q The audience that Honda invited to the unveiling of the 2011 Big Red told the story. Sitting beside the Dirt Wheels editors were staff members from The Progressive Farmer, Ag News and Successful Farming. Our questions all fell into the “is it faster?” category. Their questions were along the lines of “will it haul more?”
Clearly, the Honda Big Red is a machine publicly aimed at working, hauling, towing and business. That’s been the company line right from the start. At the time, there was a firestorm of negative press relating to the Yamaha Rhino, which clearly was marketed toward a sportier crowd. Honda made a conscious decision to aim their new side-by-side more towards the utility side of the world, in marketing, design and styling, hoping not to become more red meat for the liability industry. But it’s still a Honda. The company just can’t make a plow horse. We’ve always been aware of the machine’s secret potential for 4x4 adventure. It was designed by enthusiasts who understand that even the most utility-minded buyer wants to have a little fun.
As for the questions at the press intro, the Ag press was pleased with the answers. The most significant change for the Honda was more about the specification page in the owner’s manual than horsepower or suspension travel. It now has a greater load capacity, both in the bed and in towing capability. You could virtually feel the stunned amazement in the room as this was announced. We leaned over and asked one of the farmers how important the increase in capacity was to farmers. He said it would be equivalent to a hydrogen motor for us.
So, now the tilting bed is rated for 1000 pounds instead of 500 pounds, and the towing capacity is 1500 pounds instead of 1200 pounds. What did Honda do to accomplish this? Very little. By nature, Honda is very conservative and understated the vehicle’s original capacity. That was all fine, except the Polaris Ranger boasted 1000 pounds for the bed and 2000 pounds for the hitch (in all states except California). Honda was in a competitive environment and couldn’t afford to be that conservative.
Among the changes that contributed to the increased rating were upgrades in tires and suspension. The Honda now comes with Maxxis Big Horn tires with increased sidewall thickness and more aggressive tread. The rear shocks have a single-rate spring and adjustable preload. Another specification change that carried little to no reengineering was the OSHA certification of the roll-over protection. The certification is just that: a certificate. The roll cage, handles, doors and net that go into the Rollover Protection Structure (ROPS) were always substantial. This year Honda made a change to the nets that keeps your hands inside the vehicle, making them easier to roll up for entry and exit.
Another welcome change for 2011 is the seat. It’s now a bench seat, so you don’t have small items falling into the crack between the occupants, which required the redesign of the emergency brake lever.
WHAT WILL IT CARRY?
Honda is still conservative about the capacity of the machine. Even though the towing capacity is rated at 1500 pounds, we hooked it up to a boat and trailer that were clearly over that limit, while Honda officials watched happily. They didn’t run over and try to stop us. In fact, last year we hauled a full-size tent trailer up a dirt road. Big Red certainly struggled, but it did it.
The one advantage that the Honda has over all other side-by-sides when it comes to pulling is the transmission. Instead of using a belt-driven CVT, the Honda has a hydraulic design, just like a car. There are three speeds and you can feel distinct shift points when you drive. That means you can’t burn a belt if you overtax the vehicle. When you reach the limit on Big Red, it just won’t go further, but it doesn’t self destruct. That limit is usually due to the motor, which is strong, but nothing to get too excited about. It’s a liquid-cooled pushrod single, not too far removed from the one in the Rincon ATV.
The 675cc displacement provides good torque, but not much in the way of acceleration or top speed. In fact, the Honda tops out at 40 mph. As a side note, that sounds slower than it feels. The Can-Am, Polaris and Arctic Cat can easily go much faster, but we’ve found that most drivers don’t really enjoy going 60 mph in a side-by-side. Between the wind noise of the open cockpit and the short wheelbase, it’s not that pleasant. All the same, it would be nice to have that kind of capability in your back pocket.
So is the Big Red strictly a pack mule with no recreational potential? Not to us. In the broad spectrum of activities that we call “recreation,” Big Red has some strengths and some weaknesses. It’s clearly not a high-speed racer, but in its 4x4 capability, it can hold its own. It’s a great rock crawler. When you get in a tough situation, you almost always can get out with a little bit of thought and technique. The front differential lock is a great tool in rocky, uneven terrain. As long as you can get traction to one wheel, Big Red will generally drag itself clear. Just have awareness that you can get high-centered. Ground clearance is mediocre—a Ranger has about 2 inches more, as does a Rhino.
On the other hand, one of Big Red’s surprising strong points is how it deals with off-camber slopes. For such a big vehicle, the Honda has a fairly low center of gravity. It can handle a fairly extreme side-hill angle before the upside wheels get light. Over time, we have found ourselves in some fairly extreme situations with the Honda, and we’ve always been surprised at how easily we come out. If the machine’s sheer size doesn’t stop you, very little about the trail will present a problem.
BITS AND PIECES
A side-by-side is such a massive machine that we tend to compare it with Jeeps rather than with ATVs. In that light, the Honda seems rather Spartan. It has two cupholders and a well-hidden accessory outlet, but there’s little else to comfort your creatures. It doesn’t have a speedometer or odometer, or even a door for the glove box. The bed dumps easily, and the sides can be removed if you need to carry oversized cargo.
Honda deals with all this by offering a large array of accessories. You can get a roof, several different windscreens, toolboxes and accessory hooks in the bed. There’s also an instrument cluster that drops right into the dash. The $11,699 MSRP is akin to the base price of a small car with accessories that can be eagerly added at the dealer level. That price compares to $11,499 for a plain-Jane Rhino, and $11,199 for an unadorned Ranger.
We’ve always liked Big Red. We’re not blind, we know it’s not the most attractive machine in the world. It looks like a sumo wrestler with a roll cage. But we’re OK with that—it’s even part of the machine’s appeal. Honda’s styling department clearly was in fear of attracting too much sport interest after all the Rhino litigation, and tried to disguise Big Red’s capabilities with big, blocky bodywork. But under it all is a fun recreational vehicle that just happens to appeal to farmers and ranch hands, too. They can certainly appreciate it for its utility qualities, just like we dig its 4x4 abilities.
And if no one’s looking, the farm hands can have fun in it too. We won’t tell. q
2011 HONDA MUV700
Engine Liquid-cooled OHV 4-stroke
Bore x stroke 102.0mm x 82.6mm
Fuel system EFI
Starting Electric, keyed ignition
Transmission Hydraulic automatic,
Final drive Shaft
Ground clearance 10.3"
Front Dual A-arm/5.9"
Rear Dual A-arm/7.1"
Front Dual disc
Rear Single disc
Wet weight 1433 lb.
Colors Red, olive, camo
Manufacturer American Honda