is a company respected worldwide for its innovation. Technological advances that push the boundaries of sport motorcycles and ATVs. But what about the utility machines; farm quads that spend a lifetime of servitude slogging through muddy fields and manure rather than glorious race-winning heroism? Do these beasts of burden have features that set them apart from the competition?
The AT model is Honda's top offering in the Rancher lineup of utility ATVs.
Big Red makes a slew of utility ATVs. The Honda 4-wheeler lineup groomed for hard labor and an occasional sporty jaunt range from light duty to serious stump pullers. The 2010 Honda Rancher AT is right in the middle of the spectrum, but it’s one of the biggest in terms of gadgets and doohickeys. The AT is the most advanced in the Rancher lineup. Even compared to the Honda Rincon ATV we tested last year, the new Rancher AT is packed to the gills with technology – enough that it almost seems like overkill considering the application for this utility machine.
Unlike its Rancher siblings, the AT makes use of the Honda automatic five-speed Twin Clutch transmission feeding power to the rear wheels via a driveshaft and independent suspension. Riders have the option of switching between full auto and the Electric Shift Program (ESP) which makes use of an automatic clutch while allowing for manual gear selection using buttons on the left handlebar. Regardless of Auto or ESP settings, the pilot selects Drive or Reverse via the toggle switches – this is the one area we were only lukewarm about.
As a comparison, our experience shifting the larger Rincon model into F/R was done via a bulky lever. Using the same controls as the ESP is cleaner and more sophisticated, but in practice, the electronics are slower, requiring a distinct pause and occasionally not recognizing input. Getting into Reverse is a definite process. Depress the red button above the brake lever, pull the lever and then push the down-arrow on the electronic shift controller. It all seems very easy, but in actuality, reaching all the controls with a single hand is rather difficult. After a few rides and several tight situations that required plenty of jockeying, we found it easiest to reach across with the right hand to help. Riders with small hands will definitely have problems attempting single-handed operation. Overall it’s a wash. It’s nice not having to remove your left hand from the handlebars, but when you just want to throw it in reverse real quick and bust out a speedy maneuver, a traditional shift lever like that found on the Rincon is actually much faster.
ESP and EPS are nice features when you need to use one hand to balance a load or fend off massive longhorns.
Once in Drive, the gear shifting is satisfactory. It’s a little clunky when cold, and, believe it or not, smoothes out with harder throttle. Once it’s up to temp, we didn’t have any complaints. When in ESP mode, the Rancher is smart enough to prohibit the rider from completely smoking the clutches. The transmission will drop down into third if the rider attempts to stop and get moving again in fourth or fifth gear. We thought that was pretty cool. Normal use, even out riding on the trails rarely exceeded third gear. Cruising logging roads will beg for an upshift, but fifth is like an overdrive.
We loved the peace of mind provided by leaving it in the Auto setting. For 90% of our tasks, Auto was more than sufficient. But, when it required heavy pulls or steep grades, controlling the gear selection is preferable. So, for all intents and purposes, the Auto transmission treated us well.
The little 420cc motor proved capable for most everyday tasks. Only the heaviest of pulls will overestimate the longitudinally mounted engine. It didn’t break a sweat carrying hay bales, tool kits and two-up passengers for an extra set of hands on the Back 40. We took it to a local dealer for a quick spin on the dyno, using stock tires, mind you. Output from the overhead-valve motor peaked at 18.3 hp (5780 rpm) and 17.1 lb-ft (5200 rpm).
The Rancher comes with a handy drop-in tow mount, which would readily accept a ball hitch, clevis pin or any number of attachment systems, making it simple to get hooked up to a load. Rack design was altered to offer better attachments for lashing cargo and can support 66 pounds on the front and 133 pounds out back.
AT 642 lbs, the small Rancher is deceivingly heavy, but that’s what direct drivelines front and rear, independent suspension and adding gadgets like power steering will get you. Weight bias puts 350.5 lbs up front and 291.5 in the rear. The physical dimensions are compact and very manageable. Our 5’11” tester was on the larger size for the riding position, but was never uncomfortable. The floorboards, which have deep foot troughs and large drain holes, are close to the handlebars, making a compact seating arrangement. The seat has new foam which kept our backsides happily cushioned. On hard impacts, particularly sharp inclines such as exiting a ditch, the seat base flexed and allowed the front tab to pop out. This only happened a few times and during what we consider extremely aggressive riding for this type of machine.
The Rancher's slim profile makes it easy to negotiate through tight spaces.
All things have pros on cons, and the tight stance on the Rancher is no different. Honda says the turning radius is 10.5 feet, but quick turns make it feel a little tippy, especially if the 24x8-12 and 24x10-11 tires are not inflated properly. But, the Honda has excellent ability to crawl across obstacles thanks to the tight 49.4-inch wheelbase, plus its small stature enhances a rider’s body English. The bumper and chassis design provide great approach angles, never auguring even in the tightest ravines. An overall width of 46.1 inches makes it easy to slip between tight spaces.
Double-wishbone independent shock absorbers handle the rear end, allowing the machine to articulate and improve stability in slow-speed situations. The Maxxis M977/978 knobbies mounted on steel wheels help give the Rancher 9.1 inches of cow-patty clearance, but the majority of that extra room comes from the lack of a traditional swingarm. IRS is known for resisting slides and the Rancher is no different. The benefits of separate wheel action wear off when it comes to pitching the rear end. Both ends feature suspension components from Showa with 6.3 inches of travel.
Electric Power Steering (EPS) makes the handling extra light. One-handed steering is entirely possible and the added control is nice when trying to balance something on the racks with one hand and navigate the farm with the other (and the auto tranny is appreciated here also). Speed and torque sensitivity eliminates kickback, and we can’t recall ever having the bars jerked violently in our hands. Honda’s TraxLok 2WD/4WD is selectable via a hand shifter located under the left handlebar. It operates seamlessly and the extra traction comes in handy more often than not. The EPS helps minimize the slowing effects of 4WD by keeping rider input to the bars light so we found ourselves leaving it in 4WD most of the time.
The Honda makes getting chores done easier. Minimal storage is one of its shortcomings, leaving little room for more than a pair of lineman's pliers.
Our time on the farm, during which we intentionally left it running as much as possible, never had us filling up before day’s end with 3.6 gallons of fuel capacity. The same goes for trail riding. The fuel-injected mill with 34mm throttle body and 12-hole Denso injector is definitely smart with the petrol, and it comes to life perfectly every time the starter is thumbed. We spent more time enjoying the trail and focusing on the task at hand rather than the one-gallon reserve limit. Of course, having the reserve available is a bonus in our book.
One of the Rancher’s downsides is the lack of storage. There’s nowhere up front to stash anything and the rear box is very small. Honda did a great job of tucking the storage underneath the easily visible taillight, but the electrical assembly for the light takes up most of the space when the door is shut, leaving very little usable storage. The provided tool kit, which is standard, wimpy OEM fare, takes up about everything available, so it’s really only good for a few small tools.
Honda has almost over-engineered the Rancher AT. Just start naming off the features and acronyms and it’s obvious that this is going to be a high-tech, and high-weight, utility ATV. The Rancher lineup ranges from $4999 to $6899, the AT commanding the highest pricetag. If this was going to be our play quad, the straight axle and lower price of the standard Ranchers might be more appealing, but there’s no denying that the AT gets more work accomplished. The free-moving rear end helps with better clearance, tractability, comfort and stability (at low speeds). The automatic transmission makes its presence felt when the left hand has better things to do than steer; a task that’s as simple as possible with the EPS regardless of load, 4WD or terrain conditions. We first expected the Rancher to be a basic little work quad, but the AT quickly proved that there’s more to it.