If you travel across this country, you will notice that the 1000 or so miles between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians and from Texas to Minnesota that the U.S. is full of farmland, cattle ranches and other similar industries spread out all throughout. This is the type of consumer Honda, Yamaha and Polaris is going after with machines like the Pioneer, Viking and Ranger.
While work duties may be priority number one with machines like the aforementioned, we know the owners may have ulterior motives with this type of purchase. They could have broader plans of weekend trail riding, fall hunting trips or even giving the kids rides around the property after the workday is done. Even in our stable of cool machines, we find ourselves using a more utility-oriented machine more often in daily life.
Over the past three months we have taken the two new machines on the market—the Yamaha Viking and Honda Pioneer—and put them up against the class leader, the Polaris Ranger 800, to see what we like and what we don’t. We have used them on everything from camping trips and trail rides to building tracks and taking out the trash. We also let some cattlemen and hunters drive them around and give us their opinions.
While Yamaha gets most of the credit for popularizing the sport UTV market, Polaris actually had a somewhat sporty Ranger years before the Rhino. That unit was a Ranger 500, and over the years the Ranger line has seen major improvements. Most notably is a smooth-riding, four-wheel independent suspension system and an equally smooth twin-cylinder engine. Wheel-travel numbers on the current Ranger 800 read 9.6 inches up front and 9 inches in the back. At 60 inches wide, this Ranger will squeeze into the back of any full-size pickup.
The Ranger 800 is powered by Polaris’ proven 760cc, liquid-cooled, parallel, two-cylinder engine. These days it’s fuel injected and has seating for three. Power steering is also available, as well as a variety of color schemes. Our test unit is the special-edition Sunset Red model with EPS and has a price tag of $13,299. If you don’t want EPS, you can save $1000 by picking the camo model, or save an additional $700 by selecting the Sage Green model for only $11,599.
The Pioneer completely replaces Honda’s first attempt at a UTV, the Big Red. The Pioneer uses the same 675cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke engine and is mated to a hydraulic three-speed transmission. Wheel travel on all four independent corners has been increased to 7.9 inches up front and 9 inches in the rear.
What makes the Pioneer stand apart from other UTVs is that the four-seat version incorporates stowaway jump seats that fold completely out of the way in the dump bed. When needed, you simply pop them up one at a time. The only downside is that it cannot transport a full-size pallet in the bed like the other two. On the other hand, the Pioneer, at a slim 60 inches wide, fits the easiest into the back of a full-size pickup. Pioneers are available in red, olive green or camo colors. The four-seater starts at $11,699, and the two-seater is only $9999. Honda’s Phantom Camo color adds $600.
The new Yamaha Viking has big shoes to fill in replacing the ultra-popular Rhino. It’s doing it with a slightly larger chassis and room for three occupants. Power is provided by an updated single-cylinder, liquid-cooled, 686cc engine. That motor is placed behind the driver’s compartment to reduce cabin noise and to make room for the center of three bucket-style seats.
Like the other two machines, the Viking features dual A-arms on all four corners. Travel numbers are 8.1 inches all the way around.
A completely restyled bodywork, lower seat height and larger dump bed are sure to set this machine apart from its predecessor. On the downside, the Viking is tough to load in the back of a pickup truck. At 62 inches wide, it’s a tight squeeze in our truck. The Viking is available with or without EPS, and in red, blue, green and RealTree Camo. The EPS model we tested starts at $12,499. Camo adds $750. You can save $1000 by leaving off the EPS.
If getting chores done is priority number one, we feel your pain, but thankfully all of these machines have what it takes to do the job. We did note earlier that the Pioneer’s bed was just not large enough to hold a full-size pallet, but too many that might not be a big deal. What we do like about the four-seat Pioneer is that its surrounding roll cage out back makes it easier to stack items and secure a full load. This past summer we literally filled two Pioneers with camping supplies and ventured into the woods for a few days. On the downside, the rear cross bar at the top of the roll cage makes it difficult to load taller items. However, if needed, you could remove this bar temporarily if you are hauling bulky cargo instead of passengers out back.
Polaris and Yamaha have nearly identical bed sizes. Unlike the other two, the Viking uses a steel dumping cargo box, while the other two use plastic. Furthermore, Honda and Polaris both have preload-adjustable rear shocks and recommend a bed capacity of 1000 pounds, while Yamaha caps it at only 600 and has no preload adjustments. The reality is that typically you would only be carrying an average of 200–300 pounds. Furthermore, neither the Honda or Polaris would be able to make a turn very well carrying a full 1000 pounds.
With 400 pounds loaded into each bed, we didn’t find that one machine performed better than the others. We did like that the Polaris had the ability to increase the preload on the rear shocks for such a situation. We did find that the Polaris had a tighter turning radius than the other two. It took an area more than 28 feet wide to turn the Yamaha around in. The Honda could do it in a slightly tighter space of 27 feet, while the Ranger only needed 22 feet to make a U-turn.
Inside the cabin Polaris does the best job supplying pockets to carry loose items, like gloves and small tools. The Viking has the most roomy and comfortable cabin out of the three. In fact, we did a passenger test where the key focus was the “third” passenger. Our guinea pig took a long trail ride in the center of three people in the Yamaha and the Polaris and sat behind the driver in the Honda.
For short distances on flat ground, all three get the job done. The Polaris with its bench seat is probably the easiest to get in and out of. Out on the trails, you have more space in the back of the Honda. Your feet are a bit cramped, but at least you are not rubbing shoulders like in the other two. The center passenger has a much better footing in the Yamaha, and the hand-hold makes a world of difference riding over the bumps and going up and down hills in the Viking. The center passenger of the Polaris bottoms out through the seat foam on a steel brace under the seat base, and the seat belt rests uncomfortably. It was a toss-up between the Honda and Yamaha for the most comfortable third seat. Honda tops them all, being it can hold a fourth passenger comfortably if needed. Keep in mind, if you do haul four people, cargo room is pretty much eliminated.
Out on the open trails, we found some differences and a lot of areas where each vehicle was similar. Even though these aren’t racers, we clocked the top speed of the machines, as well as put them into some head-to-head drag races.
Surprisingly, the Honda always got a quick jump off the starting line. That lead was short-lived, however, when both of the other machines would quickly overtake it. The Viking would lead the pack for a while until it topped out at 48 mph. The Polaris doesn’t top out until it hits 53 mph. Honda’s speed limiter is set 10 mph less at 43.
With all three machines running 30 mph, we took a decibel reading with the meter positioned right about where the center passenger’s knees would be. The Yamaha Viking had the loudest reading at 102 dB. The Honda and Polaris were noticeably quieter at 98 and 97 dB, respectively.
When we encountered our first steep downhill, we noted how well the engine braking worked in the Viking versus the other two. Yamaha’s CVT system kept speeds down to 3 mph if we took our feet off of both the brakes and gas. The Pioneer and Ranger do not have as aggressive of an engine braking system and rolled down the hill at 15 mph and 18 mph, respectively. It’s also important to note that on the Polaris, if you tap the gas a little, the engine braking would kick in and keep the machine slowed to around 5 mph. On the downside, the engine braking only affects the rear wheels (even in four-wheel drive), so it tends to slide a bit more.
On the rougher trails, our riders preferred the comfort of the Yamaha over the others. It felt a bit cramped in the Honda and very busy in the Polaris. The cockpit of the Yamaha is a lot more laid-back than the others, and you feel much lower to the ground. The Polaris has a bench seat and a very perpendicular backrest that doesn’t bother you on short rides, but is not as comfortable on long ones. In the choppy bumps, the Ranger tends to wander and skip around, while the other two machines drive straight and go where you point them.
To find the limits of all three machines, we took them into a deep canyon full of boulders, downed trees and even deeper rain ruts. We scraped the skid plates, bashed the bumpers and used every bit of low-end four-wheel drive they had. The Yamaha and Honda do have locking differentials, while the Polaris has a slip-sensing all-wheel-drive system. All three performed perfectly and never left us stranded. Furthermore, the Ranger has an unlocking rear differential that comes in handy for not marking up driveways or ripping up sensitive soil you may need to drive on.
After our initial 85-mile run, we topped off the machines to see if any drank more fuel than the others. The Honda used the least at 5.2 gallons. The Yamaha drank the second most at 5.4, and the Ranger used the most at 5.5 gallons. Being separated by only a quart is not much of a difference. Each machine would be able to travel at least 150 miles on one tank of gas. The Viking has the largest capacity at 9.7 gallons. The Ranger holds an even 9 gallons, and the Pioneer’s gas tank is slightly smaller at 8.2.
EASIEST TO USE
We like the Ranger platform. The bench seat is easy to get in and out of. We like the light power steering and multiple cargo pockets all around the dash. The engine is buttery smooth and whisper-quiet. Another plus is the Turf mode/unlocking rear differential that we use a lot. Most of our test drivers complained about the lack of normal downhill engine braking, and we agree—tapping the gas to slow down is not something a cautious mind wants to do. Plus, if you could engage four-wheel drive manually, this machine would be better up and down hills. For a small farm on level ground or a machine to use around a house with land acreage, the Ranger is first on our list.
We would ditch the window nets for sure and install Pro Armor doors if the machine was going to be ridden on the trails. It does cost more than the other two, but you do get additional features—it still fits into a pick-up and down 60-inch-limited trails.
It’s easy to choose the $9999 Pioneer as the best value if you are looking at a two-seater. Plus, if you need four seats, $11,699 is the lowest-priced four-seater you can buy from any brand. The Pioneer is not the fastest or most powerful machine you can buy, but it has enough ponies to get work chores done and get you down the trail. We also like the fact that it can easily fit down 60-inch-wide trails and be transported in the back of a pickup.
It’s notable that not one test rider complained that the Pioneer did not have power steering. Honda did a great job improving upon the Big Red with the Pioneer. The stowaway rear-seat concept impressed many of our test drivers, and we agree that it will come in handy. Don’t be surprised if this feature lands in other brand machines as well. The only downfall is that the cargo area is eliminated when carrying two rear passengers. We would look into a bed extender or possibly a hitch-mounted cargo platform.
Yamaha has had nearly a decade to improve upon the Rhino. They have done it in nearly every way. The Viking carries more cargo and people. It is more stable and comfortable. We found that the non-EPS unit at $11,499 is not at a disadvantage either. The steering is not heavy and just as precise. While it is quieter than the Rhino, it’s not as quiet as the Ranger or the Pioneer. It’s not overly loud, just louder.
The steel bed is strong but might contribute to the noisier ride. We do wish the dash or under-seat area had more storage to keep small items contained and think the cup holder needs to be deeper. Not being able to transport the Viking in the back of a pickup may limit its use for some people.