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2017 Honda Ridgeline: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Jason Fogelson May 2016

The 2017 Honda Ridgeline isn't like any other midsize truck -- it isn't even like the first-generation Honda Ridgeline. In a world where the competitors all rely on the same basic blueprint, the Ridgeline's architects are operating from a different set of plans, which leads to the question of the day: Is the Honda Ridgeline enough of a truck to satisfy buyers' needs and wants?

Unibody vs. Body on Frame

The original Ridgeline (2006-2014) was a quirky, polarizing pickup truck. It didn't look like the other midsize pickups on the block at the time -- the Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Nissan Frontier -- all of which looked like scaled-down versions of full-size pickups and followed the familiar formula of body-on-frame construction with a solid rear axle. The Ridgeline looked more like a Chevy Avalanche, the 4-door truck with integrated buttresses connecting the cab and bed. But the Ridgeline had other different features on tap. It was built as a unibody vehicle without a traditional frame and bolted-on body parts. The side of the Ridgeline was made with one big stamping, and there was no gap between the bed and cab.

Unibody construction is common in the automotive industry because it allows designers and engineers to create a lighter, stiffer body -- both properties that can improve ride quality. Going to a unibody also enabled Honda engineers to build the Ridgeline with true 4-wheel independent suspension, a feature lacking in every other pickup truck on the market. Because they didn't have to accommodate a solid rear axle, Honda was also able to put a big underbed trunk in the Ridgeline -- a feature that really distinguished the truck from the competition.

Owners of the original Ridgeline loved their trucks; you only have to visit the Honda Ridgeline Owners Club website to verify that. Honda reports that there are 275,000 Ridgelines on the road today, and over 175,000 of those are still driven by the original owners.

But body-on-frame truck fans didn't accept the 2017 Honda Ridgeline as a real truck: They dismissed its unibody design as an SUV with a bed. Because it didn't look rugged, the perception was that it was not tough.

Start With the Platform

Honda stopped building the original Ridgeline in 2014 and huddled back at the Honda R&D Center in Ohio to come up with a new truck that would retain the Ridgeline's individuality while making it more attractive to traditional truck buyers.

The new Ridgeline rides on Honda's new North American unibody light-truck platform, which also underlies the new Honda Pilot. That means there are some similarities between the Ridgeline and Pilot -- as well as some significant differences. It would be easy to dismiss the Ridgeline as a Pilot with a pickup bed, but that would be a mistake.

The most noticeable big change for the new Ridgeline is that the buttresses are gone in favor of a more traditional cab and box look. The big stamping is no more, and there is a tight seam between the cab and bed side. This simplified construction, with bolted-on rear bed sides, means that minor damage to the bed body panels can be repaired much more easily.

Unibody construction enhances the Ridgeline's handling. Since the body is bolted, welded and glued together as one solid unit, it's very stiff. Honda demonstrated this property by parking the Ridgeline on a pair of complex berms, leaving a wheel hanging in the air. The suspension was compressed on one side and fully articulated on the other, and yet the doors and tailgate still operated smoothly. There was no torqueing or twisting of the chassis. Putting two competitors, the Toyota Tacoma and Chevy Colorado, in a similar position revealed a change in door and tailgate gaps and noticeable body twist.

Independent Suspension and Torque Vectoring

The Ridgeline has an all-new 4-wheel independent suspension setup, with MacPherson struts in the front and a multilink design in the rear. The basic design is the same as the Pilot's, but with more robust components designed to handle increased payload and towing capacity.

An all-new torque converter controls the Ridgeline's available all-wheel-drive system (2-wheel-drive Ridgelines are front-wheel drive). The compact unit is designed to incorporate torque vectoring, which no other pickup in the class can claim. Torque vectoring is a little hard to explain and understand, honestly: In highly simplified terms, torque vectoring sends power to the outside wheels in certain situations, effectively pushing the vehicle through a turn and subtly improving cornering performance. In operation, it makes the Ridgeline easier to drive, without the sliding and jacking that solid axle trucks can sometimes experience.

Driving the Ridgeline on the road revealed the benefits of the suspension, drivetrain and body stiffness. This is where the Ridgeline is at its most SUVlike. The ride is smooth, quiet and composed, without the compromises of a solid rear axle. The cabin is decidedly more upscale than before, with soft-touch materials and a clean, crisp design. The second row is SUV-comfortable. The 60/40-split rear seat folds up against the back wall to leave a big flat-load floor with enough room for a mountain bike to be loaded in without removing the front wheel.

Powered Like a Pilot

All Ridgelines come with the same 3.5-liter direct-injected V6 engine as the Pilot, hooked up to a 6-speed automatic transmission (as opposed to the Pilot's available 9-speed automatic in Touring and Elite trim). Horsepower is rated at 280 (up from 250 in the first gen), while torque is at 262 lb-ft (up from 247 lb-ft). The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a front-wheel-drive Ridgeline will achieve 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26 mpg on the highway and 22 combined, while all-wheel-drive models can get 18 mpg city/25 mpg hwy/21 mpg combined for best-in-class fuel economy.

A towing demonstration showed that the all-wheel-drive Ridgeline's 5,000-lb towing capacity is for real, as we had the opportunity to tow a 4,800-lb boat trailer and boat up a lake ramp. Every Ridgeline comes equipped for towing, with no additional package necessary. The hitch, 7-pin connector and transmission cooler are all standard, and the standard rearview camera makes hooking up a 1-person operation.

The Ridgeline is available with the Honda Sensing package of active and passive safety systems. The company expects that the pickup truck will earn an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick+, making it the only truck in the class to achieve that mark.

A Unique Bed -- With Audio

The Ridgeline's bed is its killer feature. The new suspension still allows for a locking underbed trunk. The big compartment can swallow 7.3 cu ft. of gear, easily fitting a couple of golf bags or carry-on suitcases. The watertight trunk can be filled with ice and beverages, and there's a removable drain plug for convenient emptying. Did somebody say tailgate party? Honda heard you, and they've developed an available truck-bed audio system that uses the bed's side panels as speakers with a trick set of audio exciters. Instead of mounting traditional speakers, they've hidden six audio exciters behind the panels, turning the bed walls into sound-producing units. The audio is immersive and impressive, without the worry of exposed electronics or speakers.

The truck bed floor and walls are made out of a plastic material called sheet-molded composite. The tough panels resist dents, cracks and scratching and are UV protected to prevent fading. They don't require paint, and you won't need to add a bedliner or spray-in coating to protect them. The underlying structure is strong enough to support a payload of up to 1,594 pounds -- a real truck number. And the load floor is 50 inches wide at the wheel wells, 64 inches long from the cab to the tailgate and 83 inches from the cab to the end of the open tailgate. Additionally, the tailgate opens in two directions: the traditional bottom hinge and an innovative left-side hinge, allowing for easy access to the bed.

But Is It a Real Truck?

So is the new Ridgeline a real truck, or just a Pilot with a bed? For some truck folks, only a Colorado, Canyon, Tacoma or Frontier will do. Pickup trucks are more than work tools; they are also lifestyle accessories. Rugged equals strong in some brains, and that's a tough impression to overcome.

The Ridgeline is a different kind of truck, but it is definitely a real truck. It can do everything that its competitors do, but with more comfort and some unique versatility. SUV owners who have always longed for a pickup but were unwilling to live with the compromises might find their pickup solution in a Ridgeline. Pricing will start at $29,475 for FWD, $31,275 for AWD and up to $42,870 for the maxed-out Black Edition. One thing is for certain: The Ridgeline Owners Club will have a lot to discuss once the new truck hits dealer floors in late May.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2017 Honda Ridgeline: First Drive Review - Autotrader