Automotives: Honda Ridgeline takes hits in style

LA JOLLA, CALIF. -- After truck sales zoomed into the stratosphere, it seemed that every possible configuration of pickup trucks had been created -- from small to medium to humongous, from long-bed to short-bed to covered-bed, and from regular-ca...

LA JOLLA, CALIF. -- After truck sales zoomed into the stratosphere, it seemed that every possible configuration of pickup trucks had been created -- from small to medium to humongous, from long-bed to short-bed to covered-bed, and from regular-cab to extended-cab to crew-cab. Not so fast, there, partner. There's still room for one more, and Honda, of all companies, is the one that is filling that slot.

The Honda Ridgeline pickup will hit showrooms in about a month, and Honda aims to sell about 50,000 of them this year, hoping to double that in future years. There are several reasons that the Ridgeline is intriguing. First, Honda officials readily heckle themselves by admitting that after insisting for a decade that they'd never build an actual pickup truck, now they are saying, "Here's our truck."

Honda hasn't missed on many of its marks, always creating clever vehicles with the highest technology, build quality and clean efficiency, and the Ridgeline seems to be another direct hit.

The opening, Honda declared, was for a pickup truck that can do it all, with full-size interior and all sorts of appointments, a compact exterior, for maneuverability and convenience, and the capability of competing -- if not beating -- the presumably more powerful and larger trucks on the market. The Ridgeline is a boldly-styled full-four-door pickup, with styling that is daring and different enough to defy the conservative look of Accords and Civics, as well as the aerodynamically astute look of Acura RSX, TSX, TL and RL models.

The key is to give the 3.5-liter V6 a few tweaks to be able to run clean for emissions and yet compete with the numerous V8 and larger V6 engines of competitors.


Remarkably, it is designed with both a fully cross-membered frame and unibody, fused cleverly into a tight package that is both superbly comfortable loaded and unloaded. It can tow a 5,000-pound trailer, haul heavy things in the bed and is ingeniously designed to have a trunk positioned underneath.

Anyhow, cynics among the media asked how Honda could possibly say it can compete with full-size pickups with huge V8s, with that slick little V6 that has variations powering the Acura MD-X luxury SUV and RL luxury sedan. Honda officials didn't make any outrageous boasts, and they proclaimed their intention is not to replace the F150 -- Ford's benchmark full-size pickup -- but that we should just wait until the demonstration drives us to ask such questions.

The 3.5-liter V6 turns out 255 horsepower at 5,750 RPMs, and 252 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 RPMs, and preliminary estimates are for 21 miles per gallon highway and 16 city. It is the first pickup truck with an engine that meets Level II of the ULEV (ultra low emission vehicle) and Bin 5 pollution standards. Its five-speed automatic is reinforced, and is coupled with VTM-4 all-wheel drive, a system that runs front-wheel-drive until load or slippage calls for torque shift to the rear.

Dan Bonawitz, Honda's vice president of planning and logistics, said that with all its SUVs, Honda would sell 500,000 trucks in 2004, after having none to sell in 1994.

"We also wanted to make the Ridgeline maneuverable, able to carry at least five passengers, and be kid-friendly, while still being fun, durable, capable of running off-road, and of hauling dirty cargo. So we created a recipe, offering a new approach for active families."

The pickup bed is truly a work of art. The composite design took a battering without being marred from a front-end loader dumping 600 pounds of boulders into the bed as we watched. Grooves in the floor of the bed are designed so that owners of 3.4 million Honda motorcycles will find the tires fit perfectly. At 49 inches wide (the F150 is 50 inches), a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood rides flat in the 5-foot bed, which goes to 6.5 feet with the tailgate down.

The primary feature of the bed, however, is the trunk. At a touch, the rear floor section will tilt up, revealing an 8.5-cubic-foot trunk-space. It is large enough to store extra large duffel bags, three full sets of golf clubs, a stroller, or a 72-quart cooler, and you can get a divider and cargo hooks as well. The best part is that the trunk lid/bed floor is completely sealed, so you could haul a load of dirt in the bed, and none of it would get into the trunk.

In design, Honda knew that a unibody was best for body rigidity and safety, but a body on frame is best for towing and cargo. So even though it took 93 percent new and exclusive parts, an integrated frame with boxed frame rails and seven cross-members of high-strength steel was designed and fastened to a unibody structure. The finished Ridgeline is 2.5 times stiffer in bending rigidity and 20 times stiffer in torsional rigidity than "other midsize pickups," Honda says. The bed is sheet-molded composite, so it won't corrode or suffer "ding" damage, and it has three cross-members under it.


Creature comforts have definitely not been overlooked. An independent rear suspension tracks well and aids handling and comfort. Rubber isolation points on the subframe help to quiet vibrations. The suspension system designed for the Pilot SUV has been reinforced totally, measuring a 30-percent increase in strength, and the result is lateral response g-forces and slalom speeds far better than the F150, Titan, Tundra or Colorado pickups.

The Ridgeline has passenger-car-level interior noise, with a navigation screen, audio upgrades including rear-seat DVD screen and wireless headphones, and five-star crash-test ratings, with special attention to crash compatibility to make smaller vehicles and even pedestrians safer.

The Ridgeline will come in a base RT level which is pretty well equipped, plus an RTS that adds alloy wheels and a six-CD audio, and RTL, which adds heated leather seats. And the prices will range from a base of about $28,000 for the RT to a base of $32,000 for the RTL.

John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews, and you can reach him at .

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