Reviews

2017 Honda Ridgeline First Drive Review

The Un-Truck: Despite its more trucklike appearance, the new Ridgeline is still as unique as ever

Honda was a latecomer to the pickup world, taking until 2006 to build the first-generation Ridgeline. When it finally debuted, many questioned whether it was really a truck at all, given its oddball sail-panel profile, unibody construction, and limited capability relative to the well-established, traditional trucks already on the market.

It was clear Honda had different ideas about what a midsize truck should be, and despite the criticism it took for its supposed shortcomings, the Ridge found a following: The first Ridgeline sold 250,000 units, 175,000 of which are still with their original owners. The new 2017 Honda Ridgeline takes Honda’s reinvention of the pickup to the next level, even as the new model adopts a more conventional exterior look.

2017 Honda Ridgeline rear three quarter in motion 02

As was the case with the first model, it’s tempting to measure and rate the new Honda Ridgeline in the context of its competition. But that’s wrong for several reasons—first and foremost being that it doesn’t have any competitors. There are alternatives, to be sure, but the 2017 Ridgeline isn’t a truck in the traditional sense of the word, and although it’ll do a lot of trucklike things (and do them very well), the Ridgeline isn’t a truck. It’s the un-truck.

Even Honda falls into this comparison trap, bragging about the Ridgeline’s list of “segment leading” features—its 1584-pound payload capacity, 50-inch width between wheelwells, long list of standard and available safety options, and triple-sealed cabin quietness. Against its supposed competitors, the Ridgeline chalks many spec-sheet victories. But missing from that quantitative analysis is the human aspect of the new Ridgeline’s overall driving experience.

Because of its four-wheel independent suspension, carlike interior, soft yet supportive seats, and torque-vectoring rear wheels on all-wheel-drive models, the Ridgeline drives more like a well-balanced, comfort-minded sedan. On the highway, its quietness, comfort, and visibility make it a great road-trip or long commute vehicle.

2017 Honda Ridgeline front view in motion

Getting Technical

When it comes to trucks, specs matter. With un-trucks like the Ridgeline, specs matter even more because they need to do what trucks do while taking a different route to the final result. So the basics: All 2017 Honda Ridgelines come with a single engine, the 3.5-liter V-6 found in numerous Honda products. Here, it’s rated at 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. Peak power hits at 6,000 rpm. Peak torque arrives at 4,700 rpm, though it’s higher than 200 lb-ft across essentially the entire engine speed range. Combined with the standard six-speed automatic transmission with multidisc lockup clutch torque converter, the Ridgeline’s engine delivers very good acceleration; in back-to-back 0-to-50 mph sprints with a Colorado of similar configuration, the 305-hp Chevy feels only a touch quicker.

The Ridgeline is available in two-wheel- and all-wheel-drive forms, but as before, it is front-drive-based, not rear-drive like traditional trucks. In AWD form, the Ridgeline is primarily front-drive, too, but can send up to 70 percent of torque rearward when needed to combat wheelspin or when engaged by the traction mode system, which includes Snow, Mud, and Sand modes.

Compared to the previous Ridgeline, the new model’s torque-vectoring AWD system is 46 percent faster in engaging the rear wheels and has 20 percent more torque capacity. The use of a wet-clutch-based torque-vectoring rear end allows the Ridgeline to use power alone to vector the torque, rather than the brake-based torque vectoring found on other midsize trucks. This means the Ridgeline can add torque to the outside rear wheel in cornering to enhance rotation or to the inside rear wheel when changing lanes at freeway speeds to reduce yaw and enhance stability.

The three modes beyond the Normal setting also tweak the drive-by-wire throttle response, offering a second-gear start and less throttle per degree of pedal movement in Snow mode or more aggressive throttle tuning in Sand mode. A mix of throttle response (easy on takeoff, more aggressive once you’re going) is pretuned for Mud mode. All three non-Normal modes bias more torque to the rear, and both Mud and Sand modes hold lower gears longer and allow more slip from both the traction control and the VSA stability control system.

Whip down a rough dirt road and the Ridgeline can run with two of best of the current midsize truck segment—the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon and Toyota Tacoma. I know, because I drove them back to back on a range of off-road courses Honda set up at Rio Cibolo Ranch near San Antonio, Texas.

There, we got a good sense of un-truck’s performance. Through a hairpin-laden dirt course cut through grass and strewn with obstacles including a railroad tie, a river-rock rough section, and a series of shallow woop-de-doos, the Sand mode provides plenty leeway to slide the Ridgeline. Cornering proves fast, without obtrusive traction or stability control intervention. Plowing through the same course in the Tacoma and Colorado produces ample understeer in 4WD mode, though both fare as well as the Ridgeline once reverting back to RWD mode. Their stick axles and greater unsprung weight cause a somewhat rougher ride, however.

The off-road section is a meandering bit of two-track featuring a water crossing, undulating woods, a man-made steep ascent hill, a series of alternating hillocks, a sand pit, and a wheel articulation test. It wasn’t a challenge for the Colorado or Tacoma, nor was it for the Ridgeline. Would the Ridgeline fare as well as the Chevy or the Toyota at Moab or crossing the Rubicon? Almost certainly not. But it will go more places than 95 percent of the owners of any of the three trucks will ever dare.

2017 Honda Ridgeline cabin

Getting Cerebral

How can a midsize pickup be so carlike and comfy on pavement yet still capable enough for most people off-road and pack 5,000 pounds of towing (with the AWD version) as well as three-quarters of a ton of payload capacity? By taking a very different approach to development and design—an approach informed by research and statistics, rather than by tradition and the desire to one-up the other guy.

The Ridgeline’s unibody construction offers greater rigidity than the body-on-frame setups used by other midsize trucks. This torsional stiffness allows for relatively lower spring rates and damping for control of body motion, making for a more comfortable ride when unloaded. The torque-vectoring rear end aids trailer-towing stability. The sheet-molded composite (SMC) bed material is practically indestructible, shrugging off dents and scratches that would permanently damage metal beds. All of these choices are the result of market research to define the 95 percent use case of a midsize truck, which Honda then used to build the Ridgeline.

In fact, Honda’s research shows that recreational towing accounts for less than 3 percent of midsize truck use, and when owners do tow, nearly 70 percent tow either flat-bed utility trailers or boat trailers weighing less than 2,500 pounds. Another 20-plus percent tow in the 2,500-5,000 pound range—typically enclosed utility trailers or camping trailers. This covers the vast majority of real-world scenarios, meaning that whatever midsize truck fans may think, they’re very unlikely to exceed the Ridgeline’s ability in actual use. The Ridgeline comes standard with a hitch receiver and industry standard seven-pin plug, and it’s also pre-wired for a trailer brake controller.

Even if the figures aren’t as favorable as Honda’s research indicates, my experience using the Ridgeline to tow a 3,600-pound trailer loaded with a four-seater side-by-side and a Honda quad showed it to be fully up to the task in acceleration and deceleration as well as stability. The one caveat to the Ridgeline’s towing ability is that where the conventional midsize trucks ride better once loaded, the Ridgeline rides worse. Bumps are felt more acutely at the rear end, and the nose floats a bit more, both symptoms of being closer to max capacity than its stick-axled alternatives.

Honda has focused its efforts where they really matter. It has delivered a vehicle that will easily do everything potential owners will need a truck to do 5 percent of the time, without compromising comfort, handling, and quietness for the other 95 percent.

Getting Technological

One area where the new Ridgeline unquestionably has the upper hand in the midsize truck market is safety. Honda anticipates five-star NHTSA crash test ratings, as well as good performance in the IIHS small-overlap test and a Top Safety Pick+ rating based on its in-house computer modeling and real-world crash testing. Even if it falls short on one or more of those marks, however, its suite of safety technologies dwarfs the offerings from GM and Toyota.

Adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, road departure mitigation (which aims to reduce the severity of an impact after the vehicle leaves the road), forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic monitoring, and automatic high-beam control are all available on the Ridgeline—though you’ll have to opt up to the pricier RTL-E or Black Edition trims (the top two tiers) to get them all.

Another new technology to the midsize segment is the in-bed audio system, which uses exciters to turn the entirety of the bed’s sides and front into weather- and impact-proof speakers. This complements the in-bed trunk, which can accommodate up to an 82-quart cooler (or serve as a cooler itself when filled with ice, thanks to a built-in drain plug), and the bed-mounted A/C socket, which can supply up to 400 watts of power when the vehicle is parked and the engine is running—enough to run a 60-inch television. Thanks to a trick latch/hinge system, the tailgate opens normally toward the rear, but it also opens toward the side—great for access to the under-bed trunk. Put these features together and you have a heck of a picnicking or tailgating setup—without having to do any cutting or wiring yourself.

There’s a downside to the bed-based tech: height. The tailgate and bed floor of the Ridgeline are noticeably higher than in the Colorado or Tacoma—about on par with a much higher-riding, heavy-duty full-size truck. This can make it tougher to get items up and into the bed, especially for shorter users.

On the infotainment front, once you opt up to the RTL-T trim, you get an 8-inch touchscreen display with navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Pandora, and USB input.

2017 Honda Ridgeline side profile 01

Getting Expensive

If it seems like there’s been a fair bit of “if you opt up to a certain trim level” talk thus far, it’s because there has. And it’s not like the base Ridgeline starts out cheap, at $30,375 for the 2WD Ridgeline RT. All-wheel drive adds $1,800 to every trim level up through the $36,830 ($38,630 with AWD) RTL-T. The top-spec RTL-E and Black Edition Ridgelines are AWD-only and priced at $42,270 and $43,770, respectively.

Comparing these prices to a comparably equipped Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma, the Ridgeline is just about on target—about $500 more than the Tacoma and $400 less than the Colorado. But that’s where the comparisons stop—because both the Tacoma and Colorado offer a wide variety of cab and bed configurations, while the Ridgeline is four-door, short-bed only. The Colorado and Tacoma can both be had for much less money in lower-spec configurations—nearly $10,000 less in both cases.

On top of the lack of cab and bed options, the Ridgeline comes with just one engine. Both Toyota and GM offer a choice of four- and six-cylinder gas engines, and GM also offers a torquey four-cylinder diesel, too. Combined with the extra cab and bed configurations, there’s still plenty of midsize truck ground that the Ridgeline can’t reach.

Fortunately for Honda, the Ridgeline isn’t aiming to poach buyers from the existing midsize truck crowd. Instead, it’s looking squarely at the crossover market, intending to grab buyers who want the comfort and carlike behavior of a crossover for their daily driving duties, but the dirty-work space afforded by a pickup bed for the weekends, whether they’re working on the yard or the house or playing at the lake or in the desert.

Here we see Honda’s strategy with the Ridgeline come full circle: It’s not built like a traditional truck, it doesn’t drive like a truck, its interior doesn’t look or feel like a truck’s, and it’s not really aimed at truck people. Even though it has a bed and does everything a midsize truck should do (and does it all quite well), it’s not a truck. It’s a crossover with a bed—both in theory and in practice, being built largely of upgraded Pilot parts. It’s an un-truck.

If you hold prejudices that dictate what a truck’s nationality should be (this one’s built in Alabama, by the way), or how it should be made, or what it should look like, un-truck yourself. Give the Ridgeline a look. You just might find it’s as fun, capable, and practical as I did.

2017 Honda Ridgeline front end

2017 Honda Ridgeline Specifications

On Sale: July
Price: $30,375 (base)
Engine: 3.5L 24-valve SOHC V-6/280 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine FWD/AWD truck
EPA Mileage: 18-19/25-26 city/hwy
L x W x H: 210.0 x 78.6 x 70.2-70.8 in
Wheelbase: 125.2 in
Weight: 4,242/4,431 lb (2WD/AWD)
0-60 MPH: 6.5 sec (est)
Top Speed: N/A

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EPA MPG:

19 City / 26 Hwy

Horse Power:

280 @ 6000

Torque:

262 @ 4700