The SUV-based pickup shows that jacks of all trades can be great.
A bit of context: I’ve been car-camping out of my 1995 Toyota Hiace Super Custom for over a month now, traveling from national forest to national forest, hiking the all-wheel-drive, A/T tire bedecked van up single-lane dirt roads that climb thousands of feet in elevation (Ed. Check out Victoria's van life series over at The Drive). The peaks of those mountains are where I spend my nights writing, taking photos, and enjoying the peaceful beauty of solitude.
So when Honda asked me if I wanted a new Ridgeline to review, the first question I asked was, “Is it alright if I go off-roading in it?” But no, really, off-roading. I have not babied my van. The good dispersed camping spots aren’t found on pavement nor on neatly manicured trails. They’re on the ones labeled “4WD” with tire tracks that date back to the Carter presidency. Honda told me to have fun. So with the green light to tackle some serious trails, I was itching to hit the dirt and see how the refreshed Ridgeline stacked up as a truck.
People have mocked the unibody Ridgeline as not truck enough since its inception. As enthusiasts, we have a tendency to make our cars hyper-specialized. Sports cars, for example, are lowered and stiffened and strung ever-tighter to shave down extra tenths of a second around the local road course. Off-roaders get external shock fluid reservoirs and absurd articulation to assist them as they hit the double black trails at Moab. We’re getting spoiled, so we tend to look with a disparaging eye at vehicles that are intentionally marketed as jacks-of-all-trades, as though covering more use cases is a bad thing.
Not helping the Ridgeline is that it’s not memorable on paper. As always, it’s available solely with a 3.5-liter V6, good for 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, which puts it midpack in the midsize truck category. This is respectable, but translates to a dismal 5,000-pound towing capacity, which trails the competition significantly – the V6-equipped Chevrolet Colorado can haul 2,600 pounds more for a similar price.
As always, the Ridgeline is available solely with a 3.5-liter V6, good for 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque.
The Ridgeline’s payload capacity leads the small/midsize truck segment by a whopping 23 pounds over the Ford Ranger and Colorado, which translates to about one extra cinder block carried. Not exactly a resounding victory. And throw in the much-bemoaned unibody facet, when most competitors still soldier on with the more antiquated but very robust body-on-frame style of construction, and the Ridgeline has been dismissed for a significant portion of its life.
But this overlooks a crucial component of how people actually use their vehicles. I live in Texas, the spiritual home of the commuter truck. My suburban street is lined with pickups owned by people who sometimes go camping, work in an oil field or tow their boats around. They keep their trucks around for those edge cases, but 95 percent of the time, they drive them to work, sit in traffic, eat miles on freeways, and park in strip mall shopping centers to buy groceries.
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A truck is not usually the best vehicle for these activities, but it is legitimately the best choice for going hunting or driving dirt roads with a bed full of tools out to a pipeline, and owners suffer through the downsides of truck ownership in order to enjoy those moments where their truck fulfills their five-percent-of-the-time use cases for them with no complaints.
A good truck, therefore, needs to cover as many bases as possible. It should perform as a competent off-roader with plenty of bed space for whatever the owner needs, while still recognizing that most of the miles it will ever see in its lifetime will be on the freeway or around town, performing the mundane tasks all cars suffer through before they’re allowed a chance to shine in their natural biome.
Living out of a truck feels like the most intense test of its functionality possible.
Luckily, when I picked up the Ridgeline (a base Sport model, equipped with the HPD performance package, that gives it those radical-looking gold wheels and machismo-without-aggression fender flares), I was in Los Angeles. A city criss-crossed with freeways and dotted with strip malls and tight suburban streets where parallel parking is the only option – yet surrounded with desolate, desert mountains – is more or less the ideal location to evaluate a truck as people actually use them.
Those mountain trails up in the Angeles National Forest would be a great test for the all-wheel-drive and ground clearance the spec sheets bragged about, and living out of a truck feels like the most intense test of its functionality possible.
Finding A Forest
Those mountain trails up in the Angeles National Forest would be a great test for the all-wheel-drive and ground clearance the spec sheets bragged about, and living out of a truck feels like the most intense test of its functionality possible. But before I got to tackle some riverbeds and washed-out fire roads, the first challenge – really, the first test I would imagine most of the cars sold in LA face – was to determine how well it sits in traffic.
The average commuter in Los Angeles loses six days and twenty three hours of their life per year to traffic jams, so it’s not an idle question. And the Ridgeline’s cabin and seating scores well for me. Sure, there are the numbers that convey this – it does boast the best shoulder room in the midsize truck class (62.0 inches in front and 61.5 in back) – but the actual feel of being in a truck built off a crossover platform does it huge favors. It does not feel like a truck, and to be clear, this is a compliment.
Overall, I’d be thrilled to commute in this – the mileage wasn’t half bad either.
The ride quality and noise at speed on those interstates was less like a Toyota Tacoma (or my beloved A/T-bedecked Hiace that got me out here to Southern California) and more like a tall sedan, which I appreciated in my hundreds of miles criss-crossing the sprawl of the city back and forth to visit friends and check out car shows. Overall, I’d be thrilled to commute in this – the mileage wasn’t half bad either. I averaged a bit over 19 miles per gallon with a lot of traffic and dirt roads, as well as some parked bouts with the AC blasting to escape the unseasonable heat.
Before reaching the dirt roads that would take me to my campground for the night, I had to traverse the technical canyon twisties of the Angeles Crest. This led me to a new test I invented as adrenaline began to course through my veins – how much does the Ridgeline actually handle like a car?
Well, it was surprisingly competent. It wouldn’t have kept up with an NSX, but if I’d been running against a rental Altima, the Ridgeline would hold its own, and for a truck that speaks volumes. At the very least, the accurate steering made twisty roads much, much easier than most trucks (and vans) I’ve traversed the mountains with, and that was more than sufficient for me.
Slapping through the nine-speed automatic with the paddles in Sport mode was probably more fun than it should have been. After all, a “serious enthusiast” should really only be tackling some of the best roads on the continent with a sticky-tired, three-pedalled sports car, right?
Handling isn’t the main reason anyone buys a truck, but it’s a testament to how civilized the Ridgeline is that it cooperated with my foolishness so well.
I’ll say it anyway: It was fun as hell to hear the V6 grumpily comply as I stabbed the brakes and asked the automatic transmission to give me the lowest gear possible. Plus, it held enough G’s through the sweeping turns to pop the lid off my cooler I’d thrown in the bed, and I subsequently spilled my remaining slice of pie across the entire back window of the truck, so I’d clearly had plenty of fun. Handling isn’t the main reason anyone buys a truck, but it’s a testament to how civilized the Ridgeline is that it cooperated with my foolishness so well.
Roughing It Comfortably
And then finally I arrived at the test I was so excited for – the trail. The Ridgeline has 7.2 inches of ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive with what Honda calls Intelligent Variable Torque Management, or i-VTM4. It uses actual mechanical differentials paired with wheel sensors on the left and right to determine where slippage is happening, channelling more or less power to each corner based on the conditions. It also comes with various traction modes.
I hit the dirt and popped it into Sand mode, which essentially turns off traction control and allows for vastly more wheelspin to prevent getting stuck. Any doubts I had about its off-road prowess as I smoothly wound through the paved switchbacks that line the mountains towering over Los Angeles were quickly dispelled. Kicking up dirt from all four wheels at once as I ripped up a 15 percent grade has a way of doing that.
The Ridgeline handled everything I could throw at it without a single issue.
I did my absolute best to find the hardest trails possible for it in the Angeles National Forest. The main section of the park has closed all the fire roads for the summer, but the smaller, further north section of the vast 700,000–plus acre range still held plenty of challenges for me. And I will admit, I scraped the absolute hell out of the front EPA-concession splitter, added to help with highway mileage. Otherwise, though? The Ridgeline handled everything I could throw at it without a single issue.
Dry river crossings became less stressful than they would’ve been, even in my fit-for-purpose van, because of the extra ground clearance the Ridgeline offered. A vertical mile above the metropolis, parked in the mountains for the night, I cranked up the stereo, popped a folding chair in the back, and enjoyed reverberation from the stereo that made the built-in liner quake with the bass of whatever I’d had cranked up, belting out lyrics in the middle of nowhere, where no one could tell me I was off-key.
At night, I’d stow my water, food, and clothes under the rear bench seat – the area underneath is left hollow for storage, and it accommodated $100 worth of Clif bars, water, Gatorade, and various other survival supplies quite well – and slept on the rear bench. Obviously, the width of any vehicle is going to be limiting when car-camping horizontally, but I found it rather comfortable, even if my body was a bit long for it.
If I had more time with the truck, I would have considered asking for the OEM Honda tent that’s offered with the Ridgeline, since it appears to have plenty of room to stretch out. It disconnects from the bed entirely and stands freely, or ties directly into the bed for a more van-life feel. Unfortunately, the option isn’t a commonly equipped one, so I had to make do with what the regular Sport edition comes equipped with, and the low temperatures in the desert mountains once the sun set made the interior a vastly more livable option for me.
In the morning I popped open the watertight, locking trunk and brushed my teeth while sitting on the tailgate. That underbed cargo area was another feature I was truly thrilled to have, considering that all of my medications, my laptop, my camera bag, my clothes, and other assorted valuables have to come along for the ride when camping in the wilderness, and again, it is an edge case most trucks explicitly cannot cover – trunks are for cars. I found it vastly more useful than I’d expected it to be.
Because the trunk had freed up space up front, I picked up a couple of friends and took them off roading with me, too. The cabin’s packaging is extremely spacious for the three tall women it was asked to carry (the Ridgeline has best-in-class rear legroom at 36.7 inches) and plenty of supplies to last a few days without signal or civilization, and the hour and twenty minute drive from Venice to the trails was downright pleasant. If I had a tent on me, it would have made three people camping together a breeze; there was more than enough room for all of us and supplies to last longer than I had the Ridgeline for.
My only other wish for trails? Actual all-terrain tires.
The only real downside I found offroading with the new Ridgeline was that stunning, crisp sheet metal on the 2021 facelift. It looks great, but in a bid to give the truck more of a masculine appearance, the hood height was raised, and subsequently the visibility when cresting steep inclines was not as good as it could be.
My only other wish for trails? Actual all-terrain tires. The updated truck gets all-seasons with slightly redesigned sidewalls, which have fake knobbies for appearance but offer no actual offroading prowess to an otherwise capable truck that could make use of it. Luckily, the i-VTM ever kept me from feeling truly limited in traction through difficult sections, although I did notice a fairly significant amount of understeer on smooth dirt corners where more aggressive rubber would have kept me tracking true.
As far as other truck activities, it’s hard for me to speak to them directly, but I tried my best. I did make an IKEA run; I didn’t pick up much (my home is a van, after all) but the bed is wide enough to hold a properly secured sheet of plywood, and I will trust that measurement speaks to its capacity. Only one bed length is available – 63.6 inches, which translates to 33.9 cubic feet of space – but the extremely unobtrusive wheel wells and factory liner means that the box can truly be used to its fullest, even if my main goal for my test period was to carry a cooler and purchase a BLÅHAJ.
And with nearly a week spent imagining every single thing I could put this Ridgeline through, and the Honda handling it all like a champ, I was left wondering: who could want more than this truck offers?
Honda has built a pickup that understands the core requirement of the market. It needs to perform capably at every possible task thrown at it, while realizing it spends the majority of its life commuting on the pavement. Not only will the Ridgeline cover all the truck needs I would ever ask of it, but it’s more comfortable than any competitor I’ve ever driven around town. There is no suffering for the legitimate utility of your truck when you’re stuck on Interstate 5 in the Ridgeline, and that truly makes it a standout vehicle.
Photo Credit: Victoria Scott