CANTIL, Calif. — Honda is not a brand known for its offroad abilities. During the 1990s SUV craze, it borrowed from Isuzu. Even when Honda finally built a pickup, it stubbornly refused to go body-on-frame. Rock crawlers and overlanders aren't fleeing their Toyotas and Jeeps for Passports and Pilots. However, Honda is a brand known for fun, and sometimes it creates wacky concepts just for the hell of it.
The Honda Rugged Open-Air Vehicle is just such a concept, but it differs from the company's traditional concepts in a couple of ways. Honda's idea of "fun" is typically non-threatening and Disney-fied — think cute ASIMO robot, family-friendly ads, or its refusal to acknowledge its legions of tuner speed freaks. Even as it builds Type Rs, it wants to be seen as a responsible corporate citizen. Nor was the ROAV built to rotate on a giant lazy Susan on an auto show floor, like most concept cars.
The ROAV, on the other hand, looks like it's one flamethrowing guitar away from leading an assault on "Fury Road" — the wild cross between a Ridgeline pickup and a Honda side-by-side is actually drivable. With no windshield, gnarly 33-inch Dick Cepek Extreme Country offroad tires, and only the most rudimentary of body panels, it definitely doesn't want to wear a light blue polo shirt and khakis to work. It's more at home spraying roostertails of dirt as it drifts around on a modified version of Honda's "Intelligent Variable Torque Management" (i-VTM4) all-wheel-drive system.
How did such an unorthodox Honda concept come to be? Three or four times a year, Honda employees are given 24 hours to work on anything they want. Last year, John Barlow, an engineer specializing in interiors and performance at Honda's R&D center near Columbus, Ohio, came up with a vehicle that would blend Honda's automotive and powersports divisions. Honda's cars may have limited off-street cred, but their dirtbikes, ATVs, and UTVs ooze it by the drum. Barlow wanted to create a car-sized machine with the spirit of Honda's Pioneer 1000 side-by-side, the "ultimate open-air vehicle."
The ROAV started life like any other Ridgeline, making its way down the assembly line at Honda's Lincoln, Alabama, plant. But, before the upper body was attached, the chassis was whisked to Ohio and into the hands of Barlow and his team. There, they welded on a tube-frame structure that takes the place of the standard Ridgeline cabin, gave the suspension a two-inch lift, and widened the stance by two inches.
Barlow tried to re-use as many pieces as he could from the Pioneer, even though the Ridgeline is quite a bit larger. The team was able to directly port over the headlights, taillights, and even all four doors. Using the CAD data, they tried to scale up other bits like the fenders and front fascia, but found that it wasn't as simple as enlarging the existing parts. Mounting points and proportions changed along with the size, and as a result entire panels like the inner fenders had to be 3D-printed. Barlow admits there was some anxiety regarding the durability of 3D-printing something that large. Sure, it was fine as the ROAV sat on a stand at SEMA, but it turns out that the parts held up extremely well despite repeated hooning during our drive.
Since its SEMA debut, the ROAV has received a new hood formed from metal to replace the composite unit. To climb aboard, one must first unhook the window nets and reach in to open the doors from the inside. The dash is all Ridgeline, but covered in a Rhino-liner-like coating. The center console was removed, so an Odyssey shifter extending from the lower dash selects the gear. Four-point harnesses strap you into snugly bolstered (but manually-adjusting) seats from a Civic Type R, but finished with the Pioneer's waterproof upholstery. Oh, and there's a bespoke slot for the key fob lest it jumps out of your pocket in the middle of the Mojave.
Mechanically, the ROAV stays true to its Ridgeline roots, offering 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque from its 3.5-liter V6. Power is put down through a six-speed transmission with paddle shifters. However, it's the special "ROAV Mode" setting for the i-VTM4 system that makes the ROAV a better machine in the desert dust than a regular Ridgeline.
Typically, Sand Mode is the most aggressive of the algorithms (others include Snow and Mud), improving the throttle response, raising the shift points, maxing out the rearward AWD bias and locking the diff. ROAV Mode, denoted with the type of bright crimson button you'd reserve for a missile launcher, goes the added step of turning off vehicle stability control and ABS, and uses a unique traction control setting that applies more torque to the rear.
At the company's 3,800-acre desert proving grounds in Cantil, California, where Honda invited us to drive the ROAV, this setting ratcheted up the fun quotient by several notches. With the more conservative production settings turned off — and warning messages flashing on the driver information interface — the ROAV could be thrown into sustained, sweeping drifts, its side-exit exhaust bombinating away.
The ROAV weighs only about 250 pounds less than a stock Ridgeline, which tips the scales at over 4,400 pounds in AWD trim. Its unruly shape makes it feel and look bigger than a Ridgeline, too, and you can sense the mass when driving it cautiously. Give it the full beans, though, and it gets lighter on its feet as it breaks traction. It loves to rotate, and gassing it at full lock, forcing a drift, became the ideal method of navigating the tight corners of the off-road course. Plus, it was loads of fun.
The thing is, though they never advertise it, all of Honda's AWD crossovers come with nearly the same capabilities. A bone-stock Passport, which we took around the same course in Sand Mode, could do about 75 percent of what the ROAV was capable of, and it didn't even have the beefier tires or lift kit. You won't want to cross a rock-strewn trail in one, but it'll do far more than what most saccharine singing nuclear families will dare.
Not all of Honda's idea contest concepts see the light of day. "We make in-house experimental vehicles a lot. Usually we build it, learn from it, and apply those lessons to future products," Barlow explained, "But we don't share them externally. The ROAV is like a Halley's Comet situation."
Typically, a project like this takes a year. The ROAV went from sketch to physical vehicle in just 2.5 months with Barlow and his team — all of whom have their names and signatures laser-etched into a plate on the rear — devoting just 10 percent of their time to it.
Sadly, the project was beset with personal tragedy, too. Barlow lost both of his parents, John and Linda, to separate illnesses while working on the ROAV, and the Honda metalsmith who made the hood died in a car accident just after completing it. "My managers were super flexible, really reached out to make sure I was OK. I learned a lot about myself and other people," Barlow told us. "In the most challenging time in my life, I worked on the greatest project of my life."
Right before its SEMA debut, Barlow was presented with a special VIN plate that's now affixed to the cowl. In it, are the letters R, O, A, and V interspersed with Barlow's parents' birthdays and wedding anniversary dates. Barlow says that internally, Honda operates with the motto, "A company that society wants to exist."
"It all started with [founder Soichiro] Honda," Barlow said, at time welling up with emotion. "And we operate as an extended family."
And here we thought we were going to write a story about a tough, drift-happy desert raider. We tried, but Honda somehow always manages to bring it back to good corporate citizenship and family, even when building something that that looks more Baja 1000 than Baja Fresh.