Big fun in a small package By the staff of Dirt Wheels
Honda’s Pioneer 500 is like the secret side-by-side. We don’t see many used for sport, but Honda claims to have over 50 percent of the 500cc-class market for UTVs. After spending time in the 2017 edition of this compact UTV, we can see the attraction. All of the mechanical parts are proven, since many are borrowed from legendary Honda 4×4 ATVs.
To keep the price and the weight down, Honda chose to go with ATV-style rear fenders and a rack in the rear rather than a small dump bed. There are low doors, but there is still full-coverage safety since the doors have integrated safety nets. Actually, the nets on the 500 share a latch with the doors—a feature that none of the larger Pioneers can match, and one that we miss when driving those machines. On the 700 and 1000 you must open the door and unbuckle the window net to enter or exit the machine. On the 500 you simply rotate the common latch and open the door, which pulls the net out of the way.
PUTTING OUT POWER
The Honda Pioneer 500 sports the same peppy, liquid-cooled, EFI, 475cc, single-cylinder engine that is found in the Rubicon line of Honda 4×4 ATVs. In 2016 the Pioneer 500’s automatic transmission was moved from gear to gear by paddle shifter only. We know that sounds weird—an automatic that you shift—but it is truly an electronic automatic transmission and not a CVT with a belt. For 2017 you are able to select from a fully automatic mode for the five-speed, electric-shift transmission, or you can select manual mode and use the handy (see what we did there) paddle shifters. You can switch between modes at any time, even on the fly. Obviously, this machine is oriented for work or towards hunting/camping-type recreation. The Pioneer 500 can handle towing 1000 pounds (the same or more than many small FWD sedans), and the rear rack can tackle 450 pounds.
While the Rubicon has plenty of power, in the Pioneer, the same powerplant is motivating additional weight. The Rubicon quad weighs just over 700 pounds, while the Pioneer 500 is 1025 pounds. Aside from the length of the wheelbase being 73 inches for the Pioneer 500 and only 51 inches for the Rubicon, most of the machine’s dimensions are very similar to a quad.
The 4×4 system is easily operated by a gated hand lever on the dashboard. You can switch between two- and four-wheel drive. The Pioneer does not have a fully locking front differential, but the 4×4 system works well.
SUSPENSION AND STEERING
While the Pioneer does not come with power steering, the steering effort is light enough that we didn’t really miss it. The suspension is one area where we wish that the Pioneer had stolen more tech from sibling ATVs. The 4×4 ATVs have 8 or more inches of travel with dual A-arms, where the Pioneer 500 has double-wishbone suspension with 5.9 inches of wheel travel. Unlike some Honda ATV models, the rear suspension is independent, but more travel would allow a more compliant ride.
Honda utilizes general-purpose, tread-pattern Maxxis tires on this machine to gain traction. We hit a variety of terrain from sugar sand to solid rock and had no complaints about traction, and we experienced no flats. Braking is all that you expect from a Honda, with ample power and generous feedback in terms of braking traction.
GETTING THE JOB DONE
Honda’s Pioneer line is meant for work, even if that work involves play, like camping, hunting or fishing. If you need to lug equipment around on the racks, you can carry up to 450 pounds. Ground clearance at 8.5 inches is a bit less than premium 4×4 ATVs, though, at 4.1 gallons, it holds a bit more fuel than the Rubicon it heisted the motor package from.
As effortless as the full-auto setting for the transmission is, unless we were truly just cruising on flat ground, we opted to use the paddle shifters. To get the best trail performance, you keep the motor revving and stir through the five-speed with the paddle shifters. There is ample acceleration to put a smile on your face.
Much of the testing we did was on trails made for and by quads, and there weren’t any that we found that the Pioneer’s 50-inch width couldn’t handle. With such a compact machine, the steering is crisp and accurate, and the Pioneer is hyper maneuverable. Add in a comfortable cabin and you would think things were pretty happy.
Mostly that is true. To our minds the handling and power yell sport, and encourage us to ramp up the trail pace, but the suspension doesn’t chime in with the same enthusiasm. The machine is easily capable of a trail pace that will out-pace the suspension. It isn’t clanking and bottoming or wallowing; you just feel a lot of the trail surface inside the machine. For the best fun, keep your eyes peeled for smooth routes.
After driving the Pioneer 500 we can see why it is a popular machine. It has that famed Honda engine package and build quality in a reasonably priced package. We don’t see where some quad or Polaris Ace-level suspension would hurt the utility of the machine, but it would vastly improve the rough-terrain ride quality.
HONDA PIONEER 500 AUTOMATIC
Engine Liquid-cooled, single-cylinder 4-stroke
Fuel system PGM-EFI w/ 36mm throttle body
Fuel capacity 4.1 gal.
Starting system Electric
Transmission Five-speed automatic transmission w/ AT/MT modes, paddle shifting and reverse
Final drive Shaft
Front Independent double wishbone/5.9″
Rear Independent double wishbone/5.9″
Front 200mm dual hydraulic disc
Rear 170mm hydraulic disc
Ground clearance 8.5″
Towing capacity 1000 lb.
Curb weight 1025 lb.
Colors Phantom Camo, red, green