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Pickup trucks don't suck anymore

Honda

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

You do not care about pickup trucks.

A pickup is a petrol-powered wheelbarrow; surely one of the lower rungs on the automotive hierarchy. Pickups? Driven and obsessed over by people who are decidedly not you. Right?

Except, well, there was that time that you needed to move your queen mattress to the new apartment, and you called up that guy who used to date your cousin, and he showed up in his lifted Ford F-150 with the Hella lights on the roof and he hoisted that mattress into the bed like it was nothing. You stepped onto the running boards and hauled yourself into the high-up cabin and you rode over to your new pad while looking down at the people in their Lilliputian cars and you thought: this thing is manly. And it’s nice to be able to haul stuff. But then you realized that guys like your cousin’s ex are only summoned when someone needs their stuff hauled around, and that sucks.

Besides, you do not care about pickup trucks.

Now, here comes the brand-new Ridgeline, which looks more like a traditional truck

But there was also that time that Honda released a pickup truck, in 2005, and you thought that was kind of interesting. It was called the Ridgeline. The idea of a truck from Honda, known for easy-driving cars full of innovative conveniences, was appealing. But then you saw the thing. You may not be a pickup person, but even to your eyes it looked all wrong, what with the soft angles and weird angled walls alongside the bed. It didn't impress pickup people, and it didn’t sell all that well.

Now, here comes the brand-new Ridgeline, which looks more like a traditional truck, if a softer and gentler one. The Honda is midsized, which is better suited to city traffic and fits into a garage. The Ridgeline joins the updated Toyota Tacoma and new entrants from Chevrolet and GMC. In the truck world, midsize is the new black.

That’s because trucks have been a’changin’, even the biggest, rootin’-tootin’ trucks like the Ford F-150. They ride comfortably these days, have digital screens, heated seats, and heaps of safety features. A new Chevy Silverado travels around as nicely as a Mercedes E-Class of old. In fact, if you spent some time in one, you just might fall a little bit in love.

Another surprise: just how much you can spend on a truck. The Honda starts at $30,000 and works up to the $43,000 Black Edition. A Ram 1500 Limited 4X4 is around $56,000. Not much blue collar in that.

honda-ridgeline-02
(Honda)

But the new Ridgeline, now looking 400 percent less dorky, is still an outlier. It is built on an unibody frame, the same as a car, rather than the standard body-on-frame used in pickups. A body-on-frame is an internal ladder system, sturdier than a unibody design, and ideal for off-roading and towing. But unibodies are far superior in terms of comfort and handling.

The Ridgeline is offered in all-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive flavors. Those too are better suited to asphalt than burly trails. Trucks are normally four-wheel or rear-wheel drive. (Consumer Reports has a good primer on the differences between AWD and 4WD, if you’re interested.)

So, guess what? If you took a $43,000 Black Edition Ridgeline out for a ride, you’d find it drives like a well-mannered crossover. It shares chassis parts with the Pilot, though they are beefed up. It hustles around town, handles curves gracefully, and the seats are Honda comfortable. It’s easy to forget that you’re even driving a truck.

The AWD drive has a lot to do with that, but so does stuff you’d never, ever expect to find in a truck. Like a legitimate torque vectoring system which overdrives an outside wheel to help the truck handle corners. Many vectoring systems, even those found on hardcore sports cars, rely on systems which brake the inside wheel instead. This is the same kind of stuff that’s found on Acura’s NSX supercar. Go figure.

It hustles around town, handles curves gracefully, and the seats are Honda comfortable

Other things you wouldn’t have found on a truck from a decade ago: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 400-watt AC power outlet. A navigation system with real-time traffic, and safety systems that warn you of an impending front collision and help you stay in your lane. Adaptive cruise control, which maintains your distance from the vehicle ahead of you in traffic.

The interior isn’t fancy — and the lack of an actual knob to turn the stereo volume up or down is inexplicable — but the inside will fit five adults, a testament to Japanese automakers’ uncanny talents for maximizing interior space.

If all those things cause the Ridgeline to be rather car-like, there are disadvantages. The bed is clever — it’s actually got a lockable compartment inside — but isn’t all that big. An ambitious trip to Home Depot may leave you in need of a second trip. And if you ever hauled something like a boat, it would need to be a small motorboat and not a yacht. The towing limit is 5,000 pounds.

If the Ridgeline entices you, Mr. or Ms. Non-Truck, you might also go to a Chevy or GMC dealership and try out a diesel Colorado and Canyon. (They’re basically the exact same truck with different nameplates.) They too are stuffed with new tech, including CarPlay and a seat that buzzes when you cross over a lane divider without signaling.

gmc-canyon-01
(GMC)

But they also drive incredibly well. Whereas the Ridgeline’s 3.5-liter V-6 has 262 pound-feet of torque, the Canyon’s 2.8-liter diesel gets 369 lb-ft, which grunts up hills with bull-like aplomb. Better, though, is the amount of innovation that GM has applied to quiet both the diesel’s natural vibrations and noise, making it even better to drive than the regular gas engines. The diesel Canyon and Colorado are great trucks. If you did care about these things, you’d find these two models have a lot more credibility in the truck community.

We wager that there’s a good chance that once you’ve driven something like the Ridgeline or the Canyon, you just may come away a little bit smitten. You may find yourself thinking of the stuff you’d like to move if you had one. And then you realize you might just want one.

But, a warning: if you do succumb, never tell your friends. Because those people who don’t yet care about trucks have to move stuff, too. And next time, they’ll call you.