2005 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

La Jolla, California – The first look at Honda’s temporarily-named “SUT” pickup truck at the 2004 Detroit auto show created a lot of raised eyebrows and scratching of heads. After all, wasn’t the market becoming filled with new pickup product from the likes of Nissan, Ford, Toyota and Dodge?

But by the time the Alliston, Ontario built Honda Ridgeline debuted at the 2005 show in January, attitudes had changed. That’s because rather than stamping out yet another conventional truck, Honda, a company that’s never produced such a vehicle, presented something really different and clever. Furthermore, it becomes a centerpiece for Honda’s array of off-road motorcycles and ATV’s.

A recent press introduction in and around La Jolla, California provided an opportunity to get a sense of what the Ridgeline is, and what it can do.

Available in three trim levels — LX, EX-L and EX-L Navi with a base price of $34,800 for the LX — Honda describes the Ridgeline (named after a geological formation consisting of a long, narrow chain of hills) as a “next-generation, four-door, 4WD truck.” It’s the largest vehicle Honda has ever produced.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

Even so, the Ridgeline is classed as a compact, although it’s much larger than the typical compact truck of five years ago. With a length of 5,252 millimetres, the Ridgeline is about as long as the 2005 Ford Explorer Sport Trac (5,230mm) and Toyota Tacoma Double Cab (5,286mm), while the new Dodge Dakota Quad Cab is somewhat longer at 5,558 mm. And it’s wider than all its competitors.

But the first questions posed by truck buyers are typically, “How much can it carry and what can it tow? The answers to these questions determine whether you’re dealing with a vehicle that can actually work, or if it’s more about truck style.

The Ridgeline has an 1,100-pound (550-kilogram) bed payload capacity (making it a true half-ton truck, to use older terminology), and it can haul a 5,000 lb trailer. Honda research determined that 80% of truck buyers will tow less than 5,000 lbs, and have consequently targeted this market.

With its truck “bone fides” out of the way, what makes the Ridgeline so different?

Its looks, for one thing. It’s definitely a pickup truck, but the Ridgeline’s sculpted, aerodynamic, somewhat “melted” profile sets it apart from everything else on the road. Honda says it reflects a “billet construction styling concept” and indeed the Ridgeline looks like it was carved out of a single piece of sheet metal.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

What you can’t see from outside is the body structure. It’s a fully boxed ladder frame with unibody construction — a first for this vehicle type — that according to Honda provides the rugged benefits of a body-on-frame truck with the safety and performance advantages of a unibody frame. On the road (or off, for that matter) it adds up to a structure with a bending rigidity that’s 2.5 times stiffer than a conventional body-on-frame truck, and a rear torsional rigidity that’s 20-times stiffer.

In other words, it doesn’t twist or flex when traversing uneven surfaces, and it doesn’t creak, vibrate or readily transmit surface imperfections and road noise into the cabin.

Under the Ridgeline is a fully independent suspension, front and rear, another first for pickup trucks. The independent rear suspension permits considerable rethinking of space utilization under the bed, and enables the rear wheels to only minimally intrude into the box.

Also underneath, Honda’s VTM-4 4WD system does not use a conventional rear differential. Instead a compact ring and gear set transfers torque from the longitudinal drive shaft to the rear half-shafts. Torque is moved from the front wheels to the rear (up to 70% to the rear) as determined by the amount of slip detected by the 4WD system. It defaults to front-wheel drive when highway cruising, but always starts with torque evenly split between the front and rear wheels. Torque split can be locked 50:50 front-to-rear by the driver in first, second or reverse gears if required.

2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

The Ridgeline has a five-foot composite SRC coated bed designed to resist the everyday dents and scratches experienced in vehicles of this type. To make the point, at the press introduction, Honda had a half-ton of rocks repeatedly dropped into the bed by a small front-end loader, and they didn’t make a mark.

The truck bed can be extended to six-and-a-half feet by lowering the Ridgeline’s unique tailgate. It is designed to support 300lbs, and can be opened sideways as well as vertically (it even opens in the proper direction for North American consumers — swinging outward to the left — unlike the rear door on the Honda CR-V).

As mentioned above, the bed has been designed to accommodate motorcycles and ATV’s. Six cargo hooks capable of holding 350lbs each can be used to tie such vehicles down, and indents that match the size of motorcycle tires are formed into the bed surface. With the tailgate down, the bed can accommodate a full-size ATV, and the all-important 8’x4′ sheet will fit flat between the wheelwells.

And because so much room is saved below the box by eliminating a bulky rear differential and leaf spring setup, there’s room for a trunk — another feature unique to the Ridgeline. This trunk, which is connected to the vehicle’s remote locking system, holds 241-litres (about the size of three golf bags) and permits access to the spare tire. Its double-sealed lid keeps contents dry and free from dirt or dust.

Under the hood, the 2,040-kg Ridgeline uses an ultra-low emissions, transverse mounted, 3.5-L SOHC V6 engine making 255-horsepower and 252 lb.-ft of torque. The engine, mated to a five-speed gearbox, comes with a standard automatic transmission cooler and power steering cooler for towing, along with a high capacity radiator and cooling fans. Estimated fuel consumption is 14.4/10.1 L/100km city/highway, and with its 83L fuel tank, range is 744 km.

2006 Honda Ridgeline

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

The four-door cabin offers a class-leading 3,172L of interior volume, equivalent to that of a Honda Accord sedan. Rear seat knee room is exceptional, even with the front seats moved back. The split rear seats can be easily stowed vertically (this operation can be achieved with one hand) providing generous stowage space behind the front seats.

A large, sliding, multi-compartment storage bin is located between the front seats, where items like cameras and purses can be stowed out of sight. The cab’s rear window is power operated, and the windshield features a heated zone to free the wipers from ice, and enhance performance in winter driving conditions.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

Ridgeline comes standard with a range of safety and stability technology. The rear seat, for example, has three LATCH positions, and the cab features front side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags with a rollover sensor. Vehicle Stability Assist (electronic stability control) with traction control and four-channel ABS brakes are also standard equipment.

Honda has designed the Ridgeline to perform medium-duty off-road tasks, reasoning that adventure enthusiasts will use the vehicle to reach trailheads, then switch to an ATV, for example, to really go off-road.

That being explained, the Ridgeline performs very well on rough tracks and trails. What Honda calls “medium duty” is severe by typical on-road standards, including the ability to ascend a 28-degree dirt slope from a standing start, a 24.5-degree approach angle and 22-degree departure angle that will handle steep gullies, and the power to tow a 5,000 boat/trailer combination up the steepest of boat ramps. It takes sand hills, water pits, rocky roads and embedded logs in stride.

2006 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

On the highway the Ridgeline is all about smoothness and a quiet ride. Wind noise is minimal, steering is sharp and precise, braking is excellent and the separate dead pedal for your left foot is perfectly placed (although I would have liked a grip on the A-pillar to help me into the driver’s seat). Leather interior, dual climate control, and a navigation system are available options that can be added to the already generously equipped truck.

If there’s any criticism, it’s that the Ridgeline doesn’t feel very “truck like” — ironically, it may feel too modern for some truck buyers. However for a pickup and SUV market that’s evolving in many new directions, this may be exactly what a growing number of consumers want from a 21st century truck. Also, the front of the Ridgeline is not particularly fetching, but again, it’s a truck.

Certainly other manufacturers will have to look at the Ridgeline. Not working with preconceived ideas of what constitutes a pickup truck has enabled Honda to come up with refreshing new take on the entire category. In many ways it has already dated their brand new products.


Honda Ridgeline

Type: Five-passenger pickup truck
Notable: Interior room, independent rear suspension, standard four-wheel drive, vehicle stability control, side curtain airbags, lockable bed trunk, 5,000lb towing ability, smooth and easy operation, built in Canada
Available: Spring, 2005
Price: $34,800 to $43,900

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