With all of the attention lately on the newest, trickest, and fastest sport quads that are arriving in 2003, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the other side of the quad world. By that we mean the utility quads. We enjoy these ATVs because they provide basic, low-cost access to off-road travel. Many people don’t feel comfortable on a rip-snortin’ monster quad, be it a two-stroke racer or a huge 4x4 machine. All of the manufacturers offer machines that cater to this segment of the market, and that’s what we will focus on for this shootout.
For this article, we went with three econo two-wheel drive machines from Honda, Bombardier and Suzuki. The Honda Recon checks in with a 229cc, two-valve air-cooled four-stroke mill, while Suzuki sent us an Ozark, also an air-cooled, two-valve four-stroke that displaces 246cc. Finally, Bombardier shipped down a Rally. This Canadian machine has a 176cc liquid-cooled, four-valve four-stroke. All of the quads come with reverse.
You may have noticed the lack of entries from Yamaha, Kawasaki and Arctic Cat. These companies do have similar machines. However, we feel the Beartracker (Yam), Bayou (Kaw), and Arctic Cat 250 are more utility-oriented than sport. So we grouped them together for a shootout next month. Now that you’ve met the machines for this month’s contest, let’s get to the results.
POWER TEST ONE: DRAG RACE
Raw power! Well, not quite, but these machines aren’t dogs, either. The Bombardier came away the clear winner in our drags. At 176cc it’s the smallest engine of the three, but the high-tech, four-valve Rotax mill and auto CVT tranny won out over the 5-speed, 229cc Recon and 5-speed, 246cc Ozark.
The Honda started off best, but then the auto-trans Rally would take and hold the lead. The Suzuki also overtook the Honda to come in second in our drag races. If the dirt road is long enough, both the Suzuki and Honda will eventually pass the Bombardier, because of their taller gearing. But in our 100-yard drags the Rally held the lead to the end, with the Suzuki second and Honda third.
For sustained top speeds the Ozark was best at 47mph, followed by the Recon at 45.5mph and the Rally at 43mph, according to our Magellan GPS unit.
POWER TEST TWO: HILLCLIMB
We wanted to see how these smaller ATVs could handle a steep, slippery slope covered with loose dirt and scree. All of the machines made it to the top with no problems beyond a little normal wheelspin. We ran the test several times and it was close. The Suzuki and Bombardier were just about even, with the Honda just slightly behind. The Honda has a hard hit down low, which resulted in a tendency to spin the tires. The Rally and the Ozark had a more tractable powerband with less wheelspin. The Rally has a fully auto CVT which eliminates shifting, and with the Suzuki’s notchy shifting, we put the Rally in the lead. In the end, we put the Bombardier first, Suzuki second, and Honda third. Still, it was close. Any of these small-engined rides can deal with most slopes you’ll come across.
POWER TEST THREE:POWER DELIVERY
It’s a close contest between the three machines in this category. The Rally has little low-end grunt but then the Rotax mill revs quickly and really hauls before plateauing. It’s also the only one of the three that uses a chain rather than a shaft drive. The Recon has great bottom-end but the power delivery falls flat too soon. The Suzuki has decent low-end power that slowly builds and builds to a good top speed.
In the end, we liked the Bombardier’s smooth power delivery just a little more than the Ozark or Recon. The ability to forget about shifting and just concentrate on riding gives it that extra "fun" factor for newer riders. The Ozark rates a second, while the just slightly too-anemic Honda comes in third. None of these machines will frighten a small or beginning rider with the power delivery, however. Where one shines, another loses, and vice versa.
TEST TWO: TRANSMISSION
The Rotax engine and auto transmission on the Rally put out an odd sound, kind of a whining, metallic noise, but it worked just fine. In fact, we felt it was the best transmission. It shifts smoothly and applies the power very well. On uphill runs you don’t need to worry about missing a shift, you just hit the gas and go, and the Bombardier takes you there. Plus, the transmission select lever was large and easy to engage in Forward, Neutral, or Reverse.
The Honda has a five-speed auto, which was also smooth and should last forever. If you like auto five- speeds, this is the one, because the Ozark five-speed auto was notchy and finicky. But you cannot start the machine in gear on the Honda, while on the Ozark and Rally you can. Reverse is engaged on the Honda by means of a small red button on the left handlebar, while on the Suzuki you pull a knob, push down on the shift lever, and you’re in reverse. Call it Bombardier first, Honda second, and the Suzuki third as far as the trannies go.
TEST THREE: BRAKING POWER
The Rally has the worst brakes. You stomp down on the foot-lever brake of the Bombardier and braking action is weak. We did some snake runs on tight trails with trees and bushes on either side and there were some close calls as we fought to keep the Rally under control using the foot brake. The levers only do marginally better. And remember, this is with hydraulic disc brakes front and rear. We hope that Bombardier can improve on the current state of the Rally’s braking system. We tossed the Recon into some powerbrake turns and the drum brakes grabbed and held nicely. The Ozark is slightly better than the Honda, and front discs and a rear drum are more than sufficient for the twisties and fire roads.
We took the machines on repeated turns down a nasty, steep hill. The Suzuki came in first. It has front discs and a rear drum that handle braking chores admirably Despite having hydraulic drums front and rear, the brakes on the Honda worked very well and engine braking was good, so we put it at second.
Finally, the Bombardier comes in a distant third. It wasn’t confidence-inspiring to have such limp brakes while negotiating a steep downhill slope. Engine braking is weak on the Rally.
TEST FOUR: SUSPENSION
None of these machines have adjustable suspension, but the Suzuki again takes top honors. The suspension is handled in front by a double A-arm setup with 5.5-inches of travel, with an equal 5.5-inches in the rear. It’s plush enough for trail duties and light jumping, and soaks up the bumps nicely. The Honda Recon also relies on double A-arms up front with 5.1-inches of travel and a meager 4.9-inch in the back. Despite having the least travel of the three machines, the suspension felt adequate for most tasks. The Bombardier Rally comes in third, with 5.3-inches of travel in the front but the single A-arm setup causes the front tires to change camber during movement. The rear shock offers a group-best 6.42 inches of travel but it felt too harsh through whooped-out trails and small jumps.
TEST FIVE: TURNING RADIUS
The Honda Recon had the tightest turning radius at 102 inches. The Suzuki was second at 105 inches and the Bombardier third with a wide 111 inches.
TEST SIX: GENERAL TRAIL RIDING
This is a toss-up, depending on what kind of rider you are. Some of our testers said the Bombardier, with its ultra-smooth auto tranny, made trail riding a breeze. It’s true that not having to shift is a bonus to some riders, and the power is more than sufficient. But it also felt the biggest of the three and hardest to apply body english. The Honda Recon has smoother shifting than the Suzuki Ozark, but also would go up on two wheels more easily in turns. For general trail riding, any of these machines will do a fine job, but we’ll rank them as Suzuki best, followed by the Honda and Bombardier tied for second.
TEST SEVEN: TECHNICAL TRAIL RIDING
The Suzuki was proclaimed the best machine for technical trail riding by just a small margin over the Honda. The combination of great handling, great brakes, and a very stable feel made it the winner. One additional reason it won this section is because we jumped the machines over a small tabletop and the Suzuki was the hands-down winner. It launched easily and felt very stable in the air. The Honda has good low-end power and excellent ergonomics, but it’s a poor leaper. Like the Suzuki, it’s easy to ride and fills the rider with confidence on sketchy downhills. But there are no floorboards and it vibrates some, so we rated it just a bit lower than the Ozark.
Coming in third is the Bombardier. It has the widest midsection that spreads your knees and legs apart, and it was an extremely nervous jumper. Taking air is not recommended for any of these quads, but the Rally is by far the worst off jumps. It also doesn’t handle particularly well in tight technical sections. The front end has a tendency to push in corners due to the single A-arm suspension and you have to be on the ball at all times to make sure you don’t go off the track. The poor brakes don’t help matters. A beginning rider might easily find himself in trouble in technical terrain while piloting the Bombardier.
TIME TO PICK A WINNER
According to feedback from staffers and a handful of test riders who spent several days evaluating each machine, the shootout winner is the 2003 Suzuki Ozark 250. The machine offers a good compromise of work and play qualities and received very little complaints from our testers. At $3499, the Suzuki is an affordable way to enter the world of ATVing. The other two contestants in this shootout ended up nearly tied and had their good qualities as well. If price ($3199) or an automatic transmission are priorities on your list, the Bombardier should fit the bill. With Honda’s reputation for unmatched reliability and quality, the Recon ($3499) makes a fine runner-up.
LIKES AND DISLIKES
WHAT WE LIKE
• The buttery-smooth transmission of the Recon makes on-the-fly shifting a breeze. Every shift is easy and the lever is easy to manipulate. It’s an excellent five-speed auto-clutch tranny that should give you no troubles.
• The 229cc engine is about as bulletproof as you can get. Honda quality at its best.
• The Recon handles great. It feels light (although it’s not the lightest), it’s easy to toss around, and it turns well. Stability and control make the Honda very fun to ride.
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
• The lack of power hurt the Recon’s overall score in the shootout. It’s decent down low, but there’s just no mid or top-end speed to speak of. It’s the least exciting in terms of power, yet it has the second largest size engine at 229cc. The Bombardier smoked the Honda using only a 176cc mill.
• The Recon doesn’t have full-floorboards. We’d think that floorboards would be an important item on a near-entry level machine to build rider confidence and safety.
• The Recon had an annoying tendency to vibrate while being ridden. It’s not body-numbing, but enough to be noticeable during long rides.
LIKES AND DISLIKES
WHAT WE LIKE
• The auto transmission on the Rally is great. There’s no shifting to worry about and power delivery to the ground is smooth. Furthermore, the gear selection lever is large, well-placed, and easy to engage into gear.
• The Bombardier definitely stands out in a crowd. There’s lots of plastic and it gives the Rally a "Lego" look that some testers found refreshing. There’s even a space in the rear rack specifically designed to hold a cooler. Bombardier built many tie-down hooks for bungee cords all around the rear rack.
• The power generated by the smallish 176cc Rotax is good. Sure, it hits a wall at about 40mph and stays there, but it gets there fast. We liked the get-up-and-go ability of this rig.
• The seat is soft and makes long trail rides easier on your backside.
• The price is $300 less than the other two, at $3199 vs $3499.
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
• Definitely the brakes. The disc brakes front and rear were spongy, mushy, and action was weak. Be prepared to do some adjustments to bring them up to par.
• Some said there was too much plastic on the Rally. For example, the footpegs and floorboards are all plastic. We’d feel better if we had all-metal to stand on.
• The Bombardier vibrates way too much at speed.
• The suspension needs some upgrading. As it stands it’s much too harsh.
LIKES AND DISLIKES
WHAT WE LIKE
• The Ozark has a sporty feel due to excellent ergonomics, great stability and turning ability. Plus, the power delivery by the 246cc engine is good and it had the best top speed. We found ourselves taking the Suzuki to the edge of its tolerances again and again, we were having so much fun on it.
• You can start the Ozark in gear. You can’t on the Honda, and it’s a nice plus for the Suzuki.
• While it could never be considered a sport quad, the Suzuki has excellent manners off jumps and decent suspension to soak up landings.
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
• The shifting needs to be improved on the Ozark. It’s notchy and hard to engage, and our testers sometimes missed shifts during uphills and on tight trail rides.
• The rear rack is too far forward on the Suzuki. Some riders felt it was cramping their riding style as they tried to use body english while riding.