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Ridgeline's Uphill Climb


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The Honda Ridgeline is the pickup truck for you if you're not sure you really want a pickup truck. I'm being facetious, of course, but not very. The Ridgeline has a heavily market-researched design that aims to make it far more consumer-friendly than traditional pickup trucks. The target market is recreational users, the type of person who wants to be able to cruise around in town doing errands and carpooling during the week and then do chores or take off with the family on weekends -- with luggage, sports gear, and, say, a medium-sized boat in tow. Some buyers will find it an attractive alternative to a big SUV, as well as to more conventional pickup trucks.

The Ridgeline got rave reviews when it came out in March, 2005, and has since won a passel of awards. It was named "Truck of the Year" by Motor Trend magazine, and rated the top pickup truck on the market by Consumer Reports, which declared its reliability so far to be "outstanding." (J.D. Power & Assoc. quality ratings will be out June 7.)

It's also the first four-door pickup truck to win the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's five-star safety rating for both front and side impact crash test performance, and it had the highest rollover resistance of any pickup NHTSA ever tested.

SALES PICK UP. The Ridgeline's sales were slow early on, however, partly because it was over-priced. In recent months, though, dealers have been discounting the truck (which is unusual for a Honda (HMC) product), and the average selling price has come down steadily, from $33,579 a year ago to $29,500 in recent weeks, according to J.D. Power.

Sales are starting to climb as a result: Honda sold 5,344 Ridgelines in March, up 37.9% from the same month last year and nearly 50% more than the truck's average monthly sales during its first seven months on the market. (However, compare that to Ford's (F) popular F-150 line of pickup, which sold 84,168 trucks in March alone, and Honda's sales seem puny.)

If you fit the buyer profile, this truck definitely should be on your shopping list. However, you have to be able to live with the fact that the Ridgeline only comes in one basic style: a four-door, crew-cab truck with a relatively short five-foot bed. It comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, and a 247-horsepower V-6 VTEC engine, too, so if you want a big V-8 engine or manual transmission, you're out of luck.

CROSSBREED. The other big negative for me is that the Ridgeline is pretty ugly, especially from the side. The sides of the bed are higher than in most trucks and slope down from the cab. The thing looks downright hulking to me -- though, of course, others may disagree.

In terms of size, the Ridgeline is a cross between a mid-size pickup like the Toyota (TM) Tacoma and a full-size model. It's only 207 inches long (an inch shorter than the crew-cab Tacoma), but its cab is nearly as roomy as the crew cab on much bigger full-size pickups like the Ford F-150 and Nissan (NSANY) Titan. It comes standard with numerous high-tech safety and convenience features, including a power rear window, a tire pressure monitoring system, electronic brake distribution and brake assist, side and side curtain airbags, a rollover sensor and electronic stability control.

The truck's cab is functional, but not particularly fancy. There's plenty of leg, shoulder, and head-space up front, and numerous cupholders and storage compartments throughout. There's also an expandable multiuse center console with an armrest on top that's adjustable for comfort, and a nifty hidden compartment underneath. The rear seats are a little rudimentary, though comfortable. There's room under them for stowing, say, a large golf bag, and they can be folded up to create a space for cargo or dogs.

The rear leg room is only listed at 36.4 inches, four inches less than in the Nissan Titan, but the rear seat seemed roomier that that to me. I'm 5' 10", and with the front seat all the way back, I had nearly two inches of space between my knees and the backs of the front seats.

RATTLE-FREE DESIGN. The Ridgeline only comes in three trim styles, each with a relatively high list price before the dealers start dickering. The RT (base price $28,250) comes with air-conditioning, cruise control, and power windows and doors; the mid-range RTS ($30,625) adds a fancier sound system, power seats, and a security system; while the top-end RTL ($32,040) has add-ons such as leather upholstery and heated front seats. You can only get a moonroof (an extra $1,150) and a navigation system ($2,000) with the RTL.

The Ridgeline's big claim to fame is that it's the only mid-size pickup with unibody construction. While the cab and bed of traditional pickups are bolted onto the frame separately, the Ridgeline's body is all in one piece like a car's. One reason the truck rides and handles so smoothly -- and is so rattle-free -- is that this design has "20 times the torsional rigidity of traditional body-on-frame truck designs," according to Honda. The Ridgeline really does drive like a high-end sedan as a result.

The design is also tightly targeted at recreational users. For instance, the Ridgeline will only tow a maximum of 5,000 lbs (half as much as the Ford F-150 and the redesigned Toyota Tundra due out this fall). That's enough, Honda says, to haul a medium-sized boat or up to a 20-foot "toy hauler" trailer filler with motorcycles, bikes, and other gear, and the company's research indicates that 84% of truck owners tow less than 5,000 lbs.

TOUGH ENOUGH? The truck's bed is also very user-friendly. The rear half of the bed-floor lifts up to reveal a lockable, eight-cubic foot water-tight compartment big enough to carry several medium-sized suitcases or three golf bags. The rear gate both folds down and opens sideways for easy access. The bed itself is made of a composite material so you don't need to pay extra for a bedliner, and it's situated higher off the ground than in most pickup trucks, so there are no wheel-wells. The floor is four feet wide, space enough to lay down full-size sheets of plywood if you have the gate lowered. There are six sturdy cleats for tying stuff down.

The Ridgeline uses inexpensive regular gasoline and is rated to get a respectable 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. In 338 miles of mixed driving, I got 19.3 miles per gallon, about the same as I got in the Toyota Tacoma with a V-6 engine.

The big question in my mind: Will buyers believe this truck is rugged enough? Honda put the Ridgeline through a battery of tests and says it will hold up well under "medium duty" off-road conditions, which is all most owners will ever use it for. In my experience, though, Americans tend to buy a lot more vehicle than they really need, and I suspect many buyers will want a truck that feels more rugged than this one.

MURKY REAR VIEW. The Ridgeline held up well on muddy, unpaved trails and bumpy, pot-hole-filled back roads. The intelligent all-wheel drive kept the wheels from spinning in mud, and there's an override switch to transfer extra power to the rear wheels if you get stuck. As Honda promises, the ride over bumpy back roads was somewhat smoother than in conventional trucks such as the F-150, Tacoma, and Titan.

But it didn't feel as solid as any of those trucks. It clunked and jolted over big bumps like a car, and you felt like you should slow down more than in a regular truck to avoid breaking one of the springs. And there's no heavy-duty version or off-road package with underbody skid pads and sturdy suspension for those who want a heftier truck.

The Ridgeline is lacking a few other things, too. The pedals can't be power adjusted. Rear-seat entertainment and backup alarm systems are only available as dealer-installed options, and they're pricey: The entertainment system goes for $2,028 plus installment, and rear sensors and rear camera for $439 and $497, respectively, plus installation. At very least, I'd opt for the backup sensors, though, because, as with most crew-cab pickups, rear visibility is poor in the Ridgeline, which makes it hard to park. And while I'm nitpicking, the black composite bed material scratches too easily -- and the scratches show white, making the bed look junky.

Still, Honda has scoped out the market carefully, and this truck offers most buyers most of what they need most of the time. If you're an urbanite or suburbanite shopping for a truck, you definitely should check it out further.


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