trim that darkens everything (but is also available in lighter exterior colors). All in all, the Ridgeline looks ready for work.
Inside, if you never turned around, you’d swear this was a Pilot. Indeed, everything up front is identical save for some extra cubby holes and trays on the dash and door panels. This is a very good thing, as the Pilot already felt upscale with high-quality materials and expressive design. There’s a lot of hard-knock plastic in here, but materials are soft where they count—like on the adjustable armrests, steering wheel, the plush seats, and additional elbow rests on the center console and doors. Our Black Edition’s red highlights on the seat inserts helped liven what was, obviously, a very dark interior. Choose your color wisely if you plan to stay out in the sun all day.
Whichever of its seven trim levels you choose, the Ridgeline straps in with a 3.5-liter V6 producing 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, mated to a 6-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard; all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional. Rear-wheel drive (RWD), locking differentials, diesels, V8s—don’t look for them. Our AWD version hustled well on the highway and on curvy back roads. The engine sounds coarse at full blast, but shifts are delivered precisely and hold lower gears on hills until the vehicle senses you’ve reached level ground. Where’s the 9-speed automatic from the Pilot? That transmission has had shift-quality problems in every vehicle in which it’s been installed for the past couple years, and without admitting to such, Honda wanted the Ridgeline's transmission to handle the robust duties a pickup requires. The lack of manual gear selection, save for a “D4” button on the shifter that relegates the transmission to a 4-speed, is a downside.
Towing is also not a Ridgeline strong point. The FWD version's towing capacity is rated at just 3,500 pounds, while AWD versions can tow 5,000 pounds. Honda loaded our truck with a U-Haul open car trailer (carrying a Civic, no less) and probably overloaded the Ridgeline’s capacity. On slight grades, the Ridgeline exhibited driveline shake, and it generally struggled on anything other than a perfectly flat surface. You won’t want to tow anything more than a pair of jet skis or a small boat. Other midsize pickups like the Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado can tow well above 7,000 pounds. Its 1,584-pound payload rating is quite usable—just don’t treat the Ridgeline like a linebacker.
Honda’s torque-vectoring rear axle is a unique feature in that it can instantly vary engine torque for each wheel independently. This helps the Ridgeline corner with more speed and stability. The AWD system has four electronic modes that vary throttle, shifting, torque vectoring, and traction control across paved roads, mud, sand, and snow. We weren’t able to test those features, but the Ridgeline’s 8-inch ground clearance is 0.7-inch less than that of a Subaru Forester. Take that into consideration when going anywhere. This is all to say: keep your loads light and your roads paved.
When on pavement, the Ridgeline’s ride is remarkable. It doesn’t float or waft, the steering is light yet precise, and poor road surfaces that would send shimmies and rattles through ordinary, unladen pickups are absorbed like they would be in a luxury car. The extra noise-canceling insulation in our Ridgeline (on top trims, it's added to the doors and windshield) convinced everyone who rode along to exclaim, “This is comfortable.” Even in a King Ranch Ford F-150, you won’t get quite that level of calm. Braking is controlled, strong, and offers consistent pedal feel.
The FWD Ridgeline is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, with AWD knocking those estimates down to 18 city, 25 highway. Over nearly 400 miles, we hit almost 24 mpg.
Form and Function
Despite offering a shallower bed than the competition, the Ridgeline maximizes space. It’s easier to reach down into the bed from the truck’s side than it was with the first Ridgeline, which also had a 4-inch-shorter bed. There are 50 inches of space between the wheel housings, and a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood can lie flat with the tailgate dropped. That’s when the Ridgeline pulls out the tricks. The double-hinged tailgate can swing open like a giant door, allowing direct access to the bed and an underfloor trunk that can swallow an 82-cubic-foot cooler. The trunk cover is lockable and also touch-sensitive on models with keyless entry, plus there’s a drain plug at the bottom. Top Ridgeline models also throw a 400-watt household outlet in the bed, along with several “speakers” embedded beneath the bed cover and along the illuminated sides (they’re actually magnets that use the bed’s plastic as sound resonators). Eight tie-down clips are at all four corners. An optional power rear window adds some air to the cabin.
Inside, if you’re familiar with the flip-up rear seats in the Honda Fit hatchback, you’ll love them in the Ridgeline. Both seat benches can lock in an upward 90-degree position to completely free up the cabin floor for bulky items (or big golden retrievers). A cavernous front storage bin has a sliding cover, a sliding change tray, and yet another USB port. Honda conveniently labels the amperage for each USB port—there are four total in the three upper trims—so when your phone’s about to die, you can choose how fast it recharges. Head- and legroom are non-issues, even in the rear, which has a middle headrest and rear air vents controlled as a separate zone (except rear passengers can’t change the settings). Visibility is nearly perfect, as is the case with all pickups, and the turning circle is comparable to a large minivan's. No surprise there.
Today’s truck buyers aren’t choosing vinyl-upholstered, bare-bones versions—not by a long shot—and even the hardiest pickups now come with conveniences lifted straight from cars. Our Ridgeline came with the HondaLink infotainment system that trades the 5-inch static screen for an 8-inch touchscreen with touch-sensitive controls for volume and other basic functions. We’d have preferred some hard knobs and switches in a truck, as the entire polished black surface, while enticing, fades fast in sunlight and gets littered with oily fingerprints. That aside, Honda’s interface is simple and clear, with reconfigurable tiles on the main screen, a Garmin navigation system with live traffic and pinch-to-zoom functionality, single-string voice recognition for addresses, and apps like Pandora, Aha, and available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.
A central screen on the instrument panel shows navigation directions, audio, trip, and other useful information sandwiched between two large, clear analog gauges. Push-button start is standard. Our Black Edition also included LED headlamps with LED running lamps, heated power front seats, remote start, red ambient lighting, and an 8-speaker 540-watt stereo that was surprisingly punchy and clean sounding. Even the truck-bed audio, accessible when the vehicle is in Park or driving at very low speeds, sounds decent considering there are no subwoofers or speaker cones of any kind. That alone will make you respected at your next tailgate party.
Honda expects a 5-star crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but the Ridgeline has not yet been crash-tested. Honda says the new Ridgeline’s body structure is 28 percent more rigid and the cab is so reinforced that a 1,000-pound object in the bed won’t intrude into the cabin during a 30-mph frontal collision.
Our Ridgeline also came with Honda Sensing, which includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision alert, auto-braking, lane-keep assist, and auto high beams. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is also available, as is LaneWatch, a Honda innovation that lets the driver see a live video feed of the right-side blind spot—with lines estimating car length behind the truck—as soon as the blinker is engaged. Those features are restricted to top trims.
The Ridgeline starts at $30,375 for a FWD RT and can run all the way up to $43,770 for our loaded Black Edition. AWD is standard for the RTL-E and Black Edition but optional for varying prices on the RT, RTS, Sport, RTL, and RTL-T. While this makes the Ridgeline more expensive than a base Tacoma, Colorado, or even an F-150, the high level of standard features—especially with a V6 engine and a Crew cab configuration—means the Ridgeline is priced on par with similarly equipped competitors.
But at the same time, the lack of multiple cab and bed configurations severely limits this truck to very specific uses. You shouldn’t buy a Ridgeline if you’re towing or traveling off-road each week. This is the lightest of light-duty trucks. But the big payoff is exemplary on-road performance that can’t be touched by anything in the segment. Plus, all those everyday utility features, like those fold-up rear seats and the bed trunk, make the Ridgeline a good alternative when a Chevy is just too rough and tumble.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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