Pickup truck buyers are a peculiar breed.

They beat up their 4-wheelers and relish the ability to haul campers and load the bed with tools, woodchips and appliances. They love their trucks to death — literally, driving them into the ground, dropping bits of rusted body panels along the way.

Only in the last decade have people begun buying pickups not for functionality or commercial reasons but because pickups, like SUVs, afford a sense of security with high-up “command seating” and — with the advent of 4-door crew cabs — more than ample cabin room for families of all sizes. The truck bed rarely sees use.

In this new dynamic, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. sees an opportunity to sell America the pickup it really wants — one that handles like a car, has the amenities of a luxury sedan, requires no ladder to climb in, offers clever storage compartments, strikes an athletic pose and doesn't need a hulking, gas-guzzling V-8 to haul a 22-ft. (6.7-m) boat.

The all-new '06 Ridgeline pickup, which Honda assembles in Alliston, Ont., Canada, and will arrive in showrooms this month, is all of the above. Honda's knack for impeccable execution is apparent with the Ridgeline, even though the company has never before produced a pickup.

In preparation for this important launch, Honda cut its teeth with its previous truck-like models, such as the Acura MDX and Honda Pilot cross/utility vehicles and Odyssey minivan. The Ridgeline shares its basic architecture with those vehicles, although Honda says its engineers poured so much work into the pickup that its chassis is 93% unique.

Structurally, the Ridgeline is remarkable. Its closed-box ladder frame with seven cross members looks a lot like the bottom structure of a typical body-on-frame pickup. But the body itself is designed like that of a car, using contemporary unibody construction. Honda refers to it as “heavy-duty unibody” for its trailering capability.

Chassis and body engineers may argue whether the Ridgeline is a pickup or a car. Perhaps it's a little of both.

The Ridgeline handles like a car — an agile one at that. During a test drive on a hilly, winding road in Southern California, the Ridgeline remained buttoned to the pavement, with minimal body roll compared with typical body-on-frame pickups.

The unique construction is directly responsible, Honda says. In conventional pickups, the cabin is isolated from the bed, which is bolted directly to the frame. As a result, the cabin generally goes around corners more smoothly than the back end.

The Ridgeline's bed and cabin are unitized, however, so stability is greatly enhanced. Honda says the Ridgeline's bending rigidity is 2.5 times firmer than the best compact pickup, and the rear torsional rigidity is more than 20 times stiffer.

The independent rear suspension also contributes to Ridgeline's agreeable road manners. Honda insisted on an IRS for the Ridgeline because the solid axle/leaf-spring combination on conventional pickups compromises handling.

The Ridgeline will be classified a small pickup, competing with the Dodge Dakota, Toyota Tacoma, Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Nissan Frontier and Chevy Colorado in a segment that continues to shrink, despite efforts by OEMs to bill them as midsize.

Count Honda among those auto makers attempting to sell fullsize capability from a small, more fuel-efficient package. Honda marketers and engineers have ambitious goals for their first-ever pickup and even invoke the Ford F-150 (the world's best-selling pickup) as a competitive benchmark.

Honda says the Ridgeline's payload rating of 1,522 lbs. (690 kg) exceeds that of the F-150 Crew Cab, with a payload rating of 1,459 lbs. (661 kg).

In test drives, journalists drove both the Ridgeline and F-150, hauling an 18-ft. (5.4-m), 5,000-lb. (2,268 kg) box trailer filled with gravel. The Ridgeline's towing capacity is 5,000 lbs., compared with 9,200 lbs. (4,173 kg) for the F-150. The oval course traversed undulating pavement and allowed for a few full-acceleration straightaways.

The F-150, with its 300-hp 5.4L V-8, clearly had more low-end grunt. The Ridgeline's 255-hp 3.5L V-6, mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, was capable enough, but its tugging ability is not in the same league as the V-8 F-150.

Honda says it does not intend for the Ridgeline to face the F-150 head on, only to demonstrate that for most pickup duties, the Ridgeline can get the job done. Honda says the pickup can pull a 22-ft. boat and a 24-ft. (7.3-m) camper with no problem. The company says its research reveals 84% of pickup customers tow less than 5,000 lbs.

“I'm not saying we can beat that F-150,” Gary Flint, chief engineer for the Ridgeline, tells Ward's. “All I'm demonstrating is that I can pull that trailer. The Ridgeline can hold its own.”

Although the Ridgeline's 252 lb.-ft. (341 Nm) of torque is grossly outmatched by the F-150 V-8, Flint says after the first four seconds of acceleration, most drivers barely will notice a difference between the Ridgeline's V-6 and Ford's V-8.

But on paper, the Ridgeline V-6 isn't even the most powerful among compact pickups. The all-new 4L V-6 in the Nissan Frontier, for instance, produces 265 hp and 284 lb.-ft. (385 Nm) of torque, and the Toyota Tacoma's 4L V-6 makes 282 lb.-ft. (382 Nm) of torque.

Like most small pickups, the Ridgeline's fuel economy is disappointing, rated at 16 mpg (14.6 L/100 km) in the city and 21 mpg (11 L/100 km) on the highway.

That's not to say the Ridgeline is uncompetitive. Every maker of small pickups is bound to lose sales to the Ridgeline because the package is undeniably unique, clever, attractive and well conceived.

Patents are pending for the ingenious pickup bed, which includes a trunk accessed through the floor. A handle on the lid allows the In-Bed trunk to be locked with a key, adding 8.5 cu. ft. (240L) of secure storage space — large enough for three golf bags.

The steel-reinforced composite bed is lightweight, resists corrosion and holds up well when more than 800 lbs. (362 kg) of rocks are dropped in with a front-end loader, a stunt held during the preview. The bed showed scuffs, but no dents.

Honda has the advantage of selling dirt bikes (two of which fit in the bed), all-terrain vehicles, jet skis, generators and lawn mowers. The company has more than 5 million customers for motorcycles and power equipment. Surely some of them, the company theorizes, will consider the Ridgeline.

Honda rates the pickup's off-road capability as “medium duty,” and it performed well on steep, rocky grades. Its Variable Torque Management 4-wheel-drive system, similar to that in the Acura MDX, is fully automatic. In most cruising conditions, the system is in front-wheel-drive mode.

The system is intelligent enough to engage all-wheel drive for better maneuverability even before wheel slippage occurs. A locking differential button on the instrument panel channels maximum torque to the rear wheels until the vehicle reaches 6 mph (10 km/h), at which time the rear torque is gradually diminished.

Inside, the Ridgeline is comfortable and well appointed. The vehicle will come in three trim levels — RT, RTS and RTL. Even the base RT has an impressive list of standard features, including keyless remote entry, side and curtain airbags, power locks, power windows and front bucket seats.

Also standard is a nifty automatic heated wiper zone that speeds defrosting on cold, snowy days. When the temperature drops below 39° F (17° C), the windshield is automatically heated with electric defrost lines situated beneath the wipers.

The Ridgeline will start at $28,215 for the base RT and top off at $35,155 for the premium RTL, including XM satellite radio, navigation system and moonroof.

The Ridgeline is an impressive pickup, and Honda has set what should be an easily attainable goal of selling 50,000 units annually. Despite the relatively small number, there's nothing pintsized about Honda's expectations for the Ridgeline.

'06 Honda Ridgeline RTL

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door pickup

Engine: 3.5L (3,471 cc) SOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 255 hp @ 5,750 rpm

Torque: 252 lb.-ft. (342 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm

Compression ratio: 10:1

Bore × stroke (mm): 89 × 93

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 122 ins. (310 cm)

Overall length: 206.8 ins. (525 cm)

Overall width: 76.3 ins. (194 cm)

Overall height: 70.3 ins. (179 cm)

Curb weight: 4,498 lbs. (2,041 kg)

EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg): 16/21

Direct competition: Chevrolet Colorado; Dodge Dakota; Ford Explorer Sport Trac; Nissan Frontier; Toyota Tacoma