Text: Riding along the spartanly beautiful north rim of the Grand Canyon it was sometimes difficult to pay attention to the reason our group of 15 or so had traveled here to the remote Arizona Strip. That was to test drive American Honda's 2014 Pioneer 700 and 700-4 (two- and four-seat models, respectively)
The 5 million-acre Arizona Strip in northwest Arizona is isolated from the rest of state by the Grand Canyon (and thousands of other canyons). It is some of the most remote terrain in the U.S.—and home to trophy mule deer. The 60 miles of rock-strewn trails we covered that late February day crisscrossed the 250,000-acre Bar 10 Ranch. The Bar 10, by the way, is a working cattle ranch that produces for retail sale a selection of hormone-free, grass-fed beef cuts, and is also a recreational destination. The ranch, operated by the most recent of five generations of Heatons who have ranches in this area, sits in high-country desert predominately covered with sagebrush that thrives on 10 inches of rain per year.
Base camp was the self-sufficient Bar 10's lodge built 4,100 feet above sea level. We drove the Pioneers as high as 5,400 feet.
The 2014 Pioneer 700 and 700-4 with an all-new chassis are the first of a new generation of side-by-sides Honda will introduce in coming months and years. The Pioneer was designed at Honda Research and Development in Ohio, and they are built in Timmonsville, S.C. This is the first time a U.S. Honda team led a new design project from conception to production.
At first look, the Pioneer's aggressive styling makes it appear built for rugged, off-road environments.
The two-seat Pioneer 700 ($9,999) mounts a hydraulic-assist tilting cargo box and a 675cc liquid-cooled OHV single cylinder, four-stroke engine with programmed fuel injection. The Pioneer has three drive modes—2 WD, 4 WD and 4 WD with locked differential.
The Pioneer 700-4 ($11,699) offers 2-, 3-, or 4-seat configurations. It has the same liquid-cooled engine, fuel injection, and cargo box. The 700-4 has an extended roll bar system over the cargo box and has two molded side doors. It takes only a minute to discover why. In the 700-4 are two seats folded down into the bed when not in use. With the release of a latch, one or both seats lift up. One note here: When the seats are folded down into their storage position, the cargo bed maintains its full tilting functionality. But when the seats are in the up position, the box cannot tilt.
The price difference between the Pioneer 700 and 700-4 is $1,700 or about 17% above the 2-seat base price. The four-seat model adds only 135 pounds to the weight of the machine. For the money and the seating flexibility, it is an option well worth considering.
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This Pioneer replaces the venerable Big Red models that, while they were hard-work performers, lacked some of the maneuvering features and styling preferred by off-road enthusiasts.
The Pioneer is targeted at both the work and recreation segments of the side-by-side market. Honda spokesmen point out the Pioneer sacrifices no work capacities while adding new off-road capabilities the Big Red lacked. For example, the Pioneer can still carry 1,000 pounds in its bed -- same as Big Red -- and tow 1,500 pounds -- same as Big Red.
But the Pioneer suspension offers two more inches more suspension travel than Big Red (7.9 inches in the front and 9.1 inches in the rear). The amount of travel is important to comfort on difficult trails or cross-country riding. Suspension travel is the distance from the bottom of the suspension stroke (such as when the vehicle is on a jack and the wheel hangs freely) to the top of the suspension stroke (when the vehicle's wheel can no longer travel in an upward direction).
The Pioneer has 10.5 inches of ground clearance and a tight turning radius of 14.8 feet. It has a wheelbase slightly longer than Big Red, but is slightly shorter in overall length. The Pioneer is 4 inches narrower than Big Red for more agile handing, Honda said. Both the 700 and 700-4 are 60 inches wide. The 700-4 is about 3/4-inches taller than the two-seat version.
The 675cc engine gives the Pioneer good pick up and power to climb over rocks and other obstacles. It offers pretty good speed, too. On a longer stretch of unpaved road, my Pioneer two-seater topped out at a bit over 40 mph.
A FEW OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE
1. If there was a knock against the Honda Pioneer, it is its suspension. Most of the time, the Pioneer delivered a comfortable ride over very rough terrain. But there were times when a not-too-big rock in the trail or some other medium-sized obstacle just maxed out the suspension's capability. (This does not include the time I failed to spot a wash across the trail. My Honda passenger and I hit that very hard. Very hard. But that was on me and the Pioneer went right on.) This is a topic of discussion in other blogs and owner forums which point to [expensive] after-market shocks as fixes. It's a good guess Honda has heard this before.
2. The Pioneer 700 does not include power steering. It was a marketing/retail decision for Honda. The company believes it has identified an opportunity to sell a vehicle that fits into midpoint of the price range for side-by-sides. In other words, the Pioneer is neither the least expensive model, nor the more expensive. In finding that price point, power steering was deleted.
However, I rode most of the trails in full-time 2 WD. And, there were some highly rugged, big rock, and washed segments of the trail. The steering was light and responsive. I found the Pioneer 700 two-seater I was driving handled sharp turns in the trail very well in 2 WD. The back end felt like it slid a little bit, but not uncontrollably. After a few minutes, it was actually fun to push the nimble Pioneer through these turns.
Locked into 4WD, the steering did tighten. It required a little more work to steer and the "sporty" features of the Pioneer were tamped down. But its ability to climb rock ledges in the trail, for example, was greatly improved in 4 WD, locked.
3. Honda put an automotive-style transmission in the Pioneer 700 (with heavy-duty hydraulic torque converter, three gears forward and reverse). With a three speed, as opposed to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), you feel the shifting. But the sealed three-speed transmission protects belts from wear due to grime, and Honda believes, reduces maintenance and more efficiently delivers horsepower to the trail. The 3-speed transmission is tuned to shift sooner at low speed and slow acceleration, but later at high acceleration. The transmission also provides positive downhill engine breaking to supplement the Pioneer's disc brakes.
This should not be taken to mean Honda has shunned CVT. For example, Honda's Foreman Rubicon is equipped with a continuously variable Hondamatic transmission.
4. The Pioneer 700 features triple disc brakes. The front brake discs feature a scraper that helps prevent the buildup of debris between caliper and rim. An inboard-mounted rear brake disc is better protected from rocks or other debris.
5. The Pioneer is built for distance. It carries just more than 8 gallons of fuel, including a 1.2-gallon reserve.
6. The oil filter is convenient to change, accessed from either above the engine or below. The air intake is positioned to reduce dust and water ingestion. The air filter is foam for easy cleaning
It will be interesting to watch what Honda rolls out next in the Pioneer line. For those wanting a sporty feel, ease-of-handling and power delivered to the ground, this is a significant improvement over the 4-year-old, now discontinued Big Red. For those who appreciated the work capabilities of Big Red, know that those capabilities still exist in the Pioneer 700.
The Pioneer 700 is available in three colors: red, olive and Honda Phantom Camo.
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