Ride Tested – Big Red Strikes Back

Ride Tested – Big Red Strikes Back

2011.honda_.big-red.red_.front_.riding.through-mud.jpgRegardless of where you go, there are Side x Sides hard at work or play. What started years ago as simple utility vehicles, such as Kawasaki’s Mule, was quickly adapted by sportsman as Polaris introduced the Ranger, and then Yamaha jumped on the sport aspect with their Rhino. Today there are models of every size and for every imaginable use. For manufacturers already in the powersports business, it made sense to introduce another product line for their dealers and customers. While other brands gobbled up sales, the question was always: when would Honda bring out a Side x Side of their own? After all, they had their Odyssey and Pilot a decade before anybody else was even in the game, and the big bottle of Honda innovation magic was far from dry.

Honda fans received the answer to the question, if not their dreams, when Honda introduced their own UTV in 2009. The new model fell back on the long standing Honda doctrine of usability, durability, and hard working capabilities, and they even gave it a legendary name from their past: it would be called the Big Red! A legend is a tough thing to live up to for anybody, especially when you’ve set the bar high already. Unfortunately for Honda, the new model promised and received all the excitement of a library book fair on the day the circus was in town, and riders flocked to the big top to see Rhinos and Rangers and Prowlers, oh my! It was time for Honda to step up their game!

Big Red Basics

Honda calls the Big Red a Multipurpose Utility Vehicle, which means it can do a little of everything. One look at the beefy tube structure of the Big Red chassis revealed that it was built to last as well, and we are impressed with how well the frame is put together. It’s clean, tough and well designed. We also like how all the components are well protected for long term resistance to corrosion and this is one area where Honda excels above all others. The Big Red frame is powder coated black while all fasteners are zinc plated. Most riders won’t give it a second thought, but in the long run, it’s the little details that make a big difference. True to its hard working nature, the Big Red chassis now features a certified ROPS (Roll Over Protection Structure) that meets OSHA certification.2011.honda_.big-red.red_.front_.riding.on-hill.jpg

Tucked inside the Big Red chassis is the super reliable, fuel injected, 675cc 4 stroke engine shared with the Rincon ATV. The engine also features a large, well protected radiator and oil cooler to insure consistent operating temperature when towing or hauling heavy loads. Also just like the Rincon ATV, the engine is mated to a transmission unique to Honda, and rather than rely on a CVT belt system like every other Side x Side, the Big Red utilizes a very automotive like three speed automatic transmission. Thankfully, no other fluids are needed and Honda was able to operate the automatic transmission by filtering the engine oil multiple times. Another added benefit on the trail is consistent engine braking. Gear selection is Forward, Neutral, or Reverse, and a second dash mounted lever selects 2wd, 4wd, or 4wd with differential lock. In normal 2wd mode, the rear differential is unlocked which definitely makes the Big Red easier on sensitive terrain or turf and helps reduce turning radius. Only in off camber situations can it become a problem when the drive tire loses tractions, but we simply slipped it into 4wd and continued on. Keeping the woods quiet and well protected is a stainless steel exhaust system with a USDA certified muffler.

Suspension on the Big Red is similar to other UTVs in that it features dual A-arms at each corner. With only 5.9 inches of front wheel travel and 7.1 inches of travel at the rear, it’s not going to win a lot of desert races, but then again it was designed for utility use. A-arm wall thickness was increased to carry additional load, and the rear also received new preload adjustable shocks with a single coil spring. Always the stickler for safety, Honda also gave the Big Red a unique and very truck like four wheel disc brake system by crossing the lines from front to back, and the system all but guarantees braking abilities even if one line is damaged. At the rear of the MUV is a handy 2-inch receiver-style hitch with a 1500 pound towing capacity. Ground clearance is a respectable 10.3 inches.

Honda always excels at vehicle ergonomics, and the Big Red was designed for both driver and passenger comfort with well placed, automotive like controls, and rubber mounted seat bases. With no standard gauge package, there isn’t a lot to see on the dash other than a few warning lights and the two shift levers, but we do appreciate the parking brake since many UTVs come without one. We also like the doors which close and latch very well every time, and we’re happy to have the extra leg protection they offer. The side nets are another matter, however, and although functional, could have only been designed by the legal department. With the heavy duty black netting and multiple loops, clips, and adjustments, it’s like a combination lingerie / bondage show from Vegas, and we hope you’re not going anyplace in a hurry!2011.honda_.big-red.red_.close-up.cabin_.jpg

Big Red 2011

To better meet the needs of their customers, Honda wanted to make several upgrades to the Big Red. The major changes made for 2011 include: 

  • Bucket seats have been replaced with a new contoured bench seat.
  • 25 x10 x12 inch Maxxis Bighorn 4-ply tires are used at all four wheels.
  • Towing capacity has been increased to 1500 pounds.
  • Cargo bed carrying capacity has been increased to 1000 lbs.
  • Front and rear shocks feature revised suspension settings and new single rate springs.
  • Rear shocks feature 5 position preload adjustability.
  • The Roll Over Protection Structure (ROPS) is now certified to meet the requirements of OSHA 1928.53.

Big Red Ride Time

After climbing over and crawling under the Big Red to check out the details, we were anxious to get behind the wheel and try it out for ourselves. Aside from our Salmon-like dash past the entanglement of the side safety nets, once inside the Big Red we were quite comfortable. The Big Red has the solid feel of quality, and the new bench seat is sculpted to hold you in place. An automotive style, three point emergency retracting seatbelt specially designed for the dirt and grime of off-road use keeps both driver and passenger secure, but there is no belt for a center passenger, since technically the Big Red is still a 2 person affair. A twist of the key immediately brings the engine to life and the familiar purr of a smooth running Honda engine put a smile on our face. We slipped the transmission into “D” and headed for the impromptu obstacle course. It didn’t take us long to discover a couple of the Big Red’s greatest traits; it corners very tight and it is extremely stable.2011.honda_.big-red.red_.close-up.air-filter.jpg

Thanks to a low center of gravity, the Big Red doesn’t seem to care about any side slope angle. As long as the tires get a good bite on the terrain, you’ll probably stay well planted on the slope. If you have any problems in this area, it’s your fault and not Big Red’s. We’ve also come to know and trust the Maxxis Bighorn tires, and even under the most extreme desert action they’ve been practically bullet proof. Oddly enough, as well as they work in sand or loose gravel, they seem equally at home in the snow! Engagement of the Honda automatic transmission is extremely smooth, although upshifts were a little more noticeable, and we would prefer the engine be higher in the power band before it shifts. It almost felt like it shifted too early. It didn’t take long to reach maximum speed, however, which is said to be 40mph, but without instrumentation there is no way of knowing. Regardless of whatever the top speed was, the Big Red still felt smooth and stable, although the suspension system, with limited travel and designed for heavy loads, would not react well to extended whoop sections at maximum speed. It’s a work horse and not a racer!

We tried the Big Red in every conceivable manner, in 2wd, 4wd, and 4wd with the diff lock engaged, and about the only difference was slightly more force required for turning. Even when full loaded with its maximum 1000 capacity or when towing a good sized trailer, handling and suspension were largely unaffected. The front tires do want to push in corners at times and we believe a narrower tire would help. There are a few other things we believe Honda needs to address with future Big Red models as well.2011.honda_.big-red.red_.front-left.riding.on-grass.jpg

Storage on a working machine is mandatory! Although the tough, rear dump box can haul anything from hay bales to cinder blocks, lack of any sealed storage is a serious concern and the competitors are well ahead here. The Big Red does have a small, open, dash mounted storage box, but the door is an almost inconceivable $89 option! We also feel on a machine designed for any type of work an instrument package should be standard. The Big Red has no instrumentation of any type other than a Cracker Jack, compass style fuel gauge next to the fuel cap on the right side of the machine. Applications like spreading fertilizer or spraying crops require continuous monitoring of ground speed, and strict maintenance schedules are called for in engine hours in the manual. That is a problem on the Big Red; although once again the instrument cluster from the Rincon is available as a $200 option. It’s hard to justify purchasing options, however, when the same features are standard on nearly every competitor’s machine. The final area we would improve with the Big Red is the cab floor and forward firewall. When driving through water, it didn’t take us long to learn that water cascades Niagara-like through the firewall throttle lever opening and onto your right foot. We then discovered the floor becomes quite slippery and a more aggressive tread pattern would greatly help your feet stay planted in mud, water or snow. Since the Big Red is primarily a work machine and likely to see adverse conditions on a regular basis, we feel this is very important.

Big Red Better Than Ever

Honda’s changes to their Big Red MUV have made it much more usable on the jobsite, at the deer camp, or on the trail. Their relentless attention to detail would likely land any individual exhibiting the same traits on the doctor’s couch for obsessive compulsive disorder, but that’s not a bad thing when it comes to vehicle design. Regardless of where we looked, the Big Red exhibits excellent quality, and we have no doubts about the long proven Rincon engine. All that is needed is a clean air filter and fresh oil on a regular basis and the Big Red will likely outlive the driver. Continual development will make the Big Red even better, but it will have no problem getting the job done.

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June 27, 2011

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