By: Ray Gauger
Honda has never been one to run with the pack. For better or worse, it’s always blazed its own trail and built ATVs to its own specs and has never been content to just adopt the industry standard. Case in point, the new 2009 Rancher AT. Fuel injection, power steering and IRS (independent rear suspension) have been attributes only seen on the big, high-priced units, but
Honda is breaking new ground by implementing these features and even innovating new technology on a midsize and mid-displacement machine. The reason? Honda’s Rancher is its best-selling model, with over a million units exploring trails and working farms worldwide; and knowing Honda, it just couldn’t leave well enough alone.
For our introduction to the new Rancher line, Honda invited us out to Richfield, Utah, which happens to be smack dab in the middle of about 1000 miles of trails on the Paiute ATV trail system. The Paiute trail system is one of the best in the world, for both scenery and terrain variety; needless to say we couldn’t wait to throw a leg over the new Ranchers and see how they would fare. Traditionally we’ve been underwhelmed by some of the industry’s midsize offerings, but it seemed like Honda could have finally struck a great balance between price, size and performance.
Honda Rancher AT
At the heart of the new Rancher AT is an all-new five-speed automatic transmission. The design of the new gearbox features two clutches, an ATV industry first and only seen before on the likes of Audi and Porsche sports cars. It basically works by employing two gear shafts; one with first, third and fifth, the other with second, fourth and reverse. So when you are in first gear, the second shaft pre-engages second gear. When it’s time to shift into second gear, an actuator switches the power from one clutch to the other, creating a nearly seamless shift. The process continues, switching back and forth between shafts and clutches all the way up to fifth gear. In essence, the transmission gives you the fastest and smoothest possible automatic shift between gears.
The transmission is controlled by an Electronic Control Module (ECM) that takes into account the ATV’s speed and throttle position when deciding to make a shift. This works in both up- and downshifting, so when descending a hill with the brakes applied, the transmission will downshift to give you true compression engine-braking. If you like to be a little more hands-on with the shifting, the new Rancher can still be switched over to Electric Shift Program (ESP) mode, giving electronic push-button shifting using the large buttons on the left handlebar. The ESP mode works the same as on Honda’s other units, but with the new transmission, the shift happens noticeably faster and results in a smoother transition. The sensation is more like an instantaneous slide between gears rather than a click.
So why would Honda go to all this trouble when almost all other manufacturers have adopted the CVT transmission? Two reasons: First, most automatic transmissions are usually only about 74 percent efficient in transferring the power from the motor to the final drive. Second, the rubber belt in all CVT transmissions is an inherent weak link among all the other metal parts. Honda’s new five-speed automatic is as efficient as its manual units, and by utilizing all metal parts, the reliability and longevity of the transmission is greatly improved.
The other big new feature on the Rancher AT is the inclusion of power steering. Honda debuted its Electric Power Steering (EPS) in 2007 on the hard-working Foreman line. The system functions much the same on the new Rancher. As with the previous unit, the power steering not only lightens the steering effort, but also works like a damper, absorbing the kickback from the tires when hitting rocks or ruts on the trail. The steering assistance is computer controlled and also adjusts to changes in the ATV’s speed and drive selection. The unit progressively provides less assistance as the speed increases and provides more assistance in 4WD. All this helps keep the feel of the steering consistent so it’s not too light or heavy, regardless of your speed or drive selection.
Last but not least, the new Rancher AT’s rear end is now completely independent with dual A-arms and nonadjustable Showa shocks, giving the AT 9.1 inches of ground clearance along with better traction and a smoother ride. Along with the IRS, the new Rancher AT also employs an inboard-mounted disc brake for less unsprung weight and more precise braking. To cope with the added weight of the new transmission and the IRS, the Rancher AT has a redesigned cylinder head, which features higher compression as well as larger intake and exhaust valves, giving the motor an extra couple of horsepower.
Honda set up a near perfect ride for us to test out all the new features of the Rancher AT. We headed out of Richfield toward the Rock Canyon Trail in the mountains on the eastern side of town. The first half hour of the ride was spent on paved highway and graded roads to reach the trailhead, a great place to get a feel for the engine’s power delivery and the new transmission. Since we were riding on public streets we obviously had to abide by the local traffic laws, but we couldn’t help mashing the throttle a few times when leaving the stop signs. The 420cc engine accelerated smoothly, and the automatic five-speed flipped through gears like we had a pro racer working the clutch.
After leaving the pavement, we blazed through some wide-open, fire road–type trails. The independently suspended Rancher AT feels stable and predictable at high speed, but it can get a little tipsy when sliding around corners, not quite as confident as the solid-axled Rancher ES. The damping effect of the power steering kept the wheels pointed where we wanted, soaking up the jarring effects of angled ruts and half-buried rocks. The progressive assistance seemed to work flawlessly as well; we never felt like it made the handling feel too light or loose.
It wasn’t till after about an hour of smooth roads and some two-track trails that the Rock Canyon Trail finally lived up to its name. We shifted into 4WD and started up a mile-long stretch of jagged boulders and loose rocks, straight up the canyon. We were instantly thankful for the new IRS; it smoothed out the ride and helped the rear wheels hunt for traction in the sporadic terrain. The power steering and the relatively small size of the machine made it very agile and able to easily navigate the rock fields. In 4WD, the Rancher AT confidently tractored up the obstacles, and the only time we wished we had a diff-lock was later on when crawling around on some wet and muddy boulders near the lake at the top of the trail.
The Rancher AT is a great machine and really raises the bar for this class of ATV. The new five-speed transmission worked near perfectly, and the smaller overall size will make the Rancher more fun and manageable for most riders. Our only gripes were that it lacked an accessory outlet out of the box (available as an accessory, though), the seat was a little stiff for our liking and we wished the Rancher had a little more grunt off the bottom-end. Most of all, we really appreciated the fact that the Rancher AT was a true full-featured, midsize ATV, not just a full-size with less displacement.
Honda Rancher 4x4 ES
New for this year on the Rancher ES is the option of power steering. Other than that, the Rancher is exactly the same as last year, and that’s a good thing. The longitudinal 420cc engine, electronic fuel injection and TraxLok 4WD system combined to make a great package, and power steering is just icing on the cake.
Rather than phase out the ES with the new AT, Honda’s Tim Patnode explains that “we wanted to continue to offer buyers a platform that was hard working and less expensive, especially for farm or ranch owners who need to purchase upwards of 20–30 units.” With the AT retailing for $6999, the ES’s price tag of $6199 could add up to a great deal of savings for buyers.
For our ride on the Rancher ES, we headed out of town on the west side this time, on our way to hook up with Paiute Trail 01 and take it over the mountains. On the fast and open trails, we really thought the ES outshined the AT. The solid axle allows for more predictable slides, and the engine seemed to have a bit more zip due to the manual transmission and lighter rear suspension. The only drawback was that we lost a little bit of plushness in the ride without IRS. But that’s not to say the Rancher ES can’t hold its own on a tough trail. After about 60 miles of dirt roads, we finally got to veer off the beaten path and take an unmarked side trail down the rest of the mountain. This trail was basically a theme park of terrain. Loose and rocky hillclimbs, windy canyons and sections of solid slick-rock—the Rancher ES took them all in stride. We had an amazing ride and were never hindered by the fact that we were only riding a “midsize” ATV.
The shifting of the button-operated manual transmission was smooth and precise, yet has definitely been upstaged by the slickness of the new AT. One thing we would like to see on both models is an easier engagement of reverse. The current system requires you to push down a button on the left brake lever, pull it in and then shift down into reverse. We felt the process was overly complex and would become especially annoying during repetitive tasks like plowing.
One of the great things about the Rancher class is that it packs a lot of features and fun in to a small package that’s more manageable and less expensive than big-bore, full-size ATVs. The Rancher class works hard and plays even harder; the only reason most riders would want to go any bigger is to haul around an excessive amount of gear or tow huge loads. The new Rancher class proves you can have full-size features and fun in a compact, efficient package.
Posted with permission from the 2009 Buyers Guide of ATV Rider ® www.atvrideronline.com. Copyright 2009, Source Interlink Media, All rights reserved. For more information about reprints from ATV Rider, contact Wright’s Reprints at 877-652-5295.