Americans love our pickup trucks. We’re an active bunch, with needs that vary from hauling sports equipment to towing racecars and campers to moving construction materials for the next DIY project at home. Nothing can really touch a pickup truck for the sake of moving dirty things and providing easy cleanup afterward. And as half-ton trucks continue to grow in size, the midsize market offers trucks that are a more appropriate size for buyers who want easy maneuverability and don’t need an eight-foot bed. Within that midsize category, the 2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport is a unique player in the field.
Where every other truck currently on sale is an old-school body-on-frame design, Honda’s Ridgeline has stood out since its inception as a unibody. In theory, a unibody truck will ride better, be a bit stiffer, and if set up right, still be able to tow and haul a reasonable amount. The Ridgeline has been around for a while now, even in its second (current) iteration, and Honda sent over a 2021 Ridgeline Sport with new-for-2021 HPD package so I could see how well it worked as a truck.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport with HPD package. It’s the fourth year of the second-generation Ridgeline, and for 2021, Honda took the Ridgeline’s styling in a decidedly different direction from past years’ Pilot-esque nose. It’s a bit more squared-off and trucky, something that matters for those who get their identity wrapped up in a utility vehicle.
For those who still find the 2021 Ridgeline a bit soft, the HPD package adds a bit more flair. $2,800 brings a set of unique bronze 18″ HPD wheels, black plastic fender flares, a unique front grille, HPD decals on the truck bed, and a HPD badge on the tailgate. I like the HPD’s looks, but the price tag is steep for what amounts to wheels, stickers, and plastic.
Every 2021 Honda Ridgeline is powered by the same Honda J-series V6, a 3.5 liter version that produces 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. That power and torque is sent through a nine-speed torque-converter automatic that drives all four wheels. While past Ridgelines could be had as front-wheel drive trucks, all 2021 models come with Honda’s i-VTM4 all-wheel drive. That i-VTM4 system can send up to 70% of the truck’s power rearward, and all of that 70% can be allocated to one of the two rear wheels. This allegedly works in tandem with a few drive modes to keep you moving well enough on light off-road trails. There’s no low-range gearbox or locking differentials to be found.
Tires, whether you add the HPD package or not, are Firestone Destination LE2 all-seasons. Don’t be fooled by the kinda chunky tread blocks at the edges, those are mostly for show and may help with grip a hair. Regardless, they’re all-seasons and not all-terrains.
MSRP of my 2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport with HPD package came in at $40,860. Were I buying, I’d skip the HPD goodies and move up a trim level, to the RTL. That’d add heated leather seats, a moonroof, and blind spot monitoring for about the same price.
Towing With the 2021 Honda Ridgeline Sport
As with its drivetrain, every 2021 Honda Ridgeline is identical in its tow capacity. No matter the trim level or options selected, your 2021 Ridgeline is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. Payload is always a tricky one, with every manufacturer stating a “maximum” payload that decreases if you dare to add An Option to your build sheet. Honda claims the maximum payload available is 1,583 pounds, and the doorjamb sticker in my basic Sport indicated 1,543 pounds. A “heavy-duty” transmission cooler is standard across the board.
The tow rating of 5,000 pounds comes with a maximum tongue weight of 600 pounds – 12 percent, right on the money for American trailers.
Honda does not include a trailer brake controller, or offer one as an option, but they do include a wiring harness tucked under the dashboard and a pigtail in the glovebox so you can wire one in yourself. I elected to use a Tekonsha Prodigy RF for my towing test, which plugs in-line between the Ridgeline and the trailer’s seven-pin connection.
I borrowed a friend’s steel open-deck trailer and another friend’s 1974 BMW 2002 to put behind the 2021 Ridgeline. Total weight came in around 4,300 pounds.
On the move, the Ridgeline worked well as a tow vehicle. Its V6 makes peak horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and peak torque is also made high in the revs at 4,700. You will be revving the hell out of the engine to accelerate with much authority while towing, but if you are willing to let that J35 V6 sing, it can hustle well enough and sound pretty good in the process.
Transmission gearing is well-spaced and the nine ratios help keep the V6 in a good place as much as possible. I found the Ridgeline towed much better with the transmission in “S” (Sport?) instead of let’s-make-the-EPA-happy Drive. In S, I could either let the transmission do its thing – which worked – or use my eyes to anticipate traffic and power needs, controlling the gears with paddle shifters. The paddles were responsive to my inputs and allowed control with both hands on the wheel.
Braking was solid, with good initial bite and stopping power through the pedal travel. Likewise, the suspension handled the tongue weight and trailer weight with skill over expansion joints and big bumps.
There’s a caveat to Honda’s tow and payload ratings, though. It’s the same caveat that applies to everything with a hitch and a payload capacity, but is one most manufacturers don’t talk about. The more people you have in the cab of the Ridgeline, the less capacity you have for a trailer and cargo.
Honda provides some handy details for maximum trailer weight and tongue weight depending on the number of passengers you have. They assume each passenger weighs 150 pounds and has placed 17.6 pounds of cargo in the bed. Take a look:
Doing ‘Truck Stuff’ the Honda Way
Competition in the truck market, whether midsize (like this Ridgeline) or larger, is fierce. There’s only so much you can do with a cab, a bed, and a hitch, right? Honda has worked hard to make the Ridgeline stand out – but in ways that are practical day to day. I appreciated the in-bed trunk, which was both sealed from the elements and large enough to hold two 17-inch wheels sans-tires. The back seats fold up against the cab’s back wall, but when lowered, you still have an open “tunnel” to store weekend bags or other cargo under the seats. Other storage is plentiful in the cabin, including a huge center console between the front seats.
One oddity was found with the Ridgeline’s climate control panel – it advertises a three-zone climate setup, with distinct controls for rear temperature and fan speed. It was hot during my week with the Ridgeline and thus, the HVAC was just set to “low” for seven days, but I suspect the climate panel is shared directly with the same-platform Pilot and Odyssey, which both have more vents behind the first row of seats. In any case, I’m sure the rear passengers in a Ridgeline will appreciate choosing their own temperature and fan speed for the two vents pointing up from the rear of the center console.
Past the storage and climate panel, the most standout element of the 2021 Honda Ridgeline was ride quality. Most trucks ride somewhat poorly, which society accepts as “a truck thing.” Ram has worked to improve their full-size trucks’ suspension comfort with a mix of coil springs and air suspension – and it works well compared to leafs.
Honda takes pickup truck ride quality to another level, simply by virtue of the Ridgeline being a coil-sprung unibody design. Unloaded, the Ridgeline really feels car-like in its ride and crossover-like in its handling. You won’t be corner-carving in your Ridgeline, but it’s easily the most composed truck on the market through an on-ramp.
The 2021 Honda Ridgeline is a likable truck that is truly all the truck that most buyers need. Yes, there is a segment that needs a half-ton “full size” truck, or something bigger still. Should you have a racecar and an open trailer, the Ridgeline will work as a tow vehicle provided your weight is in check. For the average person doing average truck things, the Ridgeline is capable enough and otherwise good to drive when you’re hauling air.
Americans are, of course, an image-conscious group, and there will always be a subset of buyers who link their sense of self to their truck. That group will deride the Ridgeline for being a unibody, for being a Honda, for sharing a platform with a minivan, or for looking “too soft” even with the HPD package.
That small crowd can enjoy pogo-sticking over expansion joints and slowing down for curves in the road. Assuming they don’t need to tow more than 5,000 pounds or go far, far off-road, they’ll be missing out.