Honda has proven that they are nothing if not adaptable. In the early years, it was all about little machines, and “you meet the nicest people on a Honda.” Shortly after that era, Honda invented ATVs with the venerable ATC90. Honda carefully kept ATC sales numbers on the down-low so other brands wouldn’t get in on the action, and patented a number of ideas to make headaches for rival engineers that tried.
Honda made a commitment to style and technology about a decade ago, but the market has changed greatly in that time. Now the company is all about building machines that people need and want at a great price. Witness the CRF250L dual-sport motorcycle and the new 500cc twin street bikes. The latest vehicles from that mold are the Pioneer 700 and Pioneer 700-4 SxS. They have more suspension, comfort, style and work capacity than the Big Red they replace and are a total home run in the price department. The two-seat Pioneer 700 retails for $9999! No mainstream sport utility SxS even comes close. The RZR 570 is in this ballpark, but otherwise you are looking at an off-brand import for that price point. In fact, the four-seat 700-4’s price of $11,699 is where a lot of two-seaters are priced! It’s budget-priced, with Honda quality and features and made in South Carolina!
The 675cc engine is a solid unit, and it provides spunky power and brisk acceleration. Honda did a masterful job heat-shielding the exhaust.
One of the few systems salvaged from the Big Red was the engine and transmission combo. The familiar liquid-cooled, 675cc, four-stroke single with programmed fuel injection (PGM-FI) is a unit that includes the automatic-style automatic transmission. The transmission includes a torque converter, three hydraulic clutches and an electronic control module (ECM) to automatically select the three forward gears and reverse. The ECM monitors a variety of factors to generate maximum performance.
The transmission has two shift-mapping programs, but they are pretty transparent. You select the dual modes by how aggressive you are with the throttle. Mash it and the transmission employs sport mode and winds out each gear. Ease into the pedal and the shift program stays in economy mode. It is hard to imagine that this is basically the same power unit used in the Rincon 4×4 ATV. The Pioneer weighs roughly twice as much, but it accelerates briskly from a stop and pulls strongly all the way to the regulated top speed of 43 mph. Even though the top speed is regulated, it feels like the Pioneer is pretty much out of gear at that speed.
There is little question that the Pioneer would pull more gear on the flat, but without a low range for the transmission or transfer case, towing, hauling and trail driving would surely suffer. Plus, unless you have a wide, smooth dirt road, the Pioneer’s top speed will keep your attention.
We will say that the engine and transmission package is very seamless. It simply does the job asked with little drama. We especially like the feel of the transmission. You really only feel one shift when you wind the Pioneer out from a standing start. That is a fun change from the unchanging engine note you get from a CVT. Plus, it was nice to just forget about smoking the belt and drive how we wanted. Like most utility or sport utility UTVs, the Pioneer has you sitting above the engine. Honda took pains to isolate the engine vibration from the cab and controls, and they did a good job, but you can still hear engine noise and especially the intake when the engine is run hard.
Despite abuse like this, the Pioneer shrugged off repeated bounces. The driver didn’t feel abused by this, either.
Whether you are driving the 700 or the 700-4, you enter the Pioneer somewhat like a car. Honda is extremely safety-conscious, so you must first unbuckle the front of the window net, then open the door and step into the machine. Each door is blow-molded plastic, so it doesn’t open or shut with the clunk of a car, but the latch is light and easy, and the door shuts solidly. The cockpit has room for a driver over 6 feet, but it isn’t overly roomy. We suspect that the sculpted bench seat was a price-point measure. There is no seat belt in the middle, so there is no real reason for the bench seat, but it has molded areas for the driver and passenger that hold you in place like a mild bucket.
For the 700-4 model, the front situation is identical, but the bed sides have doors that open to the rear. You lift the bed floor one side at a time to unfold the rear seats. The padding looks thin, but the seats are actually pretty nice. Again, a 6-foot-plus passenger fits just fine. The rear window nets unbuckle just as easily, and they do add a feeling of security. The rear seat belts are a little fussy compared to the fronts. The belt runs through a loop on the cage upright, but a similar loop in a car would swivel, and we had to help the belt along a few times. The buckle end is spring-loaded to keep it tucked in and out of the way when the seats are down, but that means you must pull them up to buckle the rear belts. It would be a snap without gloves, a helmet and goggles, but that isn’t the way Dirt Wheels rolls. All things considered, we still feel the rear-seat option in the 700-4 is well worth the extra expense.
The dash and controls are pretty basic, but clean and well laid out. We found it easy to read the digital meter in bright sun.
The position of the steering wheel works fine, but the gas pedal doesn’t really allow you to rest a heel on the floor easily. For work and short trips it isn’t an issue, but it could get tiring on an all-day trail excursion. Inside the cab is a handy glovebox, and there are drink holders molded into the doors. There are effective grab handles for the passengers as well.
The rest of the controls are pretty basic. The shifter has only drive, neutral and reverse. A separate lever engages the 4×4 and diff-lock functions. Honda was shooting for a price point, so there is no power-steering option and, at the moment, no plans for one. In general use, we didn’t miss it in either 2WD or 4WD, but as soon as you engage the diff-lock, you wish for EPS. As always, with the front wheels locked in, the steering is heavy, and the steering resists moving from the center.
We had no occasion to test the lighting, aside from seeing South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley tooling the first full-production model around inside the factory. Honda usually does very well with details like that, though.
While morphing the Big Red into the Pioneer, Honda chose a beefy chassis utilizing a solid frame constructed in South Carolina that is manufactured in two sections. The rear end and powertrain occupy the larger section, and the steering and controls are assembled to the front section. Both sections interlock before being locked together with eight large bolts. The result is a vehicle that feels very solid and well-made.
Compared to the Big Red, the wheelbase is an inch longer, but the overall vehicle width is nearly 3 inches narrower. Honda says the track is actually wider, so the reduction in width is in the bodywork and fenders. The look is certainly sportier, but it will see you eating more front-tire splash than with the full-coverage fenders of the Red.
We were most pleased with the steering. The steering wheel has a crisp and immediate input to the front wheels. There is no hesitation or slop, and no looseness or chatter from when the suspension reaches the wheel, either.
Exhaust output is pleasantly quiet. Aggressive tires and independent rear suspension are a must in this class. The hitch is good for 1500 pounds of towing.
Honda upped the front-wheel travel to a tick under 8 inches, and the rear has a full 9 inches; the front and rear are independent. Only the rear shocks are preload-adjustable, and none of the four shocks have a reservoir or additional adjustment. We realize that many enthusiasts were hoping for a RZR-killer, but the Pioneer is not that, though it is sporty, peppy and fun for a utility model.
The transmission provides direct engine braking, and Honda fit the Pioneers with three disc brakes—one on each front wheel, and a third stopping the driveshaft—so it affects both rear wheels equally since there is no differential function in the rear end. We found the stopping power was fine and, as we expect from a Honda, very easy to control.
TRAILS AND WORK
We did our testing right near the Honda factory, and the terrain was quite diverse, with trails that ranged from open and meadow flat to tight and even steep woods, though there were no extended climbs. We also had plentiful mud. The area has little in the way of rocks, so Honda imported a section of rocks that was a good test.
It was soon apparent that the Pioneer will be a great trail SxS, and that it is more than capable on a farm or job-site. The handling is nimble, and especially so for the four-seater. The trails had some small, angled trees that had fallen across the trails, and we could hit them at speed without upsetting the chassis at all. Other parts of the trail were lumpy with roots, small stumps and dirt humps. Getting through there was work, and it is unlikely that any UTV suspension would shine in such choppy, slow-speed conditions. The Pioneer stayed fairly composed, but you feel it.
Steep drops are no trouble. The brakes are strong with smooth engagement, and the trans provides effective engine braking without ever locking the rear wheels.
For the most part, the suspension does a fine job of isolating you from trail abuse. Push it too hard and you know it. The front bottoms, and while the shocks offer good control, the tires don’t. They bounce and hop in choppy whoops and remind you what the Pioneer is designed for.
Part of the test loop included an S-turn on the side of a hill that was very off-camber. Even with three full-size adults aboard, the Pioneer hit that turn like it was on rails. It didn’t matter whether you were heading up or down. On the imported rock section, we heard some “rock” music out of the skid plates. The underside of the Pioneer is well protected. We encountered one water crossing that was up to the headlights, but with the air intake drawing from behind the seats and no CVT case to contaminate, the Pioneer cruised right on through. The bottom of the crossing was firm clay. Ground clearance is limited to just over 10 inches, so there might have been issues if there were ruts hidden under the water.
We found we could zip along pretty well on trails. The 700, with a solid bed floor, was a little quieter than the 700-4 with the split bed floor.
For work or play, Honda’s new Pioneer hits the bull’s-eye. Honda was aiming at a sporty utility, and they built a great one. Comfort, quality and performance are all excellent. Despite heat and voracious mosquitoes in the woods, every test unit was wheeling the woods until Honda dragged us away. Also on the positive side of the list, there’s the single cylinder to maintain, no belt to worry about and the price that is great in its class. We also like the fact that this machine is largely U.S.-made. Sure, some of the V-twins in the category have more boost, and the true sport models have more suspension for going fast in the rough. In this case, you need to know what you are looking for. The Pioneer is sure to be a reliable, easy-to-care-for machine. It is buckets of fun, and it has the features it needs to be a great do-it-all machine.