2015 Honda Pioneer 500 First Ride 1
In a recent conversation with 4WheelDirt.com Editor Justin Dawes, the question came up. “Would you like to go check out Honda’s new side-by-side for us?” My eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas, dreaming of the big-bore, sport UTV we’ve all been waiting on from Big Red. I jumped at the chance and booked a flight to Cincinnati, Ohio. A huge Honda fan myself; I have always been impressed by legendary reliability and their history of rock solid equipment. I couldn’t wait to see what would be revealed.
A presentation at our hotel would be the media’s first look at the machine, and we were scheduled to spend the next day riding the new Honda UTV at Scott Summers private ranch. Scott is an off-road legend, with multiple Honda-mounted GNCC XC motorcycle championships to his name. His 100-acre ranch in Kentucky features spectacular trails that he has hand cut over the years – no doubt a huge asset to his impressive training regimen. If you don’t know Summer’s story, you owe it to yourself to look him up. He is a soft spoken, large, and incredibly strong countryman that preferred to race massive XR600’s through the tight woods versus the lighter 2-stroke options that everyone else was racing at the time. Scott even rode to a third place overall finish in the Baja 1000, not bad for a XC guy from Kentucky, right? A favorite image that may come to mind to some of our readers is of him picking up an XR600 for a photo shoot during an interview and not even struggling in the least. It truly was an honor to be allowed to sling some dirt at his private training ground.
As you might have already seen, the new Honda is not a 1000cc, long travel monster, but rather a smaller, trail-width UTV. The all-new Honda Pioneer 500 is designed for both fun and function, with an amazingly competitive price point of $8499. The Pioneer 500 is designed around a 50″ wide chassis allowing it to be operated on ATV trails with 50″ width restrictions as well as fitting easily in a pick up bed for transport. The 475cc engine is derived from the proven Fourtrax Foreman 4X4 ES, and its electric shift five-speed transmission was a great starting point for Honda engineers to develop an industry first, cutting-edge paddle shift system.
At $8500 the Pioneer 500 is competitively priced, costing about the same as an ATV or a Chinese knock-off UTV. The Pioneer features all the benefits of a larger side-by-side like comfortable seating for two, a Roll Over Protection Structure, and the ability to tow a 1000-pound load. Where it is more similar to an ATV is cost, maneuverability, and required storage space. Not requiring a trailer for transport or an entire garage space to house the Pioneer surely provides an added value to the target market.
Although the pricing is affordable, the Pioneer 500 is not is cheaply built. The little Pioneer is the real deal, a slightly scaled down version, with all the features and functions for both work and play as the larger Pioneer 700. The 475cc Single is an proven and reliable engine that already sees duty in the Foreman. The 475’s trick longitudinal mounting allows Honda engineers to put optimal power to the ground by avoiding a power-robbing 90-degree direction change in drivetrain.
While the new Honda is a real-deal UTV, it doesn’t feature a typical functional bed; instead the Pioneer has an oversized rear rack with multiple tie-down points. That flat payload area has capacity of 450lbs. So 500 rack won’t work for moving sand or dirt, but it is easily capable of hauling a full sized pallet or a few bales of hay.
Looking deeper into the Pioneer 500, it truly exudes Honda quality. The included door system features automotive style latches with rubber vibration isolators and an innovative window net system that closes itself when the door is latched. This machine will undoubtedly be found 25 years from now, tires full of plugs, covered in duct tape, yet still running at farms and ranches. Vehicles like the ATC 90, Honda 250R, and Honda Rancher are constant reminders of how long a well-built machine can live with minimal upkeep and service.
The first ride conditions were epic for a product launch. Scott’s trail system was super-green, featured technical terrain, creek crossings, tight off-camber trails, and even a few jumps. Mother nature played a big part in the epic conditions as well. Apparently she had our back, bestowing a light rain all night before stopping just in time for us to be turned loose with the new machines. The sun poked out, dirt got super tacky, and just as we were finishing up it started dumping again. Perfect timing.
The first unique feature that really catches your attention is the automotive-style paddle shifters. The Pioneer’s electric-shift 5-speed transmission has proven quite popular and durable in the Rancher and Foreman ATVs. This push-button, automatic-clutch gearbox allowed Honda engineers to design a super-cool and innovative paddle-shifting set-up. The paddle shifters are mounted to the steering column and work just like they do in a high-end sports car. Pulling the left paddle downshifts and a quick pull of the right will get you an upshift.
Driving aggressively with the paddle shifters is a blast, it seriously brings a whole new element to UTV driving. In two-wheel drive a quick downshift was all that was needed to break the rear end loose when entering a corner at speed. Shifting up was equally as entertaining, as you can bang through the gears looking for every bit of available power. The Pioneer 500 is not by any means a fast UTV with a 39 mph top speed, but the addition of the paddle shifters give a more connected feel and a fun-to-drive character. It easily entertained a handful of magazine editors for hours upon hours, lap after lap. My one complaint on the paddle shift system is that there are times when your hands may be in the wrong position to reach the paddles for a up- or downshift in a turn. It’s a small complaint, and you will eventually learn to adjust your grip on the wheel.
As for the transmission as a whole, there are ups and downs about having a shifting transmission versus a CVT in a side-by-side. One claimed benefit for the Honda transmission was smoothness and ability to keep a slower, more steady speed for plowing, tilling, or mowing. This and the fun factor of the electric shift are both very valid points, but it is more work than a set-it-and-forget-it CVT transmission. While driving aggressively we did find the necessity to shift quite often to keep the little Pioneer in the meat of the power curve. While we were banging through the gears like mad men, most any normal trail ride could driven in 4th and 5th for the most part while only dropping down to low a lower gear for extreme situations.
Sitting in the Pioneer is also comfortable, especially for a price-point machine. The doors and window nets worked flawlessly and open a full 180 degrees for ease of entry. The cab is relatively small, but surprisingly roomy, even for two 6-foot-tall adult passengers and a camera bag. The bench seat has room for two adults and it uses automotive-type “ELR” emergency locking retractor seat belts. We did experience the seat belts locking up while driving, but this was only when really hammering on it, probably beyond what most sane people would ever do.
The Pioneer’s controls are very straightforward, with the exception of the paddle shifters the cab has almost a bare or simple feel to it. 4-wheel-drive is accessed by a lever on the dash, as is reverse. The Pioneer handles great and its speed is barely affected when driving in four-wheel drive. Steering effort is noticeably more difficult with the front wheels churning, as the Pioneer does not have EPS to assist you. The Pioneer’s 4wd mode is still very drivable, and the front-end really helps to pull through loamy turns and keep the Pioneer connected to the trail when it starts getting slippery. To find reverse, you pull a lever on dash to unlock it, and use the paddle shifter to shift down from first. The reverse gear is geared very low, probably for the better, but we found ourselves feeling governed a little bit when backing up.
When first turned loose, the course was still pretty sloppy and we opted for a accessorized Pioneer with the full windshield, mirrors, and bumpers. All of the Honda accessories are well thought out. They don’t rattle and seemed easy to mount. There is already a full line of more than 40 Honda Genuine Accessories, ready for sale right off the dealer floor. The Pioneer bodywork does a great job of keeping its occupants reasonably clean and dry. The front fenders even kept the windshield from getting mudded from spray off of the front tires. The body does a great job keeping you dry in your average creek crossing, but we did not test full on mud bogging ability. I’m sure that it’s not Honda’s true market intention, but will surely still find itself waste deep in a swamp or two. While the fenders kept it’s own mud at bay, they didn’t stand much of a chance with the mud flinging from other units when the Journalist GP Motos broke out.
The dual A-arm Suspension is great for slower speed trail riding, or any work detail you might have planned. At higher speeds, when pushing the limits of the 500, it will definitely use up every bit of its 6-inches of travel. The front-end would bottom easier than the rear on bigger impacts, but it never gets sketchy or gives a feeling of losing control. It is definitely capable of providing a great time driving it for sport, but if jumping or pounding out whoops is your thing – you should be looking for a different class of UTV.
Another noticeable and mention-worthy trait was the 500’s overall maneuverability. The tighter the trails, the more fun you could have with the little Pioneer 500. Its reasonably short wheelbase of 73.1 inches allows the machine to turn around in very confined spaces. The turning radius is only 13 feet which really helps when turning around over and over for a photo shoot, or going back for the rest of the group that couldn’t keep up. Whipping the machine around repetitively is even easier and more fun in 2wd. Dropping a gear with the paddle shifter to spin the machine around just might never get old.
All in all, Honda has a winner with the 2015 Pioneer 500. It’s not the monster we all are waiting to see from a Japanese manufacturer, but instead a very practical workhorse with plenty of fun factored in. This machine, at this price should do very well and were sure they are going to be the perfect ride for many new entrants to UTVS and well as an excellent choice for those looking for something that is a little smaller for trail riding.
2015 Honda Pioneer 500 Specs:
Engine: 475cc liquid-cooled 4-stroke; OHV; Longitudinally mounted
Bore x Stroke: 92.0mm x 71.5mm
Compression Ratio: 9.5:1
Fuel: Programmed Fuel Injection (PGM-FI), 36mm throttle body
IGNITION: Full-transistorized with electronic advance
Transmission: Electric-shift 5-speed w/reverse (first gear is L=LOW)
Drive Train: Direct front and rear driveshafts
Front Suspension: Independent double wishbone, 5.9 inches of travel
Rear Suspension: Independent double wishbone with pre-load adjustment, 5.9 inches of travel
Front Brakes: Dual hydraulic 190mm discs
Rear Brake: 200mm hydraulic disc
Tires: (Front) 24×8-12 – (Rear) 24×10-12
Height: 72.4 in
Wheelbase: 73.1 in
Seat Height: 28.7 in
Fuel Capacity: 4.1 gallons including 1.1 gallon reserve
Wet Weight: 1010 lbs
Turning Radius: 13.0 feet
Towing Capacity: 1000 lbs.
Payload Capacity: 450 lbs.
Colors: Red, Olive, Yellow, Honda Phantom Camo