Images credit the author, Honda

The freshly revised 2017 Honda Ridgeline is an objectively superior pickup truck in more ways than you’d expect. “All the truck a normal person would need,” is how we put it. Yeah, it pretty much is. But Honda got so dialed in on “need” they forgot about adding much “want.”

(Full disclosure: Honda needed me to drive the new Ridgeline so badly they flew me to San Antonio and put me up in a nice hotel, paid for all my food, booze and coffee and provided me with a fully-fueled Ridgeline to drive for a couple days.)

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Let’s cut straight to your first question: “Is this a soft car-in-truck’s-clothing for pretenders, or a real, hard-grunting, vein-popping truck truck?”

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No matter how deep into Texas you drive it, the Ridgeline is soft as the foam on your artisanal latte. Driving it is equal parts amazing and oppressively boring. It’s so smooth, so easy. So steady and bromidic.

Now the Ram Laramie Limited has leather like the armchairs of a forbidden library and you can get freaking massagers in an F-150, but neither of those trucks—heck, no American-market truck—can match the Ridgeline’s ride compliance.

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It’s a shame that doesn’t sound sexier because this Honda’s ability to carry almost 1,600 pounds and walk itself over all kinds of slick surfaces and still feel exactly like an Accord on the road, which it does, is nothing less than a marvel of engineering.

“You’d really have to double-up on the Viagra to get excited about this thing, eh?”, my Canadian co-driver said as we started down the road. In retort the car offered a calm “MmmMMMmmm,” as it ambivalently rallied to the speed limit and leveled off.

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He had a point, of course. If you’re into driving for driving’s sake, the Ridgeline is right about on par with the rest of Honda’s practical people-mover lineup. But if you put all the ego associated with truck driving aside, and drive with your blood in your brain instead of below your belt, you just might appreciate how amazing the Ridgeline actually is.

Ignore the big empty box in your rearview mirror and the Ridgeline feels exactly like a very decent car. Flat. Smooth. Quiet. Make that remarkably quiet—coming off the San Antonio sidewalk and shutting the door was like putting my head underwater.

(Image: Honda)

I remember thinking the Chevrolet Colorado was a revolution in well-behaved pickup trucks when I first drove it over a year ago, but man, that thing feels as refined as a railroad shunter compared to the Honda. And by the same measure the new Toyota Tacoma might as well have been forged by hand at a medieval blacksmith’s shop. Of course, that’s what makes the Taco a lot more fun, but we’ll circle back to that later.

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The Ridgeline is all about ease of operation. It’s like they took the Apple Computer concept and applied it to pickup trucks: don’t worry about what’s under the skin, just let it do its thing, step back and be amazed.

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There is no button to engage 4WD, no low-range lever. In fact there’s almost nothing you can control manually at all. Driving the Honda truck through rough terrain is as close as you can get to autonomous off-roading. And it’s good at it!

(Image: Honda)

There are modes you can cycle through for snow, mud and sand but frankly the Honda works best when left to its own devices.

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The new Ridgeline is all-wheel drive, not four-wheel drive. The practical difference here is that this car is front-drive native rather than rear-drive by default. But from the user’s perspective the source of power at any given moment is virtually imperceptible.

That’s thanks to the Ridgeline’s advanced traction control system and torque-vectoring abilities. Power is constantly being moved around to the wheels with traction no matter how much of an idiot you are pumping the pedals and spinning the steering wheel around.

Honda’s off-road demonstration course, a slippery grass field, might as well have been hot pavement in this thing. The Ridgeline refused to scare me no matter how hard I button-mashed. It simply overrode my idiocy and translated my abrupt inputs to calmly proceed over soft sand and gravel without stepping out or twisting up at all.

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Oh yeah, you can turn traction control partway “off” but if you think that’s going to unlock a drift-machine you’re severely mistaken. The “uncorked” Ridgeline just grumpily plows its face around and becomes unpredictable at all the wrong times.

(Image: Honda)

The Ridgeline is not for people who want a truck as a toy. It’s for those who want a car and need (or think they need) a cargo bed that can hold the mass of an average horse. So the short story here is that the Ridgeline offers more flexible utility than those small pickup trucks everyone on the internet is eternally crazy for, with ride quality of a modern car.

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The downsides are mediocre fuel economy and a driving experience essentially devoid of emotion or excitement.

Now for those of you still interested, let’s drill down into Ridgeline Land a little further.

The Truck Alternative

Honda introduced the first Ridgeline about a decade ago as a “truck alternative” for families who sort of wanted a pickup but couldn’t commit to the idea, and/or people who weren’t able to convince their spouses that a big open cargo area was an essential feature for the family car.

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It hit the market with some funky moves like a dual-action (sideways and downwards opening) tailgate and “traditional trunk” storage box in the bottom of the truck bed. Honda tells us the original Ridgeline developed a “cult following,” which means they didn’t sell as many as they wanted to, but the folks who bought Ridgelines sure did love them.

“We had a second generation [Ridgeline] planned back in 2012,” Honda Chief Engineer Kerry McClure told me over dinner “unfortunately with the way the economy was at the time, we didn’t end up fully developing it.”

Man, that’s a lot of pent-up engineering energy to finally cut loose this year.

The Specs That Matter

The Ridgeline is 14 inches shorter than the smallest Chevy Silverado at 210 inches long on a wheelbase of 125.2 inches. It’s about 1 inch skinner than an F-150, and has a truck bed volume of 33.9 cubic feet plus 7.3 cubic feet in the “In-Bed Trunk.”

Approach, breakover and departure angles for the AWD are 20.1 degrees, 19.6 degrees and 22.1 degrees respectively, making it about as mountain-capable as a Subaru Outback.

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Fuel economy for the AWD Ridgeline is an EPA claimed 18 city, 25 highway, 21 combined. We got 22.4 over about 160 miles of casual driving mostly between 30 to 60 MPH. On paper, it’s not a big bump from what “traditional” trucks are capable of. At all.

Now I do have a feeling that real-world fuel burn will end up looking a lot better compared to competitors, which tend to be closer to the “city” figure in mixed driving, but only time will tell.

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Max towing is a respectable 5,000 pounds, and the payload capacity is a downright impressive 1,584 pounds. That’s on par with the mid-sized segment, and even some trims of half-ton trucks.

Technically it’s enough to qualify as a half-ton truck itself, but of course nothing is categorized logically anymore. All that without a solid rear axle!

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The front-wheel drive base Ridgeline RT starts at $29,475 and the nicest “Black Edition” with some goofy Type R-ish red-trimmed interior bits is a hefty $42,870. A nicely equipped RTL AWD model will cost about $35,000 and the cheapest AWD variant is $31,275. There will be five 2WD trims and seven AWD trims with all the active and passive safety option bundles you’re seeing everywhere—lane keeping, automatic high-beam dimming, pre-crash braking and various idiot-proofings that come with the “Honda Sensing” suite of safety tech. For a complete breakdown of what options come in which trim, I’ll direct you to Honda’s brochure.

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(Correction: Honda originally told us the cheapest Ridgeline would be $26,475 but they meant to say $29,475.)

(Image: Honda)

Every Ridgeline has the same engine: an aluminum 3.5-liter V6 that makes 280 horsepower at 6000 RPM and 262 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 RPM. To give you some context, a Tacoma makes peak power at about 4,200 RPM. That means you really have to squeeze the Honda to make it sing, which is typical of the company but not a great characteristic for a utility vehicle that needs low-speed grunt.

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That said, we tried pulling 4,000 pounds worth of trailer and the Ridgeline felt pretty much just as calm and compliant as it did empty. The same could be said for with a 400 pound ATV in the bed.

The sole transmission is a six-speed automatic which you can force to stay below second by putting it in “L” or below fourth (for passing) by tapping the “D4" button on the shifter, which has been moved from the column to the center console because people are dumb.

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Apparently car buyers associate column-mounted shifters with “cheapness,” so fancy trucks now have to sacrifice center console real estate that could hold something useful like cups for a silly stick so you can snap between Park and Drive with your elbow a little lower. Hope you’re happy.

Honda was excited to report that the Ridgeline is faster than any other mid-sized truck from 0 to 60 mph, but I won’t bother publishing the number because the sensation on-road is too imperceptible to appreciate. Hit the gas pedal and the Ridgeline proceeds forward. Floor it and you get a little extra noise until you get a lot more noise and the thing finally picks up some momentum.

VTEC? Yeah, the Ridgeline has Honda’s famous variable-timing system that makes the engine and its fanboys come to life at high RPMs. The idea is that the engine will only eat a minimal amount of air and gas below a certain speed threshold to maximize economy, but when you jump on the throttle it increases its intake substantially to give you a surge.

The Coolest Features

The Honda Ridgeline’s real defining characteristic is its unibody construction. A pickup truck is typically built as a “body-on-frame,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a steel frame that looks like a ladder laying down with the driveline and suspension connected to it, body panels and cargo box slapped on top.

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That’s how all Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, Ram, Toyota, and Nissan trucks have been made since mankind crawled out of the caves and made weekly Home Depot runs part of their adult existence.

(Image: Honda)

People will say you want a body-on-frame truck because it’s stronger against the twisting forces you might encounter off-road or hauling heavy cargo. Same goes for a solid rear axle that’s also part of traditional truck architecture.

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But the worst side-effect of that old-school setup is an inescapably gruff driving experience. Which is where the Honda’s unibody and independent suspension gets its time to shine: silky smooth road manners, baby.

The Ridgeline doesn’t feel anything like a truck until you get out and walk around to the back, where you find the rest of its fun features.

(Image: Honda)

First thing you grab is the tailgate. You can either drop it like every other truck, or find the other release-tab tucked under the gate and swing it open sideways like a traditional door. I guess the benefit is you can walk closer to the truck to place things in the bed. Unfortunately the cargo floor is really high and putting things in there is still annoyingly difficult.

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That’s because there’s a car-style trunk under there! Yes you can lift up the bed floor and find a waterproof, drainable, lockable storage area. And no, nothing we’ve discussed yet wasn’t already on the original Ridgeline.

(Image: Honda)

New gimmicks include a unique bed liner polymer that’s extremely resistant to scratch and dents, and a bed-mounted audio system that’s actually more interesting than you might think. Rather than just mounting marine speakers in the back or tucking them behind some kind of shield, the entire bed is the speaker.

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Honda basically took the bits of a speaker normally behind the cone itself and strapped them to the backside of the truck bed. They call these little magnets “exciters” and the idea is that they’ll take a beating better than a standard speaker could. The result is decent-quality audio behind the truck, as long as nothing’s in the bed. With a load of mulch on top the “speaker surface,” Honda’s engineers admitted, the tunes sound “a bit muffled.”

The truck also has a 400 watt power inverter, enough to run a decent-sized LED TV, for three hours before you’d need a jump start to go home. A little alarm beeps when you need to turn on the ignition to avoid such embarrassment though.

We Drove it

If I haven’t sufficiently expressed how comfortable the Ridgeline is on-road let me be completely plain by saying anyone who’s spent any time in pickup trucks will be blown away by how soft and smooth the driving experience is.

The Ridgeline is so brilliant that it barely feels like it needs your help to guide it from one point to another. The downside is you barely feel like you’re driving.

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I hopped in a new Colorado right after driving the Ridgeline and realized the Chevy’s refined ride was still a little bumpy. Everything seemed a little looser, but your line to the engine room felt more direct.

Then I grabbed a Tacoma, cocked the wheel and mashed the gas and good gravy was it easy to upset. Those long soft shocks reared the truck up on its haunches and the V6 screamed in impotent rage as it lumbered up to the backroad speed limit. Still feels a lot like the primitive old clunker I was so disappointed in last year, but man, it’s alive!

Switching back to the Ridgeline would have been a relief if I didn’t love cars that kick my ass. Reality is the Honda’s business-only attitude that disappoints the enthusiast is its greatest asset and most impressive accomplishment. Here’s a truck with the payload capacity that would have been just fine for a full-sized truck ten years ago, on a car that feels like it could have come from ten years in the future.

What We’d Change

How about making that twin-turbo engine and suspension setup from the Baja race car a Type-R variant? Just kidding, but I do have some tweaks I would have made before sending the Ridgeline. Don’t burn yourself on these hot takes:

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Give it a real spare tire. Yeah, the Ridgeline has a donut. I don’t care if you’re just going fire-road running, even faux-verlanding without a real spare is amateur hour. You’re one flat away from a ruined weekend! Honda should have done a swing-away rear bumper tire mount. (Hey, it could still make it into the accessory catalog!) Quick fix: carry a tire patch kit, or just buy a fifth wheel and throw it in the bed.

Make the face just a little meaner. I get that driving dynamics like elevator music is appealing to some people. But Honda could have done a lot to give this car a little more personality by making the face a little more trucklike. How’s that you ask? “More square.” For more guidance, look at any other pickup truck.

Full roll-down rear window. Does Toyota have a patent on rear truck windows that disappear completely? Honda would have done well to expand their usable cargo space by executing some kind of Chevy Avalanche-situation thing that’d allow the rear seating area to basically be an extension of the bed.

The Verdict

(Image: Honda)

The Ridgeline drives ridiculously well, and I don’t even have to qualify that statement with “for a car that can carry 1,600 pounds.” It’s more comfortable than any mid-sized truck, has more rear-seat space than any mid-sized truck, is more efficient, and can hang with the pack on capability and price.

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But the cutesy toys like cargo bed audio and a two-way tailgate are not enough to give this car anything approaching “personality.” It’s almost like the Ridgeline is too good for its own good; any potential characteristic has been ironed out in the name of easy-operation and efficiency.

I really like the concept of the Honda Ridgeline. It’s a valiant effort in bridging the gap between “utility” and “modern-practical” in the vein of the Honda Element, Chevy Avalanche and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, sort of the Pontiac Aztek. Unfortunately none of those vehicles were much of a commercial success, which brings me to my main concern about the new Ridgeline.

It’s so much like the old Ridgeline. Same exact trifles, same position in the truck market. Honda’s made a great truck for the practical buyer, but I’m afraid that customer might realize they’d be better off with an Accord and the occasional U-Haul rental.