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Death Valley Torture Test: Three New Pickups, Shocking Failures

Dan Edmunds, who coincidentally works at Edmunds.com but has no other relation to the company that happens to have the same name, to me one is of most interesting automotive experts in the industry. His approach to discussing how things, especially suspension things, work is much more detail orientated than anyone else. 

Some years ago an editor at Edmunds decided to go to a place called Racetrack Playa which is dry lake in a remote area of the Death Valley National Park. It’s accessible by driving more than 100 miles in the park, on a paved road, and then another 25 miles on a dirt road. But this dirt road is a bit different – it has a dry washboard-like surface but is otherwise free of any challenging obstacles. Looking at the video, it looks like most conventional 2WD vehicles should be get through it. The editor at the time took the first generation Honda Ridgeline. 

Once that editor got off the dirt road and back onto paved road he noticed how poorly the vehicle handled. Long story short, the shock absorbers on that first generation Ridgeline failed miserably. The constant prolonged vibrations at speed and in high temperatures were simply too much for the shocks. Ten years later, at the introduction of the new Ridgeline, Dan Edmunds questions Honda engineers about the new shocks. Honda was more than familiar with Dan’s story and said that they applied changes to the new truck based on it. 

So now Dan took the new Ridgeline to the same Racetrack Playa in the middle of a hot Death Valley. He drove over the same roads, at the same speeds, in similar temperatures. But he wasn’t convinced that the Ridgeline could take the abuse so he brought along two support vehicles: a new Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road (not TRD Pro, wasn’t available at the time) and Nissan Titan XD PRO-4X. Both vehicles were equipped with their off-road packages, giving Dan confidence in their abilities. 

But a funny thing happen. Watch the above video as it is really worth your time. The oscillations of the shocks, the speed, and the temperature yielded some amazing results. Then watch the below video for a less dramatic conclusion. 

The only thing I didn’t like about the review was that Dan kept the street tire pressures for the first eleven miles of this dirt road. When they found components failing they took 10-12 psi out of all the tires. This is something that most off-roaders would do right away. I asked him if he has done the same test with cars that had after-market suspensions and he said not yet. That would be very telling if factory off-road packages are worth the money or if buyers should go with after-market set-ups.

I have driven the new Ridgeline and I have to say that I really liked it. I liked it because it was honest, because it wasn’t some macho toy but rather it was all the pickup that most pickup buyers need. One of the reasons why pickup trucks people did not like the original Ridgeline was because Honda marketed as a replacement for the F-150, which is wasn’t. Instead it should have been marketed as a more functional Pilot or Acura MDX, because that’s what it was. 

The new 2016 Ridgeline I drove was comfortable and spacious. It drove smoothly and handled well. The cab was typical Honda smart with a ton of space and well thought out layout. The bed was decent size and t had one thing that one other pickup has – a freaking trunk! With 280-horsepower and 5000-pound towing capacity, it is the large CUV of pickup trucks. Throw in a few friends for a tailgate party, tow a small boat, load up the bed with mulch. What more does an honest suburban folk need?

  • P161911

    So what do you do if you have a flat with a bed full of mulch? Always seemed crazy not to have access to the spare if the bed is full.

    • Alff

      This^. Perhaps you wouldn’t want to tax a limited use spare with a full payload, though.

      • P161911

        That’s why all real trucks come with a full size spare.

      • Rover 1

        It makes it much harder for someone to steal your spare tyre.

    • Alan Cesar

      It apparently wasn’t enough of a problem (or barrier to sales) for them to change it in the 10 years they sold the first-gen Ridgeline.

    • Kiefmo

      I think you can buy an in-bed mount kit from the dealer. That’s one idea.

    • Krautwursten

      How many flats have you had with a bed full of mulch in your life?

      • P161911

        I don’t discount Murphy’s law. I drove cars with spare tires for over 25 years. I don’t think I EVER installed a spare on the side of the road for a flat. I got two cars that didn’t have a spare (Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt). In the past nine months I have had to call a tow truck 3 times for flat tires! Two total blowouts and one time the on board fix a flat was useless.

        • Krautwursten

          Murphy’s Law is a bitch, but if you haul mulch three times a year and get a flat once a decade, the chance for both occuring on the same date is roughly 1:440.000.

      • Alff

        Flats from picking up nails and screws on job sites are a fact of life for tradespeople, as are loaded beds. It happened to me as recently as last month. It would have been a major PITA to unload to access the spare.

        • Krautwursten

          I don’t think the Ridgeline is aimed at tradespeople.

  • Sjalabais

    Interesting indeed. They mention they had to reduce speed, but no word about the original speed here? Also, how come this road exists and it isn’t littered with wrecks – do older trucks hold up better, or do people just adjust their speed when it’s their own machinery?

    Also, it’s amazing how they drive forever without meeting traffic. And oil spill in a national park would be a tiny crisis in Norway – even with the wee amounts in question here. No reaction on that?

    • “…do older trucks hold up better…”

      During last August’s inaugural LeMons rally (Day Three: Death Valley), the spare mount and a couple of the bed stays on my ’70 IH pickup broke while on a section of heavily washboarded gravel road. The shock absorbers, however, either came through the ordeal just fine or were already out of oil before I started; I should probably check that. Still, the suspension feels no worse than it ever has.

      “…or do people just adjust their speed when it’s their own machinery?”

      There’s some truth in that, but I couldn’t have gone much more slowly without coming to a complete stop (which happened anyway on a couple of the steeper parts). I’m used to driving on semi-abandoned logging roads here in the Pacific Northwest, but some of the road surfaces in Death Valley are just unpleasant. Nice exposures of the geology, though.

      “Oil spill… No reaction on that?”

      It helps keep down the road dust?

      • Alff

        Yes it does. Is oiling dirt roads still practiced in rural areas? It’s been years since I’ve seen it.

        • Sjalabais

          Seriously? I’ve seen old barns painted in used oil (30-40 years later, the suns still makes it shine and the wood is in ship shape, amazingly), but deliberate oil spills against dust…wow. Different times, I guess.

          Still, the suspension feels no worse than it ever has.

          Seeing who wrote this, my bottom line assumption is the suspension has been broken since you acquired the car.

          I recently drove a long stretch of such a washboard road at very high altitude, in a Mitsubishi Pajero, and it shook the thing to its bones. Didn’t spend a thought about the shocks itself, more about the interior fit being broken forever, but everything seemed to get back to normal once we returned to more enjoyable conditions. One of the more impressive abuses I have seen a vehicle tolerate, actually.

          • A friend of mine used to (and for all I know, still does) drain his car’s used spin-on oil filters before discarding them by placing them upside-down on top of his field’s wooden fenceposts, claiming that the occasional re-oiling of the wood was a remarkably effective preservative. Messy, though.

            • Alff

              I won’t discuss the politically unpalatable but helpful and expedient ways that I make use of spent motor oil. I will point out that the substance is largely biodegradable.

        • Scoutdude

          Many many years ago when I worked at a service station we had a guy that would come in and take our oil just for spraying on the roads. It seems as though in the past few years they have passed a law finally outlawing it.

          However you still frequently see fresh oil signs from when they do the tar and feather method of road resurfacing. Of course the emulsion that is supposed to bind the layer of gravel isn’t just old motor oil but I guess if you still have the signs it serves the purpose of alerting the driver.

          Of course years ago the cars did a good job of keeping the roads oiled. In the old days when it rained for the first time in weeks it was treacherous as all that oil in the pavement was forced out of the pores and up as the heavier water displaced it. It is no where near as bad as it once was.

          I was watching Colombo on ME TV the other night and there was the obligatory aerial shot of some roadway in SoCal. It was a shot of an area 4 lanes in each direction with an on and off ramp. It was interesting to see the graduation of the lanes. The center of the right lane had a wide black stripe, less in the 2nd and 3rd lane and just a trace in the left.

          • Sjalabais

            But couldn’t that just be signs of use of relatively fresh tarmac? We have elections every two years (either local or national) which neatly coincides with road repavements.
            Always interesting to see how the fresh black oily surface gets worn down where the wheels roll…but in your case, I guess the least used lanes should have the darkest colour if it was wear’n’tear instead of oil.

            • outback_ute

              I think Scoutdude is referring to cars dropping oil on the road. Certainly I have observed places where there is a large bump or dip in the road and you can see that it shakes off any oil drips from cars/trucks, because there is a patch of oil (mixed with dirt/dust) just after them.

              On the Ridgeline, I haven’t watched the video yet, but corrugated dirt roads are a factor if you drive in more remote areas in Australia. There was a widely publicized test of the M-B G-wagens on the Canning Stock Route through the Gibson Desert in outback Western Australia a couple of years ago that was held up by in multiple shock failures, surprising nobody who had ever driven the road.

              • outback_ute

                Have seen the first part now, some pretty good lack of mechanical awareness/sympathy displayed! As mentioned, I wonder if they would drive their own vehicles the same way? Even if there were off road packages they don’t add magical abilities… Then again if the test was posted as a manufacturer durability type let’s see if we can break the vehicles instead of a road test, that’s different, but what you can learn from driving vehicles with blown shocks is questionable.

                FWIW I didn’t see any real corrugations in the video, where the road surface oscillates usually about 3″ high on roughly a 20-24″ wavelength. I’m not sure if the tv show Outback Truckers is available online, but some of those episodes have a pretty good illustration of how to drive on corrugations without breaking too many things; for a heavy truck it means a speed of 5 mph or less.

            • Scoutdude

              The interstates in the US are often concrete so they are naturally light grey. Now in Asphalt yeah that starts of very black and wears/fades to a light grey. Here is a good video showing the effect I’m talking about. Also truck traffic was regulated to the right lane(s) so that probably also explains the darkest streak in the right lane. The other thing to remember is that at this time there were still a lot of cars that had road draft tubes, not PCV systems. So any oil that condensed in that tube was purposely deposited down near the road. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqWi_jPWr4c

              • Sjalabais

                Excellent, I didn’t know that US interstates used to be concrete. We drove on some concrete Autobahn between Germany and Poland this summer, a GDR leftover, that made me wonder if concrete is longer lasting than asphalt. Anyway, great video illustrating the effect you mentioned!