2012 Honda ATV Adventure Ride

February 14, 2012
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

Riding an ATV is one of the best ways to get away from the bustle of everyday routine and enjoy the outdoors. They’re easy to transport, reliable and immerse their rider in the environment. We recently took advantage of Honda’s utility ATV lineup to explore the trails around Southern California’s Lake Arrowhead.

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Winding up Highway 18, the short distance traveled is disproportionate from the perceived distance from Southern California’s urban hellhole. Our base camp at Lake Arrowhead Resort is only 20 miles from San Bernardino, but it feels like a world away as the endless slabs of pavement are traded for rustic roads, clean air and towering pine forests. The trails are similarly remote-yet-close; a few times it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere only to find out the highway was within 100 yards. The region is known as a summertime escape and snowy winter retreat, but we hit it between the peak seasons. Temperatures dropped as a big storm rolled into the area, but the snow hadn’t yet blanketed the mountains. With sketchy weather on the horizon, the dependable four-wheel-drive Honda ATVs were a reassuring ride.

Our trip was divided between four different 2012 models: the Rancher ES, Rancher AT, Foreman ES and Foreman Rubicon. Their reliable 4-stroke engines are longitudinally mounted which sends power to the wheels in a straight line. The efficient power delivery format uses fewer moving parts for durability and weight savings, plus helps keep seat height low and ground clearance high. Honda’s utility lineup makes use of automatic transmissions which are mechanical systems that don’t use the notoriously breakable CVT belts. All of these quads showcased the Electronic Power Steering (EPS) option as well as Honda’s proprietary Electric Shift Program (ESP).

2012 Honda ATV Adventure
Power steering minimizes the shock of slamming into obstacles. It’s needed for long days of riding in rocky terrain.

The electric power steering unit provides varying amounts of assist based on input from system monitors evaluating steering torque and vehicle speed. This boosts the power when at low speeds for easy turning and dials it back once speed picks up to keep the handling stable and reduce the twitchy feeling that comes with some EPS systems. We found it helpful for powering our way through rocky trails both for the lower amount of effort required on the bars and the kickback reduction. Clipping a rock unexpectedly can jerk the bars violently, but the EPS module acts as a steering damper as well to minimize it. This was a major advantage when crossing streams or puddles where submerged obstacles were unpredictable. Speaking of, the power steering unit is sealed against water making for long-lasting maintenance-free performance. Different ECU maps for 2WD and 4WD help keep the feel consistent for the rider.

Honda’s take on manual shifting is a bit different with a push-button system mounted on the handlebars to shift up or down. This Electric Shift Program (ESP) uses engine rpm, countershaft speed, shift drum angle and shift spindle angle to determine the gear and clutch engagement speed. Typically it feels a bit slow, which is fine for recreational trail riding, but becomes more of a drawback when trying to ride aggressively. ESP also has an automatic setting which frees up the rider’s left thumb completely. Selectable four-wheel-drive allows the rider to choose between spirited riding in two-wheel-drive or maximum traction in 4WD using the torque-sensitive front differential. We employed it to pull us through countless rocks and ruts, and even a couple feet of water during stream crossings.

Honda Foreman 4×4 ES with EPS and Foreman Rubicon
Honda’s Foreman 4×4 ES with EPS is the evolution of the first 4×4 utility ATV in Honda’s stable to offer electric power steering. Now it has a new liquid-cooled engine for 2012. The 475cc Single gets a higher compression ratio and fuel injection which allowed it to run smooth all day. We rode up and down mountain trails at the Pinnacles OHV riding

The Foreman’s larger size and bodywork offer great rider protection and we love the third headlight.

area, but the engine was unaffected by altitude, temperature or rider input. The Foreman also gets new hydraulic brake rotors up front for added stopping power. Both of the Foremans feature the TraxLok magnetically activated 2WD/4WD system. TraxLok uses a mechanical two-way roller clutch for quick engagement as well as providing engine braking on descents.

The Foreman Rubicon employs a carburetor for fueling. With temperatures plunging, we noticed a few hiccups in the fueling. The Rubicon uses a 499cc liquid-cooled engine and is the biggest quad of our test group, though Honda does offer one larger in its utility ATV lineup (675cc Rincon). Despite having the most displacement and largest bodywork, the Rubicon feels a little dated and more like a working quad than its siblings. Hopefully Honda gives it a similar treatment as it did the standard Foreman machines.

Honda Rancher 4×4 ES and Rancher AT
The difference between these two models is on the rear end. The AT model uses independent suspension which adds a significant amount of weight. However, we enjoy the performance of the AT regardless of the extra pounds. The Rancher 4×4 ES employs a swingarm, axle and single rear shock. It was comfortable in its own right and the solid axle arrangement made for more predictable sliding. This helped compensate for the small engine which doesn’t make its living by shredding rear tires. A straight axle is also often preferred by riders who want maximum towing and cargo capacity.

Honda’s Rancher enjoys a 10.5-foot turning radius and has the most compact ergonomics of the quads we sampled in Lake Arrowhead. The small stature easily accommodates our 5’11” test rider and it’s the liveliest of the bunch despite being the smallest. Seat height is a manageable 32.4 inches and it has 9.1 inches of ground clearance. It was enough for most everything we encountered, but with a comfortable layout for the pilot, body English is all that’s necessary to get through tough spots. It easily pops over logs and rocks, even those hidden underneath murky water crossings.

The Rancher was our favorite, but all of the Honda utility quads are game for a recreational ride.

Despite having the smallest engine (420cc), the Rancher AT was our personal favorite thanks to its manageable size, easy handling and the extra comfort provided by the independent rear suspension. The third headlight isn’t included on the Rancher models and it was sorely missed. We love the increased visibility it provides as well as the ability to aim our beam with the handlebars instead of the entire front end of the machine. Honda loads its utility quads with features that make them suitable for long days in the saddle and capable of hauling loads from sunup to sundown. The 12V accessory plug which might usually power a sprayer or spotlight was perfect for juicing a cell phone if needed. All of the ATVs proved willing to go beyond their workhorse reputations and allowed us to head out for a day of recreational riding to experience California’s awesome pine forests.