Remember the Ridgeline: A first drive of Honda's 2017 pickup

By Russ Heaps
Clanging Bell

(May 17, 2016) SAN ANTONIO — I'm not the kind of guy who dwells on the past, but history does interest me. As a one-time Texan, I'm particularly partial to tales of the Lone Star's yesteryear. So, when Honda included me on its media introduction of the 2017 Honda Ridgeline in San Antonio, I didn't need to give it much thought. They had me at “Ridgeline.”

That we were staying at the Grand Hyatt, backing up to San Antonio's River Walk, and a short five minutes by foot from the Alamo only sweetened the deal.

Actually, I did a little lobbying ahead of time to snag a coveted spot on this event. I really wanted an advanced shot to drive this pickup. I liked the previous generation Ridgeline that went the way of Walkmans a couple of years ago. I had no clue what to expect from the latest version. All I had heard — or more accurately seen, if you want to put a fine point on it — is that, rather than the sort of El Camino lines of the first generation truck, the new one would be more traditionally shaped.

I arrived at the hotel late in the afternoon on a May Monday. Not having time to do much more than stow my gear, pull on a pair of cowboy boots and powder my nose before our scheduled departure from the Hyatt to dinner, I settled for a beer in the hospitality suite. Dinner that evening was at the Briscoe Art Museum. Our post-dinner cocktails included a tequila tasting. Just what the doctor ordered. After all, flying all day is thirsty work.

Honda dedicated Tuesday to street and highway driving. After an hour's worth of Ridgeline facts and figures delivered by engineers and product planners responsible for bringing it to market, Honda set us loose in pairs to put 150 or so miles on the truck. Somewhere in the midst of this ride and drive, we were served lunch at Baja BBQ at the Marina at Canyon Lake. My driving partner and I managed to eat and return to our hotel by mid afternoon. Our return was early enough that I was able to strike out on the River Walk bound for the Alamo.

I hadn't been to this shrine of Texas independence in several years. (Although the debate persists as to exactly how many combatants were involved on both sides, I'll go with the number of defenders quoted at the shrine itself: 189.) The Alamo is where 189 defenders died to give Sam Houston a few extra days to organize and train the army that would ultimately defeat Santa Ana about six weeks later. It has always fascinated me.

My interest and respect isn't diminished one teeny bit by the fact that those men were there against orders and almost by accident. That doesn't make them any less brave or their sacrifice any less profound. Knowing that we were going to have dinner on the Alamo grounds that evening, I wanted to check out just how long a walk it was going to be.

Dinner, it turned out, was in a private-function building just to the rear of the Alamo itself. We had drinks in the garden and adjourned inside for vittles. Preceding that, we were treated to a private tour of the chapel, the iconic structure most of us associate with the battle. As is typical with people seeing the Alamo for the first time, those doing so in our group were surprised at the shrine's small stature. On my initial visit, I thought I was admiring a scale model. “Hey, where's the real one?”

In showrooms sometime in June, Ridgeline will surprise most people. It sure did me. With construction that's more car than truck, Honda isn't aiming Ridgeline at traditional-truck buyers. Sure it's sturdy and capable, but it's to pickup trucks what crossovers are to SUVs. Honda is convinced that there is a generation of drivers out there who have been raised in a crossover world and looking for a similar performing pickup.

What will capture most people's attention is Ridgeline's cargo box and dual-action tailgate. As with the previous truck, the tailgate drops down like that of a traditional pickup, but also swings open from the right side allowing for easier access to stuff stowed in the front of the bed. Opening it from the side also gains access to the hidden storage area under the box floor. Large enough to comfortably host an 82-quart cooler, it can hold all manner of stuff you don't want to put into the cab.

Honda lines the bed with a very durable composite lining that can take quite a beating without showing any signs of wear and tear. In addition to being 4 inches longer than the cargo box of the previous generation, it's also wide enough between the wheel wells for a standard 4X8 sheet of plywood to lie flat.

Opting for the top-end RTL-E or Black grades gains you Ridgeline's one-of-a-kind cargo-box speaker system, consisting of two audio “exciters” attached behind each bed-liner panel, transforming the panels themselves into speakers. The resulting sound is quite impressive.

With seven trim levels, Ridgeline pricing spans $30,375 for the entry-level, two-wheel-drive RT to $43,770 for the AWD Black Edition. Honda expects the sweet spot to be the RTL at $33,780 for 2WD and $35,580 for AWD.

All Ridgelines will derive go from a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V6. A six-speed automatic transmission sends output to either the front or all the wheels. Ridgeline can carry two passengers and 110 pounds of cargo while towing 5,000 pounds. Because its bones are car like, it maintains solid ride quality over all but the choppiest surfaces. Its AWD system is remarkably capable. We put it through some fairly serious tests on courses at the Rio Cibolo Ranch near San Antonio before flying out on Wednesday. It performed brilliantly.

Did I mention that Ridgeline has the most passenger space of any midsize pickup? It also has storage under the rear seat sufficiently big to swallow a golf bag.

Fuel economy is pretty decent with a government-estimated 22 mpg in combined driving for the 2WD and 21 mpg for AWD. Honda expects Ridgeline to earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating with its best grade of “Good” across its battery of safety tests.

Because Honda scheduled our off-road/towing experience for Wednesday, I didn't fly out of San Antonio until nearly dinner time. With the flights and obligatory layover in Atlanta, I didn't arrive home until after 10 p.m. A long day? You bet, but well worth it.

As the truck capital of the world, Texas was an appropriate venue to parade the 2017 Ridgeline in front of the media. It's unlikely die-hard-truck owners will rush out to trade in their F-150 or Silverado for a Ridgeline. Even current owners of midsize trucks might be a tough sell, but certainly first-time truck buyers looking for a multipurpose hauler will give Ridgeline a hard look. And really, that's all Honda thinks it needs.

Clanging Bell