There’s no doubt that the UTV and side-by-side market is still exploding given all the recent updates and new introductions by nearly all the manufacturers. In going to all the press intros, there’s been one common thread from all the OEMs: This market appears to be here for good, and it’s the only category with double-digit sales even in our down-turned economy. The other amazing thing is that UTV and side-by-side buyers are still buying lots of aftermarket products within the first year of ownership. How much, you ask? Well, it’s an average of over $5,000, which is roughly half the cost of the vehicles. Simply amazing!
We’ve all been awaiting the introduction of the Honda Big Red, and now we have the information you’ve been looking for. What will amaze you about the Honda Big Red is that they have literally been developing this unit and variations thereof since 1999. In talking with their CEO, the general design existed early on, but the final touches are what make the Big Red a Honda. In fact, their motto is “It’s a Honda” and it’s obvious they’ve taken the time to refine this MUV (Honda’s acronym) to car-like standards. In fact, it’s actually produced at the same plant as the Honda CRV, so there is indeed many car-like attributes to the Big Red. So, let’s jump in and see if we can provide you the information you can’t read in a brochure on the brand new Honda Big Red.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Big Red is its size. It’s definitely appropriately named. And, it now holds the reign as the widest UTV/MUV on the market with a width of 64”. To give you an idea of its size, the Arctic Cat Prowlers and Polaris Rangers are both 60” wide. Honda intended their new Big Red to be a combination or Multi-Use Vehicle with utmost concentration on providing quality, reliability, and functionality to their loyal owners. To Honda, recreational use is any combination of hunting, fishing, working on the farm or ranch, or taking the family out for a camping trip. It’s not Honda’s intention to compete against the Polaris RZR, and I couldn’t even get out of them who they tried to outdo the most. But, our best guess is that due to its size and functionality, its direct competitor will be the Polaris Ranger.
So, the first thing you’ll immediately notice is that Honda spent a tremendous amount of time on the ergonomics of the Big Red. In the area of safety, Honda equipped the Big Red with large doors provided as regular OEM equipment from Honda. And, without even knowing, I reached in for the door handle, and to my surprise, it was right where I expected it to be. With a quick release, you have full access to the spacious interior. Upon stepping into the Big Red, you’ll realize there’s actually a step to help you get in and out without having to step up to the full height of the floorboard. Once you’re sitting down in the driver’s seat, you’ll immediately notice a very comfortable rubber mounted seat with what seems to be the perfectly angled backrest. Upon closing the door, if you don’t shut it all the way, it latches just like your car does. It has a double latch mechanism to prevent the door from flying open in the event it’s not shut properly. This is a great safety feature other manufacturers should really look at. For those that need to sit closer to the dash, the backrest is also adjustable 25-30mm to achieve that optimum seating position for all sizes of drivers. Honda also took extra care when designing the safety nets, which are also another welcome OEM safety feature. Way to go, Honda! Not only do the nets easily latch using a large buckle, when you exit the vehicle, there’s a nice little hook to hang it up out of way for easy entry and exit. When Honda said they thought of everything, I think they were right. To this same note, Honda placed the grab handles inboard of the outermost parts of the cage, so they’re within easy reach and keeps the occupant’s hands safe in the event you rub up against a tree or tip it over. And, of course, this brings us to the seat belts. Honda integrated the same technology they use in their automobiles into the seatbelts for the Big Red. One of the most often complained about things in stock UTVs are their seat belts being too abrasive on your neck and jarring or jerky when the brakes are applied. Honda alleviated this challenge by having both speed and angle sensors built in to prevent unnecessary jolts to your neck, shoulder and chest. And, it definitely seemed to work flawlessly. Even when the terrain was rough, I never felt unsafe or like it was jerking me around, either.
I feel like I’ve written a small novel already on the wonderful ergonomics of the Big Red, but there’s still more. Whether you’re seated in the driver or passenger’s seat, you’ll notice how nice the floorboards are for comfort. They seem to have the perfect places to set your feet, whether that’s flat on the floorboard or up on the angled non-grip surfaces. In addition, there’s a nice protruding divider to keep the passenger’s feet from interfering with the accelerator pedal. When looking to the dash, you’ll find nice-sized cup holders, and in stock form plenty of dummy lights and open storage compartments. Although you won’t go un-alarmed if something has gone wrong with the Big Red, we’d much rather see the optional digital dash as standard equipment than an option. This also goes along with the open glove box area. It’s nice storage, but it’s not very usable unless you stay on completely flat ground, because items tend to fall out. To the left of the steering wheel there’s an automotive style rotating switch for your low and high beam lights. In the center of the dash, Honda has chosen gated shifters for the forward, reverse, and neutral in addition to the 4wd system. We’ll talk about the drive system Honda has chosen along with the 4wd system a little later, but the actuation of both are very simple and smooth. Last but not least of the in-cab ergonomics, Honda uses a simple self adjusting parking brake situated in the center console. And, right next to it is the waterproof accessory socket, as well. Most UTV parking brakes do a mediocre job of holding the vehicle on a hill, let alone if there’s any weight in it. Honda chose to provide a parking brake capable of not only holding its own vehicle weight, but that of a maxed out trailer and full bed. Nice work!
When we step outside the Big Red, one of the first things we need to know is how easy it is to service it, right? Honda’s philosophy is the simpler and easier it is to reach vital items, such as the air filter and the oil and filter, the more likely someone is to check it and perform regular maintenance. This helps the consumer and Honda from having to do costly repairs in the future from lack of proper maintenance. So, for starters, with a simple lift of the bed from either side of the vehicle, you’ll immediately notice the center mounted air cleaner box. Pop four clips at each corner, and there’s a nice large foam filter. Lower the box and lift the driver’s seat cushion, and you’ll find the oil dipstick and fill locations within easy reach. They even have a unique extended fill cap, making it easier to reach and unscrew.
Moving to the bed, there’s a couple of things we noticed right away. Honda has finally perfected the optimum location of the pivot point in combination with their progressive strut to make raising and lowering the bed a cinch. The bed is also modular, so if you happen to damage one of the side rails, you can replace just the one piece and not the whole bed. Secondly, there are no protruding fender wells in the bed, so you can actually slide a full-sized pallet in from the back. I’ll be honest that I would have liked to see a higher capacity for the bed than 500 lbs for such a large MUV, but it appears to me to be much stronger than most. In addition, with the tailgate down, you can literally hang off of it without the least bit of deflection. That’s because Honda has rated it to hold 400lbs, which is way more than any competitor. Last, but not least in the bed area, there’s the normal tie-down hooks at each of the four corners of the bed to secure your cargo.
Moving up to the front of the Big Red, you’ll pop the hood by pulling two rubber latches similar to those on most UTVs. If you’re an accessory kind of guy, you’ll be happy to know Honda planned it all out for you ahead of time. In one neatly organized box in front of the passenger, you have your battery and all the room you’d need to add additional wires and relays for your accessories. In addition, if you really want to run a lot of stuff, Honda has an aftermarket battery and/or storage box that are perfect for handling additional lighting, GPS, radios, etc. Outside of that, it’s easy to fill the radiator, and there’s tons of room between the front grill and the radiator. My guess is that Honda has moved the radiator far behind the front grill to minimize mud buildup.
So, there you have it! Honda has truly gone out of their way, but in normal Honda fashion, to provide you the most ergonomically advanced UTV/MUV on the market. Now, let’s move on to the engine and drivetrain.
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
We’re not going to spend a tremendous amount of time on the engine, because there’s more exciting information in regards to the transmission. But, the things we noticed on the engine that are quite a bit different than the competition are the following:
• The camshaft is adjacent to the head with pushrods to actuate the 4 valves to reduce overall engine height
• There’s an oil cooler to keep engine temperatures in check in any condition and help with cold starts, as well
• The ECU automatically shuts the fuel off in the event of a rollover
• The engine and exhaust combination provides the quietest ride of any UTV/MUV on the market
Those are the key differentiating characteristics of the new Honda Big Red. So, now let’s talk about one of the major differences and possible advantages it has over the competition, which is the automotive style transmission. As most know, the typical type of transmission in UTVs is the CVT clutch mated to a gearbox providing forward, reverse, low gear, and maybe a park. For the Honda Big Red, they utilize a totally different technology that’s very similar to the cars we drive down the road. Instead of a belt that wears out, needs alignment adjustment, and slips when wet/muddy, the Honda 3-speed automatic transmission mimics driving a car with firm shift points and excellently chosen downshift points. In fact, when driving it, it’s so different than the rest of the playing field it’s kind of exciting to drive it. Of course, you just press the gas and go just like the rest of them, but it’s how it achieves forward momentum that’s so different. Plus, in talking with the Honda engineers, their transmission should never wear out, which is a nice added feature to having to replace CVT belts at $100 a pop. Although I can see great advantages to this style of transmission for longevity and durability in adverse conditions, there are two downfalls I see. There’s no low gear, which every other UTV on the market has. Although we didn’t get to test it, it will be interesting to see if the 3-speed transmission can turn the tires in the deepest of mud and steepest of hill climbs. Although we had no trouble climbing hills during our testing, add a load and some slow speed rocks to traverse, and I’d be very interested to see how it performs. Lastly, although there’s some engine braking, for this big of a vehicle we’d love to see more. Outside of that, we believe this transmission will hold up and perform in any condition it’s faced with long term.
The 4wd system of the Big Red is similar yet different to anything on the market, as well. With the gated shifter in the center of the dash, you can select from 2wd open rear differential, 4wd locked in the rear only, and 4wd locked front and rear. Although we love how its open differential won’t tear up grass when making turns, we sure would have liked to see a 2wd locked in the rear mode too for those that need the extra traction, but don’t want the extra steering input required of running in 4wd. Of course, running in 4wd locked in the rear only, there’s not much additional steering input needed. And, while in 4wd locked front and rear, there seemed to be less input needed than some of the competition, which was a nice surprise, as well. Overall, we feel the engine and transmission combo of the Big Red will get you where you need to go and get you back, as well.
STEERING, SUSPENSION & BRAKES
There are a few things to note in regards to the steering, suspension, and braking for the all new Big Red. To start, the shock absorbers on the Big Red are specially designed to provide a nice supple cushy ride, yet handle the specified payloads without bottoming, as well. The way they did this is in each of the shock absorber’s valve pack, there’s a section that’s a larger diameter than the rest of the surface area surrounding the valves. This particular area is the sweet spot where people will ride most of the time. By being slightly larger in diameter in this area, the ride quality is quite plush, but as soon as you compress the shock further, the dampening increases, preventing you from bottoming out. When driving the Big Red with two large riders, under most conditions, the ride was very plush and compliant. Once speeds increased, though, I would have liked to see either even more dampening near full compression or more spring rate to keep it from bottoming. Part of this could be also attributed to the rather low suspension travel numbers, as well. But, for the most part, the double wishbone 4 wheel independent suspension performed rather nicely.
In the steering department, Honda chose to use an automotive style rack and pinion steering system, which works very nicely. In all drive modes, it seems to act the most like power steering with the least amount of feedback that I’ve seen out of a UTV/MUV. If anything could be improved, it would only be at higher speeds, which wasn’t attributed to the steering but rather the soft shocks. Outside of that, it steered very nicely at low speeds in all drive modes.
The brakes seemed to have no problem stopping the Big Red, which was a nice surprise given the sheer size and weight of the MUV. As mentioned above, the x-linked brake lines and oversized rotors contribute to a safe and controllable ride in all conditions we put it through. And, Honda was smart when they picked their tires, too. All 4 tires are the same size with identical offsets, so carrying one spare tire is enough when out and about.