2009 Honda FourTrax Rancher AT Review

Honda improves an already solid ATV

Story by Howard J. Elmer, Photography by Howard J. Elmer & Honda, Jan. 14, 2009

For 2009 the Honda FourTrax Rancher AT comes to the market with changes that distinguish it from earlier versions – yet it maintains much of what makes this an already popular choice in the midsize ATV category.

The first key change is a fully independent suspension front and now rear as well. Also added to the Rancher package are Electric Power Steering (EPS) and some new grippy disc brake shoes.

This Rancher uses the standard 420cc engine in a single-cylinder four-stroke package. The liquid-cooled motor is longitudinally mounted in the frame, providing a simple and efficient drive system as the output shaft is inline with the prop-shafts.

The Rancher AT had no trouble tackling the rainy Quebec wilderness.

For testing Honda provided a late fall rainy Quebec wilderness. The terrain, while breathtaking, was slick, muddy and being in the Laurentians provided plenty of above average rocky hills. On these trails this setup proved to have an adequate amount of power. Churning through the mud and dirt, as well as conquering the challenging hills on the trails. I came to the conclusion that this quad can go wherever a larger machine could go with the benefits of the smaller engine; those being the fuel efficiency and the difference in weight. On the other hand it won’t pull any wheelies – and in keeping with Honda’s ode to safety – that’s the way it wants it. The other noticeable change with this Rancher, which already had a decent center of-gravity, is it corners even flatter as the new independent rear suspension brings the center of gravity even lower.

Pushing the power is a twin clutch design that is rapid, smooth shifting and has true engine braking. The transmission is a fully automatic five-speed with reverse and selectable ESP mode. The shifting can be switched between ESP and automatic with the simple push of a handlebar mounted switch. The left thumb gear selectors are placed in an easily accessible spot on the handlebars for gear selection while in ESP mode.

I spent a fair bit of time in both settings to get a real feel for the Rancher AT’s transmission. I found in the automatic setting the transmission made the machine feel underpowered especially on steep climbs and downhill descents when it just seemed to shift at the wrong time, or not at all. While it got the job done it seemed to shift too late or not downshift when I felt it should have.

The automatic setting on the transmission occasionally shifted at what felt like the wrong time on climbs and descents.

The ESP mode alleviated this, allowing me to shift when I thought it was necessary. Mind you even in ESP I found that the bike sometimes wouldn’t shift regardless of my input - this is due to Honda’s factory computer shift settings that are meant to guard against shocks to the transmission.

Honda engineers confirmed this. You cannot shift the ATV if you are outside of the acceptable range. They also said that the automatic settings are designed like this to improve efficiency (engine continues to rev lower) and use torque instead of shifts on hills to help power up the grade.  Pointing out what I thought was wrong with these little quirks, Honda engineers assured me that ``the transmission programming is still being worked out``. Good.

The available electric power steering makes riding over rocks and potholes a lot more comfortable.

The rugged performance of the Rancher on trail is thanks to its final drive. With selectable two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive modes, chosen by a shifter mounted to the left of the steering column, the front and rear (using direct drive shafts) are engaged. To lock up all the wheels Honda uses a torque-sensing differential to aid in evenly distributing power. This is an automatic system that does not require rider input.

I moved the selector back and forth between two and four wheel drive during my test ride trying to establish how much the ATV could or couldn’t do in certain situations. On the majority of abandoned logging roads we rode (slick, muddy, and even snowy) I found myself rarely out of two-wheel drive.

I still managed to get stuck once of course, coming out of a shallow ditch with some water I lost traction attempting to climb out the other side. Rolling back to the centre of the expanse, I slipped the machine into four-wheel drive and proceeded to claw my way up the other side. Getting stuck in two-wheel drive is never a big deal when you’ve still got four-wheel drive to pull you out; it’s when you get stuck in four-wheel that you have a problem.

A nice feature on the Rancher AT, and one that seems to be featured industry wide this year, is a rebound Electric Power Steering unit. The added benefit of less rider fatigue, improved comfort, and control is certainly a welcome feature when spending long days on tough trails. The rebound system in the power steering unit reduces kickback in the handlebars (frankly, countering the bucking of a non-power steering unit is what is tiring) when the front tires encounter sudden obstacles such as rocks or potholes.

The smoothness of this power steering unit became apparent while I continued playing with the two and four-wheel drive modes. Normally, on a non-power steering unit having the steering axle engaged puts a certain amount of extra strain on the rider during steering. The Honda power steering unit seems to counteract this extra effort almost completely. This certainly aids in reducing rider strain, especially when manoeuvring at slow speeds (when the effect of four-wheel drive strain is felt the most).

This improved steering made the Rancher AT quite nimble on the tight Quebec trails. Honda lists the Rancher’s curb weight at 623 pounds, which includes all standard equipment, required fluids and a full tank of fuel.

The front end features independent double-wishbone suspension with hydraulic shocks. The shocks have easily adjustable load and rebound settings, and allow for 6.3 inches of travel. The rear of the bike also features independent double wishbone set-up with 6.3 inches of travel. Thanks to this set up the Rancher sits off the ground at 9.1 inches.

On the trail the suspension ate up most of the bumps with little effort, combined with a more comfortable yet sporty seat made for an enjoyable ride.

Slowing the bike on trail is provided through both engine braking, dual front hydraulic discs, and a single rear hydraulic disc. The brakes are strong enough to easily handle the machine’s weight and the positioning of the brake levers is comfortable for the rider.

The handle bars are set at a good height, allowing the rider to easily move around in the saddle and control the machine. The centre console features Honda’s GPScape navigational device which is now standard on all Honda models. This system always shows your current direction, and you can navigate back to your starting point (your truck or home) via a series of waypoints that are easily set while on your ride.

The new FourTrax Rancher AT is a Honda you already know with added features which keeps it in the midsize market but makes it as big a machine as you’ll ever need.

2009 Honda FourTrax Rancher AT Specs
Engine Type 420cc liquid-cooled OHV semi-drysump longitudinally mounted single-cylinder 4-stroke
Bore x Stroke 86.5mm x 71.5mm
Fuel Delivery Programmed Fuel Injection (PGM-FI), 34mm throttle bodies
Ignition Full-transistorized type with electronic advance
Transmission Automatic/ESP five-speed with Reverse
Driveline Direct front and rear driveshafts
Length 80.9 inches
Width 46.1 inches
Overall Height 45.1 inches
Seat Height 32.4 inches
Ground Clearance 9.1 inches
Wheelbase 49.4 inches
Curb Weight 623 pounds (642 pounds with EPS)
Front Suspension Independent double-wishbone; 6.3 inches travel
Rear Suspension Independent double-wishbone; 6.3 inches travel
Front Brakes Dual hydraulic disc
Rear Brake Single hydraulic disc
Front Tires 24 x 8-12
Rear Tires 24 x 10-11
Fuel Tank Capacity 3.5 US Gal.
Color White, Red, Olive, Camo
MSRP $6,599 ($6,999 for EPS)

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