Since the introduction of Honda’s original Rancher 350 over 15 years ago, top-of-the-line ATVs have ballooned up in both displacement and physical size to a point where a machine like the original Rancher would be considered an “introductory” machine. In fact, the biggest machines on the market can be a handful even for highly experienced riders, and for almost every type of riding situation, we prefer something that is easier to control and much more forgiving on the trail. This is exactly the type of machine the Honda Rancher has always been, and why we consider it one of our all-time favorites.
From the name it carries, it’s easy to assume the Rancher was built for life on the farm and little else. That was probably more accurate with the original model, but through the years the Rancher has seen several updates and even different versions. Today there are a whopping NINE different Rancher models to choose from and regardless of whether you need nothing more than a great work machine for the farm, or a full time trail rider, there is a Rancher for you. We’ve been using a Rancher 4x4 for everything from pulling a lawn roller and work duties around the farm to weekends away and long trail rides. The foot shift from the model we’ve been using mated to a bullet proof gearbox was perfect for any of our work duties. It worked well on our trail riding weekends also, and it didn’t matter who was riding it. The Rancher is just so easy to ride and so predictable it quickly became our go-to machine for practically everything.
Once someone spends time on the Rancher, they quickly understand it is a capable, trail friendly machine. But through customer research, Honda found that many potential customers assumed it was pretty much a working machine only. That was a problem they had to solve, and for 2015 the Rancher gets updates from the ground up to make it an all-new machine designed for better appeal to trail riders, and with the capabilities to live up to the promise. Highlights of the 2015 Honda Rancher models are:
420cc, liquid cooled, fuel injected engine mounted longitudinally in chassis allows direct driveshaft alignment to both front and rear for maximum drivetrain efficiency
Overhead-valve design provides compact engine dimensions
Heavy-duty automatic clutch with a low-rpm engagement point for excellent low speed towing capability
Transmission available in fully automatic mode, or with Electric Shift Program (ESP) for easy shifts with the thumb button
New TraxLok 2WD/4WD selector lever, mounted on the left-front panel, or electronic
New Fuel Injection mapping improves power delivery, throttle response, and fuel efficiency
AC generator output increased to 450 watts to power; more electrical accessories.
New bodywork for more room and increased splash protection
New one-piece panel removal for easier maintenance
New digital display with added functions
New dual-purpose reverse lever & parking brake makes it easier to engage reverse and set brake.
Optional Electric Power Steering (EPS) system recalibrated for better response and more precise feel
New Double cradle steel frame with more suspension travel, preload adjustable shocks, larger brakes, and new Independent Rear Suspension and revised front suspension
More towing capacity (848 lbs.) from rear hitch with steel cargo racks front and back.
Trail riding is all about handling, suspension, and comfort, and the 2015 Ranchers are designed to maximize those traits without taking away any of their working capabilities. In fact, in order to insure the new model works best for the end customer, all of the Ranchers were designed here in North America at Honda’s Maryville, Ohio design center and then built at their Timmonsville, SC plant.
It’s a long way from South Carolina to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but Honda wanted to highlight the Rancher’s trail capabilities and the mountains just outside of Kernville, California offered a perfect location to do that. Kernville is a former mining town that now caters to outdoor adventure enthusiasts, with hiking, white water rafting, fishing, and of course, trail riding. It’s comfortable, quaint, it offers a couple great places to stay, and brew pubs for a night’s entertainment, and its location near the south end of the Sequoia National Forest makes it an excellent location from which to base your adventure.
Sometimes you just have a feeling that the day is going to be epic, and driving up into the mountains with Lee Edmunds from Honda certainly gave me that feeling. Yes, this was technically a work trip, but with the clean mountain air, the scent of the pines, and the majestic views, it was really a mini-vacation for both of us. As we pulled into the parking area, light overnight snow covered the ground in many places, and under a cathedral of huge pines awaited Jeff Tigert who had scouted and organized this adventure, along with a small fleet of Honda’s top-of-the line Rancher 4X4 Automatic DCT ATVs. Great job guys! If all we did was stay in this spot and take pictures, it was still going to be a great day. The chance to explore the mountains called to all of us, however, and before long we were on our way.
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. Honda wanted to give it an aggressive, edgy look to go with its increased trail performance and better splash protection. What the styling team created is a somewhat larger feeling Rancher that maintains its excellent trail manners in a slightly more roomy package.
If there is one company that always gets the ergonomics right, it is Honda, and on the new Rancher that intricate relationship from seat, to pegs, to bars was reworked ever so slightly for added comfort. Almost an inch of foam was added to the seat as well, and when you reach for the controls, everything feels perfectly placed. It feels very Honda-ish! At the center of the steering column is a nice, easy to read, digital display which shows speed, total miles or trip mileage, fuel, engine temperature, and other info. On the right handle bar is a perfect fitting thumb throttle, and just ahead of your left knee is the 4wd engagement lever. A small storage area is concealed behind the rear tail light, and we would love to have a little more storage on a trail machine. One great thing, though, is that Honda still believes in raised foot pegs above a lower floorboard and so do we.
Flat floor boards with very short pegs do not allow your ankle to pivot enough, and as a result it takes your legs out from under you. Think about any athletic stance – whether hitting a baseball, blocking on the line in football, or guarding in basketball. Your weight is always distributed over your feet, with your knees bent and your body low. That is the exact same position when riding aggressively on an ATV or dirt bike, and you cannot maintain that athletic stance when your ankles are prevented from working. In short, flat floorboards don’t cut it. Once again, Honda was right on the money with their peg and lower foot protection design. As we wound our way up the mountain trails, it became as clear as the mountain sky just how well the styling team did with the new Rancher.
It was fun to aggressively attack the trails with the new Rancher and it did a good job of darting between trees. The suspension soaked up impacts from roots, rocks, and ruts with no kicking or swapping to either side, while Honda’s Electronic Power Steering provided excellent feedback from the terrain, but also kept steering easy. Front and rear suspension is through dual A-arms (some Rancher models get a new rear swingarm instead) and although a few competing models offer longer suspension travel, the Honda Rancher works as a package. Dual hydraulic brakes are found on the front, with a single rear driveshaft mounted disc at the rear.
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 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 don’t need any differential until they reach the drive axle. Honda also updated the fuel mapping for 201, giving the Rancher better mileage, and reduced emissions. It’s the transmission though that really sets the Honda’s apart, especially the machines running a CVT belt.
Honda does not believe in belts, and they make no bones about it. Instead, all Ranchers come with a gearbox featuring an automatic clutch, and shifting is done either fully automatically, with a thumb button, or with a foot lever. We tried them all with excellent results, but the model we were exploring the trails with featured Honda’s unique dual clutch transmission – a.k.a. – the DCT.
The dual clutch (DCT) Rancher models feature a transmission that 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 the result is a very smooth shifting transmission with no jerky feeling. On the trail this translates to smooth power delivery. You can also leave the transmission in fully automatic mode and let it take care of everything on its own, or you can shift it electronically with the thumb buttons, which is what I did most of the time just to keep things interesting. That also allowed me to stay where I wanted to in the power band for hill climbs, rock crawling, etc. Maybe the best thing Honda did for shifting, though, was to change the reverse lever engagement mechanism. It’s worlds better than the cumbersome reverse system of the past. On all Ranchers a reliable shaft drive system gets the power to the wheels.
HONDA’S ROCK SOLID RANCHERS
There are certainly models with more power, more suspension, and more features than the Honda Ranchers. There are even a few things we would improve like the relatively small storage space. As a package, however, the Ranchers are one of the best all-around machines for the many duties most ATVs are used for. They handle excellent, they’re supremely rideable, and their reliability record is second to none. With the changes Honda made for 2015, the Rancher lineup just got a whole lot better. We’ll take one into the mountains anytime!
2015 FOURTRAX RANCHER 4X4 AUTOMATIC DCT IRS EPS specifications
Engine: 420cc liquid-cooled, fuel injected, wet-sump longitudinally mounted single-cylinder four-stroke– Keihin 33mm Throttle Body – Electric Start with optional auxiliary recoil
Transmission: Automatic Dual Clutch with ESP (Electric Shift) with Reverse
Driveline: Direct front and rear driveshaft’s with TraxLok® and torque-sensing front differential
Suspension: Front – Dual A-Arm; 7.28 inches travel, Rear - Independent dual-arm; 8.5 inches travel
Brakes: Front - Dual hydraulic 190mm discs, Rear - Single hydraulic 170mm disc
Tires: Front: 24 x 8-12, Rear: 24 x 10-11
Ground Clrnc: 9.2 inches
Turn Radius: 11.5 feet
Fuel Capacity: 3.9 gallons, including 1.3-gallon reserve
Colors: Red, Orange, Honda Phantom Camo®
Curb Weight: 686 pounds - All fluids full and ready to ride.
MSRP: $7899 RANCHER 4X4 AUTOMATIC DCT IRS EPS
$7199 RANCHER 4X4 AUTOMATIC DCT IRS
$7399 RANCHER 4X4 AUTOMATIC DCT with POWER STEERING
$6699 RANCHER 4X4 AUTOMATIC DCT
$6899 RANCHER 4X4 with POWER STEERING
$6449 RANCHER 4X4 ES
$6199 RANCHER 4X4
$5449 RANCHER ES