SAN DIEGO, CALIF.- Honda's new pickup, the Ridgeline, has a heated wiper zone that melts the ice and slush off the windshield wipers in as little as five minutes from start-up. Nice, but I expected no less from Honda.
Is that fair? That thought skittered through my mind as I listened to the Honda technical staff rhyme off feature after feature here at the media introduction. But I realized that I can't help it: This launch has been hyped for two years and with some companies, like Honda, I do expect more.
Mostly because that's how Honda has been selling itself and its products to me. Whether it's cars, ATVs, outboard motors, generators, snow blowers, watercraft or even earth tillers, I know many Honda owners who swear they are the best.
In fact, the company is counting on customers making this leap of faith – assuming that the Ridgeline will be as bulletproof as the other Honda products they have been using for years.
It's a good plan, to lead with your strengths.
But this reputation is going to come at a premium cost. The three trim levels of the truck are going to be priced from around $35,000, rising to about $45,000. But the new Dodge Dakota and Toyota Tacoma, both virtually new for '05 and both good trucks, start almost 10 grand cheaper. Is reputation going to be enough? So, that's my frame of mind as a Honda presenter drops the new catchphrase: "tough, capable – but made smarter." The car maker said it, but finally after waiting two years I get to be the judge.
The introductory drive, held here in Southern California, is not an ideal location for ice- melting windshield wipers, but, back in Alliston, where the Ridgeline went into production last month (sharing components with the new Odyssey minivan), those wipers are going to be handy.
But not for me today.
It's a balmy 22C as I head inland to a horse ranch where I'll do an off-road course prepared for this event. The truck is quiet, the engine power is delivered smoothly and, in general, it just feels nice and tight in the corners and through the potholes.
Dash layout is good and I realize after an hour or so that I'm reaching for various controls as if I'd been driving the truck for months. Switches, dials, gauges all seem to be where I intuitively expect them to be.
One statement that I feel that categorizes the Ridgeline's market focus is that it's a purpose-built truck aimed at the meaty middle of the truck market. Put another way: Honda has been careful not to build a niche truck. But can one truck be all things to all buyers? For now, with only one model, it has to be. What's been built is a four-door crew cab design, using a high output V6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, a four-wheel drive system with a half-tonne payload and a tow rating of 3,000 kg.
To that end, the truck also comes with extra cooling for the transmission and power steering pump, a dual fan radiator, heavy-duty brakes and a wiring harness for both four-pin and seven-pin electrical connectors.
But the trailer hitch itself is still optional. That's goofy and I took the opportunity to let Honda executives know just how dumb I think that omission is, particularly in light of how much effort they are putting into promoting the towing ability of this truck.
Ridgelines will have ample safety features like four-wheel anti-lock brakes, front airbags, side-curtain airbags with rollover sensor, Vehicle Stability Assist and traction control, but only one engine choice.
The 3.5 L VTEC V6 puts out 255 horsepower, at a pretty high r.p.m. of 5,750 r.p.m., and makes 252 lb.-ft. of torque at a lower range of 4,500 r.p.m.
Along with the five-speed transmission and the VTM-4 four-wheel drive system (these are upgraded versions of the MDX powertrain), Honda is betting that this one combination will be right for everyone.
Well, on the paved portion of my drive, the power was mostly adequate. But this is a 2,043 kg vehicle, so even with a punchy V6 acceleration, it is just mediocre on freeway ramps; off-road it lacks the low-end grunt that slow-speed rough trail driving demands.
In fairness Honda did give us some challenging hills to climb (the steepest being about 30 degrees) and the truck did negotiate them, if I took a run at them. At low speed though, with the VTM-4 system locked (another standard feature), it couldn't muster enough torque to get up the nastiest hill at the governed speed, that being up to 30 km/h in First or Second gear.
Where the Ridgeline will score big is with its really fresh ideas such as the integrated trunk space under the cargo bed, four lights covering the bed, six tie-down points and a dual-action tailgate all covered in sheet moulded composite material.
Honda says that this design has relied heavily on focus groups of current truck owners. Crawling around the back I can see that.
The trunk is a weatherproof, lockable container that can hold 8.5 cubic feet or 240 litres of cargo. It will probably be a huge selling feature. There are drain holes in the bed and trunk space, indents in the front of the box that fit dirt bike and ATV wheels and a coating on the composite bed that prevents slips.
But this is not a new from-the-ground-up truck and that's where some compromises show themselves. Like the five-foot (1.5 m) bed (6.5 feet or 2 m with the tailgate down).
The bulk of the available frame length has gone into building a good sized cabin; Honda was able to keep a four-foot wide space between the wheel arches, which means that you can carry that timeless yardstick of pickup truck practicality: the 4×8 sheet of plywood.
Ridgeline has seating for five. The front two power adjustable seats are separated by a sizable multi-function armrest with storage. The seats themselves are firm, comfortable and the bolsters were nicely spaced.
The rear seat that I spent an hour riding in has ample legroom, a good seat-back angle and a flip-down armrest with storage and cup holders.
Here again there are a couple of good ideas. The rear bench seat is a 60/40 split that folds upwards to free up inside cargo space. A single pivoting leg on this seat also offers a substantial amount of under seat storage when in the down position – enough for a full set of golf clubs.
The body is a look that I like. With a length just 44 cm shorter than a current Ford F-150 this is not a small truck and its look seems to convey the competence that comes with size.
Though unique in its shape, some things will feel familiar to most truck owners. The prominent square hood in particular, as seen from the driver's seat, will convey a classic truck feel.
The look of the Ridgeline is angular, with sharply drawn edges and sweeping angles; chief among them the box sides that rise high to meet an edge falling away from the cab's C pillar to the tailgate. It's a feature similar in profile to that of the Chevrolet Avalanche pickup.
Another similarity is the lack of separation between cab and box. This body style is integrated with the frame to stiffen the entire package, says Honda.
This rigidity was evident during my drive. There was no feeling of chassis flex. Later at the off-road track this again proved to be the case.
This brings me to what will probably be a love-it or hate-it feature: the four-wheel independent suspension. There will be some buyers who won't be able to accept something other than the traditional solid rear axle. But after driving the Ridgeline on-road and off, I'll offer a positive vote.
The fact is that with this suspension setup and the rigid uni-body, the truck corners extremely well. It offers a low centre of gravity that feels especially good when loaded.
But best of all, with the beefy sway arms and the multi-link connections. the truck experienced (with a load on and while towing a 3,000 kg trailer) almost zero bounce and wiggle associated with tall coil springs and rear leafs.
Now, the ground clearance of these components (and the under-slung tailpipe) is poor compared to a solid axle, but the ride quality easily makes up for it.
Also with the suspension as the low point on the truck, the large trunk that drops below the bed is still out of harm's way. On the off-road course it never came in contact with the ground regardless of the inclines I drove on.
The three trim levels will be the base LX, the EX-L and the EX-L Navi, which as the name implies will feature a LED screen navigation system.
The base model truck wasn't available for the drive, but the EX-L I drove (Honda figures it will make up about 65 per cent of trucks sold) was very well appointed with all the power and entertainment features you'd expect at this price point.
The Ridgeline will start showing up on dealer lots in April, but a teaser ad will be running during tomorrow's Super Bowl football game. Honda's target for this first year of product is 45,000 units for the United States and Canada.
Howard J. Elmer, a freelance journalist (powersports @ sympatico.ca), prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker.