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2021 Honda Ridgeline Review: Looking the Part Without Losing the Innovation | Expert review

The verdict: A front styling update gives the 2021 Honda Ridgeline a tougher appearance, but underneath it’s still the same comfortable, refined and versatile mid-size pickup truck it was before.

Versus the competition: The Ridgeline’s unibody construction gives it an advantage when it comes to interior space and ride and handling, but its towing capacity and hauling manners trail traditional body-on-frame competitors.

The Ridgeline took the top spot when we last tested four mid-size pickups, in 2019. The truck received a new nine-speed automatic transmission and more standard technology and safety features for the 2020 model year, joined for 2021 by newly standard all-wheel drive and a new front end.

Our test truck was a base Sport trim level with a starting price of $37,715 (including a $1,225 destination charge). Optional Radiant Red Metallic paint ($395) and the HPD Package ($2,800) increased our as-tested price to $40,910. The HPD (Honda Performance Development) Package is new for 2021 and includes bronze 18-inch alloy wheels, black fender flares, a unique grille insert and cargo box graphics.

Comfortable to Drive

The Ridgeline’s unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension — a rarity in the mid-size truck class — contribute to a driving experience that’s completely different from the norm. The Ridgeline’s suspension tuning is firm, but there’s none of the bouncy, jostling response you sometimes feel in trucks when the cargo box is empty; the Honda’s suspension dispatches pavement roughness quickly without disturbing occupants too much. Ride and handling is very similar to a car-based SUV, which isn’t surprising considering the Ridgeline’s construction.

The Ridgeline’s drivetrain is also unique. All trim levels have standard all-wheel drive and are powered by a 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that works with a nine-speed automatic. Smooth, refined performance is the powertrain’s calling card; the V-6 revs smoothly, and gear changes are unobtrusive. The Ridgeline accelerates easily up to highway speeds, and the engine isn’t taxed to maintain them. Full-throttle kickdowns happen quickly enough, with the transmission stepping down a gear before downshifting again to the most optimal gear.

It’s rare to see all-wheel drive and V-6 power standard in a mid-size truck, and the combination doesn’t do the Ridgeline’s fuel economy any favors. Its EPA-rated 21 mpg combined trails not just diesel and hybrid full-size pickups, but also the 2021 Ford Ranger and some versions of the 2021 Jeep Gladiator and 2021 Chevrolet Colorado. All Ridgeline trims have a fuel-saving engine stop-start system that operates seamlessly; engine restarts are quiet and vibration-free.

The Ridgeline’s steering and braking systems get the job done, but neither is a highlight. The truck’s light-effort steering provides little feedback, leaving the driver with a numb feel. The brake pedal, meanwhile, is soft and spongy, but pedal linearity is good.

Comfortable to Sit In

It’s easy to step into the Ridgeline’s driver’s seat, and the front buckets are comfortable, with flip-up inboard armrests. There’s plenty of headroom, too, but our Sport version was missing amenities — like a power-adjustable driver’s seat — you’d expect to see in a model starting at nearly $38,000.

The rear of the cab is big enough to seat taller adults comfortably, and the bench seat has a stadium-style design for improved forward visibility. There’s not much extra legroom (my shins touched the back of the driver’s seat), but the space is big enough not to feel cramped. There’s storage space under the 60/40-split seat, and the cushions flip up easily to use the rear of the cab to carry cargo.

The Ridgeline also has plenty of space for odds and ends thanks to tiered front door pockets, a central dashboard cubby and a large covered storage bin between the front seats.

Dated Multimedia Tech

All Ridgeline trim levels get an 8-inch touchscreen multimedia system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. There are touch-sensitive controls to the left of the screen, and the system now includes a volume knob.

While a touchscreen is often preferable to a knob- or touchpad-based multimedia system interface — especially when using CarPlay and Android Auto, both of which are designed for touchscreens — the Ridgeline’s system has a few strikes against it. The lack of a tuning knob hampers usability, and the onscreen menus make seemingly simple tasks, like switching between audio sources, harder than they need to be. The screen graphics could also use a refresh.

Cargo Box Versatility

The Ridgeline’s standard in-bed trunk and dual-action tailgate aren’t new, but they’re smart features that continue to set the truck apart from its direct competitors. The in-bed trunk measures 7.3 cubic feet, according to Honda; by our measurements, it’s 43 inches wide, 15.75 inches long and 18 inches deep. The dual-action tailgate, which can lower like a traditional tailgate or swing open from the passenger side, makes it easier to reach the trunk. Lifting the lowered tailgate, however, takes a lot of effort. The Ridgeline’s compact spare tire is accessed via the trunk, which could complicate a roadside tire change if the bed is full of cargo.

The Ridgeline’s cargo box is also unique among mid-size pickups. It’s made of reinforced composite, which offers scratch and dent resistance without having to add a bedliner. Its general shape is different, too; there are no protruding wheel wells like you see in other pickups, resulting in an obstruction-free space that measures 63 inches long, 58 inches wide and 16.75 inches tall (though those bed walls are shorter than other mid-size trucks’). Other standard amenities include lights in each of the side walls and eight tie-down cleats, each rated to 350 pounds.

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Safety and Driver-Assist Features

The 2021 Ridgeline received the highest score, good, in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests except the passenger-side small overlap test, where it earned a score of acceptable. The LED projector headlights in all Ridgeline trims were deemed marginal, but the truck’s standard forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking system was rated superior.

Collision warning and automatic emergency braking are part of the standard Honda Sensing suite of active-safety features, which also includes lane departure warning, high-speed lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control. Automatic high-beam headlights and blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert are available.

Value in Its Class

It’s pretty clear Honda wasn’t tied to many mid-size truck norms when developing the Ridgeline, and the brand’s unconventional approach carries over to the truck’s pricing. With a $37,715 starting price, the Ridgeline costs over $10,000 more than a base Ranger, Colorado or 2021 Toyota Tacoma; only the Gladiator’s $35,535 base price is close. But while the Ridgeline and Gladiator cost more, they also deliver more: Both trucks have standard V-6 power, four-wheel drive and a crew-cab body style.

The Ridgeline’s unibody platform may be a sticking point for some. Its 5,000-pound maximum towing capacity also trails the competition, most of which are rated to tow well over 7,000 pounds in some configurations. The Ridgeline’s 1,583-pound maximum payload rating is respectable, but when we’ve hauled heavy loads in it, the truck hasn’t felt as composed as its body-on-frame competitors.

The competition, however, is coming around to Honda’s way of thinking, recognizing some shoppers looking for a smaller truck have priorities other than maximum towing and hauling capability. Ford and Hyundai both have new, small unibody pickup trucks: the 2022 Maverick and 2022 Santa Cruz, respectively.

If your priorities are comfort and passenger space similar to what you’d get in a mid-size crossover, but with the utility of an innovative cargo box, the Ridgeline might be the truck for you.

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