By: Guido Ebert
The North American market for side-by-side (SxS) off-road vehicles – also commonly referred to as Utility-Terrain Vehicles (UTVs) – grew by 97,900 units, or nearly 43.5%, from 2009-2012, according to Power Products Marketing, a Minneapolis-based research firm.
Where did that growth come from? Primarily from extraordinary sales successes by Polaris, John Deere, Kawasaki, Kubota and BRP/Can-Am.
Honda, the world’s largest purveyor of powersports vehicles, was late to the SxS market and attracted sales of around 4500 units per year since the introduction of its 675cc Big Red in 2009. The company’s sole UTV offering is decidedly utilitarian and can’t, on its own, stack up against the range of the competition from Polaris, Kawasaki, John Deere and Kubota. On the other end of the customer spectrum, Honda’s die-hard powersports fans wondered why the company’s fun factor had disappeared.
Ultimately, it appeared to simply be brand recognition for Honda product that drove Big Red sales.
Now, four years after Big Red’s introduction, Honda has decided to discontinue the model and replace it with an all-new vehicle, the Pioneer.
The 2014 Honda Pioneer ($9999) and Pioneer-4 ($11,699) represent “not only a new name but a new product family,” a Honda spokesman told us during our recent stint with the vehicle.
Honda says only 500 dealers in the U.S. retailed the Big Red. So far, the OEM has more than 900 dealers signed up to retail the Pioneer. Current production of about 55 units-a-day is likely to ramp up considerably, we were told. Dealer orders started June 20.
The Big Red was built in Mexico, but the Honda Pioneer is built at Honda South Carolina Mfg., Inc. (HSC) in Timmonsville, S.C. where the newly installed SxS line joins two ATV lines.
The vehicle originated at Honda Research & Development in Ohio – the first time a design was led solely by a U.S. team from concept to production. Honda says that, aside from the engine shared with the Big Red, everything was conceived uniquely for the Pioneer. Because of consumer response, Honda needed to get to market with the product quickly and managed to halve the development time usually needed.
The OEM, for its market research, created what it calls its “Appeal Tree” – what they found is that consumers are looking for capabilities that rival more expensive models, convenience, trail ride comfort, fun, affordability, durability, that it shows quality and offers rider protection.
Ultimately, Honda says it created a vehicle that offers more features than the Big Red at a similar price.
The Pioneer is powered by Honda’s proven 675cc liquid-cooled OHV Single. The four-stroke four-valve fuel-injected engine is coupled to an automotive-style automatic transmission that features a hydraulic torque converter, three hydraulic clutches and an Electronic Control Module (ECM) to regulate a new dual shift-mapping program. Honda does not list horsepower data, but the Pioneer's output is estimated at slightly above that of the 34-horsepower Rincon.
The ECM program selects between two transmission shifting modes – either Cruise or Sport mode – for optimum shift timing depending on the driver’s throttle operation. During aggressive use, the Sport mode kicks in and holds the transmission in gear longer. If you’re taking it easy, the Cruise mode shifts up sooner for extended range.
As for drive modes, the Pioneer offers 2WD, 4WD and 4WD with mechanical differential lock, and features a three-speed (plus reverse) Hondamatic Transmission rather than conventional belt-drive CVT.
Power is sent down the shaft to a new rear-wheel drive setup that now incorporates a non-differential rear end – one related to the setup used on Honda ATVs equipped with IRS.
The first thing you notice upon start-up is a lack of vibration found in the Big Red. Thanks to a newly developed engine-mounting subframe and vibration-isolating bushings, every contact point for the driver and passenger now transmits noticeably less engine vibration.
While it weighs in at 1,396 pounds, the Pioneer-4 we drove felt light and nimble. Power delivery isn’t overwhelming but adequate, with the three-speed Hondamatic engaging the vehicle in a decidedly regulated manner even when the accelerator is stomped on.
Once underway in 2WD, roosting the rear end wasn’t a problem on loose terrain and the speedometer in my vehicle showed Honda’s stated 43 mph top speed while traveling on a gravel road.
The Pioneer uses 25-8x12 front and 25-10x12 rear tires especially made for Honda by OTR. There is no power steering, but Honda insists the eight-inch front tires, along with the suspension and general geometry, make the vehicle easy to turn. Our time on the machine found that to be true.
Bringing the Pioneer down from speed was easy with the 200mm discs up front and an inboard 170mm in the rear bitten by Nissin calipers.
When the trail became more difficult, use of the 4WD and 4WD with mechanical differential lock performed as advertised. There is no hill descent assist, with only the transmission, brake and slight engine braking to keep you where you want to be.
We used that 4WD while exploring a South Carolina swamp and, thanks to an airbox that sits in the vehicle’s cabin between the front seats and the bed wall, the only water we came in contact with was the bottled type stored in the molded cup holders.
One of the big attractions of the Pioneer-4 is its convertible seating arrangement, which can be easily converted from two-seat to three-seat to four-seat configurations and back to an open load-carrying bed without the use of tools.
Each of the two rear seats simply tilts up out of the bed structure with the release of a latch and locks into place. The four-step conversion takes only about 15 seconds to complete and the manual, strut-assisted tilt bed comes with a safety mechanism that won’t allow bed adjustment when the rear seats are employed. By the way, that bed offers a payload limit of 1000 pounds.
It’s obvious Honda put a lot of effort into passenger safety. But, at this point, accessing these vehicles has become akin to strapping into a NASCAR ride: Open the door, unbuckle the safety net, climb in, close the door, buckle the safety net and attach three-point seatbelt. It sounds easy enough, and it is thoughtful for the sport-minded rider, but consumers using the Pioneer for utility purposes will find the process a bit of a hassle.
The same situation occurs for the two occupants utilizing the rear suicide doors to access the jump seats. However, traveling in the rear jump seats proved surprisingly comfortable and expectations of jostling quickly diminished. In this case, the suspension provides the perfect amount of damping.
As for that suspension: The Pioneer features 7.9 inches of travel via its double-wishbone independent front suspension and 9.1 inches of travel in the rear via its independent rear suspension with shocks adjustable for preload.
This, together with 10.3 inches of ground clearance, allows the Pioneer to traverse a wide range of undulating obstacles. The machine became hung up on the crest of a sand berm only once during my day-long test, but I was easily able to engage 4WD with mechanical diff. lock and reverse out of the situation to find a new line.
Honda paid a lot of attention to the center of gravity on this vehicle, but the inside rear tire could be lofted easily in a turn at speed or during an errant roost. It’s important to note that operating any vehicle at its limit will ultimately result in negative effects. Nevertheless, curving around trails at speed with the correct amount of brake and throttle kept the front tires pointing the vehicle in the desired direction and I felt very little push while cornering rapidly.
Like to get wet? Dry storage is minimal, with only a glovebox and a small space that is shared with the radiator under the hood.
Inside, the dash layout is simple, with only a speedometer and basic warning lamps. The gauge cluster was made smaller than on the Big Red, but the speedo itself remains the same size. The gear selector and drive mode selector are in the middle of the dash, just above the vehicle’s sole 12v power outlet.
Located to the left of the steering wheel, the handbrake offers automotive-style actuation that allows it to easily disengage while parked on an incline. Often times, with other side-by-sides, operators will have to rock their vehicles to disengage a handbrake in that situation.
Deliveries of the Pioneer-4 will begin in mid August while deliveries of the two-seater Pioneer will begin in mid September. Available colors include Red, Olive Green and Honda’s trademarked Phantom Camo ($600).
Interested? Then you also may want to look into the 50-some accessories that are to be made available with the rollout of the vehicle.
Waiting for a Honda SxS designed to compete with the best-selling Polaris RZR, Arctic Cat Wildcat and Can-Am Maverick? The industry is rife with tales of Honda having tested multiple sport-recreational vehicles to compete against class leaders. But, at this point, you’ll just have to sit back, wait, and enjoy the Pioneer.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Motorcycle USA.