Traveling Colorado's Gunnison National Forest Ridgeline in Honda's Ridgeline
Testing our bikes and friendship to the limits deep in the Rockies at Crested Butte, Colorado.
A lot of people have seen the TV commercials, print and cyber ads plugging Honda's Ridgeline pickup. You know, four-wheeling across a rugged landscape, two red & white dirt bikes riding shotgun. Anyway--cool picture--but let's fill in the blanks.
Production was on schedule with our yearly trip off-road in Colorado. So we got hold of a 2006 Ridgeline, American Honda's first and only pickup. Next, keeping with genetic protocol, was Honda Motorcycle Division's all-new four-stroke off-road bike, the 2005 CRF450X. Home base was deep in the Rockies at Crested Butte, Colorado. Circuits consist of ATV and single-track motororized trails crossing the Gunnison National Forest.
The Ridgeline crewcab concept aims at the passenger accommodations of an SUV, with the cargo capacity of a pickup, while still leaving plenty of room to close the garage door. A key feature is the trunk/spare tire compartment fixed underneath a steel-reinforced composite bed. It supplies 8.5 cubic feet of lockable storage area, and being both watertight and drainable, doubles as a built-in cooler.
Honda's 4x4 pickup fits the midsize truck segment. However, in place of a truck-standard body-on-frame, they've integrated a closed box ladder frame with unibody construction--a beefed-up version of the Odyssey minivan platform.
A five-speed automatic transaxle, bolted to a single-speed AWD transfer case, and driven by a transverse-mounted 3.5-liter 255 horsepower V-6, all come standard.
Our test-vehicle was the Ridgeline RTL S/R, a high-end trim package with leather seating and a majority of the luxury amenities, priced at $32,640 with the moonroof and XM Satellite Radio, minus the Satellite-Linked Navigation System (base RT models start at $27,700).
We put the CRF250X through its paces last year in the Routt National Forest. Since then, we've been anxious to test-ride big brother CRF450X. The 250X's lightweight chassis demonstrated its competence over some brutal terrain. But a bit more forceful dig from the "thumper" engine would've been icing on the cake. Conversely, there were questions regarding the 450X's 255 pound dry-weight--22 pounds heavier than the 250X--overshadowing its advantage in power with somewhat less nimble handling.
Two of us headed for the mountains with the Ridgeline, westbound out of Denver (elevation: 5,278 ft.). The rest of the crew hauled their bikes in from the West Coast.
There were all kinds of winding roads on the drive to Crested Butte (elevation: 8,908 feet). The Ridgeline's "push" from passing gear depreciated as we lost oxygen and gained altitude. Four-wheel independent suspension, attached to the tailored unibody base, supported a relatively smooth ride. And the fast snaky turns felt well-controlled, creating nominal waves of body roll. The car-like driving, complimented by a quiet cab, makes it easy to underestimate 5,000 pounds towing and over 1,500 pounds in payload capacity.
Our team set up at a lodge in Crested Butte South. Three CRFs were delivered fresh out of the crate, and two earlier-design air-cooled XR series Hondas were also in the mix.
Davis Service Center in Montrose, Colorado, prepped the new bikes with essential equipment and adjustments: hand guards, skid plates, geared-down with a 12-tooth front sprocket and carburetor jetting for altitudes beyond 10,000 feet.
We prearranged a couple of days out with Don Turk, president of the Crested Butte Trail Riders Association. This section of the Rockies is Don's backyard, literally. He also shared some of his experience in off-road and motocross racing.
Bikes got underway, northbound, on a dirt road crossing the Cement Creek district, breaking at a junction of moderately difficult single-track trails. Of course, we had to scale the first questionable mountain which caught our attention. It was a tall ride, rear wheels spinning through loose dirt gullies, reaching the peak at about 11,000 feet. It was all fun after that, weaving down narrow, lightly-technical trails, carefully checking the shifting scenery--until the dark clouds moved in. Most of the time it's a passing storm, but the rain never let up, which made for a long and wet ride back to base.
Honda's CRF450X, priced at $7,199, is considered an off-road version of the CRF450R motocross racer. But there's more to it than the addition of electric start, kickstand and lights. Its fourth-generation aluminum frame is all-new, adapted specifically for variable off-road terrain. To improve intake velocity, the single-cylinder Unicam engine is topped with a redesigned four-valve cylinder head, in sync with a new camshaft to boost low-end and midrange torque. There's also a five-speed wide-ratio gear box, modified exhaust system, off-road tuned suspension, and the list goes on.
Power behind the big X was impressive, and crucial for specific off-road competition, or trail riders who simply enjoy the extra punch. Our needs were basically light on the throttle, riding technical trails; hence, a lot of the extra "grunt" went unused. It's a personal preference. For some, lighter maneuverability on the CRF250X can be an advantage.
Several times, after riding far off into the mountains, the thunderstorms started all over again. Trails turned slick and hazardous, and, as a result, cut the excursions short. Weather broke for the last couple of days, allowing us to deal with more technical areas, both ascending and descending.
All five of us turned downhill, single file, on a sheer narrow trail. Did I mention the rocks? In this situation, riders tend to drag the rear wheel, while cautiously braking and guiding the front. Well, that was the theory. A sharp tire-to-boulder impact tumbled an XR end-over-end, and launched its rider headfirst down the side of the mountain. Luckily, a bruised abdomen and twisted forks were the only injuries.
Down to two riders, conserving fuel, we loaded the Honda 450Xs on the Ridgeline for the passable route toward Taylor Pass (Disneyland for trail riders). The dual-action tailgate opens sideways for easy access to the In-Bed Trunk, while the flat-down position extends the five-foot bed enough to fit motorcycles, or an ATV. Indented bed channels guided the wheels in. And the two additional high-mounted front cargo hooks were also helpful-- optimal tie-down angles for two bikes, as opposed to an unstable mount with standard floor hooks.
The Ridgeline wasn't designed for demanding off-road use--no low-range 4X4 gearing, tall ground clearances or undercarriage shielding. But its transfer case with lock mode (assisted by traction control), at low speeds, handled mild dual-track ATV trails pretty well.
The last ride dealt with tight single-tracks edging cliffs--not that we had time to look--but the surroundings were different. Treeless rolling mountains blanketed with grass, rocks and flowers. And, after passing 12,000 feet up, we struck our first patch of snow.
Crested Butte's a friendly historic town. The food was exceptional--and hiking, bicycling and river rafting are favorite pastimes. But Don Turk explained that there is some local disdain for motorized off-road vehicles, even though riders basically stick to designated motorized trails, and the relatively small numbers of bikes cause insignificant environmental harm.
Regardless...paddling, pedaling or twisting the throttle, Crested Butte gets a "thumbs up". What truck, and which bikes, would you like to see the next time out? Let us know.