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Debut: Honda Ridgeline pickup gets macho makeover for 2021

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Honda’s midsize truck is getting truckier.

The only pickup on the market that is built on a unibody SUV platform, the latest generation of the Ridgeline has boasted superior ride dynamics and interior room since Honda left behind the traditional ladder-style truck frame for 2017. But it has suffered under the perception that it’s soft against trucks built on traditional frames. Meanwhile, the midsize pickup segment has gotten more crowded with new entries from Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator in the last two years.

The 2021 Honda Ridgeline gets a more aggressive face.

So Ridgeline has hit the gym for a new more-toned look. The 2021 pickup sports a more aggressive, upright truck grille. The larger opening is crisscrossed with rugged latticework while a more muscular “power bulge” hood looms above it. Bodywork has been totally remade from the A-pillar forward.

A prominent skid plate, heavily clad fender wells and a dual exhaust emphasize Ridgeline's tough new look. Want more bling? A new Honda Performance Development option adds a unique grille treatment, black fender flares and bronze-colored wheels.

As the U.S. market has gone hog-wild for SUVs, midsize pickups have become important brand halos to message off-road toughness. The ladder-frame Toyota Tacoma, for example, is not just the best-selling pickup in the mid-size segment, its design cues have been adopted by the Japanese brand’s RAV4 SUV  in order to give it more personality.

The midsize Honda Ridgeline gets some attitude for 2021. It's is the only pickup in class built on a unibody SUV platform.

"Truck enthusiasts have long recognized Ridgeline as an incredibly versatile and capable pickup, and now it's got the rugged looks to match," said Art St. Cyr, Honda North American vice president of auto operations.

Truck guys like what they see.

“The 2021 truck adds a much-needed dose of macho style with the new front and dual exhaust,” said Andrew Smirnov of The Fast LaneTruck, the online truck review site. TFL Truck baselines all trucks with extensive testing.

The styling backs up the Ridgeline’s sophisticated, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system and versatile bed which includes a 7.3-cubic foot trunk underneath and a versatile dual-action tailgate that can both drop and swing like a door. Ram only this year added a similar option to its full-size truck.

But truckers question whether the beefier styling will be enough to expand beyond Ridgeline’s niche as a smooth-riding city truck.

The 2021 Honda Ridgeline interior is the roomiest in class. For the new model year it gains a volume knob to help improve complaints about its infotainment system.

TFL Truck publisher Roman Mica said that he was surprised Honda didn’t take the opportunity to release a rugged, jacked-up, more high-speed version of its pickup similar to what Chevy does with the Colorado ZR2 or that Jeep offers with the Gladiator Mojave. Honda — which competes in multiple forms of motorsports —has certainly earned that right by competing in the brutal Baja 1000. The Ridgeline won its class this year for the fourth time.

Mica said that the Ridgeline is the rare pickup that doesn’t offer a two-speed transfer case or significant departure/approach angles that can get a truck through Mother Nature’s most difficult terrain, even if most customers never push that envelope.

“Most buyers are looking for the truck they want, not the truck they need,” he said. “Most truck owners want to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse.”

Built in Alabama on the same bones as its mid-size Pilot SUV, Honda seems content with Ridgeline's versatility as a daily driver. The more rugged looks should please the Honda faithful who have complained the Ridgeline looked more crossover than pickup. Honda sold 8,607 in the third quarter, up from 8,378 a year ago.

The Tacoma led the segment with over 58,000 in sales last quarter while the Gladiator made big gains with 22,163 (a 37% gain) and the Ranger sold 28,350 (up 8%).

Though its tow rating of 5,000 pounds trails segment competitors, the Ridgeline is no slouch in payload with best-in-class 1,580 pounds. The interior is what really separates it, thanks to the more flexible unibody frame and clever Honda console.

The console shares the Pilot SUV’s sliding door which opens cavernous storage room. The rear seats flip up allowing for rear storage for, for example, a bicycle.

A Car and Driver comparison test of the segment’s front-runners found the Ridgeline scored best-in-class cornering performance, rear-seat space and volume, lowest sound levels, and best in class safety features.

Those safety features include standard forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise-control.

The Ridgeline's drivetrain remains the same for 2021 with a standard, 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.