One of the industry's top selling ATVs gets even better
In the small hills just outside Columbus, Ohio sprawled over hundreds of acres is a R&D facility that has been working hard to refine several ATVs for the 2014 season. It is very rarely accessible to the prying eyes of the media, but for a brief day I had the honor to walk the halls and testing ground of Honda R&D.
Members of the off-road media were on hand for the launch of the 2014 Honda FourTrax Rancher. I wish I could share everything I spotted in the buildings, but we had all been sworn to secrecy just to gain entrance this one time. No tweets, no photos and it was a task just to be able to bring in our cell phones as many top engineers walked us through the top secret facility to keep a close watch on our every move. But what I can tell you is that there are great things in the works.
For the 2014 model year Honda has now refined the Rancher – the long-time middleweight utility ATV. This four-wheeler comes in seven versions and it is sure to fit anyone’s budget. A sleek new squared off look is a breath of fresh air to the machine. The bright “Honda Red” coloring stands out as a symbol forever recognized by Honda owners and admirers. With a totally new frame plus a few extras this Rancher not only rode well but the power of the 420cc single gave us plenty of fun in the tight trails.
Using a reliable and proven version of the same single cylinder OHV, 420cc motor gave Honda room to work on other ideas within the Rancher platform. This motor is fuel injected and has its own optimized oxygen sensing devices in the exhaust to keep the 4×4 running at peak performance. A more optimized programming for the fuel injection also adds to the response and fun factor in the Rancher’s heartbeat. With the broad and very rider friendly power, the Rancher makes trails that much more enjoyable. Sitting in the frame longitudinally, the driveline drops the quick-responding power and torque straight to the front and rear wheels.
Getting the power to the ground has not been a problem for Honda, thanks to its automatic transmission. The pride of Honda’s engineers is the fact that they take the vast knowledgebase from the automotive side and incorporate things like this automatic transmission into their off-road vehicles. The shifting is controlled in three forms, which make up some of the various models. Honda’s electronic shift program allows riders to shift the machine using a pair of up and down buttons mounted on the left handlebar.
If you prefer for the machine to take control, then the optional “Auto” selection will allow the machine to do all the work for you. Using Honda’s dual action clutching system, the Rancher no longer searches for the right gearing – it preloads one gear while running in another. This makes shifts more seamless and allows the rider a more confident feeling knowing the rancher is ready for any grade or terrain on the trail. It also makes shifting a lot quicker between gears with less lurching or jumping when it does shift. Honda does offer a Rancher with a foot shifting lever and it does still work just fine if you just want that.
Some of the biggest changes for the 2014 Rancher came in the chassis department with a totally new frame and also a swingarm redesign to lessen the loads on the rear end. The CAD-designed chassis, described to me as the “double cradle” steel frame, has added rigidity and this is done for more precise handling as well as to offer a smoother ride. Out back Honda reworked the rear wheel swingarm into an enclosed rear axle design to help spread the load of the ride and remove stress from the final drive gears. The sealed rear swinger is also designed to prevent mud, dirt or any kind of debris from getting into the bearings. This is a plus as I personally have replaced many of these bearings on this type of machine before the redesign.
Suspension on the Rancher gets some upgrades in the form of a little more travel all around, growing up from 6.3 inches to 6.7 inches, and this is good news. More travel means hitting small obstacles in the trail come a little easier on the body of the rider.
The 2014 Rancher is offered with power steering. This is paramount and if someone tells you that you do not need power steering just laugh and walk away. Several models of Rancher offer power steering, but you can still purchase the unit without it. You can choose 2WD or 4WD iterations of the Rancher for 2014. Although I did not have the chance to ride a 2WD unit without power steering, I did get a trip on the 4WD version without it. Let’s just say power steering makes for a much more comfortable ride.
I got to test the 2014 Honda Rancher on the same exact trials Honda uses to test these vehicles before John Q. Public has the opportunity to see them on the showroom floor. The wooded hills and semi-tight trails had many creek crossings and root filled climbs to give the little Rancher a great workout. I also had to deal with slate rock (or shelf rock as some call it) creek climbs that kept the Rancher on its toes.
Power from the 420cc mill is awesome. This motor is responsive and very well mannered and it seems to chug along very well even if you forget to downshift on the uphill sections.
The suspension performed well when the speeds picked up and the machine felt as if it was very much in control of the situation. I never felt like I couldn’t turn the Rancher – it always responded to my requests. This made the tight and twisty sections of the trails very fun. As well, the machine feels very light, which allows you to use body English to help motivate the rear around trees.
As previously mentioned, riding the power steering-equipped model gave me a new appreciation for it. Even locked in 4WD, the bars never felt heavy and the finely tuned electronics guiding the power steering system’s every move left me with just enough trail feel to keep me feeling in control of the machine instead of the machine controlling the ride.
Honda’s transmission works flawlessly and made the ride easy for even those not familiar with the advanced systems. If you’re used to shifting with your foot then get the manual shift version of the Rancher. It works without a handlebar-mounted clutch and is super easy.
If I were to lay down my own hard-earned dollars to buy a 2014 Honda Rancher, I’d opt for a red model equipped with power steering. To drop the price, I’d choose the manual shift lever.
Overall the new 2014 Honda Rancher is going to be a great selling machine because it has the Honda name and, quite frankly, because it really is a great machine. It’s that simple.