A great deal of debate surrounds the Honda Ridgeline. Does it represent the next line-blurring vehicle on the market, joining the Avalanche, Explorer Sport Trac, and H2 SUT, among others? Is it a truck? Does it redefine the pickup? These questions aren't easily answered by looking at the vehicle's attributes. It's on a modified version of the Odyssey/Pilot platform, but said to be 93 percent unique from any other Honda. Like those vehicles, the Ridgeline uses unibody construction, but adds a reinforced boxed ladder frame. It's got a transversely mounted engine and coil-spring multilink rear suspension (unlike any other pickup this large) and all-wheel drive. Yet, it offers a 1558-pound payload capacity, some off-road capability, and can tow 5000 pounds.

From the ground up, the Ridgeline was built for everything Honda buyers and owners would want in an SUV, plus the anticipated capability they might need in a truck. A good example of this compromise is the way Honda engineers straddled the fence between a car and truck platform--specifically, a unibody chassis that has a ladder frame inside. There are seven steel-reinforced crossmembers that, along with the lower part of the unibody, form six fully boxed support zones. It's meant to allow for independent front and rear suspensions that will improve the vehicle's handling and safety as well as provide better use of space. The MacPherson struts work with coil springs in front; it's a match that's proven successful in many trucks and SUVs. However, the rear suspension mates a multilink trailing-arm setup with coil springs.

While this provides for excellent on-road handling and makes the ride comfortable in many conditions, our concern would be with the Ridgeline's capacity for extended hard work. Still, after driving the Ridgeline over our local commuter route for several days with close to 900 pounds in the bed, we were impressed with how it performed.

Honda's updated Variable Torque Management four-wheel drive (VTM-4), as seen in the Pilot, is what provides all-season traction for the Ridgeline. But don't be fooled. This is not meant to be a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive system, but it will offer plenty of grip when the road surfaces get dicey. Briefly, it works on three levels; it distributes torque to help reduce torque steer, it directs traction to wheels that have more grip, and it has a pushbutton center-diff lockup that sends the maximum amount of torque to the rear wheels. A 50/50 split only happens under six mph and gradually decreases as speeds increase to 18 mph, when the locking feature is disengaged. Get back under 18 and the "locker" reengages. While it's not a true four-wheel-drive system, it does help when climbing a steep hill on a dirt road, as long as you have the momentum.

The 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6, putting out 255 horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque, has a pretty good fuel economy of an EPA-rated 16 city/21 highway. During our two tankfuls of driving, which included our loaded bed, we averaged 17.8 mpg. Given that we tend to be heavy-footed, this bodes well for those hoping to brush up against the 20-mpg mark when comfortably driving around town.