|November - December 2003
Volume 1, Number
Cover photo John R. Ford
The SUV of ATVs
In the past, when I spoke about ATVs, I said
there was intense competition that was causing tremendous strides in ATV technology. In
that regard we are really seeing two kinds of technology. One is fun; it is
sheer raw power from larger and larger motors. The other is real technology being
demonstrated in transmissions, suspensions and many other rider-friendly details. When we
look at the Honda Rincon, we see its largest power plant to date, a big 650cc
liquid-cooled monster that propels one of the cushiest, user-friendly ATVs in history.
Before we get to the specifics of this
machine, it is important to understand it in conceptual terms. This one is different from
many other Honda ATVs. That it is referred to as the SUV of ATVs explains much of its
design criteria. This one is designed to be sophisticated, powerful, relatively light
weight, easy to handle and easy to ride. While it certainly is more than capable of going
in bad places, it is even more at home on trails, logging roads, fields, modest mountains
and other less than extreme terrain. It is designed to be fun and powerful. Said another
way, if you want an extreme machine, for severe terrain, very heavy loads, big trailers
and dead elk in ugly holes, you should choose as I do, Hondas other flagship model,
When Honda first explained its plan for the
Rincon, I almost declined to test drive it. However, as I thought about it, I realized
only a few of us really live and work in the rock-mountains. Most of you have different,
flatter, maybe muddier worlds. Many of you rate a 4-wheeler, not by how slow it will go,
but how fast it will go and how well it can handle an extreme corner in the trail. Most of
you will pack a whitetail instead of an elk. So, instead of declining because this machine
is not perfect for me, I chose to ride it and think about it for the other 80 percent of
high-performance ATV users. With that in mind, we are in for a real treat.
We will begin with the feature that truly sets
the Rincon apart from any other machine: its transmission. This one has been on my wish
list for awhile and here it is, a real automatic
transmission just like you have in your car or pickup. This is a hydraulic
torque-converter with three distinct forward gears and a reverse. Yes, it shifts up and
down with a system that feels and smells exactly like the automotive transmissions we have
used for years.
Too, just like the auto transmissions we are
used to, it can be used as an automatic, or there is the ESP, Electric Shift Program, that allows the rider to
shift through the gears at will. The system is designed to allow you to simply put the
lever in drive, get on and ride, or it allows the rider to be involved in the
rpm/shift decision process. Shifting, by the way, is electronic, instead of vacuum. I
generally leave the selector in automatic mode and let the transmission do the work and
thinking, just as I do in my pickup. However, in situations where there is a long climb
uphill, it is nice to be able to choose a gear that suits the speed and incline. This
eliminates the up/down shifting just like it does in our cars when we are on a road that
goes uphill. The same process also allows you to lock the transmission in first gear,
eliminating surprise shifts.
Further, like the automotive transmissions,
this automatic provides a very smooth, gentle takeoff, as well as a smooth transition from
gear to gear. This can be very valuable on unsure footing or in rough places. The other
attribute to this automatic system is the very easy movement of the shift lever from
forward to neutral to reverse. This purely effortless selection is unusual in ATVs, where
most require some rpm or clutch nudging to change directions. With the Rincon,
rocking it out of a snow drift or mud hold is a snap.
There is one thing intentionally missing in
conjunction with the gear train. The Rincon has only three forward gears and does not have
a low range. It is like a car, if you will, instead of like most 4WD pickups
that have high and low range with granny gear.
Another new for big Hondas is the
ability to choose between two- and four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is a marvelous
thing, but having a vehicle (be it ATV or truck) locked in 4WD has its drawbacks. Perhaps
the most significant is ease of steering. I am often amazed at just how difficult is to
turn my Ford around in the driveway if it is in 4WD. Shifting it into 2WD makes the same
maneuver almost effortless.
With 4-wheelers, the 2WD option makes the
steering easier on the arms. Changing from 2WD to 4WD, or vice versa, is wonderfully
simple and easy. The simple flip of a rocker switch on the right handle bar makes the
electro-magnetic exchange. You can shift while the machine is moving as long as the front
and rear axles are moving within 6 mph of each other. The 4WD option, combined with the
sophisticated torque-sensing (limited slip) front differential, helps make all four tires
scratch when the going is tough. Then, just between us not-quite-grown-up boys and girls,
the 2WD option is not only easy but fun. We have sufficient power now to break the back
tires loose and kick it around a corner in delightful style!
The other radically different feature for Honda, on this machine, is the independent rear suspension. Where previous Honda ATVs have used a solid rear axle, the Rincon has a new, refined double-wishbone. A small differential transfers power from the main prop shaft to the two, now flexible connections to the rear tires. Each rear wheel has 8 inches of travel, which gives the machine the ability to "step over" lumps and bumps with minimal disturbance to the rider. While this kind of suspension makes the ride smoother, most suggest it is a little less stable on extreme sidehills than the solid rear axles. Again, the Rincon is not designed to replace or even be the Rubicon when the going is extreme.
There is another double-edged attribute that goes with the automatic transmission. Honda has, to a degree, reduced engine braking. That is, when you let off the gas, at any speed, the braking power of the engine/transmission system is much less than on many other machines. The positive side is that the machine decelerates very gently when you release the throttle. It is again much like a car or truck and in contrast to the feeling that you mashed the brake pedal when you let off the throttle, as on many other big ATVs. This lets you float over a rise, or into a corner, reducing the power but not the speed. The flip side is, when you point the Rincon down a steep hill, you need the mechanical brakes. (This is especially pronounced because there is no low range.) I found that the engine braking, as it is, engages at about 8 mph, where the Rubicon will actually hold the machine between 2 and 4 mph with compression alone. Thus, the brakes on the Rincon are very important and very sophisticated.
The front brakes are triple-sealed drum brakes, while the rear brake is a hydraulic disk brake on the rear drive shaft. All of them are sealed against the outside world, making them unaffected by dirt or water. They really work! There is braking consideration that goes with the luxury of the 2WD and 4WD option. When you are in 4WD, either of the brake levers or pedal affect all four wheels via the drive train. When you are in 2WD, however, the right lever and foot pedal brake the rear wheels and the left brakes the front, just like a motorcycle.
The main thing to remember is not to clamp the front brakes alone, lest the back end will try to pass the front. Of course, when you want maximum braking and/or motion control, using both brake levers and applying the front drums and rear disk in a coordinated way gives the rider total control.
From a rider's standpoint, I found the Rincon to be delightful. First it is magnificently powerful. Even in 4WD, if you pin the throttle on a good gravel surfaced road, the thing throws rocks and spins for quite awhile. It will accelerate to 50 mph while you are wondering what happened and easily passes that speed (which is when I let off the throttle) even at my relatively high 4,500 feet above sea level. It corners on a logging road like a BMW and stays hooked to the ground even if the road surface is very bumpy.
We shouldn't think that the Rincon can only go on roads. Partly because of its smooth transmission and magnificent power, it will go through some really tough ground with minimal rider fear-factor. I took the Rincon up a steep hill that was littered with 4- to 8-inch fir deadfall and plenty of rocks. The place was a mess, where I would prefer to walk. The Rincon has enough power to manage the steep uphill virtually at idle. Then when confronted by a log, I could roll the front wheels up against it, nudge the throttle and have the machine hop over the obstacle as if it were a horse.
Of course, in this nasty stuff the sophisticated suspension really comes into its own. There were times, because of the "high range only," that I hit things going much faster than I would have liked (said another way, more than 2 miles per hour). I expected things to get wild, and essentially nothing happened. The Rincon took the stupid shortcut, hopped over the logs and rocks, rolled out on the logging road at the top and then sizzled to 30 mph with a gentle touch. When I looked back over my shoulder at the rat maze we just climbed, my most basic reaction was, "I don't believe it. That was too easy!"
I will end with one last attribute that is a grand surprise with this monster engine. It is as quiet as a mouse. To my ears and to the bush folk about, this is the quietest, stock ATV I have ridden. With its stock muffler it almost approaches other machines with the additional ultra-quiet mufflers in place. If one were to put a Stealth or Quiet Exhaust on the Rincon, it might be difficult to tell if the engine was lit.
The Rincon is an amazing ride. If you want a machine that will fly and offer you extreme control and simply one of the most rider-friendly packages on the market, this is it.
Okay, where do we go from here? Just to prove I am never satisfied, let's dream for a moment. What if we melted a Rubicon and a Rincon, stirred them together and poured out one machine: huge motor, low range, engine braking, quiet and ultra suspension. Hmmmm, don't bet against it! - Ross Seyfried