Auto Market Review

Auto Market Review


ARX Auto Market Review Reviews About AMR ARX ARX ARX

AMR Preview: 2006 Honda Ridgeline - A Japanese Avalanche?
    Managing Editor

Pickup trucks are as American as apple pie, thus explaining Honda's previous trepidation towards entering the market. Toyota entered a while ago and has had great success with its current Tacoma and Tundra line of full-size trucks. Of course, Toyota had a tough go of it with the original T100 before finding some success in the Tundra. Nissan recently offered its outrageous Titan pickup to complement its mid-size Frontier and made quite a splash in the market. After a slow start, the Titan is really starting to sell. Toyota and Nissan followed the typical pickup formula for their products, though. A body on frame chassis, solid rear axle and a big displacement engine mounted longitudinally. Both manufacturers have had success because of the quality and thoroughness of their offerings - the products were exhaustively researched and refined before being thrown into the highly competitive U.S. pickup market. Honda is certainly no exception, and is arguably even more cautious about entering a new market (just look how long it took for the Pilot SUV to make it to market).

Honda's products typically cater to the needs of many, rather than the wants of a few. This leads to savings in production costs (by producing less variations of a model), and a product that is aimed to please the majority of buyers in the specific segment. Honda's Ridgeline is no different in its approach to truck building and is a veritable "in your face" to your typical domestic offering. Starting with a hybrid half unit body/half-ladder frame construction, the Ridgeline adds four-wheel fully independent suspension and a transversely mounted engine. All those features pretty much stray from the norm when it comes to pickup hardware, but represents Honda's unique methods to producing a pickup truck meant for everyone.

I'll be the first to admit it, this brand new Honda looks strikingly similar to Chevy's Avalanche SUT (Sport Utility Truck), from the squared off wheel wells to the thick C-pillar leading into the bed. Even the tail and head light treatments are somewhat similar. At least the C-pillar's extra thickness exists for a functional reason in the Ridgeline. Because it utilizes a unit body, the Ridgeline's rear bed is actually integrated into the rest of the truck's chassis, unlike other pickups in which the bed is a totally separate entity from the cabin. The extra thick rear pillar helps to increase torsional stiffness and gives the truck a rigid body that is largely devoid of the shudder evident in body-on-frame trucks. The Ridgeline comes with four doors standard, and as can be expected this configuration does cut into the size of the bed. However, it provides for maximum people moving capability and works to maintain the practicality of the truck.

Unlike the Avalanche, though, the Ridgeline is not quite full-size. Honda considers the Ridgeline's competition to be other manufacturers' mid-size pickups, like the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Dodge Dakota, Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon and Ford Explorer Sport-Trac. Of these competitors, the Ridgeline most closely identifies with the Ford Explorer Sport-Trac, since it is the only other purpose built SUT like the Honda. The Honda distances itself from all these competitors, however, in it's unique approach and creative features. The first unique feature you're bound to notice is the two-way tailgate. Not only does it drop down, but it also swings open like a door in order to allow for easier loading. The swing open door also allows owners much easier access to the next interesting feature: secure in-bed storage. Honda engineered a weatherproof, lockable cavity underneath the bed that houses the spare tire and offers 8.5 cubic feet of storage to boot. This might not sound like a lot, but the cavity's square shape allows you to make use of all the available cubic footage. Honda's marketing folks have produced a picture of a possible use for this hidden storage area - a cooler for drinks during tailgating parties. The actual bed above the cavity is 60 inches in length, which is on par with its competition, but has a width of 49.5 inches. This makes it the widest bed among its peers and allows you to carry whole 4x8 sheets of wood - with the tailgate down of course. Helping the Ridgeline handle such wide loads is Honda's thoughtful design of the wheel wells, which leads to very minimal intrusion into the bed, as shown in the storage flexibility picture.

The Ridgeline might rely partly on unit-body construction, but you wouldn't know it when looking at it's payload and towing capacities. Its payload capacity is a robust 1100 lbs, which is very competitive in this segment. The half-ton capacity actually rivals the bulk of full-size offerings (Ford F-150, Dodge Ram 1500, Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra 1500, Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan). The Ridgeline is also capable of towing an adequate 5000 lbs., which puts in right in the thick of this group's capabilities. This means the Ridgeline could easily tow a medium size boat, your sports car or most any other play toys you might have.

Oddly enough, the interior also reeks of Chevy cues. Who'd have ever thought you would see a Honda with styling both inside and out that reminds you of a Chevy? I certainly never expected it. The overall shape of the dash, when looked at from the rear seat, looks very much like the universal dash design Chevy employs in most of their full-size trucks and SUV's. While the Honda and Chevy look similar, typical Honda engineering has produced an interior with fit and finish that eclipses anything Chevy has to offer. While durable, hard plastic materials are utilized everywhere in the Ridgeline's cabin (straying from the soft-touch materials utilized in many of Honda's other vehicles), this is not to say the materials are low quality and they will most certainly help the interior last longer. Also populating the interior are numerous storage spaces and cubbyholes. In fact, the center console storage alone provides enough space to hide a small country. Beware, though, you now no longer have an excuse for having personal stuff scattered throughout your interior, as there is more than enough room to hide it last minute when picking up your date at night. As you might expect, safety is not an issue with this Honda, as it has a full complement of airbags including front, side and side-curtain airbags.

Engine and Powertrain
All Ridgelines come equipped with identical powertrains. A transversely mounted 3.5L V6 engine delivers its 255 hp and 252 lb-ft. to a 5-speed automatic transmission. Only the Tacoma and Frontier out-muscle the Ridgeline with a 30 and 32 lb-ft. of torque (respectively) advantage. Not to be overlooked, the Dodge Dakota V8 puts out 230 hp, yet a whopping 290 lb-ft of torque in regular guise, and 260 hp and 310 lb-ft in its high-output guise. Still, that's a V8, and we're talking about V6s here. Despite the Honda's disadvantage in the power, it still manages to compete well in towing and hauling as explained earlier in this article. All Ridgeline SUTs come standard with ABS and a rear-locking differential, which is a rarity in this market segment. The locking differential enables greater traction when towing in slippery conditions or when attempting a little mild off-roading. Another unique feature of the Ridgeline is the lock button for Honda's VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management) system, which biases engine power to the rear at low speeds for any special towing situations that might arise. Rounding out the powertrain features are VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist) with Traction Control, a Tire Pressure monitor, standard transmission and power steering coolers and last but not least, a heavy duty radiator with twin fans to help the engine keep its cool during intense usage. It's safe to say the Ridgeline is better equipped than most to handle all challenges thrown its way.

Final Review
Leave it up to Honda to tip the pickup world on its proverbial ear. This segment has not seen very many advances in overall design theory, thus it's refreshing to see that Honda steps up to the plate and offers its own take on what a pickup truck should be. Instead of just throwing a large motor on primitive architecture, Honda questioned the status quo and developed a new approach. The result of which is a truck that rides like a sedan yet serves all the needs of your average prospective pickup buyer in one well put-together package, and in my opinion that is precisely what the market needed.


There's Ugly and Then There's Ridgeline


I remember seeing early drawings and test mules of the Ridgeline, and prayed that Honda would at least change the downward slope of the bed. It just looks so odd to me to see a decreasing thickness on a truck. It makes it look less powerful. While I dislike the front-end of the Ridgeline, it certainly is stronger looking than the flanks.

Enough about the outside, let's talk interiors. Ah, Honda interiors...truly benchmarks for the industry. The current Accord is gorgeous inside. Well, I wish I could say the same for the Ridgeline. Tim's observation of the likeness to a Chevy interior is not a compliment here. With Nissan's new Frontier interior and Toyota's impressive Tacoma interior, the stakes are very high, and the Honda falls short. Perhaps more appropriately, we can talk about the Ford Explorer Sport-Trac's interior. Sure, it's not stellar, but Ford was showing the next generation of the Sport-Trac at the Detroit Auto Show. Given the look of the current Ford interiors (F-150, Five Hundred, Explorer, Expedition, Freestyle, etc), Honda should have done better. Even transplanting the Pilot's interior would have been a better choice. Actually, now that I think about it, Honda does not do such great interiors in any of their non-car vehicles if you ask me. The Sienna easily outclasses even the brand new Odyssey's interior. The RAV-4 beats out the CR-V without breaking a sweat, and the Pilot, while not bad, isn't all that great inside.

So, as usual, I sound very negative. Here's where that all changes. The storage flexibility is brilliant. The wheel intrusion into the bed is so minimal, you can nearly take it out of any load handling planning you do. The hidden box is a great idea (Nissan has a smaller one in the Titan on the side), and the structure is great. While I don't like the look of the Ridgeline, I think it's an incredibly well engineered piece of machinery, and will definitely stand the test of time. Make no mistake, while this isn't a mountain goat, it's surprisingly tough. Honda really beefed up the componentry and structure to handle off-roading, at least to a large degree. If I was in the market for an SUT, I would definitely consider the Honda, and weight style versus performance and durability. Of course, stellar Honda resale value would be a nice addition.