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Honda makes a late splash at the pickup party

April 15, 2005|by RICHARD RUSSELL/Wheelbase Communications

As one of the last of the major Japanese manufacturers to arrive at the pickup party, Honda wanted to make a dramatic entrance.

The 2006 Ridgeline accomplishes that by tossing aside many of the traditional guidelines used in building a pickup.

Perhaps most significantly, instead of bolting separate passenger and cargo modules to a frame, the Ridgeline is one solid piece, bumper to bumper, affixed to a ladder-type frame. That forms the basis of some more creative engineering including an independent rear suspension, a tailgate that can drop down or swing to the side and a large lockable storage bin located beneath the cargo bed.

It doesn't stop there, either: stability control; all-wheel drive; traction control; and side-curtain air bags are all part of the deal.

A model of packaging and innovation, the Ridgeline boasts as much interior space as a four-door F150 and it can tow 5,000 pounds with its 255-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission.

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It isn't going to replace that big diesel-powered heavy-duty pickup. And no, it doesn't have a low range for serious off-road work. But it favorably compares to compact and mid-size pickups in all traditional areas of pickup use and handily beats most of them in terms of interior space as well as ride and handling.

Why build a truck now? Honda believes the small- to mid-sized truck market will continue to grow . . . and it very much wants to sell a vehicle to haul around all the other appliances it makes, whether it be a portable generator or an all-terrain vehicle.

Gary Flint, the chief engineer at Honda Research and Development Americas, Inc., and the lead player for the Ridgeline, puts it into perspective.

"We had no preconceived notions, we asked potential customers what they really wanted in a pickup. They told us their priorities were secure storage for their clean stuff as well as a place for dirty stuff. They wanted a vehicle that could serve as a comfortable commuter during the week and haul gear and go off road when asked. But it had to ride, handle and feel like a car."

Flint said that by combining the rigidity and safety of a unibody (frameless chassis), with the hauling and towing capability of a body-on-frame design, Honda could address a wide variety of issues. The bottom line is functionality.

Designers use all sorts of inspiration for their creations. For the Honda Element, it was a college dorm room. For the Ridgeline, inspiration came from the dual-purpose use of a firehouse, "a facility with plenty of work and storage space combined with a highly functional and comfortable living area," Flint said.

The unique lockable and waterproof "In-Bed Trunk" is a good example of the innovative thinking that went into this truck. It's big enough to hold three full-size sets of golf clubs, and you can fit a fourth set in a compartment beneath the rear seat. The 4-by-5-foot bed contains six tie-down cleats - each with a 350-pound capacity - for securing cargo. There are also four bright lights to help during night loading, and the tailgate is designed to support more weight than any other pickup in the industry.

The bed is a dent- and corrosion-resistant steel-reinforced molded composite. Honda says it's simply the strongest box in the business and to prove it, used a front-end loader to drop a half-ton of basketball-sized rocks into the bed from a height of about six feet. Some minor marks, but no dents. The same test clobbered a regular steel box and smashed a composite box to the point where it could never be used again. Is this a real-world test? Not really, but it makes the point.

To prove towing endurance, the development team drove a final prototype nearly 5,000 miles over a route that included everything from boat ramps to high-altitude public roads.

If you're worried about power, Ridgeline even outperforms some V-8 competitors in acceleration and still offers best-in-class fuel economy. Although it shares some components with the Honda Odyssey, anything carried to the Ridgeline has been altered or beefed up for this application.

The sophisticated electronic all-wheel-drive system starts off driving all four-wheels with varying amounts of power to the rear wheels depending on grip. Power moves to the front wheels during steady-state highway cruising for improved fuel economy and stability.

All this to ask, will traditional truck buyers be swayed by Honda? They're a loyal bunch and the task will undoubtedly be a difficult one. But a new breed of owner is emerging and Honda has them in its sights. Designed and built in North America, specifically and only for truck people, the Ridgeline is a radical departure from conventional pickup thinking.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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