Abusing the 2018 Honda Ridgeline in the Arizona Desert
The unibody truck gets maxed out for a land versus water race
We picked up the jet skis in Page, Arizona, just over the Utah line. The town is a blip at the base of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, founded to house the men who came to build the Glen Canyon Dam, and, by extension, Lake Powell. Page is here for the water, and so were we. Motorcyclist magazine editor Chris Cantle and I had a friendly wager running, one that said I could take a motorcycle and ride the 250 miles from Hite, at the lake's northern edge, to the Wahweap Marina at its southern end before he could do the same by water astride a Kawasaki Jet Ski Ultra 310R. His route was 110 miles shorter, but wound through a maze of flooded canyons. He was also slower, with a limited top speed of 68 mph. And with a range of just over 50 miles, he'd have two fuel stops as well. No matter how we tallied it, the finish would be close.
First, we had to get ourselves and the machines to the start line. There is no direct route from one end of the lake to the other. The water follows the old whims of the Colorado River, the same ambling, patient force that carved the Grand Canyon. The maze of fractal, flooded stone wanders vaguely southwest from Hite, serving as the living border between federal land to the north, and the Hopi and Navajo Nation Reservations to the south. No road, dirt or otherwise, clings to the banks, which is why we found ourselves pointed south east on Arizona Highway 98, the 2018 Honda Ridgeline's windshield full of the desert's spectacular nothing.
It took a moment for dawn to shape the landscape. Buttes and ridges started as silhouettes against the pink and orange sky before growing definition, forming from the haze in the changing light. Page sits at 4,000 feet, but we were climbing the plateau, gaining elevation with each mile on our way to 6,680 feet. This was a cruel test. We were lugging nearly 5,000 pounds between the trailer and the two massive skis, pushing the upper limits of the Ridgeline's tow rating. I did not expect much from the Honda. Like most red-blooded, truck-owning Americans, I'd gotten it into my head that this machine is little more than an El Camino Odyssey, and I would no more hook two and a half tons to that minivan than I would ask it to fly me to France.
Honda calls it a mid-size pickup, placing it in the same category as the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, and Chevrolet Colorado, but the Ridgeline delivers a level of cleverness missing from its competitors—and it feels larger than any of those vehicles inside thanks to an open cabin.
By their nature, pickups aren't great at making use of the space they occupy. The traditional, body-on-frame design is robust, but results in an empty steel box draped over an understructure. As a unibody vehicle, the Ridgeline doesn't have that problem and is able to offer plenty of smart storage. There was ample room for three adults and the tower of wet suits, life jackets, helmets, and leathers we brought along, due in part to the folding rear seats and cavernous in-bed trunk.
Unibody construction also allows the Ridgeline to ride much lower than its competitors. Ingress and egress is easy, as is fetching things from the bed. This might be the only all-wheel-drive truck on the market that doesn't require a step ladder to grab your groceries, and while hard-core buyers may bemoan the lack of ground clearance, the truth is that the vast majority of trucks never leave the road. Why suffer all of the penalties that come with a tall ride height - poor fuel economy and handling, clambering in and out, an unusable cargo area - if you don't find yourself summiting rock-strewn mountain passes every week?
Nor does the Ridgeline beat you to death with needlessly stiff springs or buckboard stick axles. With an independent suspension front and rear, the truck drives just like the Honda Pilot. It's smooth, calm, and collected, even at speeds well past the legal interstate limit. It's also blissfully quiet inside. A three-layer acoustic windshield helps soak up noise from the front, while thicker side glass does the same around the rest of the vehicle. Triple door seals and a pile of high-density foams stuffed in strategic places do their part, too. All of that combines to yield a vehicle that produces very little in the way of driving fatigue. Want to spend eight hours blasting across the desert? So does the Ridgeline.
Impressive fuel economy helps make that happen. Unladen, we saw 27 mpg during our rip from Los Angeles to Page, and at no point could we have been accused of hypermiling. With the skis hooked to the hitch, that number fell to 15 mpg. Those are very impressive figures for a full-time all-wheel drive pickup, and they don't come at the cost of performance. The 3.5-liter V-6 is no brute, but with 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, it's never in its own way. I expected the Ridgeline to be a danger to society with 5,000 pounds behind it-slow, pondering, and overworked. It wasn't. The six-speed automatic helped keep the engine where it needed to be, and the truck simply put its shoulder to the weight and hefted it all the way up our grueling climb to the dirt launch at Hite, Utah.
I say all this as someone with a three-quarter ton diesel pickup at home, so it's important that you understand what I mean when I say that the Ridgeline is better suited for most truck owners than the tide of F-150s, Silverados, Tacomas, and Titans we see slogging down our streets. Unless you find yourself consistently towing more than two tons, this little Honda is simply a better tool for daily life. No one hangs a painting with a sledgehammer. Why commute in a truck that can lug 18,000 pounds up Eisenhower Pass?
That doesn't mean you'll convince anyone who uses their Sierra for carpool duty to make the switch. The source of the Ridgeline's brilliance, that it is no normal pickup, may also be its curse. It's no towering monolith of sheet steel and tire. It does not seek to intimidate, and while the styling has grown more mainstream with the new generation, it's still far from the chiseled, testosterone-fueled design language that pickup buyers can't seem to get enough of.
Still, we spent better than four days with three adults packed in the Ridgeline, roaming up and down the lake, scouting photos, and pulling those heavy skis up mud boat launches. At no point did we step out of the vehicle's comfort zone, and no one was quick to give it up when the time came. There may be no better proof that Honda has finally built a better pickup.