2009 Honda Big Red First Drive 0

Fads like your cousin’s mullet, Grandma’s grass covered animal figurines (remember ch-ch-ch-chia?) and your ultra-light beer come and go. Side-by-side vehicles–the latest rage in the realm of motorsports–are here to stay. Most of the major players have already embraced the scene, pumping out what they deem to be the ideal vehicle. Problem is the majority of them are too focused on either work or play. Honda’s all-new Big Red hopes to capitalize on this by swooping up those customers looking for a side-by-side that can fill the void between the two.

To find out, MotoUSA ventured to the island of Catalina, some 26-miles off the coast of Southern California to see if Honda’s new MUV (Multi-purpose Utility Vehicle) can skate that fine line.

As soon as you lay your eyes on Big Red, you can tell it’s a Honda. Sure the big chrome nameplate and bright red bodywork are an instant giveaway, but look deeper and you might notice some automobile-derived styling cues. Physically, Big Red commands a large presence. It’s got a wide stance and appears to be slightly lower to the ground as compared to other side-by-sides. Glancing down at the spec sheet confirms your visual assessment as it measures just under 5.5-feet wide (inches wider than many of its competitors) and 10.3-inches tall from ground level at its lowest point.

Getting into the driver seat feels like, well… A car. Double-latching automobile style doors swing open on both sides and function like the ones on that shiny metal ornament parked in your driveway. Also standard is a removable net extending from the top of the doors to the top of the roll cage.

Stepping inside doesn’t require any special contortions like we saw in this summer’s Olympics as the floorboard is open and seat height low which makes sliding into the supportive bucket seat a simple exercise.

In the driver seat there’s plenty of space between you and your riding buddy and the reach to the large diameter steering wheel isn’t at all a stretch. The steering wheel is positioned at a reasonable height that should accommodate a variety of different sized drivers. Plus, the rubber-mounted seat back rests have roughly an inch of adjustment either fore or aft so both the driver and passenger can tailor their seating position.

Like most side-by-sides the plastic dashboard and instrumentation is pretty basic. However, with Big Red all the indicator lights (reverse, 4WD, high coolant temperature, engine malfunction, neutral, differential lock, parking brake and low fuel) are placed directly in front of you–where they can be seen at a glance. If you’re looking for something more high-tech, a Digital Meter Kit is available as a Honda accessory.

The gear shift lever (reverse, neutral, drive) is located just to the right of the steering wheel and is flanked by the drive mode lever. The driver can select from either 2WD (with open rear differential), 4WD with the rear differential locked, (giving you essentially three-wheel drive) and 4WD with both front and rear differentials locked together, which equals true 100% 4WD.

A headlight switch is located to the left of the warning lights and engineers even fitted a 12-volt power accessory plug in between the seats so you can charge your cell phone, GPS, etc. Cup holders for both driver and passenger as well as storage cutaways are also cleverly incorporated into the dash.

The 3-point safety belts feature a release mechanism that helps keep you in place when you’re on the move. Additional seals and an internal cleaning mechanism are also used that help the safety belts hold up to life in the elements.

Starting Big Red is hassle-free courtesy of its turn-key ignition and electronic fuel-injection. Release the self-adjusting parking hand brake, move the dashboard-mounted shift lever down into Drive and you’re ready to go.

Press down on the gas pedal and you’ll be surprised by how quick it gets off the line. Propelling you forward is a 675cc OHV (overhead-valve) Single pulled out of the Rincon line of ATV’s and reworked for the rigors of a larger vehicle. Engineers cleverly mounted the engine in the middle of the chassis, near the vehicles center of gravity, in order to aid handling and make it more stable when traversing off-camber terrain. In fact the location of the engine in the chassis was so paramount that engineers used an OHV actuation system in which the camshaft spins adjacent to the cylinder head, thereby reducing engine height.

A large radiator is tucked away behind the grill in order to keep it away from potential trail hazards. There’s also an oil cooler which not only keeps oil temperature stable but also increases engine warm-up time.

Engine fueling is accomplished via Honda’s refined Programmed Fuel-Injection System (PGM-FI). A single 12-hole fuel-injector fires optimum fuel charge down through the 40mm throttle body and into the engine. The system automatically compensates for both air temperature and altitude and also uses an Idle Air Control Valve (IACV) which ensures that the engine will always ready to go when you are.

A three-speed automatic transmission utilizes a hydraulic torque converter and shaft final drive that has the ability to propel you up to a claimed top speed right around 40 mph. At a stop there is no clunkiness when selecting either forward or reverse, and as you accelerate forward, the transmission changes gears seamlessly, without any jerkiness. However, if you’re indecisive with throttle application, the transmission can hunt for the correct gear. It would have been helpful if engineers incorporated a manual override in which the driver could select the individual forward gear themselves.

Riding on the environmentally-sensitive island of Catalina revealed perhaps one of Big Red’s best attributes–the ability to tread lightly. For example, in 2WD the rear differential is open and transfers the power back to the rear wheel with the greatest amount of available traction. Not only does this provide sure footing, but it also prevents land damage while riding on ecologically-sensitive terrain. On the flipside, if the trail gets a little bit tough, simply stop the vehicle, slide the drive mode lever into one of the two 4WD options, and you’re good to go. Although we did use 4WD with both differentials locked together, it was almost overkill on the trails we encountered. Still, it’s nice to know that it’s there if you feel like doing a little rock crawling, or traversing really steep terrain.

Another environmental benefit is that sound levels at idle and under light throttle application isn’t too disturbing. With the unique location of the engine, even under full-throttle, noise isn’t as deafening as in other side-by-sides.

Not much effort is required to get Big Red to change directions. While moving, steering is light and doesn’t require a whole lot of muscle get the wheel turned, though there is quite a bit of play in the steering wheel–not a big deal but steering could have a tighter feel. Body roll or lack thereof in sharp turns is also noticeable and contributes to Big Red’s stable feel on the go.

Honda’s new side-by-side carries you in a strong four-pillar, 41.3mm Occupant Protection Structure (OPS). Independent double wishbone suspension graces both the front and the rear of the vehicle. Up front there’s 5.9-inches of wheel travel and in the rear 7.1-inches. Variable dampening shocks with no external adjustment absorb the rough stuff and deliver a plush, non-jarring ride.

Hydraulic disc brakes, with 200mm rotors and single piston calipers are featured at all four corners. Furthermore, the transmission allows for some level of engine braking and when it was in the proper gear its use was spot-on. Fortunately, there’s plenty of conventional braking power in all of the conditions we experienced. There’s also a mechanical fail-safe built into the braking system so even if one of the brake lines is damaged you’ll still have maximum braking capabilities.

The business side of Big Red features a large tilting cargo bed with a 500-lb capacity. There are no wheel-well intrusions so with the tailgate down it has the ability to carry a full-sized 48-inch squared pallet. The bed is constructed out of reinforced steel and there’s a D-ring in each corner to make securing loads easier. A tilt handle located in front of the bed allows the user to raise the bed. Progressive action struts provide a smooth assist in raising and lowering. And when it comes time to towing, there’s a standard two-inch receiver hitch with a 1200-lb capacity.

Considering the wide variety of conditions we rode in, traction provided by the 25-inch Dunlop tires was excellent. Whether climbing through loose silty dirt or descending down a rock-laden pathway, the tires hooked up well. Paired with the smooth power delivery and its automatic transmission it was actually somewhat hard to get the tires to break traction.

When it comes time to do a little maintenance, you’ll be surprised to find out that both the oil dipstick and fill is right under the removable driver’s seat. Servicing the foam air filter is just as easy. Simply lift up the rear bed, loosen four snap buckles and voila’.

Eventually you’ll have to gas up Big Red and the 7.9-gallon fuel tank is located underneath the passenger’s seat with the screw-on fill cap located just above. Although we didn’t keep track of running time or mileage, after a full-day on the trail the low-fuel light never came on. And with Honda engines being renowned for its fuel efficiency we anticipate its newest side-by-side will achieve improved levels of fuel economy as compared to others in its class.

So has Honda found that sweet spot between work and play? We think so. The seats are some of the most comfortable we’ve experienced. The chassis delivers a smooth and stable ride. Engine power was more than sufficient to get up to speed. And there was plenty of braking power to get things slowed down in a hurry. Although we didn’t get a chance to do any towing we did play around with the tilt bed and tailgate and it’s nice to see that those pieces are standard equipment. Additionally, if you feel like you need a bit more sport or utility, there are a full-line of accessories available from Honda including a winch, windshield, hard top, additional under-carriage protection, and tons of other components that allow you to tailor your machine to your type of use. If you’re looking for a do-it-all side-by-side, then look no further than Honda’s Big Red.

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