2012 Honda Rubicon Utility ATV is working for the hoon

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When Honda invited me last week to ride ATVs on the trails around Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino range, I didn’t hesitate. I thought it would be like past trips riding sport quads in Moab or Hungry Valley, so I didn’t care if the temps would be in the upper 20s with high winds and maybe snow. Then I got the itinerary listing Honda’s “ATV Utility” line. Ugh. Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother used to keep Hondas around the farm where she raised horses, and the first motorized vehicle I ever piloted was a red 3-wheeler out in the pastures. While that was great as a kid, a 2012 Honda Rubicon utility ATV couldn’t possibly be fun as an adult, could it?

Let’s be frank, the idea of putzing around on utility ATVs designed for work instead of sport sounds like the most boring thing in the world to do. Yes, the Rubicon can pull almost a half-ton of feed or help rip out a stump with a chain. And, naturally, you can strap supplies to the ATV’s beefy metal racks and run supplies out to repair damaged fencing or irrigation lines. Of course, the thing’s also convenient for moseying over to check the livestock in the pasture on the far ridge beyond the creek. But, why can’t it do all that stuff and still go fast?

Actually, like the other duties expected of it, the Honda Rubicon is surprisingly good at doing fast, too. Power transfers from the longitudinally mounted 499cc single cylinder engine to the solid rear axle via the Rubicon’s fully automatic hydro-mechanical, continuously variable Hondamatic transmission. Shifting duties can either be set to “automatic” or handled with electronic paddle-shift style buttons on the left bar controls.

Referring to machines of the 2-wheeled variety, Hondamatic is usually spat in the same derisive tone as speaking about that kid who had to take 5th grade a few too many times and never seemed to get the snot off his nose. But, on a machine like the Rubicon, the Hondamatic transmission is actually pretty rad. I’ll be honest, I set shifting to automatic the whole ride because I kept fumbling my shifts trying to find the buttons. All the sudden, Hondamatic was my bff that let me quickly learn the characteristics of the ATV while bouncing all over the trails as fast as possible.

Thanks to the Rubicon’s solid rear axle with dual shocks, there’s definitely a lot of bouncing. The independent double-wishbone front keeps things from getting too crazy, which means you don’t consider the bouncing in a bad way, but instead more in the giggly redneck hooning-in-the-mud kind of way. Because I promise you’ll make a bee-line for every puddle you come across.

Throttle control is very precise, allowing you to break out the rear, then subtly adjust to bring it back in without losing momentum, or do the opposite when picking lines across heavily rutted and steep, rocky inclines. That kind of control for how power gets to the ground also allows you to makes on-the-fly adjustments to turning radius very intuitive, both for safety reasons and secretly hooning as much as possible on the way to fix that downed fence on the other side of the pasture.

As for braking, the Rubicon gets what I wish all Honda bikes with linked brakes and automatic transmissions should have. And that would be the option to not use linked brakes when they aren’t appropriate. The Rubicon’s 180mm front disc brakes with single calipers and rear drum brake can be individually controlled via the left and right hand levers, while the foot brake lever links the rear and front brakes. I actually used all three options over the course of the day because at different times, all three options were appropriate for stopping or slowing. Just like that, linked brakes became a fantastic option and not an awkward pain.

Controlling the front is incredibly light and nimble thanks to power steering that feels unobtrusive like a steering dampener, yet helps keep the front tires from grabbing into the high side walls of narrower, rutted trails. All this translates to not fighting so hard to keep the thing going straight, letting me focus on important stuff like forgetting I’m riding a 640 lbs. vehicle designed for work and not play.

Technically, there are absolutely no changes to the 2012 model beyond the olive green model getting black wheels, but the Rubicon is such a strong platform that there’s not really a list of things on the bike that need fixing. The MSRP for the 2012 model starts at $7,899 and the fact that the Rubicon is a vehicle designed for work that just so happens to be awesome at playing makes that cost easily justifiable.

(Images courtesy of Honda)

  • ktaisa

    damn that bike is crazy. never seen one with 4 wheels before

    • The other Joe


  • http://www.lloydvintage.com lloydvintage

    ATV’s are a section of the industry where some American companies actually are competitive with the Japanese.

    For $7900 you can get an American made Polaris with almost twice the horsepower, and independent suspension in the back.

    Honda ATV’s always seem to be a little behind the curve of technology.

    • longtravel

      Honda knows this and moved their engineering and manufacturing facilities to the US to better meet the needs and wants of US consumers about a year and a half ago. You should start seeing fully Amercianized quads come out starting mid 2012 although the Rancher, which was the first partially American redesigned machine, came out this year.

      On another note Polaris doesn’t make a comparable quad with “twice the horsepower” the similarly priced Sportsman 550 EPS makes 42hp vs the Rubicons 34. The Sure it has IRS vs a swingarm, but it also weighs 100lbs more and doesn’t come with the legendary engineering care of Honda. Just ask people about Hondas and the number 1 thing you’ll hear is that they don’t break.

      The bottom line is that at the moment Polaris and Honda have different design philosophies and while Honda has the pure utility market cornered Polaris has a much better foothold in the sport-utility market.

      • http://www.lloydvintage.com lloydvintage

        Something like the Sportsman 800 is actually less expensive at $7500 and 50hp. It’s not twice the horsepower.. but if an American sport bike company did this we’d have a lot less rants on this site.

        • longtravel

          I agree but again these are machines aimed at different buyers. The Polaris 800 doesn’t have available EPS, uses a belt drive clutch, uses a MacPhereson strut instead of A-Arms and still comes in 150 or so pounds heavier. Not to say any of that is a bad thing, but it just shows that they are designed with different uses in mind.

          No news yet but hopefully Honda will come out with some new models to boost their presence in the sport-utility ATV market. I know I’d personally pay a bit more for a 50hp sporty Honda over any other brand, especially since they are now American designed and built.

  • 2ndderivative

    “longitudinally mounted 499cc single cylinder engine”

    I assume that’s a reference to crank orientation?

    • http://www.lloydvintage.com lloydvintage


      as opposed to the Yamaha SR500 engine which is horizontal.

      ATV’s are usually shaft drive so longitudinal makes more sense, just like a rwd car. It creates less drive direction changes.

      • The other Joe

        All cranks are horizontal, I think the word you’re looking for is transverse.

  • http://www.mcfw.com/ quint7

    I’ve posted it before, but Polaris has a HUGE contract with the US military for atv’s. They are the new Jeep, a do it all, small and light, unarmored utility vehicle. I live where dirt bikes and snowmobiles used to rule. Now it is damn near 100% atv’s. Kids, farmers, hunters, even people with huge McMansions that want it to plow the driveway and tow a mower deck. American and Canadian brands have the market cornered here.

    • Devin


      I often wondered if this will hurt street bike sales eventually since very few kids are learning on dirt bikes now. Especially in climates where there is snow, it is almost a year round machine. You can even legally drive atv’s on side roads in my area between April and December.

  • http://mansgottado.tumblr.com/ Andy Gregory

    Looks like fun…I’d be into something like this if I had a farm. Get the work done and have some fun at the same time. Plus I could use it to help make a mx and a flat track for my huge stable of dirt bikes. I can dream…

  • http://www.mcfw.com/ quint7
    • The other Joe

      No big surprise that the picture shows a fat guy behind the wheel. ATVs are the lazy man’s dirt bike, and the fact that they are so popular shows how lazy most Americans have become.

      Then there’s the fear thing. Anything that requires any skill is considered “dangerous”, or an “extreme sport”. Most of the things I did as a kid (and still do) were just considered “sports” back then. Now they are “extreme sports” like you have to be crazy to do it. And that, I believe, is half the battle that the motorcycle industry is facing.

      • http://www.mcfw.com/ quint7

        I agree Joe. Could you imagine how many horrid disfigurements kids today would suffer if they not only played with actual Tonka trucks (vs video ones) that were…… gasp…… metal!
        When I moved back east after getting out of the Marines in 1994 I couldn’t believe that the park I grew up riding bmx bikes in completely banned bikes from trails ‘due to the popularity of mountain bikes and the danger posed to riders and hikers’. WHAT? Pussification of America. One more reason we could’ve used the Draft these past 10 years.

  • Gene

    It probably has a “solid rear AXLE” (3rd paragraph)

    Edit: and watching people race these things is insane.

  • Core

    What was the helmet the rider was wearing? I am curious.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      Scorpion’s EXO-900 Snow Helmet. It’s my new BFF. I’ll be writing a review soon.

      • http://www.mcfw.com/ quint7

        Wore a HJC helmet with the snow shield and breath guard one fall. Other than the reduction in field of vision it was great. (was basically their DOT helmet with snow shield and breath guard added, but much better for cold temp riding)


    Couldn’t quite get that knee down, eh?

  • The other Joe

    You talk about this thing as if it were a bike, what’s the deal? Sure, they can be fun sometimes, but let’s not forget what HFL is about, Motorcycles. What are you going to review next, a car, a boat, a pair of skis?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      Don’t be so limited, Other Joe, because we sure aren’t. Nor have we ever been, at least by choice. The 2nd machine HFL ever reviewed was the Yamaha Raptor 700R at Hungry Valley. The 2nd “Expedition” that HFL published was with KTM quads in Moab.

      HFL’s coverage and adventures have historically been constricted to strictly what we could get our hands on due to outside circumstances. I’ve been asking the OE’s to let us cover the entire range of powersports for years. That includes quads, snowmobiles and any other outdoor motor-powered contraption I can get into trouble with. The move to LA is rapidly changing those hampering circumstances, and we’re not about to limit ourselves to only one flavor of fun.

      Don’t worry, Other Joe. I swear I’ll never give a damn if the throttle bodies have been raised .038mm for increased flow, or if the bore and stroke has been tweaked for another 2 horsepower of mid-range.

      • walter

        I, for one, would love to read about a snow sled adventure.