More than three decades ago, no one could have predicted that Honda's fertile imagination and three fat tires would develop into a vital part of American labor and leisure--a facet that currently sells more than 700,000 units per year. But from the moment the original All-Terrain Vehicle (which Honda trademarked as the ATC™--Honda's US90) debuted in 1970, that's exactly what happened. By constantly adapting to the needs of an increasingly resourceful public, Honda has provided a complete line of ATVs used for everything from exploring California sand dunes to preserving fragile sea turtle habitats in Florida, working on industrial roofing jobs in Colorado and maintaining soggy Louisiana rice fields.
Over its steady progression from novelty to necessity, sales have grown dramatically from the 12,000 US 90s Honda sold annually in the early '70s. Today, more than 6.3 million ATVs are currently in service in the U.S. alone, and more than half that number are Hondas.
Beyond our borders, Honda's international ATV markets are experiencing unparalleled growth. Any explanation for that kind of market dominance starts with the fact that Honda ATVs, like all Honda products, are built from a philosophy that is fundamentally different from that of other manufacturers.
Efficiency. Durability. Simplicity. The Honda difference starts with those three words. Where it goes from there--the process of designing and building an ATV that embodies these tenets--is a story in itself.
On the surface, the engineering that goes into every Honda ATV might appear less sophisticated than what goes into Honda motorcycles or automobiles. Under the skin, nothing could be further from the truth. Sport, utility or anywhere in between, an ATV is subjected to rigors far beyond those of other vehicles. Idling obediently for hours in axle-deep mud, firing up instantly after sitting out for days in minus-18-degree cold, working around the clock in a copper mine--in many ways, Honda's engineering standards for ATVs must be even more demanding than those set for other Honda products.
Research and Development
Thirty years of ATV research and development knowledge have enabled Honda engineers to solve problems other manufacturers haven't yet encountered.
From the beginning, Honda engineers were quick to learn firsthand what people were doing with their ATVs. Honda R&D engineers studied the effects of gumbo mud, desert sand and Canadian powder. From elk hunting to ice fishing, rice farming to cattle ranching, Honda R&D has done it. Add to that the feedback of millions of people who use ATVs in the most atrocious conditions imaginable, and you have the most comprehensive ATV knowledge base on earth.
The Circle of Engineering
In a way, Honda ATV design mirrors Honda corporate culture. Every individual component is vital to the success of the larger whole, but no single person or part is the star of the show. It's a paradigm Honda calls the circle of engineering. Experts in lubrication, carburetion, electrical systems, ring and piston design and many others all contribute their own expertise and understanding of how they affect the vehicle as a whole. Systems and subsystems are carefully integrated to work in concert with each other. But long before those parts take shape as a completed vehicle, they're subjected to unusually demanding conditions.
Engines, frames and suspension systems are subjected to extreme stresses inside powerful CAD computers. In the field, R&D teams travel to places such as northern Canada in the dead of winter for months to evaluate in extreme cold. That sort of testing exposes challenges you'd expect, and others you wouldn't; Such as how to design tires that don't shatter like glass after a night of sub-zero cold. Or how to make sure an engine starts after Arctic cold makes oil more solid than liquid. How do you keep seats from taking on the consistency of granite overnight, and what is it about Honda seat foam that piques a polar bear's sweet tooth? Honda engineers have developed solutions for all these challenges (though they're still working on that polar bear thing).
Often, particular engineering challenges come from faraway places. While ranching in New Zealand, for example, ATVs operate in an invasive and abrasive slurry of volcanic pumice. It's hard to imagine things such as seals and brakes surviving a daily immersion in the equivalent of liquid sand paper for days, weeks or years on end, but that's exactly what Honda research and development designed them to do.
When an ATV becomes a tool that carries you through 10-hour days and 60-hour weeks, there is no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Which is why Honda eliminates little problems before they grow into big ones. That's why Honda's ATV engine testing simulates real life, then carries it to extremes. Engines run wide-open under load for well over 100 hours during lab testing. Lab temperatures are manipulated to simulate everything from searing Arizona heat to Alaskan cold.
What if, say, a dollop of Louisiana gumbo mud infiltrates the engine's defenses and gets into the crankcase? And nobody bothers to change the oil? Enter what some would call the "mean test." Engine oil is purposefully contaminated with water or dirt and the engine is run through another gauntlet of torture. While no engine can survive this kind of abuse for long, this extreme test helps optimize the materials used for gears, shafts, bearings and other engine internals so they can better survive extreme conditions in the real world.
Since Honda customers sometimes drop ATVs on the ground (out of a pickup bed, for example), so do Honda engineers, though under more controlled conditions, from various heights and angles, evaluating the results based on real-world criteria. Engineers prioritize a potential damage scenario and build yield factors into things such as steering system tie-rods and A-arms to prevent a bent frame. Like a fuse that is designed to give out first in an electrical circuit, the idea is to sacrifice the easily replaced, less expensive components to the impact forces and save less accessible, more expensive ones. That design philosophy carries through in detail to things such as control mounts and levers.
From large design concepts to smaller details, the Honda difference permeates every component of each Honda ATV model in the line. Start with Honda's largest, most powerful multi-purpose ATV yet, the 2001 Honda FourTrax® Foreman® Rubicon™. It's part tractor, part truck, part pack mule, part recreational vehicle and more efficient than all of the above. That's the modern Honda ATV. Making the new Rubicon and all Honda ATVs tough enough to survive years of use and abuse requires the same hands-on approach and commitment to exceed customer expectations that created the first US 90.
That's a vital part of what defines the Honda difference.