Honda Big Red

If you were to go by Honda’s official description of the Big Red, you would think it was a little cement truck or a self-propelled entrenching tool. The brochures show it dumping asphalt and hauling hay bales. Do a word search for the words “fun” or “recreation,” and you’ll come up dry. The words “safety” and “reliable” come up instead.

Honda is a very conservative company made up of enthusiastic people. Those two forces often conflict with one another, and that was exactly what happened in the development of Big Red. Even though it was clearly designed with fun in mind, its marketing and styling point it squarely at the utility market. That’s not surprising. Honda was late to the UTV party, and as a result, witnessed all the pitfalls endured by Yamaha. In the hailstorm of lawsuits that followed the introduction of the Rhino, Honda’s naturally conservative outlook made them pull back and aim their version of the Rhino more at the workman side, which was dominated by the Kawasaki Mule. But Big Red is no Mule.

Last year, we used Big Red daily at Glen Helen Raceway, laying out race courses and working hard with the other heavy equipment.

The only change to Big Red for 2010 is the addition of a new color. Big Red can now be purchased in olive as well as red or camo. The core vehicle is the same, and the styling is deliberately industrial. Whereas a Rhino looks like a little sand rail and a Prowler has a Jeep-like appearance, the Honda appears to be a giant generator on wheels. It’s all part of the big deception. The power plant is based on the same unit that powers the Rincon. It’s a 675cc, liquid-cooled four-stroke with pushrods operating four overhead valves. The crankshaft is oriented longitudinally, meaning front to rear, like an automobile. In fact, it’s the automotive technology that really sets Big Red apart from other UTVs. It makes sense; Honda is the only company in this market that actually makes cars. The transmission is very much like something you would find in a Civic. It’s a three-speed hydraulic auto, whereas every other side-by-side is driven by a CVT transmission. Unlike a car, the transmission pumps motor oil, not ATF.

Final drive is a shaft—no surprise there. In the chassis, you start to see little hints that the Honda is sportier than it looks. It has four-wheel-independent, double-wishbone suspension. At six inches front and seven inches rear, suspension travel is only slightly less than that of the decidedly sporty Kawasaki Teryx, which has 7.5 front and rear. It also has four-wheel disc brakes. Honda is keen to point out that in case of a failure on one of the brake lines, the other three calipers will still work, just like a car.

You can see that obsession with safety throughout Big Red. The seat belts have inertia reels like a car. The doors, of course, are standard equipment, as is a safety net. The roll cage is substantial, and there are passenger grab bars aplenty. Honda clearly didn’t want the machine to become lawyer bait. Those features added to the overall weight of the Honda. It’s no feather. The official curb weight is 1431 pounds with its 7.9-gallon tank full. That makes it the heaviest in the class, with only the Kawasaki coming close. It’s also the widest and the tallest, if only by an inch or so. Yes, Big Red is, indeed, big. Don’t try to get it in the back of a standard pickup unless you really don’t care about the truck.

You don’t have to limit your activity to daylight hours. Big Red has excellent light as well as an accessory outlet to power 12-volt electrical devices.

Honda gave Big Red all the credentials to be a hard worker. The double-wall bed is big and rated to 500 pounds. It tilts easily with hydraulic assist to dump your load, and when the bed is up, you can access the air filter, which is well-protected. It comes standard with a receiver for a hitch and will tow 1200 pounds.

But the best thing about Big Red is that it doesn’t complain. It always starts quickly, it needs minimal warm-up and it makes excellent bottom-end power. We used last year’s model almost every day for maintenance at Glen Helen Raceway. That was hard work. Without rest, it was used to drag personnel around the mountainous facility. We managed to carry broken motorcycles in back on several occasions. But its most impressive moment came on the annual Dirt Wheels UTV camping trip, where it was employed to carry another side-by-side piggyback. A broken tie-rod had rendered the other machine unsteerable, so the front end was lifted into Big Red’s bed. The trip back entailed climbing some steep hills where the Honda would sometimes run out of power. The nice thing was that we didn’t have to worry about burning up a belt in the transmission when that happened because Big Red has no belts. It would simply come to a stop and then we would use the broken side-by-side for some six-wheel-drive assistance.

On its own, the Honda is hard to get stuck. It’s the only machine in Honda’s line that offers four-wheel differential lock. If one wheel still has traction, you can usually get yourself free. Ground clearance is decent at just over ten inches. Our only real complaint is that the vulnerable rear tail lights hang down into harm’s way and can be torn off when the wheels start to dig in.

The double-wall bed tilts, revealing the airbox. Honda claims a 500-pound capacity for the bed, but we’ve seen it carry more.

Honda’s big secret is that Big Red isn’t all about work. The suspension is surprisingly good, so moderately rough terrain is comfortable. It has twice the wheel travel of a Mule and will go almost twice as fast on top. Like we said, it’s no Mule.

Don’t get carried away, though. If you pick a fight with a RZR on a twisty fire road, you’ll take a beating. In terms of sheer muscle, the Honda’s 675cc pushrod motor suffers when compared to the Polaris 800 motor, Kawasaki’s 750cc V-twin, or the Arctic Cat Prowler’s 951cc Vee. It will, however, hold its own against any of the mid-sided UTVs and give fits to an older 660cc Yamaha.

The Honda is most competitive with those machines in low-speed rock crawling. The motor not only has excellent low-end power, but the automatic transmission gives it a more positive response. And like we said, you don’t have to worry about the smell of a burning belt. In the world of sporty off-road vehicles, the Honda is more akin to a Hummer than a Trophy Truck.

We would love to see Big Red come with a power steering option in the future. The Honda’s steering is lighter than you might think, but power would help at both ends of the spectrum—slow and fast. Honda’s standard response for not having EPS on the Rincon ATV is a concern for overshooting the 600-pound weight barrier. That’s not an issue here.

The driver’s compartment is roomy, and the doors and safety net can keep convicted felons captive.

In a world of RZRs and Teryxes, Big Red looks like Quasimoto at Miss USA. But we’ve developed a fondness for its look because we know what it can do. Its farm-equipment styling actually is an asset—you can buy it for work and no one will notice what you do with it after hours. The machine lives a secret life when work ends. That’s okay. So do most of us.

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