CHATHAM, Mass. – For those who like driving Honda sport utility vehicles (SUVs)/crossovers, (which, based on sales, covers millions of Americans) and need the versatility of a pickup truck, the 2021 Honda Ridgeline AWD Sport checks all the boxes.

Unlike the previous generation, this Ridgeline shouts “I’m a truck.” It puts its new image in your face, from the large “H” belt buckle in the grille, to the sharply defined lines for the four-door cab and unique cargo bed to the standard all-wheel drive (AWD).

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What doesn’t evoke thoughts of driving a truck is the actual driving experience: quiet, refined, sure-footed, comfortable. In other words, the 2021 Honda Ridgeline drives like a refined Honda SUV, even when the bed is empty; not like the rickety buckboard rides of some midsize pickups.

A bed with a hidden trick or two

Nothing appears out of the ordinary when looking at the Ridgeline Dual-Action Tailgate but reach under its bottom right side, squeeze the hidden handle and the tailgate swings out like a long, low door. Of course, it can also be “dropped” flat by using the “normal” center release.

These two types of openings allow for convenient access to the bed and your choice of what is the easiest way to put things in or get them out. It also allows access to the next unique Ridgeline bed feature, the hidden In-Bed Trunk®.

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This lockable, deep container can discreetly protect your gear from the elements and prying eyes. The sealed interior means wet items can be carried without an issue and if you choose, fill it with ice and the bed trunk becomes a 7.3 cubic-foot cooler (complete with drain plug to empty the water when the ice melts).

The cargo bed is also unique in its ability to carry four-foot-wide loads flat without any wheel-well intrusion.

The tailgate can handle dynamic loads of up to 300 pounds, supporting long payloads such as motorcycles and ATVs. Inside the bed are eight tie-down cleats rated at 350-pounds each, for securing loads, and the bed is constructed of glass fiber-reinforced SMC composite that resists dents and scratches without the need for a separate bed liner. Cargo capacity is 1,583 pounds and the Ridgeline can tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Rugged frame, robust powertrain

Allowing the Ridgeline to handle the loads discussed above is a strong uni-body design which combines robust components with an independent-suspension configuration. This has provided the work capabilities of a pickup with the SUV-like, car-like ride and handling characteristics.

Stopping power comes from four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes with 12.6-inch vented rotors up front, 13-inch solid ones in the rear. These operate within the gold 18-inch alloy wheels of the HPD Package on our test vehicle which are shod with 245/60R18 105H rugged all-season tires.

Motivation for the entire package comes from a 3.5-liter, V6 VTEC engine with variable cylinder management putting 280 horsepower through the nine-speed automatic transmission.

Newly standard for 2021, Ridgeline’s i-VTM4® torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system enhances controllability and traction management by automatically sending up to 70 percent of the engine’s 262 foot-pounds of torque to the rear wheels and continuously apportioning 100 percent of that torque between the left and right rear wheels based on driving conditions at each wheel. The Intelligent Traction Management System, also standard, optimizes power delivery and distribution in various conditions, including pavement, snow, mud and sand.

Honda engineered efficiency into the Ridgeline, producing a midsize pickup which achieved a federal Environmental Protection Agency rating of 18 miles per gallon in the city, 24 on the highway and 21 overall. I’ve been driving my usual aggressive style, abetted by the Ridgeline’s driving personality, and still achieved 25 mpg – besting the official numbers!

Safety and Driver-Assist Technology

The 2021 Ridgeline Sport comes standard with the Honda Sensing®, featuring Collision Mitigation Braking System™ (CMBS™) with Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS), Road Departure Mitigation (RDM) with Lane Departure Warning (LDW), and Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC).

The midsize pickup targets top-class collision safety ratings from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), including an NCAP 5-star Overall Vehicle Score, a GOOD rating in all IIHS collision tests, and a SUPERIOR IIHS rating for front crash prevention.

Inside – a functional, comfortable cabin

The Ridgeline cabin is spacious (large windows increase the feeling of room), with very reasonable seating for five thanks to the squared-off design. The Sport’s seats received new cloth trim for 2021.

Also new for 2021 is a volume knob to supplement touch-screen controls for the infotainment system (which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto). Sound is pumped through seven speakers by a 215-Watt audio system featuring a subwoofer.

Regardless of the weather, which ranged from sunbaked 80-degrees plus to rain with gale-winds producing windchills of 37 degrees during my week in the Ridgeline, the tri-zone automatic climate control system kept the cabin’s environment at just the right temperature.

Interior storage is abundant and cleverly designed. The doors, front and rear, feature multiple, lipped storage compartments (including cup/bottle holders); the rear center armrest has a double cupholder, and the wide, deep center console storage compartment features a tambour cover which can be easily accessed without disturbing either the driver or passenger’s use of an armrest (which is cleverly attached to the seatback sides).

The bottom line is a pickup worthy of the name Honda

The Sport, at $36,490, anchors the Ridgeline range (which can extend up to $43,920 for the fully optioned Black Edition) and our version added the HPD Package (unique gold aluminum wheels, HPD graphics and fender flares for $2,800), platinum-white paint ($395) and $1,175 for destination and handling for a total sticker price of $40,860.

Honda began selling cars in this country 51 years ago, making it a relative youngster in the auto industry. During those five-plus decades it has become a behemoth on the American automotive stage, attracting a strong, loyal following.

The Ridgeline is the perfect pickup for the Honda aficionado – it rides, drives, handles, feels and sounds like a Honda. It will allow the faithful to join the American pickup-truck crowd without sacrificing their automotive center.

Next week TBR Drives the new 2021 Hyundai Santa Fe SUV.