Much has happened in 4x4 ATV land since the forerunner of the current Rubicon was introduced in 2001. During that time there have not been many major updates to the Rubicon, but that hasn’t left it swilling mud or sucking dust for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the Rubicon simply works well. It also has that famous Honda fit and finish, and, of course, it will live a good long time with the proper care. And, if you don’t like it stock, the aftermarket is loaded with parts to personalize the machine in any way you see fit.
Honda really pays attention to human engineering, and it shows. The bodywork is smooth, with no interference with the rider anywhere. The fenders probably had their own engineering team. They do a great job at keeping unwanted trail trash off the rider. At the edges, the plastic fenders are black to shrug off brush scratches. The standard-colored areas of plastic (olive or red) are glossy and smooth. The optional NaturalGear Camo is matte, super tough and an extra $550. Honda has made every effort to keep the weight of the Ruby low, and those efforts extend to the seat. It isn’t as soft as some, but has resilient foam that does aid the suspension at isolating the rider from abuse.
Attention to the human factor continues over to the controls. All are natural in placement, and they feel good to the hand as well. The hand shifter offers only four settings: reverse, neutral, drive and low. You need to be stopped to shift, and the engine doesn’t start in gear either. Like most automatic quads, the hand levers operate the brakes. The one on the right controls two disc brakes, but the left lever and the foot brake operate the fully sealed, single rear drum. The switch to front discs is one of the major upgrades that the Rubicon has undergone, and it is a welcome one. Certainly the rear drum is less vulnerable than a disc, and it works extremely well in most cases. We started playing on fast two-tracks, though. When you have repeat hard braking, the fronts retain feel, but the rear fades badly. Riding with just the front brakes backs off the fun factor in a big way.
In the lifespan of the Rubicon, no company has stepped up and matched the technology in Honda’s hydraulic Hondamatic transmission. Others will claim that the CVT is better and simpler. If that’s you, and you can argue that point around the campfire or on the Internet, we would say that applies to modern CVTs with engine braking and sealed, vented covers. The Hondamatic basically forced many of the innovations in the CV belt-drive system technology. The Hondamatic is more like the hydrostatic drive transmission found in heavy equipment. No doubt, it is more expensive to produce than a CVT, but it is compact and efficient, with an excellent reputation for reliability. The engine itself uses a short cam chain to a single cam mounted on the side of the cylinder head. Short push-rods actuate the four valves. Since this is not a high or quick-revving engine, the design makes perfect performance sense in this application, and it allows Honda to keep the weight of the engine low. As you would expect from Honda, the engine runs very well, without the complexity and weight of fuel injection, and vibration is very low. The technical differences continue to the engine placement and design. The engine is mounted with the crankshaft running front to back in the chassis rather than across it like most brands. This mounting minimizes the number of times the drive must change directions, and that is an advantage when you are transferring power to four wheels. Compared to some competitors, the Honda has a little less travel and a somewhat rudimentary rear suspension considering it is a high-end model with electric power steering. The straight axle is suspended with a swingarm and two shocks. There is no locking front differential, either. After we spent time on the machine, it became apparent that Honda has maintained these design choices with budget and performance in mind.
TRAILS AND WORK
For a carbureted model, the Rubicon is remarkably pleasant, and we love the fact that the carb allows the engine to have a back-up pull-start, so much so that we rarely gave the induction any thought. It warms quickly and ran perfectly at a variety of elevations. You can count on the engine making smooth power and always being willing to work. The Hondamatic means that the throttle response is more instant and more controllable than a CVT at initial throttle openings. The transmission is a step-less design with two settings: auto and EPS. Auto lets the computer do the work, and EPS allows manual shifting via buttons on the left-side switchgear. For normal riding, it is auto all the way in high or low range. For rock crawling and downhills, EPS is nicer. Response is more immediate and controllable when you select the gear. It’s the same on hills; picking a gear is great for control up and lets you control the level of engine braking on the way down.
Braking is plenty smooth and controllable for low-traction, high-level off-road trails, but not stellar for spirited riding with the higher speeds. The machine does stop admirably fast for the weight, but the rear fades too quickly. With the low engine weight, modest travel numbers and low overall profile, the Rubicon is highly nimble for a 4WD and downright spry in 2WD. On regular trails, other 4WD models felt tall and tippy, while the Rubicon was more comfortable sliding.
Honda Rubicons have always had nice steering for a 4WD, but the EPS helps even more. It never feels heavy. If you are planning on riding in tight conditions, the Ruby will get the job done. When conditions are rough, you do feel that the suspension is shorter travel than some of the competition. Likewise, when you hit an angled rut, the solid axle upsets the chassis more than a machine with independent rear suspension. On the other hand, we worked some rutted climbs, and with the low center of gravity and the added camber stability of the solid rear axle, the Honda was calm and controlled. It handled the climb better than a more-powerful IRS quad with a locking differential.
HOME ON THE RANGE
Honda made sure the seated riding position is open and roomy. The seat isn’t the big marshmallow that some brands offer, but it offers good comfort and excellent support. The standing position is not quite as dialed in for tall riders; the bar feels a bit low. All of the controls are a pleasure, whether seated or standing. Some of the big 4x4 quads simply feel like monsters. The Honda has a more normal feel. It isn’t actually any lighter, but it truly feels lighter. We try to avoid riding radical cambers, but if we do encounter them, the Honda works great. Fuel economy is around 30 mpg, so the 4-gallon tank will break 100 miles pretty easily for most riding conditions. And don’t worry if your ride runs late; with two headlights in the fenders and another up higher on the handlebar, the Rubicon lights are nothing short of amazing. We can’t think of a single trail that we would do in the daytime and not at night in the Rubicon—the lights are that good. Top speed is around 60 mph, but if you care about that number, you are probably looking at the wrong quad already. When trails start to get whooped out, the Rubicon starts to feel like you have the wrong tool for the job. This is a fun 4x4, but not really a sporty one.
Stay inside the design envelope while having fun, and you will amaze your friends while hunting, hang with the best in the slow, technical, and dazzle folks at the farm. Honda designed the Rubicon to get the job done, protect the rider and last a good long time. Keep that in mind and it will reward you. Look at the online forums and look at mud videos and hunting videos on YouTube; you will soon see that Rubicon riders are loyal, in love with their machines, and they are not afraid to use them and use them hard. We look at the choices Honda made and continues to make with the Rubicon, and now we understand. You think Honda doesn’t have the capability to add travel? The company has IRS quads, so why not here? It would be a tool for a different job.
2013 HONDA RUBICON 500
Engine 499cc, liquid-cooled, OHV,
dry-sump, longitudinally mounted,
Bore x stroke 92mm x 75mm
Fuel system 36mm CV carburetor
Fuel capacity 4 gal., including
Starting system Electric w/
Final drive Shaft
Front Independent double-
Rear Swingarm w/ dual shock
Front Dual hydraulic disc
Rear Sealed mechanical drum
Ground clearance 7.5"
Seat height 33.9"
Turning radius N/A
Total rack capacity 199 lb.
Towing capacity 850 lb.
Curb weight 655 lb.
Colors Olive, red, NaturalGear Camo
Prices $8699, $9149 (camo)