Honda has offered its popular Rancher 420 in more combinations than most riders can keep track of, but you couldn’t get one with an automatic transmission and solid-axle rear suspension until now. For 2014, there are two new versions of the Rancher Automatic with solid-axle rear suspension— one with power steering and one without. The new Rancher is almost entirely new, so we grabbed one of the first available power-steering units to test.
HOW DOES THE PRICE COMPARE?
It’s competitive. The Rancher Automatic with power steering starts at $7399. Without power steering, the automatic goes for $6699. There are seven more Ranchers starting with the foot-shift five-speed 2WD for $5199 all the way up to the top-of the-line $7799 Rancher AT 4×4 with automatic transmission, independent rear suspension and power steering. Suzuki’s $6499 solid rear-axle King Quad 400 4×4 automatic is the most similarly equipped 4×4 to the new Rancher Automatic. The Suzuki 400 4×4 is also available with a foot-shift five-speed transmission for $6499, but you can’t get either model with power steering. Some 400–450-class 4x4s with independent rear suspension are less expensive, like the $5699 Polaris Sportsman 400.
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT THE NEW RANCHERS?
Nearly everything. The new longer, wider chassis has bigger front brakes and more suspension travel—6.69 inches front and rear, up from last year’s 6.3 inches front and rear. There’s new bodywork with a larger fuel tank and a roomier riding position, better splash protection and more aggressive styling. A new, softer, thicker seat adds comfort. More powerful headlights increase safety and visibility. The Rancher is powered by a longitudinally mounted, fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, pushrod, two-valve, 420cc engine like before, but higher compression and revised engine management boosts fuel economy, and an oxygen sensor in the exhaust system allows the fuel injection to compensate more precisely for temperature and elevation changes. As we said previously, this is the first time the fully automatic, dual clutch transmission (DCT) like the Rancher AT’s is available in Ranchers with solid rear-axle suspension.
WHAT’S UNUSUAL ABOUT THE RANCHER ENGINE?
Longitudinal mounting means the crankshaft is in line with the drive shafts, so the power reaches the wheels more directly and more efficiently than on machines with transversely mounted engines, and it makes the machine’s midsection slimmer. The semi-dry sump design and push rod valve train reduce engine height, so it can be mounted lower than taller overhead-cam, wet sump engines without losing ground clearance.
WHAT’S UNUSUAL ABOUT THE RANCHER TRANSMISSION?
It’s fully automatic, but there’s no belt to slip, wear or replace. If you’re looking for easy riding, don’t be freaked out by the DCT name; there’s no clutch to operate, and it does all the shifting for you. It’s almost as easy to use as a car’s automatic. You just select forward or reverse, give the Rancher some gas and you’re moving. If you want more control, you can select the manual shift program and shift gears with the thumb buttons on the left handlebar pod. Engaging reverse is more work on the Rancher than on other automatics. Rather than simply move a shift lever to reverse, you have to press the reverse button on the left brake-lever perch, then squeeze the brake and downshift to reverse with the thumb button. It’s simpler than it sounds, but it can be a stretch for riders with small hands.
WHAT KIND OF 4WD SYSTEM DOES IT HAVE?
A simple but effective one. Like most 4×4 ATVs, the Rancher has selectable 2WD/4WD, but you select the drive mode with a mechanical lever on the tank rather than a more convenient handlebar switch. There’s no front differential-lock feature. Unlike machines with limited-slip front differentials, the Rancher’s front differential puts more power to the front wheel with more traction, which provides plenty of grip.
IS IT FAST?
For its size it is. We know the previous Rancher is quicker than a Yamaha Grizzly 450 in a drag race, and the 2014 feels a little faster. It should be. The new automatic Ranchers have the higher-performance cam and higher compression that used to be reserved for the top-of-the-line Rancher AT, and the new model is a few pounds lighter too.
HOW IS THE POWER ON THE TRAIL?
It’s responsive and fun, but, in some situations, it’s more fun if you do your own shifting. Honda’s automatic DCT does a great job of picking the right gears for casual trail cruising, and it gets all of the Rancher’s power to the ground on tough climbs, but we switched to manual shift mode to make the most of the engine’s snappy throttle response. Holding the Honda in the gears we liked didn’t get us down the trail much faster, but it let us lift the front end over rises and puddles and drift the Rancher around turns. Manual shifting also makes for smoother progress on gradual uphills where the transmission hunts for the right ratio in automatic shift mode. Full auto is great for full throttle acceleration—the automatic shifts crisply and gets the transmission through the gears as well as any rider could in manual shift mode.
WHAT KIND OF SUSPENSION DOES THE NEW RANCHER HAVE?
It’s like sport quad suspension—dual A-arms up front and a single-shock, solid-axle swing arm setup in the rear. The front and rear shocks have five position spring-preload adjusters. The new Rancher has more travel than in the past, but its 6.69 inches front and rear is still conservative in keeping with Honda’s preference for flat cornering and stability over long, whoop swallowing suspension stroke.
HOW DOES THE SUSPENSION WORK ON THE TRAIL?
It’s surprisingly smooth for a solid rear axle setup. Honda has the Rancher’s spring and damping rates so well tuned, the ride is similar to some machines with independent rear suspension (IRS). The Honda absorbs a lot of the harshness from things that normally give riders a beating, like ruts, roots and rocks, and it’s impressively plush on milder bumps. Power steering does its share to smooth the Rancher’s ride also, because it dampens the kick that bumps send through the steering, in addition to making the steering easier. Very high speeds and big bumps will use all the available travel more often than on machines with more travel, but the suspension handles normal riding very well.
HOW IS THE HANDLING?
About as good as it gets. For a 4×4, the Rancher has a genuinely light, agile feel, a quality missing from most larger sport utility machines. The Honda’s willing handling is part common-sense engineering. It’s smaller and lighter than most 4×4 ATVs and has solid-axle rear suspension like a sport quad, which cuts body roll, so it handles more like a sport quad than a parade float. The rest of the Rancher’s feel is the result of the engine’s compact design and the semi-long-travel suspension.
HOW IS IT ON HILLS?
Confident. A good power-to-weight ratio and plenty of traction make hills some of the most fun obstacles to tackle on the Honda. The Rancher’s remarkable stability is a huge plus on tricky climbs too. We could change lines and avoid hazards on steep terrain with more security than we find with taller 4x4s.
Unlike some quads, the Rancher is as good as going down hills as it is going up. The Honda’s automatic provides natural engine braking and four-wheel engine braking in 4WD. Separate front the engine’s compact design and the semi-long-travel suspension. The short engine can be low in the chassis without compromising ground clearance, and the relatively short suspension travel helps the Honda feel stable, not tall and tippy. The new Rancher is also a bit wider than before, which makes it more secure in turns and on side hills, and it slides well.
HOW IS IT IN MUD?
Good within its limits. Solid-axle rear suspension leaves the Rancher with 7.2 inches of ground clearance. That’s more than last year’s solid rear-axle Rancher, but less than most quads with IRS, which have 9 inches or more. That means the Rancher will grind to a halt sooner in seriously muddy, rutted terrain. If you ride intending to keep going rather than seeing how far you can go before getting stuck, the Rancher is fine for mud. The engine has plenty of power for propelling the machine through slop, and the 4WD system does a great job of converting it to momentum in the mud. Unlike most automatic ATVs, the Honda’s transmission has no belt to burn or slip, which is a bonus in hard mud riding.
HOW ARE THE DETAILS?
Most are great. We’re always impressed by how comfortable and natural the ergonomics on Honda ATVs feel and by the smooth action of the controls. The new Rancher continues the tradition with a slim midsection, perfectly placed handlebars and foot pegs, and a great seat. The mechanical 2WD/4WD lever is less convenient than the handlebar buttons most machines have, but it does the job and works smoothly. The reverse procedure provides the safety of engaging reverse without taking your hands off the bars, but it’s more work than on most automatics, especially for riders with small hands.
WHAT IS OUR FINAL ANSWER?
Honda’s Ranchers were already extremely popular, and the availability of an automatic transmission on the solid-axle models makes them even more likable. Improved comfort, better suspension and strong performance make the new Rancher stand out among other small 4x4s.