Personally a fan of low center-of-gravity, aerodynamically superior cars and wagons, I was a little underwhelmed when I discovered I'd be spending a weekend in Honda's first - and sole - pickup offering, the 2009 Honda Ridgeline. And being a gearhead, I secretly yearned for something really in-your-face and thirsty, perhaps a bellowing Dodge Ram HEMI V-8. Hey, if a single city-dwelling guy like me is going to engage in blatantly conspicuous consumption, why not just take it all the way?
And so I faced the prospect of driving this hefty, pug-nosed, minivan-based, front-wheel drive...thing...with an Accord V-6. Ho, and hum.
Stylewise, the Ridgeline avoids the plasticized excesses of the Chevrolet Avalanche, but in many ways it seems to be insinuating robustness a bit loudly with its collection of side strakes, dramatically squared wheel wells, and hunchbacked flying-buttress rear. It's not ugly, but neither is it pretty. Perhaps "curious" is the word.
A few weekend activities afforded the opportunity to actually use the Ridgeline like a truck, and in this task it asserted itself admirably. The rear, under-bed storage compartment is not only handy, it's huge. It swallowed two toolboxes and dirty mechanics clothes and rags, keeping them locked, safe, and secure while I bought parts at Autozone. The same compartment hauled a horribly corroded battery away from the job, leaky acid and all. Remove the two drain plugs at the bottom and hose the compartment out, and you're good as new.
A friend way, way up in the suburbs of Atlanta needed help hauling logs and yard debris, a perfect chance to see if this truck's bed is more than just a burly styling statement. The long highway drive north proved the benefits of the Honda Odyssey car-based chassis; no live-axle jumpiness over bumps and irregularities, plus well-weighted steering that tracks great and has no slop whatsoever. The biggest surprise in the Ridgeline is the lack of body roll; you can actually push this beast into a corner without getting seasick, and the sticky Michelins acquit themselves well (but you can hear them working, especially with the windows down).
Hauling a bunch of logs proved no problem for the Ridgeline. The bed isn't large, but it's more than adequate for weekend chores that avid gardeners and do-it-yourself landscapers are likely to encounter. The standard polycarbonate bedliner means scrapes and rust are not a concern, and again the garden hose is about all you need for cleanup.
The basic four-wheel drive setup was helpful if not brilliant while hauling the logs up a semi-slick muddy hill. The rear wheels don't get any power until the fronts start to slip, and sure enough I noticed some mud flying before the rears came into play to keep things moving. Rudimentary compared to, say, Acura's SH-AWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive), but also cheaper and lighter and effective in a pinch.
The 3.5-liter V-6, while pleasant and refined, is simply not a truck engine; it's an Acura V-6 designed for high rpm thrills in lighter sedans. It squirts around town with enough verve, but in highway passing maneuvers it can seem a little strained dealing with so much vehicle. If Honda started selling a ton of Ridgelines (not likely), they'd do well to consider a longer stroke six or a diesel for more low rpm grunt. As it stands, I don't think this Ridgeline would be very happy at full cargo capacity and with a small trailer behind.
The Ridgeline's interior has oddities like prominently ribbed, rubberized, and oversized knobs and controls. They cause a few giggles at first, but like all Honda controls they are simple, effective, and pleasing to use. Where Chevy Silverados and Dodge Ram trucks make do with standard-issue corporate radios, Honda has chosen an "I Am Truck" interface for the Ridgeline's radio and HVAC. Not necessary, perhaps, but not objectionable either. And I'll take real, utilitarian rubber anyday over the embarrassing faux plastichrome splashed around some of the domestics' interiors (and utilitarian is more than just an image here - even the rear seats fold up in one easy motion, upping cargo capacity instantly and without tools or hassle).
So the Ridgeline, in many ways, won me over. Or at least it convinced me that combining a small truck bed with an adroit, comfortable, well-designed van/car chassis isn't really such a dumb idea. Were I a mobile mechanic with a family, or a suburbanite with two acres and one green thumb, the Ridgeline would be at the top of my list.