A DIFFERENT AGE
It might seem like 1999 was a different age in the ATV world, but was it really? When the first Honda TRX400X (then the EX) arrived, the great grassy plains of America were populated by Yamaha Banshees, Warriors and Blasters. That was as good as it got for sport quads of the day, leaving an obvious opening for a good-handling ATV with decent power and a reasonable price. Fast-forward 14 years. The ATV world is now saturated with 60-horsepower Raptor 700s, 450cc racing machines and money-is-no-object custom quads. That leaves an opening for a good-handling ATV with decent power and a reasonable price all over again. And, the 400X is still here to fill it.
For those of you who are embarrassed to ask about the background of the Honda 400X, we’ll forgive you. It’s ancient history to a teenager who was 2 years old in 1999. The Consent Decree of 1988 was an agreement between the federal government and the ATV industry that restricted and regulated the quad business. It caused most ATV makers to lose interest in high-performance sport quads. But even though no new sport quads were manufactured for 10 years, development and technology continued to progress. So when Honda decided to re-enter the sport world with a four-wheeler, it made a huge jump in sophistication. The 400EX had 10 years of advancement in geometry and suspension. The four-stroke motor, too, was a big step forward for the recreational quad rider, mostly because of electric start.
After that, we all know what followed. The 450s arrived and quickly eclipsed the performance of the Honda 400. Now, many of them are gone simply because they priced themselves out of the market. The 400X crocodile remains, selling for $6399, which is about $1500 less than most of the 450s that remain. It has several advantages beyond price too.
• No coolant. The Honda is air-cooled, and that’s one less fluid to carry in the spare-parts box.
• Easy maintenance. The four-valve motor has rocker arms, and the valves can be adjusted in minutes.
• Carburetor induction. Electronic fuel injection adds weight and complexity, but doesn’t really offer a payoff in performance.
• Universal parts coverage. The 400X uses essentially the same motor as the Honda XR400R motorcycle. If your dealer doesn’t stock parts, he’s just lazy.
• Trail width. At 45.5 inches across, the X is narrower than any other 450 or 400.
The Honda 400 motor actually dates back to 1996 when it was created for a motorcycle. Electric start was added, and reverse came a few years later. Honda also beefed up the drivetrain for the additional loads generated by two big rear wheels. In the motorcycle configuration, the oil for the dry-sump motor was carried in the frame, but Honda engineered a separate oil tank for the ATV. That, alone, helps keep the engine cooler, but Honda went to the extra lengths to add an oil cooler too.
If you’re looking for something flashy in the Honda 400’s chassis description, you’ll look for a long time. By today’s standards, it’s very conventional. The front suspension has double A-arms with shocks that have five preload settings and provide 8.2 inches of wheel travel. The rear shock is slightly more sophisticated, with an aluminum body, a piggyback reservoir, and full preload and damping adjustability. It’s connected to a straight axle through rising-rate linkage and provides 9.1 inches of travel. The frame is steel, and it has three hydraulic disc brakes to slow things down. The front and rear brakes are controlled independently by hand and foot levers. If all this sounds ordinary for a sport quad, there’s a reason for that; the Honda 400 was the prototype for all that followed.
Here’s an interesting note: dirt in 2013 is pretty much the same as dirt in 1999. The Honda 400 still thrives on it. As we often point out, great handling with so-so power is much better than so-so handling and great power. We said that in the Yamaha Raptor 250 and Raptor 125 tests, and the same holds true here. The power, of course, is significantly greater than either of those quads, but it’s not so much that the 400 is hard to handle. Just the opposite is true. The 400X produces great torque down low, and that makes it an easy quad to ride. Smaller bikes require more mental work to ride at an aggressive pace. Between the shifting and the clutch work, you’re always busy. More powerful quads, on the other hand, take a physical toll. Your upper body gets worked, your hands get tired, and you might even get “thumb pump.”
Does that mean the Honda is slow? No. In fact, low-rpm roll-on response is comparable to a modern 450. But in the middle rpm range, the gap widens. And on top, the 400X seems to just give up and go home, where a 450 is just getting serious. If you ride in sand or climb hills, the difference is huge. Even the Suzuki 400, which is the Honda’s closest competition, makes more power and revs higher. But on hard-packed dirt and fire roads, it’s really not that big a deal. The 400X was never designed to go racing, and aside from a few early Baja runs, it was pretty much ignored by racers. Of course, there are dozens of big-bore kits and hop-up items for the X. When a quad has been around for 14 years, there’s no shortage of performance know-how in the aftermarket. The most common hop-up is an exhaust system. DG makes one of the most affordable slip-ons available (starting at $180), but there are also full systems from FMF and Trinity. With any exhaust modification, you should be aware of several things. First, it makes the quad non-compliant with EPA and CARB regulations and might affect the machine’s eligibility for an off-road sticker in your state. Second, the quad will be louder. And third, most of the power gain will be unrealized until you make other modifications. The intake on the Honda is very restrictive, so opening up the airbox will allow the engine to inhale as efficiently as it exhales. That, in turn, will create the need for richer jetting. The great thing about a good old-fashion carb is that jets are much cheaper than EFI tuners. If the pipe manufacturer has jetting recommendations, they can be had for a few dollars at most dealers. If not, then JD Jetting and Dynojet offer kits.
Beyond pipe and intake modifications, horsepower increases for the 400 become progressively more expensive. There are several 440 kits available from companies like L.A. Sleeve and Trinity, but eventually you start running into clutch trouble—it was never designed to deal with massive output. And remember, you only have a $1500 gap to most 450s. The 400 works pretty well as a 400.
TWISTS AND TURNS
We still feel that in the world of performance quads, it’s hard to do much better than the Honda 400X. It was designed for trail riding, which means it has to fit on sections that were made by motorcycles. The 400X’s 45.5-inch width really pays off in some areas. It’s only a half-inch narrower than some trail-oriented 450s, but that half-inch can mean a lot. There’s nothing fun about catching a stump that you thought you could clear with the front wheels and having the bars ripped from your hands. The 400 is agile and steers lightly. The narrow stance is also beneficial in ruts, because it’s less likely to hang up and can be better in whoops because of greater side-to-side stability. The Honda X remains a great machine for big, rolling sand whoops. In the early days of development, much testing was done in the rough terrain of the SCORE Baja 1000 racecourse, and it shows. The suspension might not be as sophisticated or have the travel of modern-era bikes, but it holds its own on the trail.
In cornering, too, the Honda holds its own when compared with other trail-width quads. The steering is light, and kicking out the rear end is a simple matter of a weight shift and a punch on the throttle. But it’s no racer. And if you get carried away, aggressive cornering can have the X on two wheels very easily. The good thing is that it’s a very predictable machine and lets you know well ahead of time if you’re getting stupid.
A PIECE IN THE PUZZLE
It all comes back to price. The Honda’s only real rivals in initial cost are the Suzuki 400R ($7099) and the newly repositioned Yamaha YFZ450 ($6899). Yamaha has certainly been praised for bringing down the price of the YFZ, but the Honda still looks good. The 400X isn’t just inexpensive to buy, it’s inexpensive to own. There’s no denying the relationship between power and money; they both rise hand in hand. It’s conceivable that you could ride a Honda 400 every week for a year and only spend money on gas and oil. It’s even easy on tires. All that combines to keep the Honda TRX400X high on our all-time list of great sport quads.
As long as Honda continues to make it, we’ll continue to love it. q
Engine Air-cooled, electric-start,
Transmission Manual 5-speed w/
Final drive Chain
Front Dual A-arm/8.2″
Fuel capacity 2.6 gal.
Ground clearance 4.1″
Claimed curb weight 408 lb.