Everyone knows that the Honda Ridgeline is not a real truck. How could it be? It’s a front-wheel-drive unibody vehicle based on Honda’s Pilot mid-size crossover SUV. The Ridgeline is completely unlike any other truck currently on the market. In the history of attempts at unibody trucks, only the Ford Ranchero of the early-’60s has stood the test of time.

But let’s not waste time talking about what the Ridgeline isn’t. Let’s talk about what it is.

 

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Unibody Chassis and Independent Rear Suspension

The Ridgeline is built on a unibody platform. That fact drives every other difference between the Ridgeline and its body-on-frame competitors. Those differences start with an independent multi-link rear suspension instead of a solid rear axle. That feature allows the Ridgeline to give you a smooth SUV-like ride and improved handling and traction compared to a traditional truck design. You also get a little more ground clearance, since you don’t have a big old diff pumpkin between the rear wheels.

Most independent suspensions are not natively as strong as the designs used in traditional 4WD pickups, but Honda has dramatically upsized and reengineered the new Ridgeline suspension to meet the same strength standards as competing mid-size trucks without sacrificing the ride and handling benefits.

 

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Engine and Drivetrain

Because the Ridgeline uses the same chassis as the Pilot, it also makes sense that Honda would use an SUV-style full-time AWD system, rather than invest in a conventional 4WD setup. So you don’t get low-range under any circumstances.

The Ridgeline AWD system is a torque-vectoring design, meaning that the basic setup is FWD, with a driveshaft back to a rear differential that uses electronic clutches to send power to either or both rear wheels as needed. Based on measured wheel slip, the system can send up to 70% of torque to the rearend, choosing the wheel (or wheels) with the best grip, and it doesn’t have to actuate the brake at any wheel to do that. It’s a technically advanced design that gives the Ridgeline excellent off-road manners.

By tweaking the stability and traction control parameters, Honda has implemented driver-selectable Normal, Snow, Mud and Sand modes. I tested the new Ridgeline in loose sand, and while it would move pretty well in Normal mode, Sand mode made traction a non-problem. The Ridgeline got up on the surface and stayed there. Hill scrambling and chassis articulation challenges were similarly easy. The Ridgeline was substantially better in a grass rallycross course, courtesy of that independent rear suspension and torque vectoring AWD.

The engine driving the Ridgeline’s AWD system is Honda’s 3.5L normally aspirated, V-6, rated at 280 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. That’s the only driveline combination offered with the Ridgeline, and it’s a really nice package. While the power is down a bit from competitors like the Tacoma V-6 and the Colorado/Canyon V-6, the Ridgeline has just about the same 0-60 time (6.5 seconds) and actually wins on fuel economy with 18 mpg city and 25 mpg on the highway.

 

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Towing and Hauling Capability

The Ridgeline falls about a ton short of the towing capacity of GM’s Colorado/Canyon twins or the Toyota Tacoma, but you still get towing capacity up to 5,000 pounds. That’s enough to manage about a 20-foot boat on a double-axle trailer, a good-size travel trailer or a double-axle flatbed trailer with a passenger car on it.

I towed a boat/trailer combo at 4,800 pounds and a flatbed/ATV combo at 4,300 pounds without any drama at all. The Ridgeline had plenty of torque to haul the boat out of the water and managed the road-towing part of the exercise like a no-brainer. Again, the independent rear suspension really makes a difference in loaded handling.

In terms of bed payload, the Ridgeline comes within 50 pounds of its competitors, carrying up to 1,584 pounds.

 

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Some Extra Bed Features

There are some additional features in the Ridgeline’s bed, and the most important ones are tied back to the unibody design. First, the wheel tubs are tiny, almost vestigial, because of the IRS. As a result, the Ridgeline is the only mid-size pickup to offer a full 4 feet between the wheel tubs. The Ridgeline bed is 5 feet 3 inches long to the tailgate and 7 feet when the tailgate is down, allowing you to conveniently carry 4×8 sheets of plywood, drywall or whatever.

The other feature is found in the big space behind the rear suspension that most trucks use to dangle the spare tire. Honda put a “trunk” back there, and you access it by lifting the rear end of the bed floor. Underneath is a plastic tub big enough to stash an 82-quart cooler. The spare tire is also in there, so you’ll never have to dive into the mud to change a tire.

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You get access to the trunk via the two-way tailgate. In addition to dropping like a normal tailgate, you can also swing the gate out like a door. When the tailgate is locked, the trunk is also locked and its contents are invisible. Honda deserves respect for that.

The Ridgeline’s bed floor and walls are made of an advanced polymer that looks like spray-in bedliner, but it’s substantially stronger. It’s then reinforced with steel supports. This material is quite tough, which Honda proved by taking a scoop loader and dumping in a yard of 10-pound river rocks from about 5 feet up. Then Honda took the rocks out of the bed and it was barely scuffed. Try that on a painted metal bed and see what happens.

 

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Truck-Style Exterior, SUV Interior

The first generation Ridgeline had some funky bodywork. The bed walls sloped down from the back of the cab, and the whole side of the vehicle was a single stamping. That really gave the old Ridgeline an SUV-like appearance. The new Ridgeline definitely looks like a truck, with flat bed walls and a seam between the bed and the cab. The four-door crew cab is the only cab offered, and the 63-inch bed is the only bed available.

The interior of the Ridgeline is definitely SUV rather than truck, but that’s not a bad thing. Historically, truck owners have had to accept a more Spartan environment, and there’s no good reason for that. The Ridgeline is comfortable, and has every creature comfort that you can get in a car or SUV.

You also get some nice SUV features like a multi-angle rear camera, which is great for backing up to a trailer. All mid-size trucks offer a basic rearview camera, and while Colorado and Canyon also have multi-angle, Tacoma and Frontier do not.

 

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Safety Tech

If there’s one place where the Ridgeline’s SUV heritage gives it a major advantage over the competition, it’s in safety technology. All of the latest gizmos are available, including LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, road departure mitigation, collision mitigation braking, forward collision warning, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic monitor and auto high beams.

The competing trucks offer only a fraction of the features on that list. The Chevy Colorado has lane departure warning and forward collision warning. The Toyota Tacoma has a blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic monitor, but that’s it.

Finally, because of the unibody construction, Honda expects a five-star safety rating from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus from IIHS. None of the other trucks on the market have achieved that.

 

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The Driving Experience

Out on the road, the Ridgeline drives like an SUV. The suspension is firm but compliant, and the cabin is nice and quiet. That’s again due to the unibody chassis and independent suspension. Plus, Honda has put a lot of effort into sealing up the cabin, insulating every panel, and engineers added 4 inches of wheelbase in this redesign. Almost all of that length went into the cabin to create a roomy and comfortable vehicle.

Whether it’s a snap lane change, soaking up bumps or taking a curve a little faster than normal, you can really feel the difference between the Ridgeline and competing mid-size trucks.

 

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Pricing and Trim Levels

The 2017 Honda Ridgeline starts at $30,375 (including fees) for a FWD base model or $32,175 for the AWD in base trim. But that’s not the model you want. The Ridgeline you want starts at $38,630 with the RTL-T Technology Edition. That gets you a nicely equipped vehicle with heated leather seats, navigation and the 8-inch touchscreen interface with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Above that level, you get more tech and safety features right up to the top-of-the-line Black Edition at $43,770.

The total price spread on the Ridgeline is just over $10,000, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to skimp. The best value is in the upper end of the price range. The Ridgeline does not offer the cheaper options with a four-cylinder engine and manual transmission, but if you match up features, the Honda is no more expensive than a comparably equipped competitor.

What Makes a Real Truck, Anyway?
Pickup trucks have used a ladder frame and a solid rear axle since Henry Ford made the first Model T pickup in 1925. The Honda Ridgeline is a serious departure from that successful formula, and if that format is important to you, then the Ridgeline is probably not a vehicle you’ll want to consider.

But if you make your decision based on capability, features and value, then you might fairly come to a different conclusion. The Ridgeline will tow, haul and scramble about as well as any competitor, and it offers quite a bit more in comfort, handling and safety technology.

So, is the 2017 Honda Ridgeline a real truck or not? You get to make your own decision on that.

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2016 print issue of Street Trucks Magazine.