We are more than a little surprised that the redesign of the 2014 Honda FourTrax Rancher actually happened. To begin with, Honda has sold 1.5 million Ranchers, and it is the best-selling machine in the category. There’s not much motivation for change there. Then Honda approached Rancher owners to see what they thought should be changed on the Rancher. The most widely repeated answer? Nothing. Further motivation to leave well-enough alone for most, but not for Honda.
Honda essentially created the ATV market, and they’re serious about it. In the end, Honda came up with a plan to improve the 2014 Rancher’s work capability (848 pounds of towing capacity and 199-pound capacity for the two racks) where possible, but made a serious effort to make the Rancher more fun for recreational riding. To prove the fun factor, Honda brought along every Rancher model Honda makes and let us bomb the Ohio woods on every one of them.
For those who don’t know, all the Ranchers share a chassis, bodywork and an EFI 420cc engine, so they basically look identical. But, there is the base Rancher with 2WD, manual shift, auto clutch and five-speed; the ES, which is the base-model 2WD with five-speed, push-button electric shifting; the Rancher 4x4 that is a five-speed manual shift; the 4x4 EPS that is manual shift and electric power steering; the 4x4 ES, which is the base 4x4 with push-button shifting; and the high-end models are the Rancher Automatic DCT and the Automatic DCT EPS. The DCT models have a switch on the handlebar that allows toggling between push-button shifting and riding in fully automatic mode. Talk about sibling rivalry! But after riding them, we got the family tree sorted out.
In terms of performance, the most obvious but least important change is the aggressive styling of the new bodywork, which can be had in red, olive, orange and Phantom Camo. It does look great—and it works great—and the no-tools, one-piece tank/side makes maintenance easier. We rode in some mud and standing water, and we never saw any mud on the rider or even the top surface of the machine. That is nice coverage.
To start with, Honda did not change the proven, longitudinally mounted, liquid-cooled OHV engine internally. It did benefit from EFI tuning to “preserve the present performance” while getting better fuel economy and producing lower emissions. Honda added an oxygen sensor to help the new EFI maps do the job. The fuel system also gained a larger (3.9-gallon) tank and moved an automotive-style fuel pump inside the tank. Honda did boost the output of the AC generator to 416 watts for most Rancher versions, and 450 watts for the dual-clutch transmission option. The boost is to help the machines handle the added demands of the electrical accessories.
Honda began with computer designs of a completely new frame that is 20 percent stiffer yet gained no weight. The swingarm is all new with an enclosed rear axle for added strength. The swingarm mounts with rubber bushings rather than bearings, so ride, longevity and water sealing at the pivot are all improved.
In addition, the rear drum brake is moved to the side to increase ground clearance and add protection for the sealed single rear drum. We hoped for more rear brake, but are happy that the front disc brakes are larger and stronger. The three preload-adjustable shocks have improved damping and a 1⁄2-inch more travel for a total of 6.7 inches at each end. The Rancher arrives at those travel numbers via front A-arms and a single rear shock mounted without a linkage.
For the two EPS Ranchers, the chassis has an additional difference: the new EPS has a three-point mounting system rather than two. There are other small changes for reliability. The steering knuckle has a sealed bearing to keep water out. Also, the CV boots are changed from a rubber material to a plastic that is claimed to be 65 percent tougher.
With the exception of the base Rancher, which gets by with a panel of lights, all of the Ranchers come with a new meter display. In addition to speed, it tracks the fuel level, time, coolant temp and displays a maintenance reminder that tracks running hours and mileage to signal maintenance intervals. The headlights now have a more focused pattern and are 35 watts instead of 30. To aid comfort, the seat is softer, but has 20mm more foam.
TRAILS AND WORK
We had a test loop that included woods trails, short and steep climbs and descents, and some fast farm-road runs that encouraged top speed. Honda hit the EFI right on, and the engine lights instantly, is quick to respond,and always felt extremely willing to get moving. With a manual-shift, auto-clutch machine, there is a clutch, but it is engaged by the shift lever. As a result, the shift pull is firmer and longer travel than a manual-clutch sport quad. As you let the shifter return to position, it actually slips the clutch as the machine eases into gear. As a result of the extra lever movement and effort, shifting feels slower than a manual-clutch machine. It also feels reluctant when compared to the ES or DCT machines. The models that have the ES mode shift instantly with no hesitation at all. Push the button and the shift is done.
If you don’t have the RPM matched with the speed, the machine lunges forward with each shift, and the acceleration is brisk. The same is true on downshifts. The shift is instant, and at times there is considerable engine braking. For open and fun trails or for work where it is flat, the auto-shift models work great. The same is true of the auto mode on the DCT models. Mash the throttle and the engine grabs each gear with smart authority, and the acceleration is snappy as it rows through the gears for you. Slow down and it also chooses where to drop the downshifts.
For technical four-wheeling, the auto-shift modes require care. A steep, cambered trail into a creek bed could require a downshift to prep for the opposite bank. Downshifting the manual shift is smooth, but the ES’ downshifts loaded the suspension when we didn’t want that.
The DCT is more pronounced in auto mode. It might choose to downshift while setting up for a turn and load the tires with no warning for the pilot. As a result, our favorite transmission option was the manual-shift model. We had a lot of fun on the base 2WD unit, and the front end did feel a little lighter without the front diff, but our favorite model was the Rancher 4x4 EPS. Honda has made the front end very light-steering while riding in 4WD, but the EPS is still a very nice option to have. It isn’t a must, but we like it.HOME ON THE RANGE
One of the major goals with the Rancher was to make it a better companion for recreation while not hurting its ability to work. We’d say that the Rancher is a bull’s-eye. It is quick and nimble on trails with light steering whether there is EPS or not. The suspension honestly feels like there is more than 6.7 inches on tap. We were able to push the pace and feel totally comfortable. For sure we felt the lack of IRS when we hit angled roots, logs or rock ledges, but overall the swingarm rear works pretty darn well.
We do like the stability it affords on cambers. The seated and standing riding positions are comfortable for a rider in excess of 6 feet tall but suited the shorter pilots equally well. The new, deeper, softer seat is very accommodating. Even though the ride was littered with rocks, roots and logs, we rarely had clearance issues. Honda claims that the turning radius is smaller for 2014, but turning around in the woods remained a serious reverse-gear workout. We were too busy having fun to do any work, but we are confident that the Rancher can handle the ranch, or the farm, or the construction site. Honda used the same team that developed the new machine to come up with dedicated accessories made just for the Rancher. One of those add-ons is a snowplow, so we are sure that the Rancher remembers how to work.CONCLUSION
It is easy to see why the Rancher dominates sales in this category. It is a solid, effective machine for work and fun. It feels like it was designed to a standard and not to a bottom line. It is a bonus that it offers pricing well in line with the class. We feel certain that the 2014 Rancher will do nothing to tarnish the Rancher name and will do much to ensure that you see more riders having fun on them. q
2014 HONDA FOURTRAX RANCHER
Engine 420cc, liquid-cooled, OHV,
mounted, single-cylinder 4-stroke
Bore x stroke 86.5mm x 71.5mm
Fuel system Programmed Fuel
34mm throttle body
Fuel capacity 3.9 gal., including
Starting system Electric w/ optional
Final drive Shaft
Front Independent double
Rear Swingarm w/ single shock
Front Dual hydraulic disc
Rear Sealed mechanical drum
Wheelbase 49.9 inches
Ground clearance 7.2"
Seat height 33.7"
Turning radius 9.2 ft.
Total rack capacity 199 lb.
Towing capacity 848 lb
Curb weight* 573–639 pounds
Color Honda Phantom Camo, olive,