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First drive: 2017 Honda Ridgeline [Review]

by Drew Johnson

Honda takes another crack at the mid-size truck segment with its second-generation Ridgeline.

Flip back a few chapters in the automotive history book and you'll find the birth of the sport utility vehicle. In those early days, the SUV recipe was rather simple — mix one part truck chassis with one part station wagon and voila, you have a multi-passenger vehicle capable of traversing the Rockies or taking the kids to soccer practice.

But, as it turned out, most families didn't really need a vehicle capable of climbing mountains. Moreover, those early SUVs suffered from clumsy handling and poor fuel economy because of their body-on-frame construction. As a result, most SUV owners eventually jumped ship to the modern, unibody crossover, which offers similar space without the punishing ride. But for whatever reason, the pickup truck segment didn't follow the SUV-to-CUV evolution path, even with the advent of the weekend warrior.

Honda attempted to jumpstart the Darwinian process in the mid-size truck segment with the original Ridgeline in 2006. Although that first Ridgeline packed several clever features, its unibody construction and oddball styling proved too much to overcome. With sales sliding, Honda pulled the plug on the first-generation Ridgeline a full two years before its replacement would be ready.

That followup truck is now here in the form of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline. Like the original, it has a unibody chassis and Honda's excellent packaging, but now features more conventional styling. So, is the 2017 Ridgeline the start of the next big thing in the pickup truck segment or is it doomed for extinction? Come with us as we find out.

Pilot in the front, business in the backSince the original Ridgeline was a different kind of truck, Honda decided it needed a different kind of look. That, as it turned out, wasn't a great idea.

But Honda learned its lesson and went down the more conventional design path for the 2017 Ridgeline. The new truck features a front end that's heavily inspired by the Honda Pilot. In fact, it looks like Honda simply grafted the Pilot's nose onto the front of its newest truck.

There are some subtle differences, however. The Ridgeline sports a different grille with an oversized badge, which seems to be a prerequisite for any pickup truck. The lower bumper of the Ridgeline is also tougher-looking than its crossover counterpart.

Honda nixed the Ridgeline's controversial flying buttresses for the latest go-around, resulting in a more typical pickup truck silhouette. However, in profile the Ridgeline's sleek nose seems a little at odds with its newly chiseled rear end; it almost looks as though one design team was assigned the front half of the truck while a second team penned the rear. A little more cohesion might improve the overall look.

The rear of the Ridgeline is generic yet somehow still interesting. We particularly like the tinted taillights with LED accents and the subtle spoilers on the rear edge of the roof and the top of the tailgate that not only give the Ridgeline a dose of sport, but also help with aerodynamics.

Although still not perfect, the styling of the 2017 Ridgeline is much more successful and, more importantly, much less polarizing than the model it replaces.

Nuts and boltsThe 2017 Ridgeline rides on a unibody chassis that's mostly based on the Pilot crossover. We say mostly because over 50 percent of the Pilot's chassis parts were reengineered for use in the Ridgeline.

Those changes consist of chassis and suspension strengthening measures required by the rugged nature of a pickup truck. In fact, the front- and rear-end suspension systems in the Ridgeline were designed from scratch. Thanks to those beefier components, the 2017 Ridgeline is capable of hauling a 1,584 pound payload or pulling a 5,000 pound trailer when equipped with all-wheel drive.

It should be easier to load up the new Ridgeline thanks to its larger truck bed. Overall length is up by more than five inches to 5' 4" while overall width has grown to 5'. There's a little over 4' of space between the wheel arches, making the Ridgeline the only pickup in the segment capable of hauling a 4x8 sheet of material flat. The tailgate remains a dual-action unit that's able to swing open or fold down.

And buyers won't have to worry about mucking up the Ridgeline's bed with jagged cargo; the new truck uses a unique plastic liner that resists scratches and fading due to sun exposure.

But being a Ridgeline, there is more storage space than just the bed. Underneath the load floor there is a separate trunk than can easily swallow an 82-quart cooler or a golf bag. Moreover that cubby space is lockable and water tight. It even has a drain plug so it can be used as an ice chest.

Further upping its tailgating credentials, upper-end Ridgeline models come equipped with a bed-mounted 400-watt AC outlet (enough to power a big screen TV) and weatherproof exciters that turn the bed walls into giant speakers.

Inside the cabin the Ridgeline uses flip-up rear seats, making it easier to haul bigger items like a mountain bike or flatscreen TV. Those rear seats also have permanent storage underneath, so you can stash stuff like a tool box or golf bag.

All Ridgeline models get Honda's 3.5L direct-injection V6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. That mill is good for 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. The EPA says to expect 19mpg in the city and 26mpg on the highway with the two-wheel drive model. Those figures fall to 18mpg city and 25mpg highway with all-wheel drive.

Those that do opt for all-wheel drive will get an advanced i-VTM4 system with electro-hydraulics and independent solenoids. In a nutshell that technical mumbo jumbo means the i-VTM4 unit can handle more torque and activate four-wheel drive faster than the old system. As a bonus, it also allows for torque vectoring, which gives the Ridgeline a leg up in the handling department.

Like a modern crossover, the Ridgeline's four-wheel drive system is automatic, so there is no need to switch from two-wheel drive to four. However, Snow, Mud and Sand settings are available via a button located just behind the shift lever.

Un-truck interiorSlip behind the wheel of the 2017 Ridgeline and you might mistake it for an upscale crossover rather than a mid-size pickup truck. That's because the Ridgeline cabin is essentially a carbon copy of the Honda Pilot.

Like the Pilot, the Ridgeline's interior is logically arranged with easy to use controls. An optional eight-inch touchscreen (a five-incher is standard) handles all infotainment duties and earns high scores for ease of use and good resolution. Our only real complaint is Honda's insistence on using a slider instead of a traditional volume knob. HVAC controls are located just below and are a snap to use.

Ridgeline's gauge cluster is a mix of tradition dials and a pair of LCD screens. The physical gauges are used for engine speed, fuel level and engine temperature, while the LCD readouts display speed and trip information. A multi-function steering wheel makes it easy to control the Ridgeline's various functions.

Materials are a step above what you'd expect in this segment, including soft touch materials throughout the Ridgeline's cabin. Rear doors use hard plastics, but Honda says that's as much a function of durability as it is cost cutting.

The Ridgeline's front seats offer all-day comfort with good thigh support. There is plenty of headroom in either seat, but the dashboard does somewhat intrude on passenger foot room, though not enough to be a serious complaint.

The Ridgeline offers the most passenger volume of any mid-size pickup and rear seat passengers are the biggest beneficiaries of that fact. Even those over six-feet tall will find more than enough head and legroom.

Civilized mannersDespite their tough image, mid-size trucks spend the vast majority of their time of paved roads. In fact, Honda's data finds that just three-percent of mid-size truck owners actually take their trucks off-road.

That means that mid-size trucks are mostly used for mundane tasks like commuting to work or taking the kids to school. The most work a compact truck typically gets is a weekend run to the home improvement store for a load of mulch or a trip to the lake with the family boat. Yet every single mid-size truck on the market uses a separate frame like a full-size pickup. That's like wearing a helmet and shoulder pads in a game of flag football — it's just unnecessary.

And the notion that a body-on-frame truck is stronger than a unibody truck is simply unfounded. The torsional stiffness of the Ridgeline is nearly double that of the Chevrolet Colorado, and the Honda's bending stiffness is close to double that of the Ford F-150.

That solid base combined with a four-wheel independent suspension means the Ridgeline rides as nicely as a luxury crossover. Rough roads and even big potholes are no match for the Ridgeline. Ridgeline offers best in-class cabin isolation, with the only notable noise at highway speed being a little wind noise from the A-pillars.

Steering is light and easy with a direct feel. Really push the Ridgeline and you'll appreciate the added turning power provided by the torque vectoring system. The Ridgeline isn't meant to be a sport truck, but it's a far more competent handler than any other mid-size truck on the market.

Acceleration is more than adequate with good punch throughout the range. The six-speed auto keeps things humming with smooth shifts between the gears. Honda even provided us with a 4,000 pound trailer to tow during or evaluation; although it wasn't over a long test loop, the Ridgeline never felt out of breath.

The seating position in the Ridgeline is the best in the mid-size category. You have a more commanding view of the road in the Ridgeline than in the Chevy Colorado and there's no issue of a "chopped” roofline obstructing outward visibility like in the Toyota Tacoma.

The 2017 Ridgeline is the only vehicle in its class to offer semi-autonomous features like adaptive cruise control and lane departure assist. Buyers will also appreciate convenience technologies like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and available Garmin navigation.

The 2017 Ridgeline hasn't been evaluated for crashworthiness yet, but Honda is expecting a five-star rating from the NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the IIHS. Additionally, Honda devised its own crash test that measures the strength of the wall between the passenger compartment and truck bed. Honda's test simulates a 30mph crash while carrying a 1,000 pound load in the bed. Although not a government-mandated test, the Ridgeline passed with flying colors, keeping the 1,000 pound load from entering the cabin.

Off-roadJust because the Ridgeline has excellent on-road manners doesn't mean it can't handle the muddy stuff. We sampled the Ridgeline against both the Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado on a moderately difficult off-road course and found it to be every bit the equal of its peers. If anything, the Ridgeline felt more rigid than the competition. On one section of track that lifted a rear wheel off the ground you could hear the Tacoma creaking as its frame flexed. In the Ridgeline, everything was as quiet as a Sunday drive.

It should be noted, however, that the Ridgeline doesn't have a hill decent function as found in other vehicles in this class.

Leftlane' bottom lineIn the 2017 Ridgeline, Honda has created a better mouse trap. The new Ridgeline is as rough and ready as just about anything in the segment, yet offers an on-road driving experience that is lightyears ahead of any other compact truck. The 2017 Honda Ridgeline is so good that it might just start a new branch on the pickup truck family tree.

2017 Honda Ridgeline 2WD base price $29,475. As tested $41,370, excluding options and a $900 destination charge.

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