First drive: 2021 Honda Ridgeline bridges crossover comfort with pickup truck capability

It feels like the Honda Ridgeline always has something to prove. The mid-size pickup truck rides on a unibody car platform that buffer trucks might shame as soft, even though that’s what makes it so good. I see you, Ridgeline, and I hear the imposter syndrome, but understand this: you are enough, you belong, and you are great.

The refreshed 2021 Ridgeline earned our Best Pickup Truck to Buy 2021 by improving on its best traits with a new look and new standard features, including all-wheel drive. After spending a week living with one and a day testing it off-road in the high California desert, I drove away with even more warm and fuzzy feelings about the Ridgeline. 

The exterior styling better distinguishes it from its Honda SUV platform mates, the Pilot and Passport. The three used to have very similar noses, but the Ridgeline now gets a more squared off grille, a bulging hood, and a revised rear bumper that more prominently shows off its twin exhaust pipes. Those changes can best be summarized as the Ridgeline standing up and saying, “I am a REAL truck, dammit.” 

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

Honda introduces an HPD (Honda Performance Development) appearance package for 2021 as well, adding a different front grille, black fender flares, an HPD decal, and most noticeably, 18-inch bronze wheels. The $2,800 package is available across each of the Ridgline’s four trim levels. The red paint scheme of my truck and the bronze wheels appealed to this San Francisco 49ers fan.

Mechanically, the Ridgeline is unchanged from last year. A 280-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 making 262 lb-ft of torque is mated to a 9-speed automatic and newly standard all-wheel drive. It provides plenty of power for most applications, though most of it doesn’t kick in until you get higher up in the revs. Fuel economy ratings are estimated at 18 city, 24 highway, 21 combined mpg, a decrease of one city mpg from last year’s all-wheel-drive model.

The Ridgeline’s on-road manners impress due to its unibody build that competitors simply can’t match. I put the Ridgeline on one of my more strenuous drive routes in the canyons above Malibu, Calif. where I usually put sports cars to the test. Though it won’t ever resemble a sports car, it does not fall all over its face either like other trucks would. Body roll is controlled and the AWD system moves power where it should when exiting corners. The paddle shifters allow you to keep the engine in the power more effectively and you can even get it to slide around some with a little prompting from the throttle. Driving the Ridgeline hard on pavement can be fun.

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

Honda also invited us to test out the truck’s off-road chops at its proving grounds in the high California desert. The AWD system is just as good off-road as it is on. The Ridgeline moves its torque around without hesitation, finding traction where it can, and despite lacking all-terrain tires is rather capable on dirt, gravel, and sand. 

The Ridgeline’s terrain select system alters the traction control and transmission behavior to the environment. There are four modes: Normal, Sand, Mud, and Snow. This being California, mud and snow were in short supply but sand is a welcome destination. On a sand driving course with the corresponding drive mode, the shift points were pushed higher and the traction control allowed the wheels to slip without cutting power so the Ridgeline could power through the shifty stuff. I’d prefer the torque to kick in a bit lower in the rev-range; if the Ridgeline loses momentum it can get bogged down for a second until the revs kick back up, but with a naturally aspirated V-6 that’s just how it goes. As long as you don’t plan on doing any rock crawling where its lack of ground clearance would be exposed (just 7.6 inches, compared to 9.4 for the Toyota Tacoma and up to 11.6 inches for the Jeep Gladiator), the Ridgeline is a willing and able partner.

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

Inside, a volume knob makes a welcome return to the multimedia system. The soft touch interface hardly works on cars, let alone pickup trucks. My test vehicle was a base Sport model, which automakers typically exclude from drive programs, so it was insightful to test the entry point on the Ridgeline. It comes with 18-inch wheels, 8.0-inch touchscreen, tri-zone automatic climate control, and the Honda Sensing package which includes active lane control, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control. The multimedia system feels dated because it uses an older version of Honda’s software, but Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility come standard.

The Ridgeline’s backseat is still easily best in class, with the most leg room for passengers and flexible bottom seat cushions that fold up to provide a tall storage area for items you don’t want to keep in the bed. And the bed is still my favorite one among the mid-size competitors: At 50 inches wide, it’s the widest in the class, and comes with a handy storage area in the bed floor. A dual-action tailgate can open in two directions to either fold down like a traditional tailgate or swing out. Payload capacity is 1,583 pounds and towing capacity is 5,000 pounds, with the payload figure being especially strong for this class. Towing capacity matches the Pilot but trails the 4WD Toyota Tacoma’s 6,400 pounds and the 4WD Ford Ranger’s 7,500 pounds.

The addition of standard AWD contributes in large part to a $2,590 price increase over the 2020 model. The base Sport model starts at $37,665 (including destination charges), and tops out at $45,095 for the Black Edition. My test vehicle with red paint and the additional appearance package cost $40,860. That’s on the higher end for mid-size trucks, but I’d argue that the Ridgeline’s feature set, superior day-to-day livability, and better passenger accommodations warrant the extra bucks.

2021 Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline

Too much of the conversation about the Ridgeline in truck circles revolves around what it can’t do and in reality, that’s only one or two things. If you plan on crawling rocks, Toyota is happy to sell you a Tacoma TRD Pro, Chevrolet offers the Colorado ZR2, and the Gladiator reigns as off-road king of the mid-size jungle. And if you want to tow more than 5,000 pounds, consider moving up to a full-size truck because none of the mid-size trucks do well with that much weight at the back. 

Otherwise, for the vast majority of folks who want a truck for outdoor activities or something to move things around with, this truck is just right. The Ridgeline’s unibody setup should not be a deterrent to truck shoppers in this class. Its shortcoming is actually its strength.

Honda provided a 2021 Ridgeline and access to its proving grounds in Southern California for The Car Connection to bring you this firsthand drive report.

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