• Mitchell Weitzman

2021 Honda Ridgeline Review - A truck that isn't a truck

Want a truck, but don't want a truck? That's the pitch of the Honda Ridgeline.

2021 Honda Ridgeline review | The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman

One isn't exactly thin on options when it comes to trucks. Heavy duty diesel pushers, light duty V8s that are still monsters, off-road weapons, and then 'compact' mid-size trucks, all available from multiple manufacturers. But, if you want a truck that isn't a truck, then there's just one (for now): the Honda Ridgeline. Instead of being built on a strong and uncompromising body-on-frame architecture, the Ridgeline is on a unibody platform like a crossover SUV, and drives as such. For casual Home Depot enthusiasts, it's all most will ever need.

While a 'Honda truck' might not sound exciting on paper, the Japanese auto giant has certainly put effort into making this specific Ridgeline cool. Cool sells, after all. To help, there's an HPD (Honda Performance Development) package to instill some attitude and capability to show the non-believers. Actually, the capability part is all for show, with HPD being strictly an appearance package in this case that includes plastic fender flares, 18" alloys, HPD decals, and a different grille. Together, with the new front fascia on all 2021s that give the Ridgeline a more squared-off and rugged look it to look more truck-like, there is an attitude present that has been missing on prior Ridgelines.

2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

Even if the HPD is just an appearance package, the basic hardware underneath is plenty capable for the target market. This AWD Sport (which is the base Ridgeline model) model has Honda's i-VTM4 all-wheel drive system for optimal traction combined with terrain selection control. In the mild off-road cruising I did, I have to say the systems worked impressively well indeed, but we'll get there soon enough. First and foremost, Honda has intended the Ridgeline to act not as a truck, but as a normal car with a priority of getting you from place to place, just with a truck bed for versatility. Fire up Honda's established and meaty 3.5-liter VTEC V6, pull away, and from the first turn of the wheel you forget that you're driving a truck. Related to Honda's Passport and Pilot crossover SUVs, the Ridgeline drives like, well, not a truck, that's for sure. Blessed with fully independent suspension front and rear, the steering and handling are far better than competing Toyota Tacoma and other traditional mid-size truck offerings. I know that some people can be fearful of driving a truck for the first time because of the size and road manners often associated to them, but the Ridgeline quells any such concern immediately. Driving down the freeway or winding country roads, the Honda seemingly shrinks in size and the accurate steering allows placement on the road anywhere you choose.

Whether cruising down smooth highways or battered country roads, the Ridgeline rides beautifully for a truck and shrugs off any imperfections with aplomb thanks to the modern suspension design. If you're feeling naughty, throw some corners at the Ridgeline and the handling balance is shockingly good, as it is on most Hondas, truck or not. Grip isn't huge of course, so you won't be recording any kind of landmark speeds through turns, but I found the steering communicative and confidence inspiring to drive at an enthusiastic pace. Instead of washing into miserable understeer, this truck is able to corner with unusual grace where certain turns and speeds would land a Tacoma into a ditch. Remember, it's all relative, though, so don't be mistaking this for a Civic Type R, but it's legitimately great to drive as far as trucks go, and makes a strong case for Honda's decision to base this creation on a modern unibody SUV design.


2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

Even with independent suspension and an inherently weaker structure, that doesn't stop this Ridgeline from being able to carry over 1,500 pounds in the bed and tow 5,000 pounds. 1,500 pounds, in case you forgot, is more than some older light-duty V8 American trucks used to be able to hold. Towing 5,000 pounds is nothing worth bragging about, but Honda sent me a reminder that it's enough to still tow a 20 foot deck boat, a pair of Honda's own Talon four-seater side-by-sides, or even a 21 foot 5-person travel trailer as per their literature. Even living in the rural California country, you know how little often I ever see trucks towing more than that? If I do see anything bigger being dragged behind, it's more often than not a heavy-duty truck anyways. With how gutless a Tacoma V6 is on its own, I would NEVER be wanting to max out the tow rating on one of those. So, you really probably shouldn't focus on a Tacoma instead because of its higher tow rating. If you need more, you'll just want to move up to a bigger class of truck at that point. But in the real world, 5,000 pounds really shouldn't be an issue for most.

Also of note is the wonderfully furnished bed that has a full rugged composite liner already installed. The tailgate has a neat trick where it can open both normally and from the side for increased flexibility of loading materials and cargo. Another interesting you'll notice a is lid on the floor of the bed. Open it up and there's a large storage area to be found, perfect for coolers or other items. In fact, there's a rubber gasket and a drain, so you could actually fill it with ice and use it as a cooler on its own if desired; A very clever storage area that no other trucks possess.

An aspect I did notice that confused me was the tall height of the bed itself relative to ground. Seeing how easy it is to get in and out of the cabin and the modest ride height for a truck, I figured the height of the bed would be lower to make it easier for getting things in and out and loading, say, a bag of cement, but it is rather high. Just something I thought I should point out. And while not optioned on this particular Ridgeline, there is an available stereo system for the truck's bed that promises to be quite good; that might make for some swell tailgating.

2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

Who's the Ridgeline for? It's for casual consumer, someone who would like the versatility of a truck without needing a truck


Performance wise, Honda's V6, while it's been around for a while, is still a winner. Providing typical VTEC thrust up at the top of the rev range, the Ridgeline will do 0-60 MPH in 6.5 seconds when wound out. On the highway, it even returned 28 MPG and showed 22 MPG overall in mixed conditions, both of which are awesome for a pickup and just about exactly match the Honda Pilot it's very much related to. I did have less praise for the 9-speed transmission, though, noticing a few clunky shifts and poor responses when using the steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, especially with downshifts. Further, mashing the throttle when in automatic mode for simulated passing resulted in a momentary lapse of reason as the trans shuffled ratios for the correct one. Using cruise control on the freeway, every decent hill caused the Ridgeline to lose three-four MPH as the transmission failed to find the correct gear in a swift manner. It was plenty fine in normal driving, but the new and great 10-speed from Honda's other offerings would be a welcome update to this package. However, the other item I was than keen on was a lack of throttle response. In a test where I manually choose fourth gear at about 50 MPH and nail the throttle, there is a hesitation between having the throttle all the way down and when progress happens, even when in sport mode. I wasn't expecting it to have razor sharp responses like a sports car, but I think the truck does deserve a more eager throttle (at least in sport mode, where you hit the drive button selector again for the 'S') to better match the keen revving engine.

I found the Ridgeline's crew cab interior configuration to be incredibly spacious front and rear, and with more legroom than some key rivals in this segment. While the fit and finish is typical Honda (meaning it's nigh impeccable), some of the materials are just dated and don't quite fit the asking price of over $40,000. Sure, this is the base model, but the MSRP isn't exactly base when it crests 40 large. That said, a Tacoma is no better, but I did expect to see a little higher quality inside mostly due to the Ridgeline's focus on offering a more livable trucking experience. In the middle you'll spot an archaic center infotainment display that looks and operates nearly like a cheap aftermarket unit. It's 2021 and that display is stuck in a time when a different Democrat was still President. Apart from that, it's a quiet and comfortable place to spend time still and the space present in the cabin will surely influence many. The cloth seats have an appealing pattern to them and again are very comforting items to spend time in. If you want an upgrade, there are other trim offerings that provide leather-trimmed seats and an overall nicer interior environment for not much more money.


2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

With those shiny wheels and aggressive graphics, what's this HPD Ridgeline like off-road? Well, as said earlier, the HPD package does nothing to enhance its capability there, but unless you're a serious Rubicon goer, you wouldn't need it to anyway. I found a local dirt trail to follow and play around on and came away rather chuffed, that is, pleased with how this little not-a-real-truck performed. Driven at sane off-road speeds, small ruts and bumps basically vanished, with no creaks nor groans to be found or heard anywhere. The Ridgeline also resists endless oscillations up and down from bumps, maintaining its composure. Ground clearance is not great, however, so do avoid steep descents as I found the front to scrape at fairly moderate angles. Blame the front chin spoiler for that, though, as upon inspection it was the sole culprit for any terrain rubbing. The removal of it plus a skid plate would be welcome changes for a simple but effective increase in off-roading ability.

I did manage to get myself stuck, but it was on my own accord, not seeing a deep 90-degree rut over the right corner when making a turn. The right front wheel was completely lodged down in this dirty ditch and with the suspension at max travel. Luckily, everything was completely intact from my misadventure. That said, with only a little worry and doubt, I jumped back inside, threw it in reverse with the terrain control in mud mode and thought to myself "speed and power!" It worked, as only a few seconds passed and the remaining three tires caught traction and pulled itself right out, a testament to Honda's all-wheel drive system working as destined. Look, it's hard to talk about off-roading and without appearing like a pansy unless you're crawling over actual boulders, soliciting comments like, "my grandma's Buick can do that," but I was delighted at how well the Ridgeline was able to do through the dirt and up down largeish bumps. For light trekking, this truck can more than do it and do it well. Most will likely never leave the pavement anyways, but for a unibody design, there's far more capability than you think. Again, the biggest surprise was not what it did, but how comfortable and secure it felt through it all.


2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

Who's the Ridgeline for? It's for the casual consumer, someone who would like the versatility of a truck without needing a truck. Alternatives built on purposefully rugged platforms might offer more capability, but they're compromised in the way they drive. That's perhaps the most alluring aspect of the Ridgeline is just how well it actually drives - because it doesn't drive like a truck! It's definitely a viable alternative to the crossover/SUV crowd, especially if you know you don't need three rows of seats, like in a Honda Pilot, and think you'd use the advantages of the truck bed. A home & garden warrior? Dirt bikes and/or quads? Even as a work truck for those who need a truck primarily for the storage aspect, but not the outright capability and ratings of a truck, it works.

I think the main point of the Ridgeline is to offer truck perks to those who would not normally consider a truck before. Trucks can be uncomfortably big and thirsty and not good to drive on a daily basis, but a Ridgeline strikes a different bargain. Shame about perhaps maybe the biggest issue most will have with the Ridgeline: the looks. The front door forward can look a bit like a van from some angles, which will be off-putting for some. This is also in part due to the proximity of the windshield to the front axle, being too close (this is also known as the dash-to-axle ratio). While I don't think it's bad looking, it is a bit awkward and I know many could dismiss this as an option because of it. Even with the 2021's enhanced standard visuals and plus the HPD add-ons do help things, it still hurts in this regard.


2021 Honda Ridgeline HPD review | The Road Beat

Either way, the Ridgeline represents the truck for those who might not have previously considered a truck. It's done enough of an impression on the market that, in this year alone, both Ford and Hyundai have announced competing small pickup trucks that are also unibody based vehicles. It'll be interesting to see how this new segment of truck wars plays out, but on paper for towing and payload, the Ridgeline matches or exceeds both whilst being the largest and on the pricier side. While other current mid-size truck offerings can support more raw capability and do more trucky things, Honda's Ridgeline boasts great practicality that makes it a winner for normal life behind the wheel.


2021 Honda Ridgeline AWD Sport HPD Package

As-tested Price: $40,860

Base price: $37,665


Pros: V6 performance; the best driving mid-size truck

Cons: off-putting looks for some; raw 'truck stuff' states don't impress

Verdict: A truck that's better in the real world


Specs:

3.5L V6 gas engine

280 horsepower

262 lb-ft of torque

0-60 MPH 6.5 seconds

Tested 28 MPG freeway and 22 MPG overall


Dimensions:

210 inches long

78 inches wide

71 inches tall

4,500 pound estimated curb weight

64 inch bed length (tailgate up)

83 inch bed length (tailgate down)




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