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)