Ridgeline pickup is close to perfect

Total borrowing rose at an annual rate of Total borrowing rose at an annual rate of $5 billion in January, or 2.5 percent, the fourth straight monthly gain, the government said Monday, with strong car sales driving the increase. Above, the 2011 Honda Ridgeline RTL. Photo Credit: Wieck

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Anybody can build a pickup truck - an open-topped box with a cab in front of it and an engine in front of that - but the trick is to build one that is tough enough to do its job but is not too rough on the driver and passengers. Good looks don't hurt, either.

With the Ridgeline, its first pickup for the U.S. market, Honda came as close to perfect as anyone has in small pickups. But pickup buyers have tended to go elsewhere. Honda dealers sold about only 16,000 of them last year - compared with 106,000 Toyota Tacomas, the segment leader.

The Ridgeline offers a good, quiet ride except for raucous engine noise on hard acceleration. There's little of the chop and jounce once so common to smaller pickups. It also corners well - especially for a pickup - and actually is fun to push hard down a twisty road.

The cockpit is attractive and festooned with storage cubbies, and the rear seats offer reasonable comfort for two adults - discomfort for three. With 36.4 inches, the Ridgeline has four more inches of rear-seat legroom than the most comparable Tacoma.

Most dashboard controls are large and well-marked, but some of the stereo controls are too small and too dimly lit at night to find easily on the move. There's a respectable 8.2 inches of ground clearance.

A large weatherproof storage compartment beneath the cargo box is a neat feature. So is the Ridgeline's unitized, rather than body-on-frame, construction, which usually means fewer shakes and rattles; and its fully independent suspension, which nearly eliminates that old bugaboo of pickups - rear-axle hop on bumps.

But there's no choice of engines, no way to delete the four-wheel drive and very little choice of anything else. So Ridgeline prices start at almost $30,000 with freight.

Tacomas, by contrast, can be had for about $17,000 in regular-cab style, with rear drive, stick shift and a four-cylinder engine.

All Ridgelines have a 3.5-liter 250-hp. V-6 engine that delivers strong acceleration paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. The EPA estimates the Ridgeline at 15 mpg in city driving and 20 on the highway. I averaged 17.1.

All Ridgelines have five-foot-long beds, while the one in the comparable Tacoma model is a foot longer. The Honda can tow 5,000 pounds max, compared with 6,500 for the Toyota.

The Ridgeline gets a top, five-star rating from the federal government for the truck's protection in front- and side-impact crashes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the truck "good" in front, side and rear impacts. Consumer Reports says the Ridgeline has better than average reliability.

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