11.1.2013 – Friday
Side by Side ATV’s are fast becoming popular. Dad and I have been long time users of four wheelers, namely of Honda ATVs. I consider the Honda Rubicon 500 to have the best transmission ever put in an ATV. This particular transmission is called a “Hondamatic” – which is marketing speak for a computer controlled hydromechanical transmission. If you’ve driven the Rubicon you know it’s like nothing else. You can stealthily lug right along to 30mph or apply generous throttle and launch to 30mph. It’s also the smoothest transmission I’ve ever used bar none. No one on Earth will ever lodge a reasonable argument for a belt CVT being on the same level of quality and refinement as the Hondamatic.
So that is my standard. Super smooth. Seamless power delivery. Quiet. Dependable.
This was our first SxS at the cabin:
It was a 2004 Polaris Ranger 500. It was my Great Aunt’s and we inherited it once she no longer had a use for it. It featured remarkably little suspension travel, a rear swing arm, bench seats, and a carbureted engine teamed with belt driven transmission. It was great at driving around on level ground, but it was no Honda Rubicon. We also got our daily dose of carcinogens from the exhaust when going on rides. From this machine the Ol’man and I realized the potential of the SxS. It was a fun way to travel the miles and miles of forestry roads in search of ruffed grouse. And we were very successful in 2012. Unfortunately, the ride was a bit brutish and sore backs were an occupational hazard after an hour of riding. It was also noisy and rattled. Still quite fun though.
In the Spring of 2013 the Ol’man upgraded. Even though we have an affinity for Honda quality and refinement we bought a Polaris. When evaluating features and cost it came out ahead when compared to the other manufacturers – even Honda. It was much more useful for our purposes than the Honda Big Red.
Meet the Polars Ranger 500 EFI midsize. The seats were improved, the engine was now fuel injected, and there was independent suspension at all four-corners. And actual suspension travel. It was a good upgrade… sort of. The aftermarket tires looked really cool but the ride took a dump. The tires were squarish and flat on the bottom, heavy, and no longer tucked under the fenders. Translated, that means: harder to keep in a straight line over rough terrain, mud in the cabin, and lots more rattling and jostling about on the trail. Heavy tires also dulled the responsiveness of accelerating and braking. So the tires went and we resumed regular use with stock tires. The ride was now very smooth and controllable. Now it was the machine we wanted. However, there was still some exhaust smell in the cab and it was still reasonably noisy since the natural state of a belt driven transmission is to rev to speed before the RPMs fall off. Not the smooth, quiet, low RPM acceleration of the Rubicon. The rear windscreen however, was polycarbonate, and a large improvement over the plastic and fabric windscreen of the 2004 Ranger. Overall, we were quite content with or Midsize Ranger.
My kiddo loved this machine. When we arrived to camp he would point at it and enthusiastically speak ‘Willish’ – that’s the language William speaks when he is excited. At 16 months, we have no idea what he is trying to say.
Just as we became content with the new Ranger, Honda had to introduce a true SxS. I was optimistic that the company that built the Rubicon four wheeler could build a competitive SxS. But considering that the last SxS Honda built was the Big Red, I was hesitant to jump to any conclusions. So I had to research it, test drive it, and price it out. Well, long story short – we upgraded. I test drove one in Marquette at the Honda dealer – same place I test drove the Ranger 500 EFI last year. History does repeat itself. I asked for a quote and never got one. I called the dealer back and he told me to bring in the machine I was going to trade and he’d work up something. Ha! What a joke. I gave him almost two days and he couldn’t even get a ballpark figure. Dad called two places and got quotes in under an hour from both places. Then he made a deal and put $500 down. Meanwhile I kept getting spammed by phone calls from the place I test drove asking for my opinion on the experience. Lucky for them they got my voicemail 4 for 4. Though… I still got to test drive a Pioneer.
Here’s the short list of why the Honda Pioneer replaced the Polaris Ranger (and how I talked my wife into our joint funding of this upgrade from the Polaris).
Pros (things that are better than the 2013 Polaris Ranger 500 EFI):
- Doors keep mud out to great effect, keep legs warm in cold.
- Mud stays out of the rear box compared to Polaris.
- Stock tires ride smooth, grip great, and handle well (great tread pattern).
- Transmission is smooth and quiet (great machine to ride and talk to your passengers).
- Rubber mounted engine is low vibration.
- Engine/transmission holds shifts for quiet cruising, engine torques right along.
- Despite all the accessories nothing rattles (unless you really hammer something).
- The headlights are spectacular! – hands down superior the Polaris Ranger headlights. Oh, and they are adjustable like on a car.
- Over 100 miles of mixed riding (average speed of about 12-15mph, hi/lo speeds of 5mph to 40mph) 18.5 mpg with a cab.
- Storage under rear bed when seat #3 & 4 are stowed.
- The fit and finish of the windshield/hard top/windscreen is superb – everything matches and seals well. Honda’s automotive expertise is on display.
- Drive train does not make any mechanical noise – Honda uses only one universal joint to connect transmission to front and rear differentials (the Ranger used six!).
- Back window slides open for communication with 3rd and 4th passengers.
- Latch-clasps on rear tailgate are spring loaded – automatically align! (this was a clumsy task on the Polaris).
- Light switch is separate from ignition key fob (on Ranger the key had to be turned on, then turned back a click to turn off the lights).
- It climbs hills in high gear, does not dance around the rev-range like the Ranger CVT transmission.
- Comfortable seats with good back support! – superior cab ergonomics compared to the Ranger.
- Great foot rests in cab add to comfort of longer rides.
- Dad likes to stand in the back box to fill a deer feeder – the roll cage makes this process easier and safer when he is leaning over with a 6 gallon bucket of corn.
- Idles over difficult terrain with little throttle input and creeps down steep hills thanks to great engine breaking (no dancing between throttle pedal and brake peddle to spool up a belt CVT and then quickly apply brake after cresting over an obstacle).
- AND IT SEATS FOUR! while maintaining a fun to drive and easy to maneuver short wheelbase.
- Positive rear axle tears up lawn (we drive mostly on gravel or trail)
- Brake master cylinder hard-lines could be susceptible to damage by rogue stick. Front end not as protected as 2013 Ranger.
- No rubber boot on 2WD/4WD/4WD locker selector and Drive/Reverse selector (possible dust issue – but no issues yet). There is a rubber boot on parking brake lever, which is over front left wheel well.
- 30mph on the Honda feels like 18mph on the Polaris – need to mind your speed when entering a corner (due to quietness and smoothness).
- No hi/lo selector for headlamps.
The rear seating is pretty slick. At 5’11” and 195’lbs I can sit comfortably in the back. My knees are a bit more elevated than in the front but the seats maintain good support.
Our new SxS is poised to serve the role as deer bait hauler, family mover, father/son bird hunting road tripper, and comfy two-rut road cruiser.
So far we put on 110 miles in just two days. It’s already overdue for the 100 mile tune-up. That’s alright though. It will go in soon for the tune up and hopefully get a new Warn winch installed at the same time. We are waiting on the winch mount plate to arrive at the dealer (production delay).
Some driving notes:
My first outing was at 11:30pm EST and was about 8 miles round trip. That short excursion showcased the awesome headlights and tendency to go faster than you realize. It is not going to win any races with a top speed of 45mph, but between 25-35mph it is remarkably smooth and well mannered. The first corner at speed that I took was a bit scary on the first go-around. I was used to more auditory and vibrational indicators of speed from driving the Ranger.
The next outing was a 37 mile drive on forestry roads that lasted 3 hours. There was rain for half the excursion and lots of puddles, yet we stayed dry, mud free, and warm – in no small part attributable to the little knee-height doors. It was wonderful being able to cruise at 30mph, carry on a conversation, and enjoy comfortable seats and foot rests. Oh, and no sore back or exhaust fumes to contend with.
At low speed it’s very enjoyable over difficult terrain and down steep hills. It’s a much better crawler than the Polaris Ranger with belt CVT. Engine breaking is second to none and after having some skepticism on the matter, there is no real need for a low range. The 3-speed with hydraulic torque converter does a great job of delivering power at all speeds from 0-45mph.
That’s the story of the SxS at our cabin and how it evolved into a part of our daily activities.