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Serving: IA

Big Red Takes on the SxS Market

Honda comes to the party late, but makes a grand entrance.

For 15 years American Honda has been watching the side-by-side utility vehicle market grow, evolve and splinter. And now, the conservative engine and vehicle builder has its own entry for 2009 in the Big Red.

Announced earlier this year, the Honda Big Red is arriving in dealerships across the country, and we got a chance to drive one on California's Catalina Island in the first product launch for the multiuse utility vehicle (MUV) for the agricultural and machinery press.

A bold, barrel-chested appearance is matched by torque, tight construction and ability in Honda's new Big Red multi-purpose utility vehicle. The new SxS sports an automotive-style three-speed automatic transmission.

Fifteen years is a long time for a company to wait to enter a market, but the Big Red and its workhorse design and recreational ability will appeal to many side-by-side buyers, particularly the die-hard Honda folks who have been waiting until the company delivered on the rumors that have filled the industry for years. In fact, many Big Reds just now arriving from the company's Mexican assembly line are hitting the showrooms just long enough to be delivered to Honda fans who have had deposits on them for months.

The Big Red (available in Honda Red and Camo) features an impressive, bold appearance with fit and finish the company used to transform the American auto industry. The ground-up new design features technology from Honda's ATV and motorcycle business as well as its automotive side. The result: a well-thought-out, tough machine capable of working all week and playing just has hard on the weekends.

Big Red is powered with a 675 cc electronically-fuel-injected, four-valve, liquid-cooled, single-cylinder pushrod engine that sits low in the vehicle's frame. To combat vibration, engineers have installed a counterbalance shaft in the longitudinally-mounted powerplant, and except at idle, they've been successful in keeping the thumper very smooth.

In addition to the ability to have fun on off road trails and open country, Big Red is a workhorse, with 1,200 pounds of towing capacity and a 500-pound rated dump bed.

The engine develops more than enough torque to move two occupants and 500 lbs. of payload in the dump bed easily on nearly any terrain you wish to tackle. The low center of gravity design gives Big Red extremely good footing on side angles that make some cringe.

While riding in streams is verboten in many circles, we noticed the position of the air intake and the upswept stainless-steel exhaust system (along with the top-mounted spark plug on the engine) seem to make Big Red capable of running in water cresting the top of its 25-inch tires.

Power is transferred through an automotive-style three-speed automatic transmission coupled to the engine with a torque converter that shares filtered crankcase oil with the sump of the engine. A computer chip seems to know just when to shift the auto up and down, and as long as you're at rolling speed, the system provides super engine braking. Don't expect that same rolling resistance, however, if you breech a steep hill at a crawl and start down -- the torque converter isn't engaged at low speeds and you'll have to rely on the very ample automotive four-wheel disc brakes.

The single-range transmission offers a clash-free shift from 2WD to 4WD with rear differential lock, to 4WD with both differentials locked. Dash mounted controls for Drive-Neutral-Reverse and the 2WD/4WD selections are ergonomically well placed and very easy to use.

In addition to brake calipers and rotors the size of some passenger cars, the brake system on Big Red is automotive with its dual master cylinder and diagonally-redundant brake system. We noticed, too, the brake lines on the new Honda are well hidden from brush, snags and obstructions one might encounter off the road -- a feature very welcome after some of the vehicles we've driven.

Big Red sits 10.3 inches off the ground at its lowest point and rides smoothly on progressive shock absorbers attached to front and rear double-wishbone suspension. Rack and pinion steering is easy, except in 4WD with both front and rear differentials locked, where the traction of a synchronous drive train is what you'd expect from 4WD and a machine that weighs nearly 1,200 lbs.

Big Red is a good machine in its own right, but as a "Johnny come lately" to a mature SxS market, the Honda folks made sure they thought of many little things to make their offering "truly a Honda" as their marketing officials say. The list includes:

* A well-designed operator protection system that provides much interior room and enhanced rollover protection in case of accident.
* The rubber-mounted seats of Big Red are "bucket" in design, but are wider, allowing easier entry and exit than true bucket seats.
* The dump bed -- which is designed to hold a standard pallet -- sports a progressive gas assist strut that allows driver or rider to engage the dump and unload the rated payload with little personal effort. In addition, the sides, tailgate and bottom of the bed are protected with blow-molded plastic -- which can be replaced if it is damaged or worn
* The hitch receiver is a full 2-inch tube -- unlike some competitors -- and the Big Red towing capacity is a "conservative" 1,200 lbs.
* Automotive-style, but lightweight, doors protect occupants from "broken leg syndrome" in rough country.
* Excellent headlights and taillights that are protected from damage by fully-surrounding high-impact panels.

Now, why Honda didn't make the driver's seat adjustable back and forward (the seat back moves but it takes a tool) and why for any instrumentation you have to order the optional electronic dashboard, is one of those corporate mysteries.

Driving the Big Red is a pleasure on rough country. The fully powder-coated frame and suspension give a well-dampened ride despite the terrain, and (yes, I know it's brand new) it had not one rattle even on "washboard" roads and diagonal gullies on the trails we traveled.

The engine pulls like a locomotive and unlike others in the category, there's no lurching and bouncing with a hair-trigger accelerator. Even one of the drivers on our test ride who was too short to rest her foot on the floor -- and couldn't adjust the front seat because there was no adjustment -- could drive the vehicle on rough terrain without the annoying "short burst oscillation" that comes when vehicle movement causes erratic accelerator motion under the driver's foot.

You can have a Big Red for $11,399 base price, or a camo model for $11,899. Digital instrumentation costs an additional $200 and Honda offers more than 30 accessories to match the new machine.

We think Honda will sell all they produce this year, and Big Red will muscle its way right into a mature but still expanding market.

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