— What it’s like to drive Honda’s all-new sport UTVs —
By the staff of Dirt Wheels
Honda has kept the existence of its new Talon X and Talon R UTVs quite a secret. Even when it seemed sure that something was in the works, and spy photos leaked, the actual specs remained a mystery. Finally, even though we expected only a single sport model from the conservative company, there are actually two different versions here. Most of the legion of Honda faithful are enthused with the new machines. Remember that there are literally millions of riders out there who discovered wheels and motors thanks to Honda, whether that Honda rolled on two, three or four wheels. Those are the faithful—riders who worship the fun and reliability they grew to expect and rely on with Honda products.
We must admit that we are surprised and impressed with Honda’s choice to introduce two platforms simultaneously—the X aimed at tight trails and trees, and the R pointed directly at fast and open terrain.
WHAT DRIVES IT?
We start with the drivetrain, since both Talon models share the same high-performance parallel-twin, UniCam engine and six-speed DCT transmission. Honda’s UniCam directly actuates the intake valves via shim-under-bucket, but the exhaust lobes actuate the exhaust valves via rocker arms. This makes for a compact cylinder head design with proven performance. Honda chose a 270-degree firing angle, so this twin has a staccato sound rather than the purr that is normal with 180-degree firing angles. The Talon shares the basic 999cc engine platform that also powers the Pioneer 1000 and (from the crankshaft up) the Africa Twin adventure motorcycle. Our hope was that the Talon would at least equal the power of the Africa Twin, but at 104 claimed horsepower at the crank, it makes more power than either sibling.
Honda accomplished the power boost in the usual way—more efficient port shapes, 46mm throttle bodies in place of 44s, and a cam with more lift and duration. Unlike the Pioneer engine, the Talon version has oil jets that spray oil up under the pistons for added cooling. In addition to that oiling, Honda fitted the largest radiator and fan used on any Honda ATV or UTV.
In a world of belt-drive UTVs, perhaps more important than the actual engine is the Talon’s Pioneer-shared, six-speed dual-clutch transmission. You have no belts to worry about, and gain a great high-performance sound and feel. You can select normal automatic mode and it drives like the family car; switch it to sport and the engine pulls longer in each gear before shifting. If you prefer to be in control, switch the system to manual and use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to manipulate gear changes. If you don’t demand full control, you can still override either of the auto modes using the paddle shifters. Even though the DCT feels like an automatic transmission, it is actually a manual transmission with two auto clutches. As a result, the Talons have positive engine braking, just like when you chop the throttle on a manual-shift four-stroke quad. You control engine braking by shifting up for less and down for more.
Manual mode doesn’t supply total control. The system will not allow you to stall the machine, so if you lug the engine too low, it will downshift for you. It automatically shifts back to first gear when you stop. There is a sub-transmission that allows you to select between high and low range. If you are familiar with specifications of the Pioneer 1000 LE, you will recognize a few other drivetrain features. There is a hill-start feature that allows you to get going on a hill with total confidence. You can do the same by left-foot braking the machine, but it is a fully casual situation doing hill-starts on up to 60-percent grades with the hill-start feature.
LIVING BETTER WITH COMPUTERS
I4WD is a standard feature for both machines. Just as the gear-to-gear DCT six-speed is Honda’s way to avoid problems it sees as intrinsic to CVT and belt-drive systems, I4WD is Honda’s answer to drawbacks the company sees as unacceptable in locking front differentials. No doubt many of you are thinking, “Hmm, I didn’t know that CVTs and locking diffs were even a problem?” Locking the front differential does create hard steering, but it ensures that power gets to both front wheels via a pretty simple and reliable mechanism. I4WD is one facet of a computerized braking system that is highly intelligent. If one wheel is spinning, the brake on that wheel stops it. At the same time the brains of the system measure the force required to stop the wheel, and the brain shuffles four times that amount of power to the wheel on the opposite side.
Obviously, this system is far more complex and advanced than a locking front differential, but as advertised, it is seamless in action. It does a great job maintaining traction in tricky conditions while always providing light and uncompromised steering and control. Since you never stuff a spinning wheel into the ground, I4WD is easy on the front differential as well. You are allowed to select between 2WD and I4WD on the fly.
The electronic braking is still in effect in 2WD, but it is called Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD). EBD senses the available traction at each wheel and adds braking power where it is needed and can be used. Like I4WD, EBD is completely transparent in use. Typical automotive ABS can be a nightmare in the dirt, but EBD is only noticed as great braking in tricky conditions.
Chassis specs are where the Talons start to differentiate. Both employ basically the same well-tested one-piece frame. We’ve been through the Honda plant in South Carolina, and the machinery they have to stress test frames and chassis components is very impressive. Plus, Honda always does exhaustive yet scientific on-the-ground testing as well. To make sure the frame lasts, it gets an e-coat process that coats the frame inside and out with a corrosion-resistant layer that also acts as a base for the black color layer.
While the frame is basically the same for both models, suspension travel, wheelbase and track width are all different. Honda isn’t breaking much new ground with this chassis, but there are a few innovations. Modern two-seat sport UTVs have quite a range of wheelbase numbers. Polaris has always kept its RZR platform compact with a 90-inch wheelbase, the Textron Wildcat XX is 95 and the Can-Am X3 is 102 inches. Even the compact new Can-Am Maverick Sport is 90.6. Honda has positioned the Talon X as a machine for tight trails, and with an 87.6-inch wheelbase, it does have a modest footprint. Of the mid- to long-travel machines, only the Polaris RS1 has a shorter wheelbase at 83 inches.
Many trail-oriented machines run a width between 50 and 60 inches, but Honda has set the Talon X up at 64 inches. A full 64 inches has become the standard for sport UTVs, with aggressive, high-speed-oriented or extreme-use machines measuring 72 inches. With the Talon R, Honda opted for a wheelbase of 92.7 inches—longer than a Polaris RZR but shorter than the XX, and over 9 inches shorter than the Can-Am X3. At 68.4 inches wide, it settles in wider than most, but remains narrow enough to be nimble.
GIVING THEM LEGS
Suspension travel numbers are always important, but so is suspension design. These are the areas that the Talons vary the most. Of the two, the Talon X is the most traditional. It has a double-A-arm front suspension setup with 14.6 inches of travel using Fox Podium 2.0 shocks with dual-rate springs and QS3 three-position, quick-adjust compression damping settings.
In the rear, the Talon X employs a three-link trailing arm setup. It looks fairly conventional in design and attachment to the chassis, though the rear of the arm looks like a forging or casting rather than a construction of welded stampings. It also uses Fox Podium 2.0 QS3 shocks and dual-rate springs for 15.1 inches of travel.
Honda did things differently with the Talon R. It does have similar Fox Podium QS3 shocks with dual-rate springs front and rear, but on the R they are 2.5s instead of 2.0s. It uses A-arm front suspension with 17.1 inches of travel. The shock mounts to the top A-arm, so the top arm is made of much larger-diameter tubing than the lower arm, and they are visually much longer arms than on the Talon X.
In the rear, Honda uses a suspension system that it refers to as 4+-link. It is a trailing arm, but one without a rigid connection to the casting known as a knuckle or a wheel bearing carrier. The trailing arm is attached with something like a ball joint. There are radius rods locating the knuckle, but with the flexible connection to the trailing arm, the system has another locating arm that looks and no doubt acts somewhat like an upper A-arm.
Honda claims that the advantage to this system is added toe control for the rear wheel during the rear suspension stroke. Honda claims that traditional trailing arm setups can have 3 or 4 degrees of toe change. That means that at the extreme ends of the rear wheel’s travel, the rear wheels point in or out, and that makes the rear of the car less stable. Honda claims the Talon R’s suspension has 3/10ths of a degree toe change during the 20.1-inch suspension stroke.
The ride portion took place on real trails in the Mojave Desert near Ridgecrest, California. We want to be clear that this was a brief ride—two 5-mile loops in each machine. We were not allowed to deviate from the selected course, and we had a Honda rep in the right seat.
While Honda could have been expected to make the loop easy for the Talon, the team put together plenty of real-world trails. At least half were filled with big whoops. And if you think that the Honda rep was to keep us reined in, they were actually egging us on to push the Talons harder in the rough than we were naturally inclined to with the little time we had in the cars and around the loop. But, they know the cars and the loop, and knew when full throttle was appropriate.
We started in the shorter-travel and -wheelbase Talon X. We drove part of the first loop in the normal transmission mode, but switched to sport roughly halfway through the course. For sporty driving, shifts are smoother, and the ride is more composed in Sport mode for the six-speed DCT transmission. Honda’s claimed 104 horsepower would put it below the claimed output of other normally aspirated sport machines. Honda also claims the DCT trans is more efficient, and that power and acceleration are at least on par with other normally aspirated UTVs. Happily, we can say that felt like the case. The Talon accelerates briskly and pulls hard from gear to gear. Unlike CVT/engine combinations, the sound of the Talon’s 999cc engine is sporty, and it almost sounds like a sport motorcycle going through the gears.
For our second loop we switched the mode to manual, and we did the shifting. For our tastes, this was the most satisfying driving mode. We also sampled low range for some steep climbs. The car would do the climbs in high range, but low range offered better control of traction and line choice.
Honda set up the Talon X suspension on the sporty side. It isn’t super plush, but still allows the car to be pushed extremely hard for a 15-inch-travel machine. It goes straight and feels secure in the rough. Clearly, the X is designed for tighter conditions than we experienced, and it should rock tight trails. Nevertheless, it accounted itself well in the rough desert.
Like the Talon X, the Talon R is easy to enter, and the seated position is more upright than many sport UTVs. As a result, forward vision is quite as usable as any machine out there. There are spots to brace your feet and open areas to stretch out during more relaxed driving. The seats are supportive and comfortable. They come with openings for four-point harness belts. After our Talon X experience, we spent less time in other modes and went almost immediately to manual driving mode. From the first moment the Talon R felt happier and calmer in the high-speed rough. More important, the small-bump compliance went up as well, since at just over 20 inches of rear-wheel travel, there is more suspension to work with. For the Talon R loop, techs added a roughly half-mile stretch of twisty, turning and up-and-down trail filled with whoops. We were encouraged to run the car through them at full throttle. Honda has certainly built a car that handles the rough with aplomb. It stays straight with a minimum of bucking. And when it does buck, it often felt like we entered the section too cautiously. Obviously, for western conditions we like the R.
Traction is quite good with the Honda-specific Maxxis tires. With 15-inch rims and 28-inch tires, the Talons don’t have as much tire sidewall flex to add compliance to the ride as other UTVs do, but that is likely partially responsible for the crisp handling and clean control the machines exhibit. We did notice that both Hondas slide the rear in turns smoothly and typically hold that slide. It is really fun, and the car feels natural sliding with little tendency to two-wheel while it is happening. We can’t think of another long-travel sport model that is so calm sliding. No doubt the tire/wheel combo is part of this trait as well.
Visibility to the sides is handicapped by the window nets. We will be the first to admit that the window nets, roof and high door sides make the Talon feel extremely secure and safe to drive hard, but there is a trade in visibility to the side. Interestingly, the roof has a drip rail at the front to keep running water out of the cab. Also, the vents in the rear of the roof are claimed to have some downforce at speed, and perhaps, more important, they help prevent lift when the car is on a trailer backwards.
As we write this, there is no pricing for either machine, but a promise from Honda that they will be competitively priced. A large number will be sold for the simple fact that these are Hondas, but many more will be sold because they are great machines that are a lot of fun to drive.
HONDA TALON X & R
Engine Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, 4-valve, Unicam parallel-twin
Bore x stroke 92.0 x 75.15mm
Fuel system EFI
Fuel capacity 7.3 gal.
Starting system Electric
Final drive 6-speed dual-clutch
transmission w/ P/R/N/H/L
Front Double wishbone/14.6” w/ Fox Podium 2.0 QS3 shocks; double wishbone/17.7” w/ Fox Podium 2.5 QS3 shocks
Rear 3-link trailing arm/15.1” w/Fox Podium 2.0 QS3 shocks; 4+-link trailing arm/20.1” w/ Fox Podium 2.5 QS3 shocks
Front 28x9x15 Maxxis
Rear 28x11x15 Maxxis
Front Hydraulic w/two 250mm discs; EBD system
Rear Hydraulic w/two 250mm discs; EBD system
Length/width/height 123.9”/64.0”/75.3”; 123.9”/68.4”/75.6”
Ground clearance 12.7”; 13.0”
Payload capacity N/A
Towing capacity 2,000 lb
Curb weight 1,490 lb. (1,492 lb. CA) wet; 1,545 lb. (1,548 lb. CA) wet
Colors Pearl Red/Metallic Grey; Metallic Grey, Metallic Blue, Pearl Red, Pearl Green