Second time a charm for Honda’s unibody Ridgeline pickup?

  • 15-May-2016 11:01 EDT
16Ridgeline_047.jpg

The midsize 2017 Ridgeline is longer overall and has a larger cargo bed, but is somewhat lighter, thanks largely to a body composed of 60% HSS.


Although its best-ever sales year was barely more than 50,000 units and many critics questioned the buying public’s desire for a midsize pickup based on a unibody structure instead of the tried-and-true body-on-frame layout, Honda remained faithful to the concept it introduced with the first-generation Ridgeline pickup, producing it for ten years from 2005-2014.

Even through the recession and auto-industry downturn, Honda insisted it was keen to develop a second-generation Ridgeline, to continue to press the idea that if many in pickup-crazed America took an honest look at what they want from a pickup—and equally important, how they actually use a pickup—a unibody-based design would be the most satisfying choice.

So here’s Honda with the 2017 Ridgeline and it seems the conditions are more favorable than ever for the company to prove its point: the U.S. market remains in a highly absorptive mood for pickups, new midsize models such as General Motors’ Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon have reinvigorated demand in a segment recently decreed as stagnant. And not of inconsequential importance, the 2017 Ridgeline also happens to be a fairly convincing effort.

Non-issue styling

The big news for the 2017 Ridgeline is that it no longer looks wacky. Gone are the previous model’s thick side buttresses aft of the cab that blended into the bed, giving the truck a distinct “hybrid” look—which Honda believes was another “avoidance” factor for comparison shoppers that already needed convinced why they shouldn’t just buy a conventional pickup from the established players.

So although the new Ridgeline isn’t the same as its body-on-frame competitors, it’s been deliberately styled to look the same, particularly in that crucial interface where the cab meets the cargo bed. Apart from not scaring off customers, the straightforward look has another advantage: the Ridgeline’s bodyside no longer needs to be a one-piece stamping, a part that caused assembly plant fits. The new Ridgeline now is the only Honda made in North America with bolt-on rear fenders. And one further advantage: if a rear fender is damaged, the new design makes for easier and less-costly repair.

Pilot-related structure

The 2017 Ridgeline utilizes a well-modified variation of Honda’s Global Light Truck architecture, which also underpins the Pilot and Acura MDX crossovers. Fifty percent of the Ridgeline’s suspension is reengineered compared with the Pilot, while the big takeaway in size difference is overall length and wheelbase: the new Ridgeline, at 210 in (5335 mm) overall, is 3.1 in. (79 mm) longer and wheelbase grows at subsequent 3 in to 125.2 in (3180 mm). Bed length is a handy 64 in, almost 4 in longer than before and a couple inches longer than the Colorado and Toyota Tacoma “short” beds.

The former Ridgeline’s innovative in-bed cargo trunk is here again, as is the useful swinging or folding tailgate. Honda’s proud of a new sound system that reverberates the bed walls for a big-time tailgating experience; it seems superfluous but only comes on the two top-trim models, at least.

Used to be the talk about unibody pickups often centered on a presumed weight-saving potential, but that’s not so much the case here: the base AWD configuration weighs about 4431 lb (2010 kg), said Honda—that’s 73 lb (33 kg) lighter than before, but not much lighter than a comparable Toyota Tacoma (4480 lb) and a touch heavier than the 4390-lb Chevy Colorado. No, the distinct payoff from the Ridgeline’s structure is refinement and on-pavement dynamics; it’s smoother and quieter inside, steering is more direct and there’s a noticeable lack of body movement and shudder.

Honda said the new-generation Ridgeline is 28% stiffer in torsion than its predecessor which already had class-leading bending performance.

The unibody structure also enables a much larger storage area under the rear seat and class-leading cargo volume with the rear seats folded, said Kerry McClure, chief engineer and development leader who also was a member of the original Ridgeline’s engineering team. He said Honda expects a 5-star safety rating for the new Ridgeline, a score no body-on-frame midsize pickup has yet achieved.

But it’s not as if there aren't lightweighting measures evident, Honda body and manufacturing engineers told Automotive Engineering. They said the new model is larger and has more content, yet weight nonetheless was reduced. One factor, they said, was markedly increased use of high-strength steels, where HSS accounts for about 60% of the 2017 Ridgeline’s body in white, compared with just 5% before.

The MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension are up-fitted from the Pilot’s design, with several crucial pieces, particularly knuckles and subframe mounts, suitably beefed for pickup duty. The layout makes for immensely satisfying on-road behavior and doesn’t seem an impediment for hauling, towing and medium-rough off-roading.

Two-spec powertrain

Power for all 2017 Ridgelines comes from a new version of Honda’s 3.5-L DOHC V6 that develops 280 hp (209 kW) and 262 lb·ft (355 N·m), increases of 30 hp and 15 lb·ft respectively compared with the previous 3.5-L V6 and right on the 278 hp (207 kW) Toyota’s 3.5-L V6 delivers in the Tacoma. By comparison the Colorado's 3.6-L V6 produces an SAE-certified 305 hp (227 kW).

The Ridgeline bucks the broad industry’s transmission trend, though, in sticking with just six forward speeds for its planetary automatic. Engineers said they’re satisfied with performance and fuel-efficiency with the 6-speed unit and it appears for now that margins and caution have kept any automakers from making the leap to more ratios. We suspect Honda’s forthcoming 10-speed automatic could be a future upgrade, particularly if the much-discussed mid-term review of current federal fuel-efficiency regulations doesn’t yield any rollbacks.

Meantime, though, there’s other driveline interest. The 2017 Ridgeline offers a 2WD variant for the first time (in this case, that means front-wheel drive). The company said it can’t ignore the interest in 2WD from fair-weather markets such as California, Texas and Florida and the 2WD option presents the opportunity to hit showrooms with a base price under $30,000. All-wheel-drive models are fitted with the i-VTM4 differential that incorporates torque vectoring. It’s 22 lb (10 kg) lighter than before and is 40% faster in sending torque to the rear axle, while either rear wheel can be over-speeded by as much as 2.7% to influence cornering.

The i-VTM4 also collaborates with the Ridgeline’s new Intelligent Traction Management system that permits toggling between normal, snow, mud and sand settings for AWD models and normal and snow for 2WD. A button gets the driver between the settings; we think a console- or dash-placed rotary knob would be more in keeping with the Ridgeline’s mission.

Yeah, but is it a ‘real truck?’

The 2017 Ridgeline seems like enough truck for most needs. The AWD models’ 5000-lb (2268-kg) standard tow rating, as derived from SAE J2807, is enough for 95% of towing that midsize-pickup buyers require, according to a third-party survey conducted for Honda, while the Colorado and Tacoma are rated to tow up to 7000 lb (3175 kg) with special upgrades.

With 8 in (203 mm) of ground clearance, the Ridgeline is near the Colorado’s 8.2 in (208 mm), but a little afield of the Tacoma’s 9.4-in (239-mm). Honda didn’t supply off-road approach and departure figures during the media launch, but given the comparatively minor differences in the major comparison points, the Ridgeline appears capable of standing toe-to-toe with its body-on-frame competition in most measures—particularly, as Honda’s always noted, when real-world use of midsize pickups is the baseline consideration.

The 2017 Ridgeline “is not an exercise in compromise,” summarizes Jeff Conrad, senior vice president and general manager of the Honda Division. “It’s an all-new pickup for a new generation.”

Honda tried once and it didn’t quite fit. But the Ridgeline developers’ realistic appraisal of how most pickups actually are used may find a more receptive audience this time around. High refinement and a “plenty capable” approach to utility could make unibody pickups a concept whose time has come. Remember how the Toyota RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V changed how the world looked at SUVs?


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