The 2021 Honda Ridgeline compact pickup truck that’s spending half a year in MotorTrend‘s Detroit-office test fleet does not like winter as much as we hoped.
Honda was kind enough to provide us with an example of the 2021 Honda Ridgeline AWD RTL-E for six months. (The semiconductor chip shortage has made it difficult to provide the yearlong loans we normally arrange.) Its October arrival meant we would spend the winter with the pickup and evaluate it under some difficult weather conditions. Long-termers based out of our Detroit HQ make frequent treks to cabins in Michigan as well as Northern Ontario, Canada, where 12-inch snowfalls aren’t unusual and temperatures like to settle in single digits.
Virtues of Antifreeze
Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to us, our 2021 Honda Ridgeline was not prepped with the proper winter windshield-wiper fluid containing antifreeze. This oversight caused problems during a 10-hour trek north: As the temperature dropped and the windshield was coated with a milky film from salted highways, the fluid froze. At first the water froze on contact with the glass, then it froze deeper in its bowels, and for the final nine hours, no fluid came out at all.
The weather then turned to freezing rain and sleet. We initially welcomed the moisture; it meant fewer stops at gas stations to clean the windshield. As the mercury dropped further, however, the freezing rain froze instantly upon contact with the glass, and the defroster was too weak to melt it and keep the entire windshield clear. There were some intervals where all but the top strip cleared with the fan on full speed and set solely to Defrost. Choosing a setting that allows a combination of Defrost and a little heat to warm cold toes was not an option: Splitting the heat further weakened the defroster, and it couldn’t clear enough ice for driving visibility. Frequent stops were necessary for ice scraping and cleaning, making a long drive even longer. On the plus side, that meant we weren’t unduly burdened by the Ridgeline’s smaller gas tank, which usually forces multiple stops for gas. Fuel economy is rated at 18/24/21 mpg city/highway/combined.
The Ridgeline does boast a handy feature in the form of a wiper de-icer you activate via a button on the dash left of the steering wheel; it’s designed to turn on automatically when the outside temperature dips to less than 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The feature heats the area at the bottom of the windshield, so the wipers don’t freeze in place. It worked beautifully; the wipers never stuck. The problem was, without cleaning fluid being dispensed, the wipers merely smeared the salty coating across the windshield.
Heated Seats and Steering Wheel Welcome
On a positive note, the leather-trimmed black interior on our $43,990 2021 Honda Ridgeline AWD RTL-E includes heated seats and a leather-wrapped and heated steering wheel that works well. The wheel warms up quickly, does not get too hot, and doesn’t turn itself off too quickly. It takes a minute to locate the button to the left of the steering wheel that turns it on, but once you know where it is, it’s easy to find and use.
On the equally harrowing return trip to Detroit, we hit more freezing rain, and the entire truck became encrusted in ice. The cameras and sensors were coated, which temporarily disabled safety features like cruise control and emergency braking. Stops to chip off the ice restored those safety features that otherwise work so well in the Ridgeline.
We also had to remember to clear the rearview camera of snow, ice, and salt; otherwise, the view for backing up becomes a white, fuzzy blur. It reminds you of how excellent the backup-camera features are and how much we have come to lean on them. We now have a greater appreciation for vehicles that come with a camera lens cleaner.
Driving the Honda Ridgeline is like driving a car or a crossover. It feels nimble, and the fully independent suspension adds to its responsive driving dynamics. The 280-hp, 262-lb-ft 3.5-liter V-6 engine provides more than adequate power, and there’s far less gear hunting with the nine-speed automatic transmission that replaces the old six-speed.
Standard All-Wheel Drive
Honda’s i-VTM4 torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system triggers automatically when needed. There are no buttons to push or gears to engage, which is handy, but it also means you can’t manually select a low-range gear. The system can send up to 70 percent of engine power to the rear wheels and can direct it to either rear wheel as needed.
I worried about getting up a snowy driveway, but the Ridgeline on 18-inch wheels and 245/60 R18 all-season tires was up to the task. The truck exhibited minimal slippage during an hour-long drive during a blizzard one night, when it was impossible to visually make out the two lanes of the divided highway. I felt safe even though it was impossible to discern where the shoulders were. Indeed, Honda makes its full suite of safety systems standard, including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automated emergency braking.
One quibble: In clear driving conditions, adaptive cruise control was jerkier than other systems we’ve tried, including in other Hondas. This Ridgeline tends to lurch forward and brake too abruptly, enough that a rear-seat passenger asked to turn off the system. At the truck’s first service stop we asked the dealer to check the system for problems, but it found none. The issue happens mostly when following traffic; it’s smooth when the road ahead is clear.
We appreciated the 2021 Honda Ridgeline’s clever packaging, as both the cabin and the bed easily swallowed a lot of gear. We like the dual-action tailgate that can open in the traditional way or swing to the left like a door, something we found particularly handy for loading and unloading. It’s also the easiest way to use Honda’s excellent in-bed trunk space.
We were also glad we had the option because adding a rigid roll-up pickup tonneau cover impeded our ability to pull the tailgate down at times. On one frosty morning the drop-down mode didn’t work at all. The mechanism worked later in the day, so there may have been some freezing involved—or else it was gremlins at work.
In short, the 2021 Honda Ridgeline AWD RTL-E is a practical alternative for those who want functionality and all-wheel drive but prefer to stop short of a full body-on-frame truck. On paper it’s a good choice even for those in cold and snowy climes—and there are many happy buyers in the northern regions we visited. We encountered some brutal weather and having wiper fluid with antifreeze would have made a huge difference, but that wasn’t the Ridgeline’s fault. On the other hand, in general the defrost and heating system was not fully up to the task. We think the Ridgeline will be happier now that it’s spring and heading toward summer, at an outdoor party with music blaring from the truck-bed audio system.
More Hands-On Ridgeline Feature Reviews:
- Audio and Infotainment
- In-Bed Trunk
- Dual-Action Tailgate
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