4×4 TEST: 2009 HONDA RANCHER AT; A five-speed with a twist

For 2009, Honda has eight Ranchers to choose from, including one all-new machine; the Rancher AT (automatic transmission). They are all powered by a 420cc, liquid-cooled fuel injected four-stroke. Dual A-arms up front and a standard single shock swingarm are found on all Ranchers except the new AT. The only differences between the rest of the choices are electric shift, manual or automatic transmission options as well as an optional powersteering feature.
The new Rancher AT has suspension that is fully independent on all four corners (a first for Ranchers). This happens via double A-arms and preload adjustable shocks with 6.3 inches of travel to soften any trail. Steel A-arms are used while they are aluminum on the Rincon.  Hydraulic disc brakes are found on the front two corners while the rear braking is handled by a center shaft-mounted hydraulically operated disc.
A longitudinally mounted, liquid-cooled, 420cc, two-valve four-stroke engine provides power to the new Rancher. Fuel is fed out of a 3.5-gallon tank to the engine via a 34mm electronic fuel injection system which had a hand in getting around 100-miles per fill-up during our testing.

This Honda’s transmission can be controlled two ways; as a five speed pushbutton manual, or it can be left to shift on its own, automatically, through the five gears. Having a mind of its own, this transmission will also downshift in auto mode when descending steep hills. Plus, if you forget, it will also downshift on its own to third gear when you come to a stop and are in manual mode.
Unlike the Rincon’s hydraulically operated transmission, the Rancher’s transmission is completely gear-driven.  The unique thing is that inside the transmission there are two gear sets and two centrifugal clutches controlling movement.
While one clutch is engaged and a specific gear is driving, the next tallest or lower gear is already spinning, awaiting its clutch to engage. This allows for very seamless shifts with minimal power loss.

The Rancher’s cockpit is laid out well and full of features. A digital instrument panel displays gear position, speedometer, odometer,  tripmeter and an hour meter. This Rancher does not come with a clock or Honda’s GPScape option for 2009. Maybe next year! Under that handlebar-mounted instrument cluster, Honda installed its electronic power steering (EPS) system. A non-power-steering equipped Rancher AT is also available in 2009. Power steering contributes $400 dollars to the steep $7000 price tag. It also adds 19 pounds to the 642-pound curb weight of this Rancher.
Forward of those handlebars, a steel cargo rack allows for 66 pounds of gear. The steel rack in the rear can carry 133 pounds of cargo. If the need arises, this Rancher is also equipped with a rear hitch that is rated to tow an 850-pound load. Also in the rear, Honda placed its only storage box behind the tail light. This box is barely big enough to carry a bottle of water. We tried to carry two 20-ounce bottles with no success. There definitely needs to be more water-tight storage on the Rancher.

This mid sized quad has a seat height measurement of 32.4 inches and an overall height of 45.8 inches. Those low numbers are attributed to the smaller 24-inch tires that are found on this machine. Honda ended up using 11-inch rear rims just like they did on the 700XX. While this size is good for comfort, it makes aftermarket wheel and tire choices very limited. More common 12-inch wheels are used up front. The IRS equipped Rincon uses 12-inch wheels on all four corners.
On the positive side, this edition of the Rancher has great ground clearance of over nine inches. And whatever trail obstacles are bigger than that will be deflected away from the chassis by a full-length plastic skid sheet.

Honda’s Rancher AT is the smallest machine in their lineup with independent rear suspension. The only other Honda 4×4 with IRS is the big bore Rincon. The AT has 6.3 inches of travel at both ends. The suspension has hardly any body roll and corners very well. A digital dash displays speeds, distance travel and hours on the motor. We wish it had a clock and an integrated GPS unit like the Rincon.

When you compare the new Rancher to its competition, you will find that it’s the only quad in its class with power steering. The non-power-steering equipped Rancher costs $50 dollars less than the Can-Am Outlander 400 and $900 more than the Polaris Sportsman 400H.O. With power steering, it sells for $800 less than the EPS equipped Yamaha Grizzly 550.
The IRS equipped Arctic Cat  ($5649) 366 has a half-inch more wheel travel and an inch more ground clearance, while this  IRS equipped Rancher has over two inches more ground clearance than a Rancher without IRS. This Rancher with EPS is a thousand dollars cheaper than the Rincon without EPS. Suzuki’s 400-class machine doesn’t even come with EFI, IRS or power steering. Yamaha’s 400 and 450s have IRS but no EFI or EPS. Same goes for Polaris.

The Rancher’s cockpit is very compact but the saddle and floorboard areas have plenty of room for riders of all sizes. It actually feels quite a bit smaller and lower than sitting on the Rincon 680. That machine has a seat height that is over two inches taller. The smaller size definitely makes loading and storing easier.
Just like most Hondas, all of the controls are perfectly laid out. The foot pegs are sharp and sturdy and the grips have traction without being too aggressive.  Thanks to the EFI system, the thumb throttle is light and the engine fires up instantly. That longitudinally mounted motor also gives the Rancher a narrow body where the rider sits compared to all of its CVT equipped competitors. In a day where most ATV’s are given softer seats, the Rancher’s saddle is constructed much stiffer.
Starting is instant and the Rancher’s stainless steel muffler creates a pleasant tone. Sitting on the Rancher, you don’t feel overwhelmed with a big machine, nor does it feel too small. Like Goldilocks says, it’s just right. On the trail, this Rancher is typical Honda. It runs perfect, the controls work flawlessly and you have a solid feeling of reliability.

Either in ESP mode or fully auto, the Rancher AT can shift as fast as a human using his foot and as smoothly. An onboard computer will downshift for you when going slow down hill or you are stopped. You can shift into 4WD on the fly under 20mph.

With only 6.3 inches of wheel travel, the suspension is not as supple as you will find on a larger IRS equipped machine. However, the slightly stiffer machine handles perfectly. There is no body roll, no rear end squat or front end dive. Nor does the front end push in the corners. When you plough into G-outs or flat land off of jumps, the shocks never seem to bottom out, slam or clank. In this case, the shocks hit their stops and just bounce back through the rebound circuit without adverse affects.
In the nasty terrain, 9.1 inches  was more than enough ground clearance to keep from getting hung up. The only hangup we suffered was when climbing super steep, loose trails. Honda’s lack of a front solid diff lock feature forced us to choose a different trail. The limited slip front end worked great in most situations except the most extreme. We also wish, first gear was a fraction lower to give more torque in steep, rock crawling situations.
Honda’s power-steering assist worked flawlessly as well. It allows for effortless navigation on twisty trails and also acted as a damper in the rocks. At this test, we had a non-power-steering equipped Rancher along for comparison. Jumping back and forth between the two machines really showed us how well the power-steering works. It’s like the old adage says, you don’t know what you are missing until you try one. Not only does the power steering help on twisty trails and over rough terrain, it reduces steering effort tremendously when the front rack is loaded down.
To handle the stopping chores on this Rancher, Hondas triple hydraulic disc brakes worked well and never seemed to heat up or fade. While the disc brake set up doesn’t work, day and night better than Hondas drum brakes do, they are easier to work on, weigh a bit less and the technology is from this century.
As far as engine braking goes, Hondas new five-speed, gear driven, automatic transmission provides good down hill braking that will keep the quad under ten mph on the steep down hills. That transmission is most situations worked great. It shifts quick without loosing any momentum on the up hills and shift when you need it to in the tight stuff. Although the gear spacing seemed to be nearly perfect, we wish first gear was a tad bit lower and top speed a tick higher than the 53mph mark we hit.

At $6999, the Rancher AT is a bit pricey. It’s more in the ball park of the big bore 650 and 750cc 4x4s. However, there are many of you out there that do not want such a large machine. The power steering equipped Rancher AT is a full featured mid sized ATV. It has all of the features you come to expect in an ATV with this large of a price tag. It has a smooth riding IRS suspension system with over nine inches of ground clearance, it has a durable water tight, gear driven five speed transmission with the option of being run in auto-mode and the EFI equipped engine has plenty of power as long as you keep it under 55mph. Plus, you can always count on Honda reliability.
About the only complaint we found with this Rancher, other than the price, is the lack of extra storage pockets available. We wish this quad as well as others, would come with conveniences like cup holders, and small glove boxes in addition to a larger cargo box under the seat or one integrated into the rack area.
A future shootout between the other $7000, IRS, EPS, EFI 4X4’s will show if Honda’s new Rancher can keep up on the trails or if it should be left on the ranch. Stay tuned! If you can’t wait that long and have $7000, sitting in the bank, make a withdrawal and head to your Honda dealer.

Honda has sold tens of thousands of Ranchers to date that are used mainly for work. We feel this machine can be worked all week then used for excitement on the trails over the weekend, and that’s no bull.


Engine type: liquid-cooled OHV semi-dry-sump longitudinally mounted single-cylinder four-stroke
Displacement: 420cc
Bore and Stroke: 86.5mmx71.5mm
Fuel delivery: 4mm EFI
Starter: Electric with optional auxiliary recoil
Transmission: Automatic/ESP five-speed w/Rev
Final drive: Shaft
Suspension/wheel travel:
Front: Dual A-arms w/ 6.3″
Rear: Dual A-arms w/ 6.3″
Front: Dual hydraulic discs
Rear: Single hydraulic disc
Front: 24×8-12
Rear: 24×10-11
Overall Length/width/ height: 80.9″/46.1″/45.8″
Seat Height: 32.4″
Ground Clearance: 9.1″
Wheelbase: 49.4″
Turning Radius: 10.5′
Fuel Capacity: 3.5 gal.
Colors: Black, red, olive, natural gear camouflage
Curb weight: 623lb (no EPS)/ 642 lb. (w/EPS)
Price: $6999

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