SAN ANTONIO — Okay, the 2017 Honda Ridgeline sports a new silhouette that says it’s all pickup truck. Gone are the previous-generation’s sloping bed sides, replaced by a sharp, more distinct transition between cab and bed.
Body lines are straighter, it’s longer, and it has a very truck-like payload. Rated at more than 1,550 pounds (703 kilograms) on the base LX trim, the payload is higher than on the Nissan Frontier, on par with the Toyota Tacoma, and equals the full-size Ram 1500 equipped with the 5.7-litre V-8. It even comes standard with a Class III trailer hitch and seven-pin harness, and boasts a towing capacity of 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg).
But there’s some trickery going on here, because despite its truck-like outline and spec sheet, its unibody undercarriage is nonetheless all SUV. This second-generation Ridgeline, which returns to market after a three-year hiatus, is still built on Honda’s global light-truck platform, so what you’re essentially looking at is a longer Honda Pilot with the roof lopped off behind the rear seats. There’s even a body cutline demarking the bed from the cab to complete the illusion, though there is also a practical reason for this: The rear quarter panels are bolted on and can be replaced to facilitate damage repair.
This also means that, unlike traditional body-on-frame pickups, which are based on rear-drive platforms, the Ridgeline uses a front-drive platform with the engine transversely mounted under the hood. The U.S. gets a base version with front-wheel drive (a term that was completely avoided during the technical presentation, Honda reps preferring the more truck-friendly two-wheel drive). Canadian drivers, however, won’t have to put up with such nonsense; we get all-wheel drive as standard throughout the five trim levels (LX, Sport, EX-L, Touring and Black Edition). The base LX model starts at $36,590, and you can spec all the way up to the Black Edition, which adds blackout trim and wheels to the Touring version, for $48,590. For those keeping track, the starting price is just $1,600 more than it was in 2014.
All trims come standard with a rear-view camera, eight-inch colour touch screen, capless fuel-filler, heated front seats, keyless entry and push-button start, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, and 18-inch wheels.
Under the hood is a new 3.5-litre, i-VTEC direct-injection V-6 that claims 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of peak torque, an increase of 30 hp and 15 lb-ft over the previous-generation Ridgeline. The new engine is bolted to active engine mounts to reduce vibration, and it can run on three cylinders to reduce fuel consumption when cruising at light throttle. Honda rates the fuel consumption at 11.3 L/100 km, combined city and highway.
The automatic transmission has gained a cog, and is now a six-speed with a wider spread of ratios that includes a lower first and higher top gear. It drives the wheels through Honda’s i-VTM4 full-time all-wheel-drive system, which constantly varies torque between the front and rear wheels, while applying brake-less torque vectoring at the rear wheels, sending more torque to the outside wheel to assist cornering. Four selectable drive modes (Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand) adjust front-to-rear torque distribution, as well as throttle and transmission mapping, to suit the varying driving conditions. The transmission selects gears efficiently, with almost seamless gear changes that are well matched to what your right foot is doing.
The Ridgeline has grown, with eight centimetres more wheelbase and seven cm more overall length, though the roof is 1.2 cm lower. Despite the Ridgeline’s larger dimensions, it has dropped 36 kg, while gaining 28 per cent more torsional rigidity. The longer wheelbase hasn’t changed the interior space that much, which still offers ample room for front and rear passengers, but there is a larger bed, which is 10 cm longer and 14 cm wider than before.
Returning are a couple of very handy bed features that are unique to the Ridgeline: the dual-action tailgate, which swings down like a conventional tailgate or to the side like a door, and the in-bed trunk that holds 207 L of cargo, as well as a spare tire. The 5-4 (163 cm) bed also has a small cargo box in the right panel.
Honda added another unique feature to the Touring and Black Edition: a musical truck bed. These models are equipped with sound exciters in the bed, which turn the bed liner into a speaker that pipes music from the audio system. There’s no ground-shaking bass pumping out the back, but the sound is better than simply leaving the doors open. An even nicer tailgating touch would have been a factory-installed barbecue inside the in-bed trunk, but maybe that’s something for the next generation Ridgeline.
The interior is very much Pilot, which is somewhat understated but very comfortable. You’ll find the same gauges, the same eight-inch touch screen, and climate and steering-wheel controls, and the same materials and finish. The biggest difference is that the Ridgeline uses a gearshift lever, as opposed to the Pilot’s push-button gear selector. Glass is thicker all around to deaden sound, and on the EX-L and higher trim levels there’s an acoustic windshield.
Available safety features include blind-spot warning, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, LaneWatch, which displays the passenger-side blind spot in the screen when the right turn signal is activated, and hill start assist. (On an automatic? Really, are we that bad at driving?)
A brief drive in a Toyota Tacoma and a Chevrolet Colorado — provided for comparison — instantly revealed where the Ridgeline trumps all conventional pickup trucks: it drives very much like a car, with a very quiet interior, and composed, communicative handling. There’s no reverberation through the body after hitting bumps, which is common on body-on-frame designs. And the chassis is taut and responsive on twisty roads, benefitting from the rigid chassis structure, as well as all-around independent suspension. You’re also sitting lower to the ground. The ride is so well controlled that if you were to enter the Ridgeline blindfolded, you’d think you were driving in a full-size sedan.
The former Ridgeline was pretty much in a class by itself, but this redesigned version will be competing with the Colorado and the Canyon, the Frontier and the class-leading Tacoma. However, this is a light truck done Honda’s way, designed for drivers who want the utility of a pickup truck but don’t want a compromising truck-like ride. And in those respects, the Ridgeline delivers big time.
— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016