SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA A pickup truck has been the missing link in Honda's U.S. lineup. It's easy to understand why this is the last major segment for the cautious automaker to dip a tire into. Having no V-8 engines, solid rear axles, or body-on-frame vehicles among any of its other offerings, Honda couldn't readily do a traditional-style pickup. So it had to do something different. Now it has. Honda claims it started with a clean sheet of paper, but it was one with the faint outline of the Pilot on it. Like the Pilot, the new Ridgeline pickup uses unibody construction, a transverse-mounted 3.5-liter V-6, and four-wheel-independent suspension-not typical pickup hardware. The Ridgeline also defies convention in that it offers only one cab configuration (four-door), one bed length (five feet), and one powertrain (a 24-valve SOHC V-6, five-speed automatic, and on-demand four-wheel drive).
The result is a pickup with better-than-expected towing, payload, and off-road capabilities. It has a spacious interior, very good ride and handling, and some interesting cargo-hauling innovations.
Because the Ridgeline's independent rear suspension takes up far less space than a live axle, Honda was able to add a large compartment under the truck bed, providing a clean and dry home to the spare tire (either the standard mini-spare or available full-size) and, more significant, an 8.5-cubic-foot trunk. At last: secure, weatherproof, outside-the-cab cargo space in a pickup. The volume might not sound like a lot, but the ultra-practical box shape allows it to swallow even a giant-size cooler-or, with its waterproof periphery and built-in drain plug, it can be used as a cooler itself.
Cargo beds in 4x4 pickups have gotten pretty high off the ground, and although Honda's underfloor storage doesn't raise the Ridgeline's much farther, owners would need telescoping arms to reach over the dropped-down tailgate to get anything out of that new trunk. Honda's solution, borrowed from station wagons of yore, is a two-way tailgate, which drops down or swings open like a door to allow easier loading of the trunk or of the bed itself. (It's also particularly neat for hosing out debris.) Despite the unconventional hinge arrangement, the lowered tailgate can support 300 pounds when hauling.
On the subject of the cargo bed, we should mention that with 49.5 inches between the wheelhouses, the Ridgeline is the only midsize pickup in which 4x8 building materials can lie flat on the floor. They do stick out
the back, though, as there's no GM-style mid-gate to extend the cargo box. At 6.5 feet with the tailgate lowered, it is long enough to carry a dirt bike or an ATV, however, and it offers a respectable half-ton (1100-pound) payload capacity.
The cargo box is not a separate unit but is fully integrated into the rest of the body. The resultant increased rigidity is evident in the absence of shudder over bumps, an affliction that plagues most 4x4 pickups. The independent rear suspension also contributes to the composed ride. Body control is good, even with a full load, and the Ridgeline stays relatively flat in corners. The firm-feel steering is appropriate for a big truck and is pleasantly free of slop. Stability control and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard, though grippier tires would help both handling and braking.
Honda engineers claim that more than 90 percent of the Ridgeline's chassis is different from the Pilot's, and some of those changes-two additional crossmembers (seven total) and fully boxed frame rails-help explain the Ridgeline's rather porky 4500-pound curb weight. It's no wonder the 255-hp V-6 doesn't send the Ridgeline charging onto the freeway, although Honda claims it will get to 62 mph in 9.5 seconds, which would put it about on par with a V-8 Dodge Dakota but behind a V-6 Nissan Frontier or a Toyota Tacoma. The Pilot's five-speed automatic has been extensively reengineered for pickup duty, helping to give the Ridgeline a 5000-pound towing capacity. That figure isn't the highest in the mid-size class, but it's probably enough for most people.
Likewise, the Ridgeline's 8.2-inch ground clearance and lack of a low range for its four-wheel drive might elicit snickers from off-road extremists, but we were able to bash bumps and tackle steep climbs and water crossings without incident. Wheel travel of 7.3 inches front and 8.2 inches at the rear is better than you might expect from an independent suspension, and Honda's VTM-4 lock button allows the driver to send the maximum torque (70 percent) to the rear axle at low speeds, such as when pulling a boat up a ramp.
To reinforce the message that this really is a tough truck-not some kinder, gentler pansy pickup-Honda designers gave it an exterior that looks as if it were designed with Lego blocks. The all-new interior features oversize matte silver knobs, a huge speedometer, and meaty door pulls (the better to distract you from the hard plastics everywhere else in the cabin). The cabin is sprawl-out comfortable front and back, and there's storage space everywhere. The center console alone is so labyrinthine you could easily lose a Big Mac in there for weeks.
Honda has created something truly different in the world of pickups, an area that has seen lots of one-upmanship but very little critical thinking. The Ridgeline is not designed to establish bragging rights but to meet real needs-which may be its most unusual aspect of all.