Payne: Honda Ridgeline, the crossover pickup

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

San Antonians love their basketball team almost as much as they love their pickups.

After the Spurs defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Three of the NBA Playoffs last week, the streets flooded with F-150s, Tundras, Silverados, Tacomas and Colorados full of fans wearing all-black team colors waving Spurs flags and standing on their horns — as is tradition — in unison. HOOOOOONK HONK BEEP BEEP HOOOOONK. This deafening racket went on for more than an hour.

I’ll wager the sounds of Honda Ridgeline horns will soon join the din (especially its striking Black Edition).

Honda invaded San Antonio with Ridgelines last week like Kawhi Leonard attacks a basketball court: with a superb all-around game. Like the Honda Civic, 2016 North American Car of the Year, Ridgeline racks up all-star numbers. Best-in-class acceleration, V-6 fuel economy, interior room, box width, cabin quiet and safety rating. Unique-to-class bed trunk, bed audio, swinging tailgate, sub-rear seat storage.

But the best-of feature that instantly impresses is Ridgeline’s smooth ride, because this truck aims to change the midsize pickup game with the only car-like unibody chassis in its class.

Like the silky, muscular Kawhi (31 points on Saturday to go with 11 rebounds and stifling defense), the Ridgeline (smooth ride, 5,000-pound towing capacity, automatic all-wheel drive) is as comfortable executing hard cuts as it is banging bodies with the big boys.

This isn’t Ridgeline’s first tryout in the big leagues. Back in ’05, the pickup debuted with similar unibody ambitions. But after initially selling a respectable 40,000-50,000 units a year, Ridgeline abandoned the segment as sales hit a glass ceiling attributed to its polarizing, flying-buttress C-pillar design ... oh, and the Great Recession. Honda was not alone — every manufacturer except Toyota and Nissan fled small pickups.

But while Honda packed its bags, it did not give up on its pickup dreams. Fundamentally, Honda (which, unlike its Detroit Three and Toyota rivals, makes unibody platforms exclusively) thinks autos are moving from cars to crossovers — and it doesn’t think small pickups are immune from the trend. If generation-one Ridgeline was ahead of its time, then Honda thinks body-on-rail small pickups are dinosaurs.

Truck guys scoff at such talk. Drinks with umbrellas ain’t drinks, and trucks with unibodies ain’t trucks.

Well, game on. Four years later, the midsize pickup league is healthier than ever. Like similarly-affordable performance cars, the $30,000-$40,000 pickup market offers enthusiasts multiple brands competing with distinct visions as to what a small pickup should be. Where full-size pickups — like six-figure sports cars — are all about blowing your mind with Olympian stats, small sports cars and pickups are loaded with character.

King of the Ranch is still the Toyota Tacoma. If Texans still herded cattle to market, they would do it in this rugged cowboy toy. Remade last year, the Baja 1000-bred Tacoma is an Outback assault weapon with a 30-degree approach angle and a four-wheel-drive system that can climb Gibraltar’s face or dig out of jungle quicksand. Commute to work over asphalt, however, and its traditional truck platform and rear leaf springs will turn your insides to jelly. GM has swaggered back into small pickups with its sculpted Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon twins boasting mature interiors bolted to Detroit truck know-how.

Against such adversaries, Ridgeline nixed its soft styling — “customers told us a square box and high wheel arches mean pickup performance,” says Ridgeline Performance Chief Jim Loftus — and threw Honda Engineering’s kitchen sink at the segment.

Most notable is Ridgeline’s acclaimed, Acura-derived, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. Like Camaro showing up on big brother Cadillac ATS’s Alpha platform, Ridgeline’s AWD is in another league.

Hey, Kawhi, want to challenge these college kids to a pickup game?

I flogged the front-wheel biased, independent rear-suspension Honda across Texas ranchlands next to its rear-biased, leaf-sprung rivals. Ridgeline was more balanced, more confident — its electronic, rear-diff clutches expertly distributing wheel turn to whichever corner was in need. The difference is most pronounced next to the Tacoma whose four-wheel drive, solid-rear axle system squirms and protests against changing terrain.

Torque-vectoring and beefy suspension aside, however, the Ridgeline is a Honda Pilot with a 4-foot-by-5-foot box.

Not as muscular-looking as its rivals (the Canyon’s gym-toned, sculpted torso will get the girls), Honda’s tasteful, understated styling will woo the crossover crowd Honda expects to cross over to pickups. Inside, the same Pilot interior that has wowed SUV buyers also makes it best-in-class for pickups. Unencumbered by space-stealing rails, the unibody chassis allows excellent rear-seat room — both for passengers and sub-seat cargo (behold a second, golf-bag sized trunk!). Arm rests are soft, the center-sliding console brilliant — only Honda’s ill-advised, buttonless infotainment system mars the ensemble. I was pining for GM’s ergonomically friendly unit.

But there are limits to Ridgeline’s versatility.

Like Lego blocks, rail frames make for interchangeable cab (extended and crew) and box (5-foot or 6-foot) configurations. Unibody’s tooling complexity means Ridgeline comes only in crew cab with 5-foot box, starting at $27,375. Honda says that’s the segment sweet spot where 70 percent of customers shop — but it concedes entry-level conquests where, for example, the Canyon advertises at just $20,975.

Honda’s unibody also shies from deeper dives into extreme terrain — Michigan’s off-road park, The Mounds, comes to mind — where the Baja-tough Tacoma thrives. In the back woods of a San Antonio ranch, Tacoma’s armored underbody taunted rocks, its 30-degree approach angle is fearless over moguls. My Ridgeline hardly cowered over such obstacles, but when I got too aggressive with the throttle the front end would do belly flops — THONK! — on undulating terrain.

Of course, with more front aero, the Honda’s belly won’t need as much feeding as Tacoma either. Like the similarly fuel-conscious GM twins, Ridgeline sells to those who want to tow muddy, all-terrain vehicles — not muddy their pickups in all terrain. Most folks will be content with the Honda’s 5,000-pound trailering capacity — but those robust GM rails can pull another 50 percent more.

On paper, Ridgeline’s all-around play should be a more attractive pickup for the whole family — not just the cowboy in the house. A military vet on my San Antonio drive concedes a Ridgeline makes more sense for his family than his tree-chewing Tacoma. Or will his wife just buy a Pilot?

Are pickups niche lifestyle indulgences like sports cars? Or do they have broader appeal like CUVs? Honda is betting the latter.

Honk if you agree.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email: hpayne@detroitnews.com. Twitter: @HenryEPayne

2017 Honda Ridgeline

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $27,375 base ($42,270 RTL-E trim as tested)

Powerplant: 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 6.4-6.7 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 5,000-pound towing

Weight: 4,515 pounds (RTL-E as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 combined (FWD); EPA 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/21 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Smooth rider; roomy interior

Lows: Won’t win Baja; annoying infotainment touch controls