Some of the best pickup trucks are full-sizers, but how big is big enough?
If you’re not pulling a big horse trailer or building a big house, a mid-size truck might be the right tool to get the job done.
That’s especially true if the mid-size truck does all the good things accomplished by the 2017 Honda Ridgeline.
We went to San Antonio last week for a first drive in the new Honda pickup, and for some exercises to show off its targeted skills.
Honda Ridgeline basics
This is the second Ridgeline in Honda history. This time, Honda clearly wants it to fit in better with trucks like the Colorado, Canyon, Tacoma and Frontier.
Honda failed to win over truck traditionalists with the last Ridgeline, and some of it had to be subconscious. It's a big deal to be easily recognized as a truck and the previous Ridgeline didn't fit that time-honored outline. It had the same issues as the Chevy Avalanche and Cadillac Escalade EXT, with its stubby-looking bed and very tall bed walls.
In this generation, the Ridgeline's body is more closely based on the Pilot SUV. It comes in just one body style, a four-door crew cab, and that shape is as traditional and conventional as a truck can be. Still, the Pilot outline is easily visible from the rear doors forward.
High-strength steel is the key to cutting the Ridgeline's passenger cell so close to the usual truck outline. Tougher metal lets Honda designers get away with a near-vertical rear glass (with sliding side window) and near-horizontal bed sides. The front end is as Pilot as it can be--and it's low, a foot lower than something like a Colorado--but from the side, the Ridgeline's box and body have the classic pickup truck signature.
It’s the same inside, where the Ridgeline is almost a dead ringer for the Pilot. The broad instrument panel has analog gauges and a digital readout between them. The center stack factors in either a small touchscreen, or a larger one, amid tightly grained plastics and a pleasant wing shape across the dash. One key difference from Pilot to Ridgeline: in the truck, there’s a transmission lever instead of pushbuttons for shifting.
2017 Honda Ridgeline
The Ridgeline’s performance is tailored for folks who want to tow a small boat or carry home mulch. Power comes from a 280-horsepower V-6, with 262 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers are up 30 hp and 15 lb-ft in a vehicle that's down slightly in curb weight, to between 4,200 and 4,400 pounds.
The Ridgeline couples that power to either the front wheels or all four wheels through a 6-speed automatic--not the 9-speed offered on the Pilot. Honda says it's a choice made for the market niche; it's true other mid-sizers sport similar 6-speeds, but it's also true the 9-speed will fit, offers better fuel economy, and that Ford and GM soon will have 10-speed transmissions in their big trucks. Peer pressure doesn't go away after you leave high school.
The net powertrain figures are acceleration times to 60 mph, Honda says, that are down almost 2 seconds. To what, they don't say, but the Ridgeline feels like a solid 8-second performer now, just like the Pilot.
Fuel economy is up, to 19 mpg city, 26 highway, and 22 combined in front-drive models, with all-wheel-drive models at 18/25/21 mpg--all figures at least 3 mpg better than the previous Ridgeline, but still down a bit compared with the Colorado.
Towing and hauling
It’s strong enough for passing with just two people on board, but the Ridgeline doesn’t have the brute pulling power of a Hemi V-8, or even a turbodiesel. With a transmission oil cooler and a 7-pin hitch connector, it’s just stout enough to make a 5,000-pound tow rating or a payload rating of about 1,584 pounds doable. (Front-drive models rate lower in pulling power, at 3,500 pounds.)
With numbers like those, it's easy to see why the Ridgeline's appeal will be more narrow than a full-size truck. Still, it'll pull a 22-foot camper, or carry 40 bags of soil, though fifth-wheels and serious caches of building material are out of the question. All Ridgelines come with trailer-sway control factored into the stability control system; hill-start assist; and a multi-view rearview camera that can help guide drivers through the trailer hitch process.
For traction in towing and in moderate off-roading, the Ridgeline gets a traction system with selectable modes. On front-drive models, there's simply a 2nd-gear start in Snow mode. All-wheel-drive Ridgelines also have Mud and Sand modes that remap throttle and traction-control settings to allow more wheelspin, and change transmission shift schedules to move more power to the rear wheels and to hold lower gears.
The Ridgeline can keep up with, say, a Ford Explorer off-road, thanks to decently knobby 245/60R-18 Firestone tires and a maximum of 7.9 inches of ground clearance. Tackling the off-road editions of rival mid-size trucks isn't as good a comparison: the Ridgeline's rear control arms drop lower away from its midline, leaving only about a half-foot of clearance, and the approach and departure angles are good for a crossover, average when compared to a body-on-frame pickup.
Ride and handling
On the other hand, the Ridgeline is one truck that truly drives like a car—because it is, mostly. The suspension is a reinforced version of the Pilot’s, and so is its torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system.
Dual-action dampers let the Ridgeline handle small bumps and big bumps in different ways, giving it ride quality that's a bit better even than the Pilot, or at least Pilots that ride on optional 20-inch wheels. The Pilot also lacks the Ridgeline's center bed reinforcement, which seems to give the truck a bit better body rigidity.
The Ridgeline also sports hydraulic suspension bushings, a faster steering ratio than before, and a torque-vectoring system that uses electrohydraulic clutches to move power side to side across its rear wheels. Its ability to cut through corners without the bounding, quivering ride of a body-on-frame truck is immediately noticeable.