The Measure Of A Machine

Good hunting partners don't come easy, whether you're talking about the two-legged, four-legged or mechanical kind. But when you find a good one, you best hold on to it.

I love that North American Hunter has stepped up more now than ever to give NAH Members more opportunities to win great prizes, be more involved in a variety of facets—and have more chances to experience exciting things.

So when Honda came to the North American Hunter team with a desire to get the new Pioneer 700 in our hands—and the hands of a lucky member—via the Honda and Hunter Sweepstakes, I jumped to the front of the line when those keys were delivered.

But this wasn’t to be just a joyride. Honda is and always has been committed to improving their products through the feedback of their customers, so they allowed us the use of their new baby with one condition: Give it an honest, all-out field test. And I certainly didn’t have a problem with that.

So, here are some questions for ya, and questions I had to wrestle with as I stared over the Pioneer’s hood at the riding course in front of me: How does one accurately “test” a side-by-side, or any ATV for that matter? What does it really mean to test a machine? Does it need only to live up to what it’s been advertised to do? What about my opinions—rather, how do I test a machine against my expectations?

As it turns out, there are a thousand ways to “test” an ATV. Just check out the number of YouTube videos that pop up under an “ATV Test” search. Seriously, have a look.

Some people are all about the specifications. What’s the compression ratio? What are the suspension travel stats? Gross vehicle weight and length? How big are the discs on the front brakes? I call those people “gear heads,” and while the majority of those numbers mean very little to my evaluation of a vehicle, those guys are the first I want on the scene if something goes wrong.

But I’m not a gear head—I’m a hunter—and I tore the Honda Pioneer 700 apart the only way I know how … from a hunter’s perspective. I’m much more interested in the “feel’’ than I am the numbers.

In my eyes, this is the most important part of any off-road machine, especially for a side-by-side, and I broke the machine down into three basic categories.

The Pioneer 700 has a ground clearance of 10.5 inches, a wheelbase of 76.8 inches and a width stance of 60 inches.

More importantly, how do those numbers feel? Perfectly balanced. I spent time looking for standard obstacles to hit with the bottom of the machine—and I found some—but I found the clearance more than adequate for the messes I tried to get myself into. Sure, 12 inches of clearance would be nice, but I wouldn’t trade that for the stability the Pioneer 700 already sports.

What really impressed me was the vehicle’s overall width. It’s hard not to look at the tracks I made and think, Damn, that looks really wide. And compared to a standard quad, it is. But a smile came to my face when I took the machine through some tight, heavily wooded two-tracks and slipped through most situations with ease.

The Pioneer 700 also sports double-wishbone front suspension. If you don’t know what that means, the translation is a smooth-handling and stable ride—and that’s especially important when navigating uneven terrain or side hills. I was more than pleased with the way the machine handled … at all speeds.

The first comment sweepstakes winner Rick Garland had was, “Man, this thing is quiet.” He said those words while I was driving, and I could hear him—over the sound of the motor and through his helmet and mine. And he’s right: The machine is very quiet.

But of course, power is of utmost importance when it comes to engine speak, and Rick and I made sure to climb some very steep hills and test the acceleration on a variety of materials (concrete, sand, crushed rocks). Never once were we left wondering if we’d “have enough” to make it up an incline or were we worried about getting stuck while we waited for the acceleration to catch up with the request of the foot pedal.

And, personally, I find a 700cc motor to be an ideal compromise in the world of side-by-sides. I don’t feel like a 500cc machine has enough “oomph” to push through the heavy lifting I occasionally need, and I’m terrified to take most 1,000cc machines off any trail because they’re so heavy. In football terms, I think of a 500cc machine like a wide receiver: fast and light, but not designed to take hard hits. A 1,000cc side-by-side is like a lineman … it can really do some moving, but it isn’t so nimble. A 700cc machine, such as this Pioneer, is like a linebacker: It can sprint, jog, carry a ton and still hit hard when needed.

Just like when you’re buying a new car, the cab is what always seems to get the most attention … and that’s logical enough because that’s where you interact with the machine. The simple elegance of the Pioneer 700’s cab is a hunter’s dream. It has a bench seat for comfortable yet easy in/out access.

And the controls are minimal: There a parking brake, a reverse/neutral/forward shift lever and a 2WD/4WD/4WD Diff Lock lever. That’s it—and that’s enough. Plus, I love the “level” floorboards. When they got muddy or sticks and leaves collected inside, I opened both doors and quickly blew everything out with a hose.

My biggest—and only, really—complaint I have about the Pioneer 700 is in regard to the design of the shift lever. As it’s designed, I have to push the shift lever up/forward to access reverse, neutral is in the middle, and then push the lever down/back to access forward. Intuitively, that seems backward, and everyone who has driven the machine has had similar comments.

OK, let me regress just a little bit: Here is where numbers do matter. Yes, you can carry an additional passenger in a side-by-side, but it’s the bed that really sets any side-by-side apart from the ATV class.

The bed capacity is 1,000 pounds. Do you have any idea how many mature whitetail bucks it would take to max out the weight capacity of the bed on a Pioneer 700? About five. Seem unrealistic? Well, how about 20 50-pound bags of food plot seed and fertilizer? I happen to know that I can get a dozen 5-gallon pails of bear bait in that bed with room for incidentals in between. There’s no need to pull a trailer with that kind of room on board.

So, how’s the best way to rate a side-by-side? How about a letter grade? I’d give the Honda Pioneer 700 an A-. While there’s nothing about this machine that comes anywhere close to what I would call a “deal breaker,” there are a few things I would like to see different, such as slightly bigger tires and wheels, and a winch (it’s my opinion that every side-by-side should come standard with a winch).

But those very minor things also make light of another huge benefit of the Pioneer 700: You buy the base model and then upgrade and add nearly anything you want to make it fit with your style of use. From a heater to a bed extender, there are nearly 50 accessories that can be added to make the Pioneer 700 custom to your desires.

As a hunter, you can be a whole lot more efficient and successful with a Pioneer 700 parked in camp.

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