|Honda went back to the drawing board with the Foreman 500 to try to improve a quad that has seen a long life in the middle ranks. The Foreman was actually one of the first ATVs to get electronic power steering over five years ago. Surprisingly, the current improvements were not in the areas most expected. While the Foreman did receive liquid-cooling, electronic fuel injection, new suspension and new bodywork, it still uses an old rear drum brake and a solid rear axle. In 2012, those two components are almost extinct in the rest of the class. However, retaining some of that old technology has allowed Honda to price the Foreman very competitively.
|You can buy a Foreman with EPS for less than what most other 500cc 4x4s cost without EPS. For example, Yamaha’s Grizzly 550 starts at $7999, and Can-Am’s Outlander 500 sells for $7799—both without EPS. To see if Honda’s improved FourTrax Foreman ($7699 as tested with EPS and E-shift) can still compete with the current crop of mid-sized 4x4s, we compare the Foreman to one of the best examples in its class, the Suzuki KingQuad 500 ($7799 as tested without EPS). The KingQuad is a typical example of what the class has to offer these days, including a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected engine, fully automatic transmission, and four-wheel independent suspension.
Both engines are liquid-cooled mills. Honda’s engine has a two-valve, single-cylinder, 475cc displacement, while an overhead-cam, four-valve head feeds 493cc in the Suzuki. Mated to the Honda engine is a manual transmission with the availability of electronic shift control. With a push of a button, you can select between each of its five gears, plus reverse. For $200 less, you can opt for the standard automatic-clutch, foot-shift transmission, which is another rarity in today’s 4x4 ATV world. Suzuki used a very simple-to-use, common CVT transmission setup. The only gear selections you can make are high range, low range or reverse.
Power steering is available as a $400 upgrade on the Suzuki, and the option will set you back $600 extra on the Honda. Both machines have a start-in-gear feature. On the Honda, pull in the front brake lever to get things fired up, and on the Suzuki, the rear lever needs to be deployed. Once the engine has been turned on, each machine displays a host of info on easy-to-read instrument panels. They both have a fuel gauge, an odometer, hour meter, speedo and a gear-position indicator. Suzuki takes things one step further by including a second trip meter and a clock.
We have always liked Honda’s push-button shifting ever since it was first introduced on the Rubicon 500 over a decade ago. It’s quicker and easier to deploy than a foot-shifter; plus, you can take advantage of the engine’s torque in every gear, if needed, for pulling, climbing or technical trail riding versus a CVT unit. Along with the engine improvements made for the 2012 model, the transmission helps the Foreman have a sporty feel of a more powerful machine. Plus, with Honda’s longitudinally positioned engine, the crankshaft and drive are parallel, which reduces power loss to the rear wheels.
Suzuki’s CVT works well for casual trail riding, but when loaded down, low range has to be deployed; then, the KingQuad can climb almost anything. Another positive with the Suzuki is that it has a locking differential for the roughest trail conditions. Honda has yet to put a locking front differential on any ATV. Downhill engine braking works great on both machines, keeping speeds slow to under 5 mph on our test section when riding in low range and in four-wheel drive.
Top-speed numbers are at a maximum at 67 mph on the Suzuki and only 57 mph on the Honda. In a drag race, they are dead even until the Honda hits its electronic rev limiter in fifth gear.
On tighter trails, the straight-axle Honda is a blast to ride, and at speeds around 30–50 mph, the Honda was plush yet forgiving. And at super-slow speeds, the Honda shocks almost make the bumps disappear. When riding the KingQuad, the steering is heavy and somewhat twitchy at times. The suspension is stiff, and the ride is much rougher than what we’ve experienced on most IRS-equipped 4x4s.
UNDER THE SKIN
Under the bodywork of these two 500s, we find very different chassis. Up front, things look similar, but they are not identical. Honda takes a conservative approach by giving the Foreman dual A-arms with 6.7 inches of travel. Dual A-arms are also found on the Suzuki with 7.1 inches of movement. Out back, things are more different. The Foreman uses an old-school yet effective straight-axle, single-shock-equipped swingarm. This setup gives the Foreman 6.9 inches of wheel travel. At the back end of the KingQuad, Suzuki has a setup using a lower A-arm and a single square beam to control the 7.9 inches of movement out of each rear corner. A swaybar is also used for control in the rear of the Suzuki.
The Suzuki chassis features a couple of points we wish the other manufacturers would follow. Up front, the bumper has provisions to easily mount a winch plate. There is also a routing tube that will make wiring a winch at a later date a breeze. Plus, on the lower rear portion of the frame, there are eyelets for securing tie-down hooks for transporting.
Speaking of transportation, both machines have nearly identical rack capacities at 66 pounds up front and 132 pounds (Suzuki) and 133 pounds (Honda) in the rear. On most Honda 4x4s, they have included extra corner crossbars on their racks that make tying down cargo more secure. This is another item we wish more manufacturers would adopt. Both machines have two small water-resistant cargo boxes that are perfect for storing items such as water bottles, tow ropes, extra gloves, etc.
ODDS AND ENDS
We like the cockpits of both machines equally. They have aggressive footpegs and full-coverage floorboards that keep debris out of your lap. The saddles are comfortable, and the handlebar placement is good on both quads. During our test time, we had to service the air filters. You can access the filter element with no tools on the Honda, but a screwdriver is required to remove it. On the Suzuki, a screwdriver is needed to gain access, but the filter can be removed by hand. Go figure!
It’s really tough to find a winner between these two machines. For many, it’s about speed; for some, it’s about price—we need it all. The Suzuki KingQuad 500AXi is a good machine, but with flaws like heavy steering and a rigid ride, it’s hard to say it’s better than the new Foreman. Spending the extra $400 for EPS would help it for sure.
A package that doesn’t have all of the latest features but can get the job done for less money is what many new ATV buyers might be looking for these days. The Honda FourTrax Foreman fits that bill perfectly. Unless you have to have IRS and a CVT transmission, the Honda Foreman gets the job done. Is it better than all of the other 500cc 4x4s as well? Probably not. But for the price, the 2012 Honda Foreman is pretty darn good.