— Some automatic features are okay, but…
By Joe Kosch
Compared to many modern cars for the road, most UTVs have a raw simplicity that really appeals to me. When I’m driving, I like to do the driving—most of it anyway. I don’t need the vehicle to stop for me or help me keep it on the road. I’ll check the mirrors often enough to see other vehicles approaching, so I can do without a warning system for that. Backup cameras and proximity alarms may be great for some drivers, but I’d rather just turn around and look. Does that mean I hate all automatic features? No way. I have no problem at all letting UTVs make driving better and easier for me. Here are some of the automatic driving features UTVs have that have made me like them more than old-school, do-it-yourself driving.
Back when I learned Honda was planning to offer traction control as part of the “Intelligent 4WD” system on the Pioneer 1000, I was more concerned than excited. I imagined the fun-killing kind of traction control many road cars come with, a system designed to deprive drivers of our right to power-slide. Turns out, the Honda system isn’t a form of electronic fun police after all. The Pioneer’s selectable 2WD/4WD lets you slide the machine in 2WD or 4WD, and it optimizes front differential traction in 4WD. It also provides automatic brake-force distribution, which I love, because I hate sliding out of control on steep downhills. The system even includes hill-start assist, which holds the machine on hills while you go from the brake to the gas pedal. That sounded like a needless luxury to me until I used it. Now I think it’s great. I’m in favor of anything that keeps me from going out of control down a hill backwards.
Fully automatic transmissions are a huge help in UTVs. I’ve learned that good automatics choose ranges as well as I do, and they do it faster, which gives me the power and traction I want or don’t want. I’m still a big fan of fully manual transmissions. There’s something very satisfying about shifting gears, and the efficiency and durability of geared transmissions are big pluses. There’s also nothing like the feel of a geared transmission and the sound of a machine running through the gears. Yamaha’s Sport Shift manual, which adds an automatic clutch and other automatic functions to a conventional manual transmission, and Honda’s dual clutch transmission with selectable full automatic mode and manual mode are great combinations of automatic and manual driving controls.
At the tech briefing for Polaris’ Dynamix system, which automatically tunes the suspension’s damping settings, I remember thinking, “This is going to be great for some drivers, but I’m pretty good at tuning suspension, so how much will it help me?” Driving the Dynamix RZR made me realize the Polaris computer has an edge. I know how to choose suspension settings, but I’m not going to adjust the settings 200 times a second, and definitely not while the vehicle is moving. I’ve tried it, and I couldn’t even get the little screwdriver on the shock adjuster, much less feel the clicks. As good as the Dynamix system is, it still offers some manual control, and as much as I like Dynamix, I’m glad it hasn’t completely replaced good old manual adjustments.
Power steering is more of a driver aid than an automatic feature, but the sophisticated, automatic variable assist UTV power-steering systems have is a major reason I like power steering on UTVs so much. Variable assist reduces steering more at low speeds and gradually less as speeds increase to provide good steering feel. Since a small difference in feel can make the difference between holding a line and staying on a trail or not—and dropping into a canyon or sliding off the face of a dune—I’m a big fan of feel.
Fortunately, UTV manufacturers understand that UTVs are drivers’ machines, so they’ve been careful to add automatic features that enhance the driving experience rather than doing it for us.