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The 2018 Honda Ridgeline feels like a really well-executed El Camino’fication of a Honda Accord. At first I thought that was kind of lame, but after a long weekend of working and playing out of Honda’s little truck I’m convinced that this is actually a cool and uniquely useful vehicle.

(Full disclosure: Honda had a fully fueled Ridgeline delivered to my place at my request. I trucked all over California with it over the course of a week and returned it as clean as I could.)

On a trip from Los Angeles to Big Sur and back, to celebrate the reopening of the Pacific Coast Highway and catch up with friends, we got to experience all of the Ridgeline’s best features: great on-road manners, secret storage under the bed, a dual-hinged tailgate, outdoor speakers, a battery that doesn’t mind running said speakers for a long time while the truck’s off, and also worth noting–really well-designed storage shelves in the doors.

Yeah, it actually looks like that.
Photo: Ben Ganon (Stone Ridge Imagery)

Of course, none of those toys can compare to the features of nature that the truck brought us to. But having a solid camper rig definitely made our expedition more fun.

Getting to a camp spot on a hill off the Pacific Coast Highway took about 345 miles of pavement cruising and five miles of off-roading, which is what a lot of overlanding adventures end up looking like, and exactly what the Ridgeline is optimized for.

What Is It?

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The Honda Ridgeline is basically a Honda Pilot with the third row of seats and cargo bay replaced with an open cargo bed. It’s a similar concept to what the Chevy Avalanche was to the Suburban. Practically speaking, Honda’s take here is a medium-sized four-door pickup truck uniquely made with unibody construction and independent suspension at all four corners.

That gives the Ridgeline an edge in road handling and smoothness over the similarly-sized Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Colorado, and Nissan Frontier, which are all built on boxed frames with solid rear axles and are tougher, but rougher.

The Ridgeline has seating for five in the cab, a relatively sleek front facia (lifted directly from the early third-generation Pilot) and while the bed isn’t enormous, especially in depth, it’s more than sufficient for four people’s camping load or Home Depot hauls. Even the truck’s cab doors have nicely sized storage shelves and the more I used the Ridgeline’s in-bed storage trunk, the more I realized how great it is.

Specs That Matter

All 2018 Ridgelines are powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 engine, which Honda claims makes 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. That’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, shifted by a simple console lever, which powers the wheels through a fully automated all-wheel drive system. You can order a front-drive version too, but it only gets you one extra mpg on the highway.

The powertrain isn’t optimal for mud bogging or pulling massive loads, but a smart traction control system with “snow,” “sand” and “mud” modes helps the Ridgeline fight its way through soft stuff.

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Our tester, running highway tires, scrambled up a steep and sandy hill just fine in “sand” mode, and despite the truck’s relatively low 7.87-inches of ground clearance. I bet a set of all-terrain tires would make it more off-road capable than most people would need.

Other mid-sized trucks with a transfer case and solid axle have an advantage in climbing power thanks to the torque multiplication of low range and general durability, but as far as actually doing work, the Ridgeline more than holds its own.

Honda claims that a 2018 AWD Ridgeline can carry 1,569 pounds of payload, which is better than all other six-cylinder four-door four-wheel drive short-bed versions of mid-sized pickup trucks you can currently buy in America.

The Toyota Tacoma rates at 1,155 pounds, the Nissan Frontier is 1,350 and the Chevy Colorado comes closest at 1,548 according to their respective linked spec sheets. Yes, all those models have variants that max out higher, but that’s not the point.

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As far as where you’re putting all those payload pounds, I tape measured the Ridgeline’s bed myself to get an idea of its real-world useable volume. According to my ruler, you get about 62 inches front to back, 60 inches side to side, and the walls are about 17 inches deep. Almost all the volume there is usable, since the bed is so high there’s barely any incursion from the wheel wells.

And don’t forget you’ve got a lockable storage box below the bed, too. I took the same tape to measure the usable space in there at approximately 18 inches front to back, 43 inches wide and 19 inches tall with the lid closed. All those figures are all pretty much what Honda prints in its spec sheet, by the way.

Oh yeah, and the bed floor is 37 inches off the ground.

Towing is where the more traditional trucks pull ahead, though. While the Honda Ridgeline tops out at 5,000 pounds, the closest comparable Tacoma can pull 6,400, the Frontier can pull 6,370 and the Colorado can do 7,000.

Finally, fuel economy: Honda says 18 mpg in town, 25 on the highway, and 21 in combined driving for the AWD version. My truck’s trip computer showed just shy of 22 mpg average after our 700 mile jaunt, which was probably about 70 percent highway and 30 percent small roads with a lot of slow traffic.

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What’s Great

Every gimmick that gets a line item in the Honda Ridgeline brochure is actually excellent.

The tailgate that can drop (like every other truck) or swing left (like every other door) makes it easy to access the cargo area, or the under-bed secret trunk which could can load with ice thanks to the drain plug or just fill with dry stuff you don’t want to leave exposed.

This was great for stashing things that were liable to blow away or get stolen out of the bed but didn’t necessarily fit nicely in the cab, like a small camp stove and tools.

As for stuff that did come into the cab, I loved the multi-shelf storage situation in the Ridgeline’s doors and the center console swallowed a couple cameras easily. With it closed, it made a decent table for mobile snacking.

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We had our rear seats filled with people for part of our journey, but when they weren’t in there, the back bench can fold up and unlock an enormous amount of interior storage.

The bed speakers, which Honda calls “exciters” for some technical reason, are best appreciated by people standing directly behind the truck but still had a pretty cool effect of letting satellite radio provide the entertainment so everyone camping could keep their phones locked away.

What’s Weak 

The Ridgeline is a little light on power when it comes to passing or pulling ahead. It’s not an egregious problem, but might frustrate you if you’re coming off a truck with a V8. “Econ mode,” activated by a little green button, makes this vehicle feel even slower to theoretically force you to drive more efficiently.

But the Ridgeline’s biggest downside is that it’s not inherently amusing to drive.

The Honda’s so refined and smooth that there’s really no way to make it feel exciting or kick the tail out on a gravel road. It just kind of... proceeds. The Ridgeline can be more fun than a lot of other vehicles, but only when it’s parked.

When you’re rolling around in, say, a Toyota Tacoma the vehicle underneath you feels heavy. There’s drama when it turns and sways and lifts its nose as you accelerate on account of its soft shocks. Boot the gas, counter-steer, and kick up dust like you’re filming a chase scene.

Such imperfections make for an objectively worse but inherently more exciting ride, and I think, are a big part of why people feel cool and tough driving trucks. The Ridgeline misses out on this pretty much completely.

And what’s up with that squirt-sized spare tire? I don’t want to have to deal with plugs or patches unless absolutely necessary, and I definitely don’t want to drive down a sandy mountain with one undersized wheel if I get a flat.

Casual Driving

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When this second generation Ridgeline came out last year, I decided that it was solid but a little too much like a car to really get me excited after a day of driving.

I remember exactly why, too–the Honda was gentle and pleasant and the endless Texas flatlands I drove it on put me to sleep. Then I hopped into a new Toyota Tacoma, and its soft suspension created such a markedly more dramatic driving experience that I felt a slightly stronger fondness for the Taco’s traditional truck design.

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But revisiting the Ridgeline on a long and earnest expedition made me realize that being soft and easy isn’t a bad thing. The truck felt exactly like a modern crossover, which is to say, almost exactly like a car with a little more ride height. Which is a legitimate feat for something with a cargo bed and a 1,500 pound payload capacity.

Though I still found the Ridgeline’s steering to be pretty numb. The wheel and car move together, but, there’s not a lot of feedback there.

Econ mode seemed to help eek out a few more miles from a gallon of gas, though it slowed throttle response palpably. I liked the little green glow around the gauges that let me know I was being as miserly as possible.

Aggressive Driving

The Honda Ridgeline’s most unfortunate truth is that there’s not really any way to make the truck misbehave. It doesn’t accelerate very hard, has no interest in doing donuts, and really resists any kind of power-over sliding, even in soft sand.

When I tried to beat on the Ridgeline I felt like I was a kid hitting grandpa with a twigs, trying to get him to chase me around the yard. “Relax, son. That’s not how we do it,” he’d say before returning to his newspaper.

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This kind of comes back to why I was less than in love with the Ridgeline originally. It just wants to drive casually and correctly.

The shocks are soft enough to keep you comfortable if you’re smart about picking a line, but they would definitely run out of travel quickly if you hit anything at a gallop.

A sport mode that locked the Ridgeline into rear-drive would be awesome, or better still, a manual transmission.

Value

You can get a base front-drive 2018 Honda Ridgeline for $30,000, but the one you’re going to want, with all-wheel drive and three-zone climate control rings up closer to $35,000. My test rig, an RTL-E with AWD, a sunroof, heated seats and steering wheel, a 400 watt power inverter, Honda Sensing driver aids and a powerful stereo, booked out at almost $43,000.

That’s about what a Chevy Colorado ZR2 costs, which offers way more off-road capability but a lot less refinement and fun party favors. And about the same sensation of slowness.

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The more basic AWD Ridgeline offers all of the vehicle’s best features, but since I’m a sucker for heated pieces my pick would probably be an RTL AWD model with a few options, landing at around $37,000.

Essentially, the Ridgeline seems to be priced appropriately based on the tradeoffs it makes with other mid-sized trucks. But of course $40,000 is a lot of money to spend on a vehicle, and if you were willing to put up with something older you could customize a truck to have just as many fun features as the new Honda. But you’d miss out on that factory freshness.

Verdict

There are zebras out there. No, really!

The 2018 Honda Ridgeline is more than a car, but it’s not quite what most people would call a truck. It’s a car for truck people, or a truck for car people.

I ended up thinking of it as a crossover with a huge surplus of cargo space, and it doesn’t matter how dirty any of that cargo is. This truck can be the life of a car camping party right out of the box, it’s comfortable, it’s most likely going to be reliable, and it’s extremely easy to live with every day.

If your family adventures don’t require heavy towing or off-road driving, the 2018 Honda Ridgeline has the capability you’re looking for without sacrificing the ride quality or safety you want.

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Though ironically, that refinement does detract a little bit from the Ridgeline’s ability to have a sense of humor or make you feel like you’re in a “truck,” which some will miss.

I’m glad the Ridgeline exists and I think it could make a lot of people, on the fence between getting a truck or a small SUV, very happy. And even though my own solid-axle V8 truck would have looked a little cooler on our camping trip, it definitely would not have been as comfortable. And my fiancée probably would not have come with me. And I’d probably still be on my way home.

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