2017 Honda Ridgeline Black Edition AWD
In most markets throughout the world Honda is predominately recognized for its bestselling Civic compact car, ultra-popular CR-V compact SUV, Accord mid-size sedan, and more recently its second-best selling HR-V subcompact SUV, achieved after only its first full year (congrats to Honda on this latest feat). Here in North America we typically opt for large trucks from the big three U.S. brands when it comes time to haul, with only a relative handful of buyers choosing an imported full-size pickup. This pattern changes in the mid-size (previously compact) truck market, however, a segment the imports introduced way back in the ’60s and still dominate.
Mid-size pickup truck sales from all import brands totaled 302,224 units across the nation throughout calendar year 2016, whereas the domestics combined for just 146,174. Before we blow Detroit off as an also-ran compact pickup provider it should be noted that those 146,174 units came from just two vehicles produced by one automaker, General Motors; feel free to criticize Ford and Dodge (now Ram) that once did very well with their respective Ranger and Dakota, but have since left the North American mid-size pickup market entirely (too bad as the Asian-spec Ranger is one sweet ride, but word has it a renewed Ranger is on the way as Ford has seen the error of its ways). Toyota’s Tacoma took first with 191,631 sales and its best annual sales ever, while below these top three are Nissan’s Frontier with 86,926 sales and this Honda Ridgeline with 23,665.
It’s pretty easy to see that even the entirely new Ridgeline came dead last on this list, but to be fair it was only available for seven months. The completely redesigned model arrived on the market in June after two years of unavailability (well, actually Honda sold off the 2014 Ridgeline in dribs and drabs until the final one was delivered in May of 2016), so to be completely fair I thought we should compare its sales to the same seven months of Nissan Frontier sales, with achieved 50,081 unit sales compared to just 23,665 for the Honda. To rub salt into the wound, I repeat this is a completely new Ridgeline design, normally the strongest period during a vehicle’s lifespan, against the entire truck sector’s oldest model period (the Frontier was introduced in 2004 for the 2005 model year and received its last facelift in 2008 for the 2009 model year).
As it is the Ridgeline is one of the most advanced pickup trucks in the industry, but as usual Honda has taken a very different tact with this mid-size entry. Like its predecessor that came along in 2005 (yes, it was dated and a badly needed a redesign just like the Frontier), the new second-generation Ridgeline features a car-like unibody design, but to leave it there would do it injustice. As a bit of a backgrounder, most pickup trucks are made up of an individual cab and box/bed riding atop a rigid external frame supported by a solid rear axle in order to carry heavy payloads and/or tow sizable trailers. With the 2006 Ridgeline, Honda integrated a closed-boxed frame within its unit-body design, combining much of the towing and hauling strength of a rugged frame with the taut structure of a monocoque body shell. This gives it much greater overall rigidity than conventional compact or midsize pickup trucks, while still featuring a capable 5,000-lb tow rating and a functional five-foot bed, which was large enough to haul one of the brand’s ATVs during its January 2005 Southern California press launch or up to 1,550 lbs of anything else, not to mention a tailgate that both lowers in the usual fashion plus swings out to the side so you don’t have to detach it when clamping on the optional proprietary ramps designed to work with ATVs, motorcycles and the like. It didn’t fully measure up to the towing capacity of its more conventional competitors, but those that bought into the Ridgeline hardly cared as it delivered more interior room, a nicer ride, and better handling.
I have to say the new Ridgeline’s suspension is even more compliant. I’ve never driven a pickup truck from any manufacturer that rides as smoothly as this top-line Black Edition, combined with a serene near-silent cabin and very supportive seating, so if comfort is top of your list look no further. The interior is beautifully finished too, at least for a mid-size truck, with a complete soft-touch dash top and upper instrument panel that wraps all the way around the center stack-mounted infotainment system, as well as across the front door uppers. The door inserts and armrests were covered in stitched leatherette in my fully loaded model, and even more comfortably padded, while my tester included a heatable, padded, stitched leather steering wheel filled with high quality switchgear for said heat, phone, voice activation, and infotainment system on the left side, plus adaptive cruise controls on the right.
The colorful multi-information display between the semi-circular tachometer and quarter-circle temp and gas gauges is more of a trip computer with the odometer, exterior temperature, range, distance driven, and average fuel economy displayed, my tester showing (gulp) 14 mpg after a week of babying it nearly everywhere I went (more on that later).
The infotainment system is one of the nicest I’ve used in any truck. Its resolution, depth of color, richness of contrast, and graphical design is way above average, while all of the quick access buttons down the left side are touch-sensitive. The sliding volume control can take a little bit of getting used to, but fiddling with this caused me to use the steering wheel controls more than I usually do, which is the safer choice anyway. The menu and phone “page” themes are in red, while the navigation gets blue outlines, with the rest of the features display a mix between the two colors. I found the audio display particularly good, showing a nice clear graphic of the album cover artwork along with lots of information about the music you’re listening to depending on where it’s sourced. That said the satellite signal cut in and out more than with most vehicles I test, although overall audio sound quality was excellent.
Back to design, there’s no shortage of piano black lacquer in this truck. It’s covering almost every surface that’s not finished in those soft synthetics, leather, metallic trim, of which there’s plenty, or high-quality harder plastics, a long strip of the inky composite spanning the instrument panel before circling around the attractively designed and easy-to-use dual-zone auto HVAC system, the latter complete with nicely detailed temp toggles next to a dedicated monotone LCD display set in between. Controls for the three-way seat heaters and coolers sit below, flanking the stereo’s optical drive slot.
The lower console gets a large rubberized tray for your phone, along with a 12-volt charger, USB port, and auxiliary input, while just behind are two accommodating cupholders surrounded with glowing red LEDs. The shifter knob is leather-wrapped and its base highlighted with black lacquer and metallic trim, while right below is a large button for accessing the intelligent traction management system, which allows for Normal, Snow, plus Mud and Sand settings. Just behind is a large storage bin with an attractive scrolling cover, the bin itself incorporating a rubberized floor, USB and 12-volt chargers, as well as a slide-able and removable change tray.
Above everything is an overhead console that houses a handy sunglasses holder, which also acts as a conversation mirror for talking eye-to-eye with to those seated in back, plus LED reading lights, a garage door opener, and switchgear for the powered glass sunroof, plus of course controls for the dome light. On that note all switchgear is up to Honda’s usual excellence, with zero slop or wiggle, nice damping and good materials quality.
The first thing larger folks will notice when climbing inside the Pilot is its full-size width, which means there’s no shortage of room up front. I also found the driver’s seating position quite comfortable, made more so via multi-adjustment plus two-way memory and supple perforated leather with red accents, specific to my Black Edition tester. I especially like the inner armrest that can be clicked into the exact position you want or pulled entirely out of the way, while the steering wheel had ample rake and telescopic adjustment for most any body type. Truly, the Ridgeline’s overall ergonomics are spot-on, whereas visibility is superb all around.
The rear seating area wasn’t quite as large as expected, with only a couple of inches left over ahead of my knees when the driver’s seat was set for my five-foot-eight medium body, but the back seats were plenty comfortable and there was at least four inches of headroom remaining. Additionally, there’s ample side-to-side space for three adults abreast, but it’s much more comfortable for a couple of rear guests thanks to a wide folding center armrest that’s really more like two outer armrests with a couple of cupholders down the middle. The rear seating area of my top-line model gets its own auto HVAC system and controls for a total of three zones, while both outboard passengers can enjoy three-way heatable seats. Also notable, the 60/40-split lower cushions can be lifted vertically for loading items you may want to keep safe and dry, a feature that’s nowhere near as unique for the truck market as it is for the subcompact car and SUV segments where Honda’s Fit and aforementioned HR-V rule supreme when it comes to passenger/cargo versatility, but they’re very handy and come accompanied by a flat cabin floor that lets you load in bulky gear such as large boxes or bikes. The Ridgeline’s real innovation is once again found outside behind the passenger compartment, where cargo most often goes.
First you’ll need to either drop the dual-hinged tailgate in the conventional fashion or swing it open to appreciate the Ridgeline’s unusual yet very welcome take on pickup truck versatility. It’s noticeably wider than it used to be, now capable of swallowing up four-foot sheets of building material, although its five-foot length means you’ll need to keep that tailgate lowered in order to fit in eight-foot or longer sheets of plywood, plasterboard, 2x4s, etcetera. The floor is nearly completely flat too, missing the usual wheel intrusions, while the box’ sidewalls are no longer as high and unevenly shaped so that it can accept a small conventional canopy or camper.
The bed is actually constructed from SMC (Sheet Molding Compound/Composite), a glass-fiber reinforced polyester resin material, and therefore doesn’t need a bedliner, while eight tie-down cleats allow you to safely fasten cargo. Maximum payload is 1,572 lbs, which is class leading. A 115-volt AC power outlet gets bolted into the passenger-sidewall is available and came standard on my tester, as did a 400-watt weatherproof speaker system that would be ideal for camping or tailgate parties is also standard and built right into the bed. Still, the Ridgeline’s pièce de résistance has always been it’s watertight, lockable standard trunk, which once again gets fitted right at the rear of the bed for easy access. Of note it also acts as a cooler that you can fill with ice and drain from the bottom.
The only negative brought about by the trunk is Honda’s insistence on keeping the spare tire in there, tucked neatly within its own compartment under the front portion of the load floor. From past experience the only time I’ve ever had a flat tire in a modern-day pickup truck was when fully loaded, but the then-new Dodge Dakota test vehicle in question allowed me to lower its spare from below the bed without having to unload my nicely stacked half-cord of pre-cut firewood. If I were driving a Ridgeline that job would’ve been monumental, and even worse if filled with gravel, soil, or something less manageable. What’s more, I experienced the Dakota’s flat tire in a commercial area where I probably could’ve unloaded a quarter ton of manure without problem, but if I were driving the Ridgeline filled with any of the above and it occurred on an inner-city highway, where such activities are strictly prohibited, the entire truck would require removal by a pricey tow truck. Therefore the trunk is an awesome idea for everyday life and one I particularly appreciated having, as it allowed me to lock away my laptop bag where most criminals wouldn’t likely consider looking, and even if they saw me stow it there it’s much more securely protected than a truck’s cab, but nevertheless I recommend removing the spare tire and tools before loading it up with anything that might be difficult to remove if you get a flat tire, and stowing them in the bed or rear passenger compartment just in case.
The Ridgeline’s second-best asset is the way it drives, the standard direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 delivering excellent straight-line performance and good power during highway passing maneuvers thanks to 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 30 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over its predecessor; the proven six-speed automatic wonderfully smooth and refined as it goes about its duties, and amply quick shifting; while the handling isn’t just superb for the class, it’s excellent all-round, the latter thanks to the aforementioned unibody platform architecture shared with the latest Pilot mid-size crossover, as well as its fully independent front and rear suspensions and standard multi-amplitude dampers, all combining for the smooth ride mentioned earlier. Its steering feels more crossover SUV than pickup truck too, with quicker turn-in and more confidence-inspiring, car-like tracking capability at high speeds.
We took the previous Ridgeline off-road during its launch program and it was capable of managing light- to medium-duty trails easily, so Honda saw no reason to deviate from a less traditional all-wheel drive setup in upper trims; the five lower trims come with FWD. Therefore the new model’s i-VTM4 AWD system doesn’t include the usual low-range mode, instead utilizing fully automatic, crossover SUV-style all-wheel drive with the selectable driving modes noted before. It’s designed to automatically adjust torque distribution between front and rear wheels to optimize traction in slippery conditions, and together with all the usual standard electronic traction and stability control features it should at least measure up to the previous model’s off-road capability, while even more critically to the Ridgeline’s target market deliver more than adequate control over rain-slicked and snow-covered roads.
Probably more importantly, the Ridgeline should be thriftier on fuel than its body-on-frame competitors. Honda claims the Ridgeline as the most frugal V6-powered truck in the segment at 19 mpg city, 26 highway and 22 combined with FWD and 18 city, 25 highway and 21 combined with AWD, and while the 14 mpg estimate displayed in the primary cluster had me a bit worried my calculations showed its city estimate is more likely what owners will achieve in combined city and highway driving. Then again I looked up real-world results of owners on Fuelly.com and noted an average of 20.6 mpg, which is even better than the EPA estimates, so don’t let the dash readout spook you into believing your Ridgeline is a gas guzzler (why automakers put these things into cars is beyond me).
The 2017 Ridgeline is available in seven trims, starting with the $29,475 base RT, which is followed by the $31,515 RTS, $33,015 Sport, $33,780 RTL, $35,930 RTL-T, $41,470 RTL-E, and the range-topping $42,970 Black Edition. Standard kit not already mentioned includes auto on/off halogen headlights, LED taillights, 18-inch alloys, pushbutton ignition, a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display within the primary gauge cluster, air conditioning, a multi-angle backup camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, 200-watt seven-speaker cabin audio, the aforementioned 60/40 split-folding rear bench seat, and all the usual active and passive safety features.
While that’s a decent amount of standard kit, I can’t see many people sticking with the base Ridgeline with the RTS upgrade so reasonably priced, especially considering it features fog lamps, body-color mirror caps and exterior door handles instead of matte black, remote start, proximity-sensing keyless access, tri-zone climate control, a garage door opener, and more. The RTL will likely be popular too, thanks to an acoustic windshield, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, leather upholstery, heatable front seats, a 10-way powered driver’s seat, a four-way powered front passenger’s seat, etcetera, while RTL-T trim adds LED daytime running lights, chrome exterior door handles, walk-away auto door locks, dynamic guidelines for the multi-angle camera, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, 8.0-inch color infotainment with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, navigation, Siri Eyes Free, SMS text messaging and email capability, Wi-Fi tethering, plus Honda’s fabulous Lane Watch blindspot camera system, a 25-watt audio boost to 225 watts total power, and more.
All-wheel drive is standard with near top-line RTL-E, which also gets the Honda Sensing suite of advanced active safety systems, which include adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, emergency autonomous braking, lane keeping assist, lane departure warning, and more, all of which results in an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating. The Ridgeline is the only 2017 pickup truck to receive such safety accolades, giving Honda the clear edge when it comes to family-oriented buyers. The RTL-E also gets blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, LED low beam headlights with auto high beams, a powered moonroof, a power sliding rear window, LED bed lights, front and rear parking sensors, a heatable steering wheel, blue ambient LED lighting, illuminated cupholders, two-position driver’s seat memory, 540-watt eight-speaker audio with a sub, and more.
My Crystal Black Pearl-painted Black Edition is basically a uniquely styled RTL-E model. My only specific complaint about this top-line trim level is Honda’s seeming unwillingness to upsize its wheel and tire package beyond 18 inches. This is a fairly large mid-size pickup truck and these rims certainly don’t add any meat to what is otherwise a veggie burger ride, the Black Edition’s alloys looking even smaller in black than they would otherwise in their stock silver.
Now that we’re talking styling, if you like Honda’s new Pilot SUV you’ll likely appreciate what Honda did with the Ridgeline’s frontal design. The two certainly appear like children from the same rather passive mother, as both models’ previous generations initially did. Those were boxy, upright designs compared to Honda’s sleeker new SUV/truck styling, my personal preference being the former more truck-like utility and pickup over these newer alternatives. The old Ridgeline looked tough and rugged by comparison, whereas there’s nothing at all macho about the new model.
It’s all soft lines and curves, an extremely unusual design direction for a truck sector filled with brands always trying to outdo each other with the latest off-road race truck-inspired 4×4 bravado. Leave the TRD Pro, Z71 Trail Boss, and Pro-4X to wannabe bad boys, let alone the Raptor, Rebel, and Power Wagon. I’d ignorantly say that Honda is trying to appeal to the fairer sex if I didn’t already know that most women that like pickups, my partner being one, want them at least as rugged looking as their truck-loving male counterparts, so I’m a bit lost on the styling. Seriously, I don’t even think a massive metal bull guard covered with PIAA driving lights could disguise the Ridgeline’s polite and polished character, as if it’s an ivy-schooled aristocrat making its best attempt at slumming it on the wrong side of the tracks.
My tester’s top-line Black Edition duds try to toughen up its image, but it comes across more black tie than black leather jacket. This, and its thoroughly refined demeanor in every other respect, begs the question, is this at all what the collective pickup truck market wants? You’d think Honda had learned this lesson after introducing the ’83 Shadow cruiser-style motorcycle with a V-twin engine that was so masterfully engineered it ran quietly and didn’t shake at all, and also didn’t sell very well until Honda retuned it so that it mimicked the purposeful crudeness then offered by still available AMF-built Harley-Davidsons (other than the leaking oil and worse problems that new owner/president Willie G. Davidson remedied soon after his ’81 acquisition). Like that original Shadow the Ridgeline is possibly too good for its own good, its image too gentrified for those who purchase pickups in order to release their inner cowboy. Seriously, even Truck Nutz hanging off the rear bumper or standard Class III trailer hitch wouldn’t be enough to give this truck balls, which after seeing it made me concerned it wouldn’t sell any better than the one it’s replacing did at its height.
At the end of the story, which of course hasn’t been written yet, we’ll be researching how well this new Ridgeline was accepted by the truck buying masses, and while I wouldn’t want to prejudge the outcome this very impressive pickup isn’t truck-like enough to woo many Tacoma, Colorado, Canyon, or even Frontier buyers away from their trusty steeds. My dad would’ve loved it, but he was a refined Viennese gentleman turned North American nature lover who, while never afraid to get his hands dirty, respected intelligent, innovative engineering so much that he relinquished his torque-rich 4.9-liter (aka 300) inline-six equipped Ford F-150 for the original Toyota Tundra when needing to upgrade way back in 2000.
He loved the Ford’s engine, but was stymied that Dearborn combined it with a lightweight five-speed manual that broke twice during warranty and was therefore, at his request, replaced with a four-speed manual that was horrifically slow on the highway but fabulous for clearing stumps from the pastures of his Llama ranch. I’m pretty certain we couldn’t have done that with either his Tundra or this new Ridgeline, but he eventually bought a Kubota tractor for such activities, so it’s a moot point. Likewise most Ridgeline buyers aren’t using their trucks for ranching, farming or any types of heavy-duty lifting, but rather for hauling their ATV, dirt bikes (preferably Hondas), gardening equipment (again, Honda mowers and tillers), fill, and shrubbery, firewood, etcetera. It’s perfect for such lighter duty work, flat tire issues aside.
Back to sales, we’ll get a better idea of how many pickup buyers ante up for this much-improved Ridgeline when the final numbers for calendar year 2017 are tallied up around this time next year, and for Honda’s sake let’s hope such buyers are more interested in comfort, handling, overall refinement, build quality, fuel-efficiency, and the Japanese brand’s legendary reliability than towing specs, extreme 4×4 capability, and the usual rough and tough image that traditional pickup trucks portray. Unfortunately for Honda, pickup truck owners seem to gravitate towards that image at least as magnetically as luxury car and SUV buyers latch onto the three-pointed stars and blue and white roundels of traditional premium marques, a reality that Honda’s Acura brand has been fighting against for three decades.
While 23,667 sales might seem like a reasonable first step for the new Ridgeline’s initial seven months, it falls a bit short from the mid-point of its best-ever sales year, which was 2006 when Honda found 50,193 Ridgeline buyers. Should Honda celebrate almost matching best-ever Ridgeline sales with this all-new model or is this a dire warning the market isn’t accepting its all-new yet still rather unorthodox truck? We’ll need to wait and see if this latest Ridgeline catches on or if these year-end totals were actually pent-up demand that will soon diminish.
Yes, even winning 2017 North American Truck of the Year might not be enough to boost the Ridgeline’s sales numbers (the Ridgeline won the 2006 NATOTY too), which would be a shame because it’s such an impressive mid-size truck. As mentioned it’s easily the smoothest, quietest, most refined pickup I’ve ever driven, and adds whollops of very welcome innovation and available safety features. Kudos to Honda for making such an intelligent pickup truck, now please do us all a favor and give it some Clint Eastwood meets John Wayne grit. A little (ok a lot) more muscle and the Ridgeline would instantly double its sales, or at least that’s my take. Still, for those wanting something more understated and certainly more exclusive, the new Ridgeline is a fine choice.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press