Towing With the Ridgeline Makes a Strong Case for a Traditional Truck
The Ridgeline is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. We tried to get close to that limit to see how it would really handle such a load.
The 2021 Honda Ridgeline is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. That’s a little light compared to a traditional truck, but the Ridgeline isn’t really meant to be a traditional truck. My Daewoo weighed somewhere in the realm of about 2,400 pounds, and a car trailer from U-Haul is around 2,200. Pulling both came right up on the Ridgeline’s limit. Would the truck remain as friendly and approachable with a trailer as it is while tootling around town? That’s what we’ll be getting into in this post.
Ridgelines have an oddly polarizing existence in the online car enthusiast community. In the detractors camp, sentiments like “not a real truck” or “just an Odyssey with a bed,” are leveled at the Ridgeline. The vehicle’s supporters praise its smooth ride, ease of use, and insist it’s “all the truck anyone would ever need” in a tone that might be a slightly moralizing potshot at traditional body-on-frame truck buyers.
Y’all, that is so silly. It’s an online-only argument that might matter on Twitter or a YouTube comments section, but not at any dealership selling Ridgelines (or the alternatives). Yet, I feel like all the Ridgeline reviews I read end up subtly referencing that discourse. It seems like everybody’s supposed to either hate on the truck for being less truckly than a traditional choice, or praise it for being sufficient at utility and superior at everything else.
But what we don’t see much of is the Ridgeline being tested to the limit of that sufficiency. If this truck really is enough truck, how well does it do near the limits of its abilities? Honda’s reps loaned me a 2021 Ridgeline Sport to use for a week, specifically to tow my shitbox Daewoo to the Out Motorsports rallycross in Summit Point, West Virginia from my home base in Ohio so we could test it.
I should hedge things here: I’ve never towed a damn thing in my life. Trial by fire, right? But I’ve driven a lot of vehicles, and I have a broad perspective on how different cars behave under different levels of stress.
I started by doing my research on what current Ridgeline owners experienced while towing. Some said it was fine. Some said it wasn’t so good. Others mysteriously blew their trucks up. Like my Abarth track day, I asked questions. What was towing like? How do I unhook a trailer? How do I load a car? What should I do while driving? I watched videos, asked questions, and tried to relax my nerves. The last thing I wanted to do, was completely destroy my very first press vehicle, let alone from one of my favorite brands.
Like magic, the Ridgeline appeared in my driveway about three days before I needed to go, with a full tank of gas. For the first few days, I drove the Ridgeline around the city, running errands, going to the gym, the works.
Lots of auto journalists love to say it’s a “small” truck, but I don’t know where we got confused along the way — the Ridgeline is not very small. On the road, the Ridgeline was eye level with a contemporary four-door Ford F-150. Using my handy-dandy, seat-of-my-ass perspective looking out the window, the Ridgeline is maybe a tad bit shorter, narrower, and less tall. But it felt damn near as big as the last Ram half-ton truck I’ve driven. For your reference, according to spec sheets a current Quad Cab Ram 1500 is is 18.7 inches longer but just 3.5 inches wider than a 2021 Ridgeline.
For a lot of folks, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Loads of people love a car (or truck) that looks and feels bigger than it is. They love the imposing on-road presence, and the physical dimensions and the Ridgeline delivers that. Yet, it’s nowhere near as hard to drive on road as a typical body-on-frame truck, either. The Ridgeline is sort of a Pilot with the back hacked off, and it drives like one. The truck is maneuverable, and the ride is admirable, even when unladen. It’s a friendly, approachable truck.
Finally, go time for tow time. About a day before I needed to depart, I drove the Ridgeline across town to my U-Haul store and got an “auto transport” connected to the back. The videos I had watched were certainly helpful, but I was still very much anxious. A few weeks prior, my roommate had broken his finger attempting to load a mutual friend’s Smart Fortwo on to a car carrier. I wanted to keep all my fingers, thankyouverymuch. Folks at U-Haul hooked and unhooked the trailer for me though, removing one potential failure point off my chest. So don’t hesitate to ask for help if you end up renting some of that company’s equipment yourself.
With the trailer hooked up, I pressed the “D” button and set off. I eased out into traffic, turning wide, giving myself as much room and time as humanly possible. The trailer was heavy; 2000-plus pounds of heft hanging off its hitch made the truck notably slower. Whew. Stops took longer. Accelerating from a stop, I felt a bit “CHONK” from the chain, as the truck moved forward, and the trailer caught up. I was feeling new sensations, new vibrations, all sorts of things I had never felt before. “Don’t rush, take your time,” echoed the words of my friends, and YouTube towing how-to videos.
I took a long way home, to get a feel on how I could handle a truck and trailer. I wasn’t entirely confident, but it was a do-or-die type deal. Either the Lanos is getting on the back of that trailer, or I wasn’t going to my damn race. The hotel and race entry fee had already been paid, and were largely non-refundable. We got this.
I had a long journey ahead of me, some 350 miles; about a six hour trip in a regular car with no trailer. My trip would take me west through Ohio, into the West Virginia panhandle, through the very bottom tip of Southwest Pennsylvania. I’d be driving on I-68, through Maryland, then eventually Virginia, and then back into West Virginia. The Ohio portion was flat, but the rest of the trip would be rolling through the Applanacian foothills and mountains. Even in a car, sometimes maintaining speed uphill took a heavy foot and descents took careful gear and brake management. With nerves of steel, and nearly 4,700 pounds behind me, I set off.
The Ridgeline’s motivated by a 3.5 liter V6, which promises 262 ft-lbs of torque and 280 horsepower. This is sent to all four wheels, via a nine-speed automatic. With the 2021 facelift, Honda cut the front-wheel-drive model. The iVTM4 AWD system is standard and can send up to 70 percent of power to the rear wheels, at least when the fronts start to slip. Otherwise, it’s mostly a front-wheel-drive vehicle.
With the Lanos and a heavy U-Haul trailer now behind me, the Ridgeline felt straight-up slow. The engine, which was speedy when the truck was unladen, felt nearly overburdened with all the excess weight. This decidedly is a car-like powertrain; the gearing is relatively tall, and the torque comes fairly late in the powerband. There’s no special tow mode for the transmission, either. Progress was a dance of pinning the throttle, letting the engine scream, and me manually controlling the transmission via paddle shifters.
Whenever I’d make reasonable progress, I’d ease back on the throttle, prompting the transmission to upshift, losing my well-earned momentum. Still, I could work with it. Ohio is relatively flat. The Ridgeline’s first hour and a half towing were uneventful. The truck stayed slow, but my nervousness was subsiding. I understood what the truck was going to do, or wasn’t going to do. In a way, towing is sort of the other side of the same coin as track driving. Smoothness is key, don’t do too many inputs, be graceful, take your time.
Then, I got to West Virginia. The town of Wheeling, specifically, is where all Ridgeline started to fall on its face.
The hills in on I-70 through Wheeling, and I-68 through Uniontown Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, are brutal. Some of the grades are in the double digits, and miles long. The track (and my hotel) were close to Winchester, VA; off the beaten path and not directly accessible via freeway. I found myself on tight, hilly, narrow country roads, dense with fog, at night.
In some instances, frankly, the Ridgeline felt almost out of control. I had no way of inducing any trailer braking. Yes, the U-Haul auto transport has surge brakes and is set up to take advantage of the electronic brakes via a brake controller, but the Ridgeline doesn’t come with that. The Ridgeline forums say the truck is prewired for one, but I couldn’t find one installed.
Important Note (09/3/2021): The U-Haul auto transport does include a form of mechanical automatic braking, but it didn’t work very well. Still, the Ridgeline does not have any sort of trailer braking equipment from the factory, or on the options list.
Another challenge when towing is that three of the Ridgeline’s nine gears are fairly tall. Coupled with a V6 engine that loves to rev, I never felt like I had enough engine braking to control the vehicle when descending hills. The truck’s disc brakes stopped well enough, but I had a lot of hills and a lot of weight — it wouldn’t be shrewd to rely solely on brake-force stopping to rein in the Ridgeline. At least twice, the distinct smell of toasty brake pads wafted into the cabin as I reached the bottom of a hill.
Uphill was a little better, but not great. Despite the slight squat when laden, the Ridgeline’s steering remained mostly accurate when traveling uphill, nose pointed a little higher in the sky than when the truck was unladen. Acceleration uphill sometimes felt a bit wandery, but nothing unmanageable. I wished there were a way to manually force the truck to send more power to its rear wheels, potentially making the front end a little less wandery on uphill acceleration. When ascending up the very steep Appalachian hills, the Ridgeline’s essentially sat close to redline, and progress was slow.
After hours of careening through the Appalachian hills, I made it to the track. I checked into my hotel, and unloaded the Daewoo at the track. Minus 2,400 pounds of Korean subcompact hatchback, the Ridgeline became approachable again. It was a great paddock vehicle, shielding me from the oppressive Virginia heat.
I needed a game plan to make the truck more manageable. My skills and confidence towing had grown, but the more comfortable I got behind the wheel, the more frustrated I got with the Ridgeline. I spent a lot of time engine braking, and accelerating at redline — was the transmission overheating? I wouldn’t know, there’s no menu or way to access that information. Mostly, I was frustrated with the transmission’s behavior on hills.
“You should just leave it in sport, and just let the truck do what it wants,” said another car fan, much more familiar with the Ridgeline than I.
Sport mode did, indeed, help a lot. The Ridgeline was still slow, but more responsive — it held gears, didn’t change up so often. The first half of the return trip was mostly uphill. In sport mode, the Ridgeline did a much better job keeping up with traffic. The fuel economy was abysmal though, I averaged a whopping 6.6 mpg in my first leg.
Returning through flat Ohio, I was pretty confident in the Ridgeline’s abilities. No, it wasn’t particularly fast, and yes, I wanted more information and control over the vehicle. On a mostly flat surface, the Ridgeline felt good. I felt good. I learned a new skill, how to tow.
The Ridgeline is a truck-styled vehicle. It does a lot of things well, it’s easy to drive, rides well, and fuel economy is better than its body-on-frame competitors. Yet, there’s a bit more to being a truck than looking like a truck. If Honda wanted to make the Ridgeline a truck, it needs more than just chunky fender flares and off-road-styled all-seasons that the HPD package comes with. It needs the tools to make a confident driver pulling serious cargo. Or, even if it didn’t want to go that far, few little extras would help get it closer. How hard would it have been to create a “tow” mode for the transmission? Or include a trailer brake controller as an option? Lots of trucks within a stone’s throw of the Ridgeline’s price offer those things as standard or a low-cost option.
In my opinion, the Ridgeline’s online polarization is not based in reality. Like any other consumer product, the Ridgeline has its faults and its plusses. It does a lot of things well; when unladen it is comfortable, reasonably priced, and moderately fuel-efficient for a vehicle with a cargo bed. Hell, I even like the HPD package, even if it is entirely cosmetic. The Ridgeline does a lot of things well, but with its lack of towing prowess, and car-like powertrain, I can definitely understand why someone might opt for a traditional truck offering.
Correction 09/02/21: Updated to reflect the U-Haul Auto Transport’s mechanical automatic braking.