Truck YeahThe trucks are good!

The 2017 Honda Ridgeline is very different from your typical mid-size pickup, making many wonder if the Pilot With A Truck Bed is “a real truck.” Well, I just loaded the Honda to near its max trailer rating and drove over the Appalachians with a classic Ford Mustang in tow. The Ridgeline kicked ass. That “real truck” enough for everyone?

(Full disclosure: Honda needed me to test the Ridgeline so badly they sent me one for a week with a full tank of gas. Yes, I asked if it was cool to tow with it.)

So what if the Honda Ridgeline is the only pickup truck on the U.S. market with a front-drive-based unibody platform, a transverse-mounted engine, or a fully independent suspension? What makes a truck a truck isn’t the spec sheet, but what the thing can actually do in the real world.

And to see what the truck was made of, I drove it 650 miles from Michigan to Virginia, picked up my brother’s 1966 Ford Mustang with a borrowed trailer, and towed it all the way back.

The Honda brushed it off like it was nothing.

At First I Wondered If This Was A Bad Idea...

I’d never been as nervous as I was in the days leading up to this trip.

I was worried that I was about to load the Ridgeline beyond its max trailer rating, and that the little truck would struggle to tow the Mustang over the Appalachians. What if I crashed? It’d be all my fault for overloading the truck. Honda would be pissed that I wrecked their brand new vehicle. My editor would be pissed that I wrecked a press truck. My brother would be pissed that I destroyed his gorgeous Mustang. My friend would be pissed that I mangled his trailer. Everyone would be pissed! I would be pissed!

I kept running the numbers over and over in my head: the Mustang weighs about 3,000 pounds, and my friend told me the trailer weighs 1,800 pounds. So that puts us at a trailer load of 4,800 pounds—just below Honda’s rating.

But Honda’s 5,000 pound figure only accounts for two 150 pound passengers and 30 pounds of cargo, and we were three guys weighing an average of 175 pounds. Plus, we had about 350 pounds in tools, spare tires and wheels.

Honda says the truck’s gross combined weight rating—the weight of the truck with all its occupants and cargo, plus the trailer weight—is 9,986 pounds. With a 4,800 pound trailer, 525 pounds of human flesh and bones, 350 pounds in cargo and the truck’s 4,445 pound curb weight, we were going to exceed that GCW rating. Oh boy.

On the plus side, I had learned in my last job as a powertrain cooling engineer that the trailer towing capability of most cars and trucks is actually limited by cooling capacity. And since the majority of trucks are designed to SAE J2807 standards, I knew the Ridgeline’s trailer load and GCW actually represented max weights rated to climb Davis Dam (an approximately 6 percent grade in Arizona) at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since the Pennsylvania Turnpike that I was about to drive was actually specifically designed to never exceed 3 percent, and the temperature wasn’t going to be nearly in the triple digits, the Honda should be fine going a bit over its rated load, I convinced myself.

Okay, maybe this was a bad idea.

Driving From Michigan To Virginia

We left my house in Troy, Michigan around 5:30 p.m.. That was dumb because I was already tired, and that starting time would put us in Vienna, Virginia (where we would spend the night) at 3:30 in the morning.

I had told my passengers to pack very lightly, warning them that there was a good chance we’d have to throw some of their gear overboard to shed weight and get the Honda and Mustang over the mountains. Heck, we might even have to shed passengers. I was prepared to make sacrifices as needed.

Despite the light packing, we still had a substantial stash of cargo, as we had to bring enough tools to fix the Mustang’s brakes and maybe get it running to load it onto the trailer. Luckily for us, the rear seats folded up nicely in a 60/40 configuration, leaving lots of room for cargo, and still plenty of space for a human torso and legs.

The drive to Vienna was uneventful. The truck towed the trailer with ease, even scoring nearly 24 MPG according to the digital readout. The Lane Keep Assist worked well, helping keep the truck squarely in the center of the lane, and providing assistance in the turns. The system’s accuracy started to wane as darkness fell, but for me—someone who doesn’t tow often, and now had to pull rather wide, bouncy trailer—it was still a godsend.

After about 10 hours of driving, we rolled into my friend’s driveway in Vienna, found horizontal surfaces in the house, and passed out.

The next morning was going to be a rough one.

Loading Up The Mustang

But we had to get that Mustang onto the trailer, and since we knew the thing had no brakes, and also didn’t run, we needed as much time as we could get to figure out how to maneuver the thing onto the flatbed.

So after only three hours of sleep, we drove the Ridgeline through the heavy traffic between D.C. and Richmond, and wound up in the Carytown district, a thriving area brimming with college-age hipsters eating gourmet cupcakes and playing Magic cards.

Behind an apartment complex in a narrow brick garage, we finally laid eyes upon the beautiful Candy Apply Red Mustang that had been sitting in that very spot for over two years. Soon, she would be free.

But first, we had to get the car on the flatbed, an endeavor meant for only the strongest, bravest of souls. It was about 90 degrees outside, but with humidity, it felt like 105. The car had a hole in one of its brake lines, so moving the ‘stang without losing control was going to be a dangerous pain in the ass.

We knew this, so for a second, we contemplated splicing in a new length of brake line. But then laziness kicked in, and we decided we’d risk it without brakes, using plastic ramps to prevent the car from rolling away.

The car also didn’t run, so we had to figure out a more creative way to yank the 3,000 pound hunk of steel up the trailer’s ramps. Luckily, my friend, a brilliant mastermind named Santiago, had brought a Harbor Freight come-along hand winch.

With my other friend Brandon, we pushed the Mustang out of the garage, then spent about 45 minutes fighting against the dragging brakes, maneuvering the pony until it was lined up with the ramps.

To get the Mustang up, we slid a J-hook onto one side of the hand winch (the J-hook connects to the Mustang’s frame), and the other side we clipped to a ratchet strap that was hooked to the trailer tie-down.

It wasn’t a particularly safe setup, but hey, Jalopnik’s motto is “safety third” for a reason.

Santiago ratcheted the Mustang up the trailer until the hand winch line ran out of length. Then we slid the plastic ramps under the Mustang’s rear wheels to keep it from rolling back, while Santiago uncoiled the hand winch, adjusted the ratchet strap length, and started ratcheting again. This process took over an hour, with each cycle moving the car about a foot.

Between maneuvering the Mustang against its dragging brakes and slowly ratcheting the Mustang up the ramps, we probably spent about two and a half hours sweating our asses off in the Virginia heat. On a positive note, we had the in-bed speakers blasting, and the little storage bin back there loaded with ice and drinks, so we made the best of it.

Once the Mustang was all loaded up, it was time to head back over the mountains and see once and for all if the Ridgeline was worthy of the “pickup truck” label.

Towing The Mustang From Virginia To Michigan

Right out of the gate, I noticed the truck was a bit slower to accelerate and took a bit longer to stop—not a surprise, considering that’s how physics works.

But where the real surprise came was in the ride. Even with the trailer loading the truck’s rear end, the Ridgeline still drove nearly as well as it did without the trailer, which is to say... very well.

The ride was smooth, and the truck felt stable even with the trailer holding it back and even while driving over bumps. The Lane Keep Assist made positioning the Ridgeline and trailer between the lines a non-issue—it really made all the difference for me, someone who doesn’t tow often (especially considering the truck didn’t have trailer-tow mirrors).

Then we got to the hills. And you know what? The Ridgeline didn’t care. The truck barely downshifted up the grades, with the 280 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 having plenty of power to yank that Mustang up the inclines, and the cooling system having more than enough capacity to keep that coolant temperature smack dab in the center.

Every time I got to a steep hill, I’d just wait for the revs to increase to redline, and the truck to start bogging down. But it didn’t. The Ridgeline muscled that car over the mountains like it was nothing, and—perhaps more importantly— I felt safe and confident all the while.

I had to stop the truck on a few highway pull-off areas to take photos, so when I hopped back into the Ridgeline, I only had a few hundred yards to merge back into traffic, which was going about 70 mph.

I looked back for traffic to clear a bit, and then I dropped the hammer. The Ridgeline’s V6 started to wail, with RPMs slowly increasing to redline, at which point the transmission quickly shifted into the next gear. I watched as the speed climbed and the semi-truck in my mirror came closer and closer.

But the Ridgeline—even with a trailer and a bed full of wheels and tires— hustled up to speed with vigor, and that semi soon became a small spec in my rearview.

Then, all of a sudden, we hit traffic, and unfortunately I hadn’t been using Adaptive Cruise Control, so I saw the brake lights late.

As I smashed the brake pedal hard, the truck pitched forward a bit, and slowed down just like I asked it to. At no point did the car feel the urge to yaw in either direction, and at no point did I have to take corrective action with the steering wheel.

So the Ridgeline not only had good ride quality while towing, but the Lane Keep Assist made me feel confident yanking that car 1,200 miles, the V6 and six-speed trans were more than enough to hold 65 mph up grades, and acceleration and braking exceeded my expectations.

In the end, the truck got the Mustang back to my house after scoring 17 MPG with the trailer. My two buddies and I unloaded the pony and just looked at each other in amazement. This little Honda is a beast.

Of course, the thing wasn’t perfect. The B-pillar trim was peeling, and could be completely removed with very little effort, the seats could have been a bit more comfortable, and the transmission was a tad slow to downshift. But despite these quibbles, the truck handled this road trip perfectly.

So if you’re wondering whether the Ridgeline is a “real truck,” the answer is Yes. Hell yes it is.

The Ridgline’s in-bed storage bin made for a decent cooler.

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About the author

David Tracy

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).