Mind the gap
When we boldly chose Honda‘s newly minted Ridgeline as our 2006 Truck of the Year on the strength of its abundant innovation (a two-way tailgate, trunk in the bed, unitized construction, etc.) we heard an earful from readers questioning whether any vehicle based on front-drive architecture could ever qualify as a “real truck.” Perhaps all those angry scribblers convinced their friends not to buy a Ridgeline, as its meager share of the midsize truck market, which had begun experiencing double-digit annual sales decreases by 2006, averaged just 7 percent over its production lifetime. By 2011, Toyota was selling 11 Tacomas for each Ridgeline Honda moved. At least those who bought Ridgelines seem to love them—it won a JD Power APEAL award in 2014, its last full year of production.
Now that the midsize pickup segment has been revitalized by new entries from GM and Toyota (segment sales jumped by 28 percent in 2015), Honda is eager to ride this wave of interest and hopes to boost its share by rebooting the Ridgeline. Gone are the quasi flying buttresses that connected the cab to the bed in a way that no separate-bed truck could have managed. In its place is a rear window visor that makes the rear of the cab appear even more upright than the glass angle and a secondary body gap filled with rubber that parallels the rear door opening. Your eye will perceive it as a flex gap between the box and the cab, but it’s pure Trompe-l’il. Trust us, you’ll never see that gap vary when negotiating the hairiest frame-twister trail. Other butching-up affectations include a range-topping Black Edition that visually evokes the look of full-size truck rivals like the Silverado Black Out and aftermarket F-150 Black Ops.
But Ridgeline loyalists needn’t worry. The tailgate can still be opened like a left-hinged door or dropped like a normal tailgate; there’s still a nice, deep weathertight under-floor trunk compartment with drain holes; there’s still 4 feet of plywood clearance between the tiny wheelwells (a segment exclusive); and the new bed is made of UV-light-stabilized sheet-molding compound plastic said to be much more rugged than the prior fiberglass design. There are eight cleats that can restrain 350 pounds (159 kg), and a 540-watt in-bed audio system that utilizes six speaker exciters vibrating the bed walls in place of conventional speakers. The bed gains 4 inches in width and length (it’s now 5-feet, 4-inches long). There’s even a 115-volt power outlet that can supply 150 or 400 watts, selectable in the cab. Speaking of the cab, which Honda claims is roomiest in the class, the rear-seat bottom cushions still fold up like those in a Fit to accommodate tall items, but the backrests do NOT fold down like those in a Colorado for short, wide things.
As before, the Ridgeline shares much of its running gear with the Pilot SUV alongside which it will be built in Lincoln, Alabama. Said Pilot was, of course, upgraded and relaunched last year as a 2016 model with a more potent, direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6 with variable cylinder management and optional auto-start/stop. The new mill comes mated to a choice of new six or nine-speed automatic transmissions and a new variable-torque management (i-VTM4) all-wheel-drive system with rear torque vectoring and intelligent traction management that tailors the system to snow, mud, sand, or pavement. Trailer Stability Assist is also added to AWD models. The Ridgeline benefits from most of these upgrades, with minor tweaks as before to the engine programming to broaden and lower its torque peak and better match its anticipated towing and hauling uses. Output figures were not divulged, but horsepower is expected to match the Pilot’s, rising from 250 at 5,700 rpm to 280 at 6,000 rpm, and from 247 lb-ft at 4,300 rpm to 262 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. Towing capability remains unchanged from the outgoing model’s 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg), and max payload approaching 1,600 pounds (726 kg). Honda is targeting best-in-class acceleration (by our books, that means it needs to top the Tacoma SR5 V6, at 6.8 seconds to 60 mph), and we are assured that the new Ridgeline’s fuel economy will be best in class—providing you gerrymander the class to exclude the Colorado diesel.
Most of the enhancements to the Pilot’s front-strut, multi-link rear chassis also benefit the Ridgeline, including its forged front lower control arms, improved rear link geometry, amplitude-reactive shock absorbers, and quicker-ratio electric power steering. The new Ridgeline even weighs 40-50 pounds (18-23 kg) lighter depending on model. Naturally, all the latest active safety gear is available, including active cruise control with forward collision warning and lane keeping assist.
Can a rising tide of mid-size pickup sales lift Honda out of its single-digit market share? Will buyers finally perceive a tougher looking truck with a rubber-filled cargo-box gap as a “real truck?”
Pickup buyers are showing renewed interest in the midsize market. Whether Honda cashes in on this wave of interest when sales start this summer may depend on whether or not folks believe it’s a “real truck.” There’s a lot riding on that gap.