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Here's another market niche I had yet to discover. What I know about the burgeoning side-by-side all-terrain-vehicle market could be summed up in a single observation: I knew Kawasaki made some ungainly four-wheeler called the Mule.
I know this because I would see them at motorcycle races, which, since Kawasaki was big into superbikes, many of its sponsored teams felt obligated to use the Mule as their pit-lane transportation. As for the rest of the market, I assumed it was an ultra-tiny niche for oilfield engineers and the occasional Texan farmer with spreads "as far as the eye can see."
Who knew, for instance, that the side-by-side market reached almost 100,000 units last year in North America? Or that -- and this still seems a little like putting lipstick on a sow to me -- you can get something called a Kubota RTV with air conditioning and power steering. Perversely dilettantish I'll admit, but obviously some adventuresome boomers are trying to bring a little civility to the off-road experience.
Nonetheless, I had little context to fall back on when Honda invited me to take a little toodle on its new-for-2014 Pioneer. Work-a-day ATVs are hardly my cup o' tea; I could only imagine a larger, slower version would be like watching paint dry.
That the mercury just so happened to register about minus five the day I was to go Pioneering just lowered my expectations that much more. Give me the fully covered version (Pioneers, both the two-seater and four-seater options offer a quasi cabin with hard plastic sides and a glass windshield) with heater and I'll give you 30 minutes of my time; staying cosy looked like it would be the highlight of the test.
And then knobby rubber hit snowy field and all manner of sliding sideways, OMG-I-just-did-a-360-and-I'm-still-pointed-in-the-same-direction-at-full-speed hilarity ensued. Every slippery, ice-filled corner was chance to get seriously crossed up; every sharp turn was an opportunity to perfect my rally-driving, swing-one-way-then-flip-it-sideways-the-other skills.
Much merriment ensued, my cackling like a madman often drowning out the Pioneer's subdued exhaust.
It's worth noting here Honda's take on the side-by-side is very much utilitarian. Yes, it has built more suspension travel into its new offering -- 200 millimetres for the front double wishbones and even more -- 230 mm -- for the rear independent system, but this is a "truck" emphasizing towing (680 kilograms) and payload (slightly less, at 454 kg). Indeed, according to Honda's news release, the Pioneer's key feature is its rear cargo bed (in the Pioneer 700-4) can be rearranged for two rear seats. Said cargo bed also tilts, dumping its cargo, just like a, well, dump truck.
It's also imbued with Honda's emphatic obsession with safety. All four perches feature seatbelts, there's an especially annoying netting that prevents your arms from flailing outside the cabin in the case of a rollover, and the cargo box cannot be tilted when the rear seats are deployed. No, there will be no "unfortunate" ejection of the mother-in-law while deep in the woods (I saw the gears churning in your devious little minds). And, of course, there's the aforementioned cabin enclosure, whose bolt-on plastic bits (there's also a lower-cost canvas top as well) make the Pioneer relatively airtight and cosy enough for even northern Albertan climes (provided, of course, you've donned the requisite winter clothing).
Nonetheless, much to my surprise (it was really cold out, at least by dilettante-ish Torontonian standards), I liked the bare bones Pioneer the best. Levered into 2WD mode (there are 4WD and 4WD with locking front differential modes a well), the darned thing is an absolute hoot with just enough power from its 675-cc single cylinder engine to get you in trouble but not enough to hurt you.
It is the multi-faceted use that Honda sees as the Pioneer's key strength. Something from Kubota may have more utilitarian abilities and Polaris offers more sporting models. But Honda Canada sees the growth for these odd offshoots of the ATV segment as something equally comfortable working as sliding.
The Pioneer (which starts at $11,999 for the base model) isn't a bad place to start.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014