First Ride – The 2014 Fourtrax Rancher

First Ride – The 2014 Fourtrax Rancher of the best-selling models in the Honda lineup is their beloved Rancher 420.  It’s not the most powerful or the fastest Honda ATV, but it is, without a doubt, one of their best.  It simply does everything well.  So well in fact, we’ve even named it as ATV of the Year a couple times, and with the recent major changes Honda bestowed on the 2014 FourTrax Rancher, it has an excellent shot of claiming that title once again. 

Rancher Rebuild

One of the biggest changes to the FourTrax Rancher didn’t come wrapped in red bodywork with a wing on the side.  Instead, it was a decision about where the new Rancher would be designed, developed, and built.  In a major corporate shift, Honda wisely decided the best place to design and build any new Rancher was closest to the end customer.  Thanks to the combined effort of all of Honda’s North American divisions – sales, R&D, and manufacturing – the new Rancher took form in the design and R&D offices in Ohio and California, and is built in South Carolina.  Nothing makes a design and final product better than extensive interaction with the end customer, and there was no better place in the world to do that than right here in North America.  The end product clearly shows the wisdom of that    

Before any design work was started on the new FourTrax Rancher, Honda sent out teams of engineers, product planners, and marketing staff to meet with existing owners.  Their goal was to determine what changes current owners would like in any new Rancher and to find a way to incorporate those changes into the new model.  What they learned was most current Rancher owners were more than happy with the reliability and functionality of the existing Rancher 420 and if it never changed, that would be just fine with them.  In their eyes, it was already a capable, hard working ATV and it would seemingly run forever with minimal care.  From Honda’s standpoint, the only troubling part was that despite the Rancher 420’s reputation for getting the job done, it was often overlooked for any weekend recreation.  That had to change. 

A New Rancher

Trail riding is all about handling, suspension, and comfort.  To enhance the FourTrax Rancher’s trail riding abilities, Honda began with an all-new chassis with longer suspension, a more responsive engine and transmission, and new bodywork.  Highlights of the new FourTrax Rancher

  • Longitudinally mounted engine for efficient power delivery
  • New Electronic Fuel Injection mapping
  • In tank fuel pump
  • Increased AC electrical power output 
  • Longer Suspension Travel
  • New digital display
  • Thicker seat foam
  • New swingarm design 
  • New bodywork styling

The Rancher has always been slightly more compact than other ATV in the Honda family.  That’s partly why it has always been nimble on the trail, but Honda wanted to give it an aggressive, edgy look to go with its increased trail performance.  What the styling team created is a somewhat larger feeling Rancher that maintains its excellent trail manners in a slightly more roomy package.  

Styling teams are careful to consider the ergonomics of any new model, and on the new FourTrax Rancher, that intricate relationship from seat, to pegs, to bars was reworked ever so slightly for added comfort on all day trail rides.  Almost an inch of foam was added to the seat, and when you reach for the bars, everything feels perfectly placed.  We were especially happy to find Honda gave the new Rancher an easy to read digital display which shows speed, total miles or trip mileage, fuel, coolant temperature, and other info.  We believe the identical digital cluster is used on the Pioneer as well.  On the right handle bar is a perfect fitting thumb throttle, and just ahead of your left knee is the 4wd engagement lever.  Nobody ever complains about Honda ergonomics.  There is one other comfort feature nobody complains about either: Electronic Power

Honda makes power steering a standard feature on several of the new FourTrax Ranchers and while it’s been offered on some past models, for 2014 the system has been reworked.  Expect better feel, more precise response, reduced effort at low speeds, and better resistance to kickback when you clip an unseen object along the trail.  Once you try it, you’ll always want it.  A big part of the increased steering precision, however, is due to the new, more rigid chassis. 

The Rancher’s new, double-cradle steel frame was designed to provide better suspension action and precise handling.  Overall the chassis is stiffer but the longer suspension does a good job of absorbing impacts, whether it’s small trail bumps or major obstacles.  We could aggressively attack the woods trails and it did a good job of carving between trees, but the suspension also soaked up impacts from roots, rocks, and ruts with no kicking or swapping to either side.  Front suspension is through dual A-arms while the rear gets a new swingarm design that seals out dirt better, and applies the load more evenly across the rear axle.  Suspension travel is listed at 6.69 inches at each end, with 7.2 inches of ground clearance.  Neither are huge numbers, but it works as a package and will probably be fine for most casual riders.  Dual hydraulic brakes are found on the front, but for unfathomable reasons, Honda still clings to an antiquated drum brake at the

All new Ranchers are powered by a single cylinder, 420cc, liquid cooled, EFI equipped 4-stroke engine.  The engine sits longitudinally in the chassis meaning the motor is turned 90 degrees from the traditional ATV engine direction.  In short, the crankshaft runs front to back in the chassis just like it does in your truck.  The advantage is much more efficient power delivery because the drive shafts simply poke out both ends of the engine with no direction changing gearbox until it reaches the drive axle.  Another major advantage is there is much more room for the rider’s feet, increasing rider comfort.  Honda also updated the fuel injection system for 2014 with a new oxygen sensor and new mapping which gives a more complete burn, better mileage, and reduced emissions.  It’s the Rancher’s clutch, though, where the real magic happens.  

Every FourTrax Rancher comes with an automatic clutch, but the transmission can be shifted manually on some models with Honda’s electric shift program (ESP), or in fully automatic mode.  Through the Rancher’s Electronic Control Module (ECM), the ESP monitors information from four sensors—engine rpm, countershaft speed, shift drum angle and shift spindle angle—to control the speed of the electric-shift motor’s gear and clutch engagement.  The system is even intuitive and adaptive to your riding style and trail conditions, insuring you’re in the powerband at all times.     One of the most unique features on this or any ATV, however, is Honda’s automatic dual-clutch transmission.

Formula 1 racing is known as being the pinnacle of automotive technology, usually at an equally steep price.  It is there that next generation technology is often developed and the FourTrax Rancher dual clutch transmission is the direct descendant of Honda’s F1 program.  The way it works is, on dual clutch (DCT) Rancher models, the transmission has two clutch packs, with one clutch operating gears 1, 3, and 5, while the other operates gear sets 2, 4 and reverse.  As a shift is made, the next gear set is automatically engaged as well, but the clutch pack driving that gear set is not activated until acted to do so.  Basically, the transmission anticipates your next move and shifts to the next gear set, but the clutch pack driving the next gear set stays disengaged until the shift is made.  At that point, the process repeats itself for the next gear.  The result is a very smooth shifting transmission with no deceleration or lag between gears.  On all Ranchers a reliable shaft drive system gets the power to the wheels. 

With so many unique features and available options, we were even confused about different Rancher models, but Honda created this chart to help keep it all straight.

With the improvements and upgrades to the new FourTrax Rancher, one would expect a large difference in price.  However, even on the top end Rancher Automatic DCT EPS model, the price increased less than $300, while on the basic Rancher model, the difference was only $50.  We consider that to be somewhat of a miracle considering it’s basically an all-new model.  One area in which the Rancher models did suffer an across-the-board increase, though, was in overall weight, and every unit gained at least 26 pounds.           

A New Honda Team

Honda’s decision to move design and manufacturing to their North American operations was bold, aggressive, and progressive.  It marks a huge change to their business model, with excellent results on the Pioneer 700 and now the FourTrax Rancher.  If those models are the new benchmark for everything else the North American crew touches, we’re in for some great new machines from the red team and we can’t wait to see what else they have coming.  After all, they’re just getting warmed up.

April 29, 2014

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