Honda has somehow managed to turn tardiness into a virtue. The company got into the minivan market late but ended up producing the benchmark Odyssey. It was slow to enter the SUV market, then designed the popular MDX and Pilot, which fit full-size interior space into mid-sized packages. It even had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making V6 engines, then designed an engine family that may be the most sophisticated and versatile in the automotive industry. Given that track record it is no surprise that Honda has just now gotten around to building a pickup truck, and once again it seems as though the dilatory development cycle will pay off with the Ridgeline.
FOR AND AGAINST. The Ridgeline is not designed to steal F-150 or Silverado customers…per se. It is designed to give the 18% of Honda owners who also own pickups a chance to make their garages a Honda-only parking area. At the projected annual sales volume of only 50,000 units, the Ridgeline won’t even scratch the paint on American automakers’ truck dominance, but to Honda’s credit it designed its first truck as if it would have to eat Ford’s lunch to survive.
Clever touches include:
- An 8.5-ft3 lockable trunk located under the rear portion of the bed that can swallow three golf bags or double as a massive cooler for tailgating. (The tub is made of sheet molded compound [SMC] so it won’t rust and there is a drain plug so you don’t have to listen to sloshing water until you can locate the wet vac.) The tailgate hinges on both the side and the bottom so you can get into the trunk without sprawling across a filthy expanse of sheet metal. The sturdy patent-pending hinge mechanism is rated to support 300 lb.
- The rear seat flips up in one easy motion to make room for large items you don’t want to haul in a dirty bed.
- The center console storage is ample and versatile, though it may take a while to figure out all of its sliding and folding contortions.
Unfortunately there are also some Aztek moments where the designers got a little out of hand including:
- A HUGE protruding brushed aluminum pull handle on the inside of the front doors that is so odd and out of place you can expect it to be gone come minor model change time.
- A round, milky-lensed automatic HVAC display that strongly resembles the bottom of a Magic 8 Ball. Message: “Outlook not so good.”
- A two-inch gap between where the angled side sail panels end and the top of the tailgate begins. Honda engineers say the lower tailgate improves visibility. But someone should have convinced the designers that the sail panel and tailgate ought to meet, not seem as though some supplier delivered the wrong-sized part to the plant.
HYBRID BODY. The Ridgeline team was loathe to put the Honda name on a vehicle that rides and handles like a typical pickup, so they developed a new body structure that merges a smooth-riding unibody with a rigid truck ladder frame. Using finite element stress analysis, they determined that the best way to increase body rigidity and thereby enhance handling is to provide an upper load path for the rear of the vehicle—something that is conspicuously missing on conventional pickups. This led to the integrated structure that undergirds the Ridgeline’s signature angled sail panels, which ties directly into the reinforced back wall of the cab forming an assembly that is 20 times stiffer in torsional rigidity than competitors. The underlying frame consists of fully boxed, full-length high-strength steel frame rails laced together by seven boxed crossmembers. To help achieve ambitious payload and towing targets of 1549 lb. and 5000 lb. respectively, the rear rail depth is increased by 70% over the Pilot frame on which it is loosely based. In fact, Honda had to re-design so much of its global light truck platform to accommodate the requirements of a pickup that the Ridgeline’s body ended up with the mixed blessing of 93% exclusive parts. Likewise, the chassis is 69% exclusive and features independent suspension all around (a first for a pickup), and front and rear subframes isolated by rubber mounts. The payoff for this markedly untrucklike setup is ride and handling more like an upscale SUV than the squirrelly nature of the average pickup.
Citing research that projects pickups will actually lose about 5% of their market by 2008, while new truck variations like SUTs will grow by 40%, Honda says it is just in time to hit a sweet spot in the market with the Ridgeline.