I hopped into the driver’s seat of the Honda Pioneer 700-4 Deluxe at the tail end of a snowstorm. Looking down, I wasn’t sure where anything was. When I asked a Honda rep about the controls, he just looked at me quizzically and said he’d be right back. The array of sticks and switches coming out of the dash was just overwhelming for about 30 seconds. By the time he came back, I waved him off. After all, it wasn’t technically my first rodeo. But it’s been a while.
Twenty-ish years ago, I was invited to the Polaris Ranger introduction in the swamps of Southern Florida. I was the Senior Editor of a publication called ATV Test Guide (a precursor to ATV Rider) and they were super happy I’d come out. Like really, really happy. And I wasn’t sure why. Most of the other assembled journalists were from farming publications and such, but I still didn’t grasp why the whole thing felt off. Then they introduced me to what a Ranger was.
While I was well versed behind some handlebars, I literally had no idea what I was getting into here. After flying 3,000 miles: “Oh, it’s like a (Kawasaki) Mule! It has a steering wheel and stuff!” (Cut me some slack, it was a different time…)
I had a hoot driving the things through the Palmettos (sometimes over the palmettos) and through swampy mud tracks and clawing over rocks. At low speed, you could do no wrong. 2002 was the first year of the 4-wheeled Ranger. Until then, Polaris’ Ranger was only offered as a 6-wheeled vehicle. Dropping down to just four wheels was an adjustment for them. And then, the side-by-side platform quickly became a distant memory.
But this time around, I knew exactly what I was getting into. Mostly. I’ve been doing back-end production, editing and a little writing for this very site for a few months now. So, when I received the call to test ride Honda’s revamped Pioneer 700 at Southern California’s Hungry Valley, I leapt at the chance.
I realize the Pioneer (especially the smaller iteration), or any UTV with a dump bed, might not be exactly the action-packed vehicle you’d expect from an outlet boasting ‘Sports in the title. But for a cold day of trail riding, with a rookie pilot like myself, it was exactly right.
While I felt comfortable and familiar with the machine very swiftly, quite a few things have changed in the last 20 years. An approachable machine, maybe even considered entry-level these days, it’s still a few hundred cc’s bigger than the turn-of-the-century models I was once familiar with, which only came with a 499cc engine.
Rear seats were totally not a thing then, while now (on this particular Pioneer) a few quick clicks in the dump bed and you have room for the family. I didn’t even notice that the model I was driving had jump seats. As this is a follow-on model Honda spent very little time going over the stuff I should have already known, and more time talking about bigger cup holders and glove compartments (not kidding, they really are huge).
I’ve spent a lot of time on ATVs, so I’m accustomed to the basic transmission types common to UTVs as well. Honda is famous (infamous?) for not using drive belts, so it comes as no surprise that there’s an auto-shifting dual-clutch in the Pioneer 700-4. It reminds me of the Rincon (ATV). A quick glance at the spec sheet tells me that it is, in fact, the same everything as the Rincon (motor, transmission), with more stuff bolted to the top – to include the steering wheel of course.
Running through the gears, either in automatic or manual, has an aggressive soulfulness to it versus the drone of a CVT. Don’t get me wrong, put a big enough motor with a CVT, and it has its own brand of aggression, but the aural stimulation isn’t quite the same. While all the transmission modes were easy to use, simply leaving it in drive and occasionally overriding via the paddle shifters when needed, was perfect.
Power steering was a huge difference from my last drive in a UTV, which was an interesting adaptation. While I never felt a strong connection to what the front end was doing, it also didn’t do anything surprising or particularly dangerous. This 700 didn’t have enough oomph to do anything squirrely unless the ground was particularly loose, and at those times, the steering felt a bit vague. But the rest of the time, over rough or rocky terrain, the ease of use was spectacular.
Suspension felt worlds different than back in the day; I remember the former being firm and very utilitarian. I was surprised by how plush the Pioneer was when pushed a little. Honda Utility ATVs tend to be a bit stiff, but the crossover Rincon is sportier and plusher… This felt more like that. At least, until you push too much. Give it far more than enough and you start to bounce around uncomfortably. But I can imagine that’s not unusual. And at least it gives plenty of warning before it loses stability. I never once felt out of control, except when I left it in 2wd at a moment when four was optimal.
The last big revelation was the seats. Yes, seats. When I walked up to the Pioneer it struck a very similar profile to the machine I drove 20 years ago. But individual seats are now the norm, and the two additional seats out back caught me by surprise; it looked like a simple dump truck. I regretted not bringing one of the kids. Hell, I regretted not bringing the whole family.
I’ve been a lifelong motorcyclist, since the ripe age of three years old. When trips to the sand became commonplace, I became hooked on ATVs. However, I had an inbred aversion to driving things with steering wheels for fun. I even have trouble typing the word “driving” in an article. But I get it now. While you need to respect all machinery you’re controlling; I think they’re good for powersports because they are safer than an ATV. Or at least the margins for safety are higher and the learning-curve-to-danger ratio is way better.
I used to be very much an ATV partisan, I even wrote an editorial worrying that these things would take over the industry way back in ‘04… and, luckily, I was right. It’s beyond a good thing. It’s a revolution in the powersports community, on the racecourse and on the farm. And I should say thanks to all of the UTV community for making this category shine, and to American Honda for putting me behind the wheel once again. Just for the fun of it.