First Ride! - 2001 Honda Foreman Rubicon
Specifications | Features | Transmission Tech
Well it's finally here, and we've spent a full day riding it! Honda's full-time four-wheel-drive 499cc Foreman Rubicon with Hondamatic™ Continuously Variable Transmission. In short, this tranny is hydraulically controlled using the engine's oil for its fluid. This machine has been in the works at Honda for nearly 5 years, and it does away with the typical belt drive and pulley systems typically found in automatic ATVs. What this means to the end user is less revving to engage the transmission, quieter operation, less maintenance, and a claimed increase in reliability.
The hydraulic transmission is mated with Honda's computer controlled dual-mode change program (a horsepower or torque mode selection) and their Electric Shift Program (ESP™) which, when in the manual mode, allows shifting at your discretion with the touch of your finger. While the transmission will undoubtedly be the big focus for those looking to buy this machine, there's so much more to the new Rubicon.
Our opportunity to ride the Rubicon came under perfect Southern California conditions - snow, rain, and a bit of everything else in-between. This allowed us to ride through 4 inches of fresh snow, submarine through deep water, ride up slick hills and off-camber trails as well as to push the machine to its limits sliding fire roads. Nothing could have been better for experiencing the new Rubicon.
Through all of these conditions the Rubicon performed extremely well, handling all that was thrown at it while providing excellent comfort and with great composure. One doesn't quite know what to expect when first hopping aboard an ATV with a hydraulic transmission and manual hand operated shifting. How will it pull and what's the shifting change going to feel like; these were some of the questions running through our minds.
The answer is that it all works very well thank you, and pretty much like nothing before. The transmission engages at a low rpm and off you go. No high revving to get belts engaging, just squeeze the throttle and off you go. In short, the new Rubicon is a new ATV to be reckoned with by the competition. Understand, however, the reason for this has as much to do with the rest of the machine's make up, as it does its one-of-a-kind transmission.
Of the machines endearing strengths, comfort ranks right up there at the top. The Rubicon is a big machine to be sure, which allows for a less cramped layout. The handlebar-seat-footrest layout is comfortable, as is the seat itself which allows for very good body movement sliding roads or shifting your weight on the side of a hill. Other Honda ATVs felt somewhat cramped for larger riders after spending time aboard the Rubicon.
Another exceptionally strong feature of the Rubicon is the machine's incredibly light and quick steering, unlike most 4-wheel drive ATVs. Though other OEMs have been making their 4 x 4 models easier to steer, we know of nothing that steers like the Rubicon. The new Honda takes the prize with virtually no 4x4 torque effect. The Rubicon was even easier to steer than Honda's own smaller Rancher, a model known to posses light steering. This trait is welcomed everywhere you take the Rubicon and it allows you to choose just about any line you like when blasting down fire roads.
The suspension on the new Rubicon was also a pleasant surprise. It's so compliant you don't notice much other than a great ride. You actually need to focus on how the suspension is working, as it otherwise goes mostly unnoticed. And work well it does, from side hilling, to deep ruts, to fast roads. Don't get us wrong, this isn't a sport ATV, but for a large utility type machine it's very good.
Another nice touch is the floorboards which feature indentations that make it easier to move your toes or heels around below the footpegs. The handlebars are comfortable and feel natural, and the thumb throttle is easy to push. Through all types of riding the gas tank proved comfortable and unobtrusive, once again quite a surprise for such a big machine. There's also a water tight rear storage compartment, a stainless steel exhaust system, and two-piece aluminum wheels.
The Rubicon's bodywork provides excellent splash protection by way of it's black fender extensions. When crossing deep puddles, water shoots out around you, but the rider stays dry. Only when you rush huge water holes or dive only one wheel into a deep hole does the water find a way to the rider.
Honda spent a good deal of time developing their new flagship ATV which was actually in development before last years Rancher. According to Honda, development focused on nearly every detail of the new machine like the shape and placement of the gear selection lever. Special emphasis was placed on mass centralization, a low center of gravity, and reducing overall weight. The result is a machine that simply isn't tipsy under any of the circumstances we encountered. Not in corners nor on rutted off-camber hills.
Honda's all new engine design (its first liquid cooled ATV engine ever) is an overhead-valve single-cylinder 499cc four-stroke mounted longitudinally to allow for a direct drive-shaft alignment to the front and rear wheels. The engine is rubber cushioned and features a gear-driven counterbalancer. Lots of attention was given to making the engine as short as possible to aid in providing a low center of gravity. This entailed using an under-head camshaft (UHC™) located, you guessed it, just below the cylinder head. The four valve head uses two short push rods and the oil tank is mounted to the front of the engine to reduce engine height further.
The 33.5mm CV carb features an electrically heated float bowel for use in cold temperatures, ignition is by CDI, starting is electric with an auxiliary recoil starter.
Honda claims this new engine is actually quite a high performance item, but this is something we won't be able to fully experience until they plant it in a more performance orientated machine. In the 600 pound Rubicon (claimed dry weight), the engine pulls well though it's not a screamer by any stretch of the imagination - and remember it's a 4 x 4 utility machine. In the normal auto mode, the Rubicon doesn't feel peppy, just extremely compliant and competent. There's sometimes a slight feeling of sluggishness as you start out, particularly on hills. In the low automatic shifting range things pick up a bit with a quicker and more powerful surge.
D1 = Horsepower mode
D2 = Tourque mode
ESP = Manual shift
Take your pick:
Low range, Drive (normal),
Neutral and Reverse.
Manual Shifting: The up
arrow shifts up, the down arrow downshifts.
If the Rubicon's auto shifting isn't allowing the machine to rev out as much as you'd like, you can simply switch to manual shifting and rev the machine as you like. Manual mode is uncanny as shifting in this mode is unbelievably simple, quick and smooth. All you notice is a change in the engines power delivery either in acceleration or engine braking. On fast fire roads this can gain you a little time over the auto shifting mode, but once you reach a corner watch out, as the automatic mode has the upper hand. If you shift even slightly early or late the guy using auto shift will pull away. The auto shifting mode is always in the correct ratio and doesn't make mistakes from our experiences. Manual shifting will allow you to select a gear (actually a ratio) that suits your needs. You can then simply leave it in this position for towing a load at a constant speed.
With the Rubicon transmission you simply have it your way whatever that may be. You select drive, low, neutral or reverse from the conveniently located selection knob, and you select normal D1 (horsepower mode), torque mode D2, or manual electric shift ESP from the dash-mounted knob. What impressed us most about the gear selector was how easy it slipped into gear. No clunking or rocking the lever back and forth to get it to engage. We saw one tester perched precariously on three wheels at the top of a downhill he'd rather not descend. Switching into reverse to get out of this situation simply required a light pull on the selector knob into reverse.
Honda also worked hard to give the Rubicon engine breaking similar to that of a normal gear driven ATV. Our observation is that they hit the mark which means engine breaking is effective no matter the conditions. The brakes worked well but it was impossible to completely evaluate them in the sloppy conditions we enjoyed all day.
Honda claims no special service is necessary with the new transmission other than regular oil changes with quality oil. The power transfer efficiency of the Hondamatic transmission is said to be less than a gear driven transmission, but a bit more efficient than belt drive systems. When you ride the Rubicon you get a sense that it's taking power to work this transmission. Top speed is just over 50 mph, but it doesn't get there quick, at least running at 5,500 feet or so.
Additional features include a multi-function LCD providing gear selection, speedometer, odometer, resettable tripmeter, and an hourmeter and clock. Twin headlights use 30 watt halogen bulbs, the hitch has a towing capacity of 850 pounds and cargo racks are rated at 66 pounds front and 133 pounds rear. There is a 12-amp 12 volt accessory socket, a 3.4 gallon fuel tank with reserve, and a gas cap type fuel gauge. There's a top mounted choke lever that's not anywhere as easy to use as Honda's own handlebar mounted unit on the Rancher.
The new 2001 Honda Rubicon is available in red or olive and carries a 6 month limited warranty. Suggested retail pricing in the US is $6,999 and units should be available in dealerships beginning June 2000.
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