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On the road

I try to keep an open mind whenever I drive a vehicle for the first time (Honda or otherwise), but I had learned enough about the Ridgeline in advance that my expectations were pretty high. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed in the least.

Given its "best of both worlds" combination of a fully boxed ladder frame AND unibody structure (and the inherent benefits in rigidity), it wasn't difficult to imagine that the Ridgeline would provide a driving experience that could not be matched by any existing pickup truck. My only real concerns were "If it's so obvious, why hasn't anybody else done this before?" and how it would all play out in terms of mass. I'm still not sure about the answer to my first question, but as for the second one, the Ridgeline tips the scales at right around 4500lbs, which is competitive for the class.

So how does it drive exactly? On the road, the Ridgeline feels secure and confident. By any standard, the Ridgeline's chassis stiffness is excellent; by pickup truck standards, the advantage it holds over existing competitors is absurd. The unprecedented structural rigidity (over 20X stiffer in torsional rigidity and 2.5X stiffer in bending rigidity than the best body on frame pickups) and dramatic savings in unspung weight realized by the independent rear suspension deliver a huge payoff in terms of ride and handling. There is absolutely no hint of the "aftershake" or noticeable body quiver that's normally associated with a ladder frame pickup design, nor is there any of the awkward, uncontrolled motions of locating a heavy live rear axle to contend with. The end result is confident, secure handling and a high degree of passenger comfort.

That's not to say the Ridgeline is soft. Overall, the ride could be accurately characterized as "sporty"; you are not completely isolated from what's going on beneath the tires, but it's not so stiff that you're being beat to a pulp. When driving it, the first thing that it reminded me of was the 2001 MDX, before Acura softened up the suspension in 2004. The Ridgeline's steering feel and accuracy is pretty good overall, but the response immediately off-center is a little dull by Honda standards. Despite this one minor quibble, the Ridgeline is quite a bit of fun to drive enthusiastically on twisty two-lanes.

On the open road, the Ridgeline effortlessly cruises at 80+ mph. Directional stability is extremely good, and lane changes are a piece of cake. You will hear faint whispers of wind noise, but for the most part, road and wind noise are kept well in check. The only thing I noticed is that you can nearly lose a Miata in the rear 3/4 view, so be careful when changing lanes in heavy traffic. The high bed sides impact visibility when you're making an over the shoulder glance to backup a mirror check. Under your right foot, throttle response is quite good. The 3.5L V6 VTEC (J35A91) engine feels lively and provides decent punch for passing whenever needed. Of course, to get the most punch it makes use of 3rd gear pretty frequently, but it operates very smoothly - it's easily the smoothest 6-cylinder of the competitive trucks we tested. People will certainly bemoan the lack of a V8 option, but for the most part you won't miss it unless you expect whiplash inducing snap off the line. The Ridgeline's launch is a little soft compared to a Tacoma or Avalanche, but torque arrives soon enough, thanks in part to the dual stage intake manifold borrowed from the MDX. To improve low rpm performance, particularly in hot weather, the engine's intake system gulps cold, fresh air from the just above the front bulkhead and has been engineered to deliver a more aggressive sound than past J35s. Additionally, this is the first V6 Honda that I'm aware of that has no resonator in the intake system. The efforts have paid off - the engine sounds great without going "over the top".

Now what happens when you put 1100 lbs of payload in the bed? Amazingly, not much. We tested both a fully loaded and empty Ridgeline (and two of its competitors) on an autocross style course setup at Qualcomm Park in San Diego. Either way, the Ridgeline was very stable and absolutely rock solid. The competitors on hand were a 2005 Toyota Tacoma and 2005 Ford Explorer Sport Trac, both carrying full payloads as well. My first run was in the Explorer, and it was downright spooky. The event staff (a 3rd party logistics group, hired by Honda) kept mentioning how some of the previous scribes had put the Sport Trac up on two wheels on this course, so I didn't really feel compelled to push it too hard. I had a flight to catch later that day and decided an unscheduled visit to the emergency room wouldn't be prudent. The Tacoma was better than the Sport Trac, but maybe only because it understeered like mad and kept itself out of trouble. The test track's pavement was smooth through most of the turns, and on these segments you didn't have to worry so much about the effects of the Tacoma's formidable torsional flex and aftershake, but there were a few areas of uneven pavement, and over these sections you were rudely reminded of the Toyota's chassis twang. The Tacoma's 4.0L motor is quite stout, but it's rather lacking in refinement, particularly by Toyota's standards, nevermind Honda's. But the full payload Ridgeline - wow, the difference was simply startling. The chassis barely skips a beat - the suspension keeps unwanted body motions to an absolute minimum and the brakes only seem to be limited by available mechanical grip. Acceleration and ultimate cornering grip are both impacted to a degree, but it's not a tremendous impact. Understeer is slightly more pronounced but dynamically the fully loaded Ridgeline feels secure and stable.

Over on the adjacent parking lot, Honda staged a "tow-off" between a 5.4L Ford F-150 Super Crew and the Ridgeline RTL. Both were hitched to identical trailers weighing 5000 lbs and we got to drive them around another cone-defined course. Without getting into all the details of the course layout, suffice it to say it was designed to allow you to feel standing start acceleration, light braking, heavy braking, steady state cornering, and light transitional situations. I drove the F150 first. Given the size of its V8 and some of the "heavy duty" exterior styling cues, I figured it would fling the trailer around like a rag doll. But the F150 proved to be more bark than bite. Like that puffed up guy at the gym who bursts blood vessels in his eye to squeeze out 3 reps with only 4 plates on the bar, the Triton V8 made lots of impressive sounds - as if it were moving mountains, but it actually labored for quite some time before it even hit 45mph. Interesting. Now it was time to maneuver it through the "chicanes" - here it wasn't bad, but it wasn't entirely planted in a lateral sense, either - there was definitely a bit of tailwagging going on. Next up was the Ridgeline. Considering a deficit of nearly 2000 ccs in the engine room and the flaccid showing of the mighty 5.4L V8-powered F150, the Ridgeline's acceleration should be glacial, right? When I first dropped the hammer, it seemed like that would be the case. It didn't exactly pin me to the seat coming out of the gates, but it did perk up quite a bit once it got rolling, and actually started gaining speed much more quickly than the tepid launch foreshadowed. Word has it that the Ridgeline will actually outaccelerate the 5.4L F150 to 60mph in a 5000lb towing duel, but that feat was not demonstrated to us, so that will remain a rumor for now. From the seat of the pants, I would probably give the F150 a slight edge in such a challenge, if only for the Ridgeline's lazier launch. On the roll, the Ridgeline did seem to hold the edge in terms of merging power, but I have no instrumented figures to back that up. When it came time to steer the rig, the Ridgeline definitely held the edge in terms of stability, with basically none of the lateral instability that the F150 exhibited. I was hesitant to go much faster than maybe 45-50mph around the long turns with the trailer, not knowing the limits of the trailer's lateral grip, but the Ridgeline felt extremely stable at these cornering speeds.

Overall, whether you're tearing up a back road, cruising serenely on a byway, hauling a full payload of building material, or yanking your Sea-Ray out of Lake Shasta, the Ridgeline provides a great combination of stability, comfort, and driving enjoyment.

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