2006 Honda Ridgeline Review

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Marc K. Stengel Marc K. Stengel Editor
January 31, 2005



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So I walked up and said, “I hope you know CPR, baby, ’cause you just took my breath away.” I meant it. At first sight, this was a class act, and I was eager to strike up a relationship.

“I like the approach,” came the reply; “now let’s see your departure.”

Suddenly, I was yanked out of my reverie and back into reality as R&D engineer Kevin Thelen waxed poetic about the approach and departure angles of the new Honda Ridgeline pickup truck being introduced to auto writers last week inLa Jolla, Calif.

There’s a lot of sensory overload bound up in the idea of a pickup from Honda. Yet there it is. With its squared-off front end and wedgy, high-shouldered side panels, it is patently clear that the Ridgeline owes little to the 100-year tradition of pickup trucks in America.

Heretofore, building a pickup truck has been a simple matter of constructing a ladder frame at the four corners of which wheels are attached. Then a small, bolted-on box hides the engine up front; a larger box serves as the cabin; and a third, open-topped box in back handles cargo. Trucks are basic, utilitarian, brawny. They’re characterized by gutsy engines and abominable handling.

Time for a change

The pickup hasn’t changed in decades, and it’s the iconic, quintessentially American vehicle. Europeans eschew ’em; don’t even make ’em. When the Japanese powerhouses Toyota and Nissan decided to confront the Ford/Chevy/Dodge pickup cartel, they opted for the same boxes-on-frame formula.

True to its whipper-snapper reputation, Honda eyed the ever-growing North American infatuation with trucks and said, “We want a piece of that.” Upon which declaration Honda promptly threw away the century-old design paradigm and started from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. Ridgeline is the iconoclastic result.

Ridgeline more or less dispenses with the three-box/ladder-frame concept. Instead, there’s a rigid, base platform into which a monocoque or unibody engine-bay/cabin/cargo-bed structure has been integrally welded. This renders the Ridgeline an incredibly rigid vehicle — some 20 times stiffer than traditional trucks in “torsion” terms (i.e., twisting forces) and 250 percent stiffer in bending terms.

Myriad payoffs result from this novel approach. Ridgeline can afford to be smaller in certain dimensions without sacrificing essential capabilities. The Ridgeline is a full 18 inches shorter than a Ford F-150, for example; yet its five-passenger cabin space is virtually identical. And whereas traditional pickups typically depend on large-displacement V-8s for their towing and payload chores, Ridgeline makes do with a 3.5-liter V-6 enhanced by Honda’s now legendary VTEC variable valve timing.

The proof is in the driving. For medium-duty towing — up to 5000 pounds — Honda’s Ridgeline was as gutsy and sure-footed during its media debut as the 5.4-liter Ford F-150 pulling an identical load nearby. And with a full payload of 1100 lb in addition to occupants on board, it is every bit the “half-ton” pickup that represents the benchmark for American imaginations.

Thanks to impressive stiffness, moreover, the Ridgeline sets benchmarks of its own. In slalom runs with and without maximum payload, the Ridgeline’s handling was razor sharp and scarcely different in either condition. Meantime, rivals like Ford’s Explorer Sport Trac and Toyota’s Tacoma impersonated wallowing whales toting identical loads through identical twists and turns on the slalom course.

Close enough?

This is not to say the Ridgeline perfectly impersonates a full-size pickup. Its bed is shorter, for one thing—only five feet long. But without encroaching wheel wells, the cargo space is truly a flat-sided box, and it swallows four-by-eight-foot plywood sheets when the tailgate is lowered.

There, Honda’s concession to traditional chore lore ends and new versatilities begin. That tailgate, for example, will either open downward or to the side, unlike any other in the biz. And when it’s lying flat, the tailgate is strong enough to support the heavy, bouncing loads that often have to extend beyond the short cargo box. Then, just because it can, Honda has specifically configured the steel-reinforced, composite-molded and dent-proof bed surfaces to nest a full array of Honda products like motorcycles, ATVs, lawn mowers and power generators. Cheeky, eh?

Under the cargo bed lies another surprise. The Ridgeline solves the age-old problem of cargo security with an 8.5 cubic-foot lockable trunk at the rear of the bed. That’s enough waterproof space for three golf-bags’ worth of valuable tools or toys. There’s even a plug for draining ice water from the impromptu “tailgater” beverage cooler into which this space so invitingly converts. Even cheekier, no?

Inside, the folding 60/40 rear bench affords additional cargo storage. With the three-person seat in use, there’s a 2.6-cubic-foot tool trough molded into the floor under the seat bottom. But if the bench is folded flat, 41.4 cubes reveal themselves. All told, the Ridgeline puts more than 52 cubic feet of storage under lock and key, in addition to the 35-plus cubic feet of open-air cargo-bed capacity on hand.

Four-wheel independent suspension and anti-lock disc brakes ensure sports-car manners unlike any traditional pickup’s. The Ridgeline marries this handling precision to a full-time “VTM-4” all-wheel-drive powertrain with locking rear differential and computerized “VSM” stability control. In foothills northeast of Southern California’s Torrey Pines National Forest, the Ridgeline scaled 23-degree ridgeline slopes, crossed calf-deep streams and negotiated obstructive rocks and berms. For all of the infelicities of the trail, however, nary a squeak nor groan emanated from the Ridgeline’s innovative unibody cockpit.

This and its many other novelties, on the other hand, are likely to represent the Ridgeline’s severest challenge. In a world long accustomed to traditional trucks with their dated-but-familiar charms, Honda will not only have to educate customers about its truck’s unprecedented capabilities. It will also have to seduce folks into an unfamiliar paradigm with a better pickup line than merely, “Hey, wanna see my Ridgeline?”

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Base price:
$28,000-$32,000 (estimated)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 255 hp/252 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 206.8 x 76.3 x 70.3 inches
Wheelbase: 122.0 inches
Curb weight: 4498 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/21 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags and side curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability control
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player; power locks/windows/mirrors; air conditioning; tire-pressure monitor
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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