2009 Honda Rancher AT First Ride 0
As the flagship of the seven-model strong Rancher product range, the Rancher AT has a tough row to hoe considering the number of competitors in the utility ATV marketplace. That is exactly the reason Honda refuses to be complacent with the design and incorporates more value-added components intended to make the workday less strenuous and the play day more fun. For 2009 the Honda Rancher AT combines fuel-injection and Electronic Power Steering (EPS) from last year with Independent Rear Suspension (IRS), a push-button Electronic Shift Program (ESP) to change gears and an innovative five-speed automatic transmission featuring dual-clutch technology. The do-it-all Rancher has evolved from a bare bone, two-wheel drive stalwart of Honda’s ATV line back in 1988 into one of the most technologically advanced off-road vehicles Honda has ever built. Bet you never expected to hear that about a utility quad, did you?
Generally speaking, the Rancher lineup already has a number of features that set it apart form the competition, including the longitudinally-mounted, liquid-cooled engine and transmission which allows for a direct drive to the transaxle and eliminates power loss through more traditional chain or belt-drive systems. Honda believes this is the reason the Rancher can continue to successfully utilize its relatively small 420cc displacement and still compete with ATVs with chain or belt drives and larger motors. For ’09 the little mill does receive larger intake valves, now 38mm (up from 35mm) and exhaust valves are now 33mm (up from 30mm) and a redesigned cylinder head that combine for a slight boost in power which should help it keep pace with the competition despite its displacement disadvantage. Weight between the two machines is comparable with the Rancher AT tipping the scales at 605 lbs while the Rancher ES weighs in at 588 lbs – both of which are measured curb weights.
At the introduction of the new Rancher ES and Rancher AT we spent serious time playing in the hills of Richfield, Utah, an OHV-friendly town that hosts the annual ATV Jam. There we put the Rancher through a gauntlet of rough OHV trails and dusty dirt roads. This is the gateway to the legendary Paiute Trail system that runs through the rugged desert of the surrounding Fishlake National Forest. This is one of the few places I’ve ever been in the U.S. where you can get away with riding your quad on surface streets – so long as you are being polite about it. The terrain is pure high desert with spectacular red-rock formations leading to the vibrant Aspen wilderness with stands of white-barked trees and flittering yellow leaves serving as a reminder that autumn is officially here and this is a great time to be outdoors.
During our two days of riding the AT and ES on the trail systems outside of Richfield we got a pretty good feeling where these ATVs fit in today’s market. We traversed paved roads, dirt roads, unimproved roads, OHV trail
systems, hill-climbs, steep descents, lots of rocks, some huge elevation changes and inhaled plenty of dust along the way. The fuel-injected Ranchers took it all in stride with their softly padded seats, power steering and rider-friendly handling and combined to make each day easy on everyone. The FI-system makes for clean throttle response no matter what altitudes the bikes are ridden in as we were regularly riding as high as 9000 feet. It certainly doesn’t hurt fuel economy or its impact on the environment, either. In fact, all the Ranchers meet California Air Resource Board (CARB) off-road emission requirements, and in addition are very quiet thanks to a three-chamber muffler that has no packing material to wear down over time. They all feature easy-access, washable foam air filters as well.
Automatic transmissions and power steering are nothing new in the ATV market, but in the case of these two Rancher models it’s the new technology that’s worth taking note. At the heart of both the ES and AT is a dual-clutch transmission. First utilized in high-end European sports cars, the dual-clutch setup is a key to the success of the push-button, electronic shifting capability of the ES model and the automatic transmission of the AT. How it works can be explained as follows.
One clutch is connected to the first, third and fifth gears while the other is connected to second, fourth and reverse gears. When the rider engages the transmission into first gear it simultaneously engages second as well. Only the first clutch is actually engaged – transferring the first gear power onto the driveline. When the rider shifts to second the first gear clutch quickly disengages while the second gear clutch engages. Bingo – a seamless up-shift with second gear picking up the pace. The resulting benefit includes no need for a working clutch lever and very-low wear and tear on the clutch plates because there is no dragging or slippage. It’s brilliant. And the riding experience only gets better when the automatic option is considered.
When riding the automatic version, the shift point calculations are determined by the ECU based on throttle position and speed, among other variables. Shifting is quick and uneventful with no noticeable drop in speed or lurching when shifting gears. The Rancher AT’s ESP system is quite good. It is a real treat when riding on aggressive terrain, like the rough, rocky hillclimb of the Rock Canyon which we tackled on the second day. This rocky route proved that the AT is capable of handling some brutal conditions without a hiccup. As speeds increased and decreased depending on terrain, the AT shifts smooth and steady. It is cool not to sweat shifting, knowing that the transmission will do its own thing, it leaves the rider only to hang on and concentrate on navigating the obstacles ahead. There is a provision to take the AT model out of automatic-mode and go with the push-button ‘manual’ shifting just like the ES if you find yourself in a position to need that control.
Shifting on the Rancher ES is almost mindlessly easy. With merely a push of a button you can row through gears quicker than a foot-operated shifter, but it does take some mindful throttle control to avoid being abrupt. Let off the throttle briefly when shifting otherwise the shift will lurch because of the instantaneous gear change. Unlike the AT, the ES requires the rider to use a little common sense in order to make the shifts as smooth as they can be. Honda is keen to point out that the ES and AT systems utilize basic and durable transmission components. An electronically-operated shift mechanism attaches to the shift shaft in lieu of a manual shift lever. This component makes the precise gear selections and facilitates the entire ESP system. The high-tech piece is the dual clutch.
On both units the power steering, or EPS, is a feature we hope to see on more ATV/UTV models in the future. In the case of the Rancher’s setup it also works as a fatigue-reducing element that is sure to pay the same dividends during the work day as it does under harsh off-road conditions. The power steering serves as a steering damper in the rocks and ruts, absorbing impacts that would normally cause the front tires to deflect and veer off the trail, and makes it near effortless to navigate such obstacles. Time and time the thought crossed my mind, “How sweet would this be on the big-bore sport quads that are becoming all the rage these days?” I say it would be great – heck it would be a nice feature for any ATV in my opinion.
Suspension receives some attention as well. While the straight-axle Rancher ES, with its single rear shock, is adequate for utility work and mild-to-moderately aggressive off-road use, it still can be a little jarring in the really rough stuff. However, it is currently the industry standard and serves its purpose well on the less-expensive versions. The arrival of the IRS system on the Rancher AT means that this quad is ready to tackle anything. It now is truly a do-it-all off-road vehicle with all the bells and whistles. IRS has won many off-road riders over during the past few years and when it is combined with fuel-injection, automatic transmission and power steering it makes the Rancher AT a real deal in the utility segment.
The big news for the Rancher series is obviously the Rancher AT with its IRS rear suspension, automatic dual-clutch transmission and power steering. With an MSRP of $6999 it is a bargain considering the easy-riding experience this machine provides. The Rancher AT without power steering is $6599.
On the flip-side is the Rancher ES that fills the need for the utility quad consumer specifically. It features the same dual-clutch technology, but incorporates the Electronic Shift rather than automatic and forgoes the IRS for a straight-axle swingarm and a moderately less MSRP of $6199 as tested, or $5799 without power steering.
Looking to upgrade your antiquated utility quad but have been waiting for the right time? Good news – now is the time to make it happen. Honda has upped the ante once again with these latest innovations to the venerable Rancher lineup. Whether you prefer the old-school standard Rancher or the state-of-the-art Rancher AT there is something in this series that should fit the bill. From ranch hands to sportsmen, the 2009 Honda Rancher line of utility ATVs will continue to work hard and play even harder.
For more information on Honda’s complete line of ATVs checkout: powersports.honda.com.