Christian Wardlaw | April 24, 2020
What is a pickup truck? Technically, an open cargo bed paired with a passenger cab meets the standard. But some people define a “real” truck as one that employs traditional body-on-frame construction, rear-wheel or four-wheel drive with a 2-speed transfer case and 4-Lo range, and significant payload and towing capacity.
The 2020 Honda Ridgeline is not, according to some people, a “real” truck. Based on the same platform that spawns the Acura MDX, Honda Odyssey, Honda Passport, and Honda Pilot, the Ridgeline can tow up to 5,000 pounds and haul as much as 1,580 lbs. of payload. Front-wheel drive is standard, and the optional all-wheel-drive system provides the ability to “lock” the power split between the front and rear wheels only at low speeds.
Where the Ridgeline shines brightest is not with regard to “real” truck traits. Rather, it is a truck for the “real” world, where for most people most of the time, towing and hauling maximum loads is a rarity if it ever occurs in the first place. And it provides numerous thoughtful features that are unavailable in other midsize pickups.
For 2020, Honda updates the Ridgeline. It gets a new 9-speed automatic transmission, replacing the previous 6-speed automatic, and the automaker’s Honda Sensing collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is now standard equipment. Honda also installs an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system in every Ridgeline, complete with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Functional changes include a remote locking tailgate, wider-opening rear doors, available LED headlights, and interior ambient lighting.
Honda also reworks the Ridgeline lineup, dropping the base RT and mid-grade RTL-T versions to consolidate trim levels into Sport, RTL, RTL-E, and Black Edition. Given all of the new standard equipment, the Ridgeline’s base price rises by nearly $4,000, to $35,020 including a destination charge of $1,120.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Ridgeline RTL-E without any options. The price came to $43,140.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Ridgeline, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize pickup, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Perhaps unexpectedly, a greater percentage of Ridgeline owners are male in comparison to other trucks in the segment. J.D. Power data shows that 89% of Ridgeline owners are men (vs. 85% for the segment). Ridgeline owners are also much older (64 years vs. 57 years) and enjoy a much higher median annual household income ($120,175 vs. $95,548).
In terms of sentiments about vehicle and truck ownership, there are some clear differences between Ridgeline owners and midsize pickup owners in general. J.D. Power data shows that 33% of Ridgeline owners identify as Practical Buyers (vs. 25%), fewer Ridgeline owners are likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (65% vs. 73%), and fewer Ridgeline owners are very likely to agree that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration (37% vs. 45%).
Ridgeline owners are more likely to agree that they are willing to pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (47% vs. 54%), and that they are willing to pay extra for the latest safety features (82% vs. 72%). According to J.D. Power data, 42% say they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company, perhaps with the understanding that the Ridgeline is made in Lincoln, Alabama.
Owners say their favorite things about the Ridgeline are (in descending order) the storage and space, interior design, driving dynamics, engine/transmission, and visibility and safety. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Ridgeline are (in descending order) the exterior styling, seats, climate control system, infotainment system, and fuel economy.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Ridgeline ranked second out of six midsize pickups.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Honda Ridgeline measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Owners of the Honda Ridgeline rank the truck’s styling mid-pack in terms of their overall likes and dislikes, which is fair. The Ridgeline is clearly cut from the same cloth as the Passport and Pilot even if the design details are different.
There is a clear cab-forward stance to the Ridgeline thanks to its short, angled hood. In fact, the first time my 11-year-old saw the Honda in our driveway, she said it looked like a minivan in the front and a truck in the back. Thinking back to the time when I was that age, the Chevy El Camino and Ford Ranchero sparked a similar response. Just replace “minivan” with “car.”
And look at how cool El Caminos and Rancheros are now.
Inside, the Ridgeline is basically the same as a Passport and Pilot. That means it has impressive materials decorating a cabin that exudes quality from the way the door closes to how the release for the rear seat cushions works. Get a gray or a beige interior, and the Ridgeline’s high-contrast decor looks and feels downright upscale. Perforated leather, consistent surface gloss and grain levels, and solid construction all lend the truck its high-quality look and feel.
Ridgeline owners also rank the truck’s seats mid-pack in terms of likes and dislikes. This, too, is understandable.
All but the Sport trim get a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, but no matter how much money you have to spend you cannot get a height adjuster for the front passenger’s seat. Heated front seats are standard for all except the Sport, but seat ventilation is unavailable.
I found the driver’s seat to be exceptionally comfortable and to provide a proper, supportive driving position. And while a height adjuster would be preferable for the front passenger’s seat, it is mounted high enough off of the floor and offers enough leg support that the omission isn’t much of an issue.
What can be an issue, however, are the inboard adjustable armrests for each front seat. In my experience, you must move them out of the way in order to buckle the seat belt, and that gets to be a nuisance really fast.
The Ridgeline’s rear seat is tight on legroom but is at least on par with if not better than other midsize trucks. The front seatbacks are softly padded to be kind to knees and Honda provides rear air conditioning vents to make sure passengers are comfortable.
Unseasonably cloudy and cool weather made the Ridgeline RTL-E’s heated steering wheel and heated front seats useful. Later in the week, when the strong but still angled spring sunshine beat down on the truck, the triple-zone automatic climate control had some trouble contending with solar heating through the side window glass.
The climate controls are easy to reference and use, though knobs would be preferable to the fan speed and temperature rocker switches. This is a minor complaint, though.
With a power sunroof and a sliding rear window, it’s easy to open a Ridgeline up to enjoy fresh air and sunshine when the weather calls for such things.
Ranking second to last among their favorite features, Ridgeline owners are not fans of the infotainment system, and it’s very easy to understand why.
First, there isn’t a single physical button or knob for it, and, given the average Ridgeline owner age of 64 years, this must be seriously aggravating. Instead, Honda uses a flat touch-sensitive surface covering an 8-inch display and a vertical row of touch-sensing controls that don’t necessarily work with precision. If you’ve never used steering wheel audio controls on a regular basis, the Ridgeline will cure you of that right quick.
Second, the voice recognition system is way behind the times. If you’re a Ridgeline owner who is technologically savvy, and you think you’ll just use natural voice recognition to adjust volume, change stations, find points of interest, or input an address, think again. The Ridgeline requires a driver to use specific menus, and even then it lags in terms of response. You can’t simply say something like: “Find the nearest hospital.” You must take the proper verbal prompt pathways, and then wait.
Thankfully, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto help to solve for this demerit. But nothing, I suspect, will make Ridgeline owners happier with their infotainment systems until Honda adds some actual buttons and knobs to control the stereo and provide shortcut access to main menus.
If the Ridgeline’s infotainment system is flawed from a user experience perspective, the truck’s storage and cargo solutions are outstanding even if the bed is rather shallow.
Starting on the inside of the truck, a huge center console storage bin awaits, covered by a flat top that can serve as a tray. Every door panel is carved with bins, trays, nooks, and crannies, and the glove compartment is a good size. If you can’t find a place to put something inside of a Honda Ridgeline, no vehicle is going to accommodate you.
For locked and covered storage, Honda provides two solutions:
Speaking of tailgate parties, the Ridgeline offers a truck-bed audio system. The tailgate itself also drops down in a conventional manner and swings out from right to left. A 150-watt/400-watt power outlet is also available for the Ridgeline’s bed, just in case the game is better watched from the parking lot instead of the stands.
Perhaps in part because it isn’t like a conventional truck, it’s really easy to see out of a Honda Ridgeline. Thin windshield pillars, expansive front windows, and large side mirrors contribute to good outward visibility, as does the low, short, and sloping hood.
For 2020, Honda Sensing is standard. It equips the Ridgeline with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assistance, and a system designed to prevent an unintended departure from the roadway. As far as Honda Sensing’s effectiveness, the lane departure warning system’s obvious steering-wheel wobble alert is strange, and the forward collision warning system is a little over-sensitive.
The test truck also had a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning as well as automatic high-beam headlights, but these features are reserved for RTL-E and Black Edition trim only. It’s too bad Honda doesn’t make these available on more affordable versions of the Ridgeline, because the blind-spot warning system saved my bacon as I merged onto a freeway from an on-ramp.
In crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2020 Ridgeline earns Good ratings across the board except for front passenger protection in the small overlap frontal-impact test (Acceptable). The IIHS also deems the truck’s standard headlights Poor, but the available LED low-beam headlights are Good.
Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Ridgeline 5-star ratings for every assessment except rollover resistance, for which the truck earns a 4-star rating.
Every Honda Ridgeline has a 280-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is an absolute delight. Powerful, refined, and, in comparison to other midsize trucks, fuel efficient thanks in part to its variable cylinder management system, it is a terrific engine.
For 2020, Honda swaps out the previous 6-speed automatic for a 9-speed automatic. This transmission has no impact on overall fuel economy, other than adding a mile per gallon in the city and subtracting a mile per gallon on the highway when the Ridgeline is equipped with AWD.
What’s most likely to aggravate Ridgeline owners about the transmission are the new electronic shift controls. A collection of buttons and switches, they replace a previous traditional PRNDL lever.
With AWD, the Ridgeline has Honda’s variable torque management system (i-VTM-4). It is a torque-vectoring AWD system that can put up to 70% of the engine’s power to a single rear wheel. An electronic Lock function consistently splits power to the front and rear wheels for traveling across more difficult terrain or driving on slippery or gooey surfaces.
The Ridgeline also has Snow, Mud, and Sand driving modes in addition to Normal. And with AWD the truck offers 7.9 inches of ground clearance, half an inch more than the front driver.
According to the EPA, a Honda Ridgeline with AWD should get 21 mpg in combined driving. On my testing loop, I averaged 20.9 mpg. It’s worth noting, though, that heavy suburban use netted an average of 18.5 mpg.
For daily driving on pavement, no midsize truck beats a Honda Ridgeline for quiet, for comfort, or for refinement. Because it drives just like the vehicles that share its platform – Passport and Pilot – it is fairly quick, nimble, and sophisticated.
Hit a bump mid-corner? No problem, thanks to the independent rear suspension that stays glued in place. Need to get down a winding two-lane country road in a hurry? The fairly quick and communicative steering stands ready to respond. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic? The Ridgeline’s 4-wheel-disc brakes make it easy for a driver to finesse the pedal for smoother travel.
Still, sometimes when you buy a truck, you want something that drives like a truck. The Honda Ridgeline doesn’t. It drives like a crossover SUV.
The 2020 Honda Ridgeline is not for everybody. At the same time, it credibly serves most needs of most midsize pickup truck buyers, most of the time.
If there are hurdles to its widespread adoption, the anodyne styling, the minivan-style interior, and the user-unfriendly infotainment system are problematic. The fact that it doesn’t drive like a traditional truck could also turn some people off.
Then again, in 2019 the Ridgeline did rank second for overall appeal among all midsize trucks. Clearly, the people who buy one like it overall.
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