Drive: 2006 Honda Ridgeline
There’s a story of a pharmaceutical company in the ‘30s or ‘40s that developed an antiseptic cream that didn’t sting when applied to a cut. The manufacturer thought this medical marvel would be welcomed in every household. No more iodine or other inflaming ingredients that made children cry and adults cringe. But consumers didn’t buy the new antiseptic. They had been brought up by their mothers’ sage-like wisdom that explained: “The stinging means the medicine is working.” The message was simple, effective and deeply entrenched in young minds. So later in life, no one believed the state-of-the-art antiseptic was killing germs and preventing deadly infections. Legend says the company added a dab of alcohol to the formula. When customers started feeling a little burning, the trust returned.
I wonder if Honda will have to inject a little “sting” into the new 2006 Ridgeline because customers will find the ride so pleasant that they won’t think the truck is really “working.”
Who will believe that a unibody pickup with 4-wheel independent suspension, transverse-mounted V6 and all-wheel-drive that runs in front-wheel-drive most of the time can work like a truck? We’ve all been conditioned from early childhood that trucks have body-on-frame construction, separate cab and cargo box, live rear axles, north/south V8 engines and part-time 4-wheel-drive that runs mostly in rear-wheel-drive.
What’s more telling, every generation of truck engineers for the past 100 years has been instructed that’s the only way to build a pickup. It’s an inexpensive, easy-to-assemble vehicle that is highly profitable, and manufacturers are not willing to change that cash-generating strategy. They point to past failures, like the ’61-’63 integral cab-box Styleside pickups from Ford.
Honda wasn’t bound by tradition when it assembled a small, tightly-knit group of engineers in Ohio and assigned them to build a pickup. There were cost considerations and the truck had to conform to certain Honda guidelines in safety, performance and durability. But these engineers had an open mind and clean sheet of paper when they decided to design a personal-use pickup with enough truck-like ability to meet the majority of tasks required by families.
This isn’t a hardcore work truck numbed down with plush leather seats and booming stereos that is marketed to urban warriors. It was designed to first meet the needs of commuters and soccer dads, then toughened up to handle towing and payload demands of mainstream recreational owners. Bottom line: the design and execution works. This truck doesn’t “sting” but preliminary indications are it “works” better than promised.
I drove the Ridgeline—and some competitive vehicles—along twisty roads and over semi-rugged hills in Southern California. I towed 5000 pounds through a lane-change course and hauled 1100 pounds through a sweeping autocross course. There’s no doubt in my mind that driving impressions alone will sell this vehicle to shoppers looking for refinement, utility, handling and ride comfort, especially if they’ve owned a pickup before or are in the process of cross shopping.
The Ridgeline is very quiet, reasonably responsive and undeniably smoother than any other pickup on the market. But there are tradeoffs with the Ridgeline, as any experienced truck customer will discover. The first problem is finding a direct competitor.
The Ridgeline is unlike any other truck. It is in a class by itself. But Honda is clearly targeting owners of the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and Chevy Avalanche in addition to 4-door models from Toyota Tacoma, Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier and Chevy Colorado. Honda also mentions the Ford F-150, if only to acknowledge the sales leader and to show how it can measure up in certain categories to a fullsize half-ton pickup.