2006 Honda Ridgeline
Photos: Honda. Click image to enlarge

by Jeremy Cato

Near Camp Pendleton, California – Gary Flint, the man most responsible for the success or failure of Honda’s first pickup, is talking about how tough it is to nail down all the details in a vehicle that should throw a scare into Detroit’s traditionally dominant truck makers – General Motors, Ford and Dodge.

“As my team will attest,” says Flint, who has worked as an engineer nearly 30 years, “I am an extremely anal person. First thing every morning I walk through the design centre, talk with all the engineers and make sure everything is moving forward.”

Flint jumped to Honda 11 years ago after 15 years at GM. In Honda’s system, he is the large project leader or chief engineer and is the one person who made the final call on just about every aspect of the 2006 Honda Ridgeline half-ton pickup ($34,800 – $43,900 depending on model). It’s not that he works alone at Honda’s engineering centre in Columbus, Ohio, but make no mistake: the buck stops with him. If it flops, he goes down with it.

At Honda, development teams debate, discuss, examine and analyze the engineering and marketing data and from that, they implement a comprehensive product plan. Then they set to work. Once a decision is made, that’s it – unless, of course, a team member comes up with new and compelling data. Then the action plan can be revisited. That person better bring a compelling case, though; whimsical decision-making is too time-consuming and too costly at what Flint describes as a “lean Honda operation.”

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

“When I was at GM, things changed all the time, right in the middle of a program. And after having three programs cancelled from under me, I’d had enough,” says Flint, who was among the first 35 engineers Honda hired in North America. Now the Columbus engineering centre employs 1,400 and continues to grow. The Ridgeline is the first Honda product completely conceived and engineered in North America.

All this matters because the attention to detail on this pickup is pretty impressive for a first effort. That is not by accident, Flint says. Honda has never attempted a pickup before, so he and his colleagues knew they had to earn respect.

“We (Honda) have no obvious core competency in trucks; we’re sorta the Rodney Dangerfield of trucks,” says Flint, as we eye a steep, demanding off-road course on a private ranch not far from the Camp Pendleton Marine base on this dry, warm day in southern California. It’s all perfect, aside from the sandpapering we’re taking from dust kicked up by the Santa Ana winds. We’re enduring it all to test this truck’s off-road abilities and the strength of its unique chassis and frame design.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

So we climb a 28-degree pitch designed to “validate” the standard four-wheel-drive system. We make it to the top of the mountain, a run the engineering world considers about as tough a test as any car company bothers with. Then we ford two streams and rumble into a little valley, where we find ourselves straddling large mounds designed to twist and flex the Ridgeline’s body while the truck moves ahead. No squeaks, no groans, no complaints from the structure at all – and we’re only driving early production prototypes, not final assembly models.

So this ’06 Ridgeline feels solid and tight. Mind you, Honda has staged this whole show, although no one from Japan’s third-largest automaker is reining us in from really tearing up the course. We push hard. It seems obvious that Flint’s team has designed a tough truck.

“Basically, our target was to make a truck that doesn’t suck,” says the trim-looking Flint, a self-confessed Diet Coke addict with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, glasses and a wicked sense of humour – especially when it comes to his former employer. He considers General Motors inefficient in comparison to Honda, where, as he notes, “there is no standing around… there is always work to do.”

The Ridgeline arrives at a time when many automakers are zeroing in on compact and midsize trucks after years of utter neglect. For 2005, Dodge renovated the Dakota, Nissan the Frontier and Toyota the Tacoma. Last year GM introduced its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks to replace aging models, too. Only Ford has yet to do a major upgrade of its Ranger compact truck, although a new version of the four-door Explorer Sport Trac is coming next year.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

Honda had all those entries in its sights with the Ridgeline, but the targeting didn’t stop there. Flint and his crew believe the four-door Ridgeline, with its 1,535 mm composite bed and a lockable, water-tight trunk for hauling up to three sets of golf clubs located under it, is also big and powerful enough to attract many full-size pickup buyers.

Those are the people who demand a truck capable of carrying a serious payload (the Ridgeline’s bed maxes out at 499 kg, including the 136 kg limit of the trunk). They also want a 2,268 kg towing capacity (the Ridgeline has it) and space to carry a 4×8 sheet of plywood flat on the bed floor (the Ridgeline can). Honda’s bed also has various tie-down points, grooves for loading and even built-in lights for working at night.

2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

In fact, the Ridgeline’s cabin and cargo abilities nudge very close to those of full-size trucks, such as Ford’s F-150 and the Chevrolet Avalanche. Honda’s bed width is virtually the same as those two, and while it’s shorter, an easily-installed bed extender will stretch the length to 1,981 mm.

The tailgate is strong enough to support 136 kg, so that extra length is useful. An all-terrain vehicle can be driven up a ramp supported by the tailgate, and then carried on the extended bed. That tailgate also opens sideways, like a refrigerator door, or flips down like a conventional flat gate – a nifty touch.

“We say we’ve got a full-size package in a compact footprint,” says Flint, following what is clearly a script influenced by the marketing department. For the record, the Ridgeline is considerably shorter in length than F-150, Avalanche, Dakota, Tacoma and Colorado. It is virtually the same length as the Ford Explorer Sport Trac.

However, the Honda truck is wider than all of those except the Avalanche and F-150. More width and smarter cabin packaging means the Ridgeline has more front seat room than all the compact and midsize trucks, and a more comfortable rear seat angle makes riding back there less than a chore.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

Speaking of the rear seat, its clever design has also freed up enough space under the rear seat to stow yet another full set of golf clubs. The rear seats split and flip up to make for flexible cargo carrying. There are also proper child seat anchor systems at all three rear seating positions and three rear headrests; thanks to this and other safety features, Honda expects the Ridgeline to meet the toughest crash test standards.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

None of this would really matter much if the Ridgeline proved to be a dog on the highway or on unpaved roads. It’s not. The 255 hp V6 is borrowed from Honda Pilot and Acura MDX SUVs and is a very nice highway motor. It is smooth and pleasant and gets 14.4 city/10.1 highway L/100 km in fuel economy. An 83-litre fuel tank located under the rear seat gives it a range of more than 600 km between fill-ups.

I would argue, though, that while Flint’s team did many things to improve low-end, or low-rpm, torque to 252 lb-ft, the lack of fabulous engine grunt is obvious when pulling a 2,268-kg trailer from a standing start. More torque from a larger displacement engine would be better.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

Then again, that would trigger the need for more fuel and it would be tougher for Honda to meet the toughest emissions standards, which the Ridgeline does.

More than anything, this truck’s functionality and road manners are dictated by a super-strong body. While the Ridgeline started life with Honda’s Pilot and Odyssey car-like, unit-body structure, it’s obvious a pickup needs to be way stronger. Honda did something completely new: it created a “hybrid” body structure.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

The Ridgeline rides on a deep section frame with seven boxed rails for strength. To further boost rigidity, Honda added three strengthening support members running across the body, one of them right under the bed itself to support heavy loads. On top of that, there are supports built in behind the rear seats to add strength and to prevent loads from intruding into the cabin in a rear-end collision.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

With all that support to show off, the Honda people just had to go out of their way to dump a heavy load of rocks into the bed for us, to show that the plastic-like composite bed is not only resistant to scuffing, but will not crinkle, bend or break.
“The idea was to make it strong enough so somebody on the job could drop a big toolbox into the bed without damaging it,” says Flint.

Flint says the Ridgeline is 20 times stiffer in twisting and 2.5 times more rigid in bending than the competitive models. “I’ll say this: the integrated truck from body (of the Ridgeline) is more rigid than other body-on-frame competitor trucks,” he says.
No wonder he and his colleagues are convinced they can sell 50,000 to 60,000 Ridgelines a year, including 3,500 in Canada. They won’t go on the record, but it’s clear they believe the Ridgeline, assembled in Alliston, Ontario, will sell even better than their public projections. Demand will exceed supply.

Certainly the on- and off-road performance is solid enough. At highway speeds the stiff-riding Ridgeline is quiet and composed, handling more like a car than any other pickup I’ve driven. Even at more than 120 km/h, the truck is aerodynamic enough that it is possible to open the rear window behind the passenger seat and carry on a conversation without being buffeted.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

As well, the seats are comfortable, the controls make sense and the cabin materials, while not over-the-top luxurious, look and feel durable. Silver rings around the controls, knobs and instruments dress things up, as do the large door handles with silver inserts.
Alas, the mostly monotone colour scheme is still bland. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, making it difficult to find a proper driving position. The exterior styling is odd. And some will notice that there is no vanity mirror in the driver’s side sun visor. Flint says that was a place he and his team decided to save money for more functional features. “You shouldn’t be driving and putting on lipstick anyway,” he laughs.

Sounds like part of a larger message: that this is one tough, masculine truck. Message delivered.

2006 Honda Ridgeline 2005 Toyota Tacoma Double Cab V-6 Chevrolet Avalanche LS 4×4
Wheelbase (mm): 3,100 2,616 3,302
Length (mm): 5,252 5,621 5,631
Width (mm): 1,938 1,895 2,027
Height (mm): 1,786 1,781 1,892
Ground clearance (mm) 208 240 208
Gross vehicle weight rating (kg) 2,745 2,472 3,175
Curb weight (kg) 2,043 1,873 2,563
Payload (kg) 705 590 612
Towing capacity (kg) 2,268 2,268 3,221
Base engine: 3.5-litre V-6 (SOHC) 4.0-litre V-6 (DOHC) 5.3-litre V-8 (OHV)
Output (hp/torque): 255 at 5,750 rpm/252 lbs-ft at 4,500 rpm 245 at 5,200 rpm/282 lbs-ft at 3,800 rpm 295 at 5,200 rpm/ 335 lbs-ft at 4,000 rpm
Fuel economy (L/100 km) 14.4 city/10.1 hwy 13.2 city/10.0 hwy 17.0 city/13.1 hwy
Base price: $34,800 $33,650 $44,135

Asian Truck Invasion

Honda Canada national sales manager Arch Wilcox predicts the Ridgeline will take a 13 per cent share of the compact pickup market once it hits showrooms in April.

That’s just another front of the ongoing assault Asian manufacturers are making on the North American light truck market. Last year, Japanese and Korean manufacturers grabbed more than one-quarter of the North American light-truck market. It was an all-time high and the ninth straight year the Asians have increased their share.

According to Wilcox, six per cent of current Honda owners also own pickups and he believes the Ridgeline will make many of them two-Honda families, furthering the erosion of dominance in light trucks long held by Detroit-based automakers.
“Right now Honda owners need to leave the brand because we haven’t had a pickup,” he says.

Honda’s new midsize pickup offers most of the pure functionality of a traditional truck, while delivering the creature and packaging comforts of a sport-utility vehicle. It will certainly slice away its share of a market where Honda has never played.
Honda’s luxury division Acura, meanwhile, will enter the entry-level luxury SUV segment with a production version of its RD-X concept vehicle shown in Detroit last January. It will be a smaller entry than the MDX midsize SUV.

Honda, of course, is not alone. Mitsubishi plans to begin selling its new Raider midsize pickup later this year, significantly based on the Chrysler Group’s Dodge Dakota pickup. Like the Dakota, there will be an optional 4.7-litre V-8 engine.

Meanwhile, the midsize SUV segment will get more crowded with new entries from Suzuki and Subaru. Later this spring, Subaru will begin selling its upscale B9 Tribeca SUV and Suzuki says that in 2006 it will sell a production version of the Concept-X SUV it unveiled in Detroit.

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