CALIFORNIA CITY, CA – A massive plume of dust erupts from behind the refreshed ’21 Honda Ridgeline, and we’re off on a full-throttle run down a sandy two-track at the Honda Proving Center of California.
With the Ridgeline’s Intelligent Traction System switched to the Sand driving mode, the 3.5L V-6 smoothly revving and the 9-speed automatic transmission delivering thrust to a standard torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, the midsize crew-cab pickup relentlessly plows through the deep sand.
Ruts bounce the Ridgeline laterally as we gather speed, and when the truck gets squirrely, the newly aggressive tire tread delivers extra bite.
This test was just one that we conducted during an afternoon on the far northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert. Honda had us climbing hills to sample the Ridgeline’s Hill Start Assist technology.
We raced and drifted around a winding dirt trail to experience how the ’21 Ridgeline’s newly standard Intelligent Torque Management AWD (i-VTM4) can put up to 70% of the engine’s torque to a single rear wheel.
We blasted across cobblestones to feel the Ridgeline’s structural rigidity. And we traveled across sharp dips and bumps dramatic enough to put a wheel or two in the air.
We did not, however, attempt any rock-hopping. The Ridgeline’s 7.64 ins. (194 mm) of ground clearance, 20.4-degree approach angle, 19.6-degree breakover angle and 19.6-degree departure angle do not lend themselves to that type of terrain.
This Honda is a flatlander, designed to carry up to 1,583 lbs. (718 kg) of payload and tow as much as 5,000 lbs. (2,270 kg) of trailer to a location where its owner can unload the Honda powersports toys and go deeper into the backcountry.
On the sales front, the Ridgeline (with 32,168 U.S. deliveries in 2020) has been a bit player in the Small Pickup segment tracked by Wards Intelligence.
It finished the year well behind the No.1 Toyota Tacoma (238,806 units), Ford Ranger (101,486 units), Chevrolet Colorado (96,238 units) and Jeep Gladiator (77,542 units). An all-new Nissan Frontier goes on sale later this year.
Based on Honda’s third-generation light-truck platform, the ’21 Ridgeline shares a common foundation with the Odyssey minivan and Passport and Pilot SUVs. But the automaker modifies the platform for use under the Ridgeline to ensure its capability and durability.
John Dirrig, chief engineer-Corporate & Technical Communication, Honda R&D Americas, says these modifications apply to all second-generation Ridgelines going back to the ’17 model year.
Dirrig says Honda re-engineered almost all the major chassis components for the Ridgeline. Compared to the Honda Pilot, the result is a 17% increase in longitudinal loading capacity in the front and a 31% increase in vertical load capacity in the rear.
Additionally, except for three crossmembers under the cabin, nearly the entire floor of the Ridgeline is modified or exclusive to the truck. Honda uses what it calls Integrated Truss side panel construction to improve overall structural rigidity.
While these engineering modifications separated the second-generation Ridgeline from the Pilot beneath its skin, the exterior styling and interior design (pictured above) remained derivative of the SUV.
For ’21, however, the Ridgeline is redesigned forward of the windshield, adopting a more aggressive front end and a taller hood and front fenders.
Redesigned wheels with a 0.8-in. (20-mm) increase in track width, more aggressive tire designs, a new rear bumper and dual exhaust outlets contribute to the ’21 Ridgeline’s tougher looks.
A new Honda Performance Development (HPD) option package takes the rugged-and-ready appearance to the next level.
It equips the Ridgeline with a unique grille design, oversized gray plastic fender flares, HPD graphics on the cargo bed and an exclusive set of bronze 18-in. alloy rims. Numerous manufacturer- and dealer-installed accessories are available to transform a Ridgeline into just about anything you want it to be.
Inside, the cab receives few changes. Aside from freshened cloth upholstery in the base Sport trim, new contrast stitching for all versions and updated accent trim, the updates for ’21 are limited to a new stereo volume knob and an available wireless smartphone charging pad.
Our Sport HPD test truck’s infotainment system is the basic setup, but it includes Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, text-messaging capability and seven speakers.
We connect an iPhone XS to one of the two USB ports and find our way to the proving center without trouble, streaming Pandora internet radio the entire way. Upgrade to RTL, RTL-E or Black Edition trim and SiriusXM satellite radio is included.
The two top trim levels also add HD Radio, navigation, digital traffic data, voice control, wireless charging, a premium sound system and an innovative in-bed audio system perfect for tailgate parties.
Storage space is outstanding. The 33.9-cu.-ft. (960-L) dent- and scratch-resistant composite cargo box continues offering a standard 7.3-cu.-ft. (207-L) weatherproof and locking trunk under the bed floor.
A drain plug makes it easy to clean and to drain water if you use it as a beverage cooler. A 150-watt/400-watt power outlet is standard with RTL-E and Black Edition trim.
The automaker also equips every Ridgeline with Honda Sensing advanced driver-assistance systems.
It includes forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping systems and adaptive cruise control. Blindspot warning and rear cross-traffic warning are available in all but the Ridgeline Sport, while top trims get automatic high-beam headlights.
Driving from Los Angeles to the desert using Honda Sensing proves the technology useful. However, in a long uphill curve on a three-lane-wide stretch of northbound California 14, the forward-collision warning system identified a slow-moving 18-wheeler in the far right lane as an obstacle.
Audible and visual alerts warned of perceived danger, and the automatic braking system engaged almost immediately afterward. Fortunately, traffic was light and nobody was directly behind us.
Prices range from $36,490 to $43,920, not including the $1,175 destination charge. The ’21 Honda Ridgeline is on sale now.