It's pre-dawn in the Blackfoot Valley just east of Missoula, MT when my iPhone chimes to life. I look out the window and fog hangs in the valley, heavy and transparent as flour sacks. I quickly dress and step out onto the front porch of the cabin. In the cold, damp distance, the echoes of sparring elk and clattering antlers are muffled by the thickness of cool water suspended in air. On this frigid morning, I will be meeting Honda’s newest side by side, the Pioneer 1000.
A short time later, I reach the barn where the members of the Honda team have lined up the 3 and 5 seat models for the press fleet to choose our steeds for the day. I am drawn to the 5-seat model in eye-popping red because I knew it would photograph well on this hazy day. The nets hanging from the cage and roof leads my mind to think that I am going on safari in the mountains of Montana.
The press fleet organized into a line of machines and wound our way up the fire roads seeking the top of the foggy conditions. We did not break the surface of the haze until we were high into the Lewis and Clark Range. On this ascent I tried to not freeze my hands off by fiddling with the modes and driving options on offer in the Pioneer. Leaving the barn, the machine was in 2wd and the rear axle was unlocked. Getting out on the fire roads in this mode results in a… lively driving experience. I didn’t even think about it being in a “turf mode” and was a little worried that this machine was going to be a handful.
As I was looking around the cab, I finally noticed that I was in fact in “turf mode” and gave the centrally-located lever a slap. She sunk down into 2wd with the rear diff locked with the assistance of a spring, as if this was its preferred operating mode. This brought the Pioneer 1000 under predictable control, and the rear end stopped trying to walk around the front. Apparently, Turf mode is not designed to tackle rough fire roads at 40+ mph… Who knew?!
Now I could check this thing out and see what she can do. The 5-seat model sits nice and solid in the suspension, as it is a couple hundred pounds heavier than the 3 seater. This gave the 1000-5 a supple ride and allowed me to drive comfortably at a reasonable clip. Later, I hopped into the 3-seat machine. It provided a little more of a spirited driving experience as it got up and to speed a little more quickly than the 5, but it did sacrifice a little bit of plushness in the ride. The 3-seat machine was a little bouncy when you got into the rough stuff. But for a pair of utility-oriented machines, they took the bumps at speed quite well.
The 999cc parallel twin, unicam motor powering the Pioneer 1000 is the largest power plant in its class. The nearly 8 gallon fuel tank (7.9 gal) will keep you out on the trail or the field for hours and hours before it will need to be topped off again. Attached to the engine is something that is wholly a bit of kit that Honda, and Honda alone, is bringing to the UTV market: a 6-speed Dual Clutch Transmission. Oh, and be sure to tell your buddies that this is a cousin to the transmission that Honda is putting in the new NSX supercar. How is that for bragging rights?!
“Why do I need a DCT in your work machine?" you might ask. Well, let me tell you that you need to drive it to understand. I don't have the vocabulary to properly sell you on it. This transmission is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Pop it in gear, mash the gas and the transmission will shift seamlessly and without any sort of discernible shutter. The silkiness is attributed to the presence of dual clutches spinning the gears above and below the one that you are in, preparing them for the shift. There is a clutch to spin the even number gears and the other for the odd number, ready to swap cogs and deliver the next gear.
The advanced logic and what the boffins at Honda call “TDL” (Transient Detection Logic or some such nonsense) used by the transmission in full-auto mode senses engine speed, and throttle input to determine the current driving style thus delivering intelligent shifts. Driving aggressively with sharp throttle input? The transmission will hold gears a little longer and down-shift a little earlier. Just out running fence line? The transmission will sense this and give you the smoothest shifts possible.
Still not satisfied with the shifts and want to drive a little more spiritedly? Hit the rocker switch to the right of the steering wheel and toggle to Sport Mode. This will provide the most aggressive setting the automatic mode offers. The transmission will hold one gear lower than it would generally hold Auto Mode and hold gears longer in high speed corners where throttle input is varied. The driver can override the auto mode at any time and call for a shift by tapping one of the paddles. This allows the driver to grab a lower gear for a hill or whatever the terrain calls for. After a few moments, the computer will revert back in to full auto mode. I found this method to be the most rewarding: Automatic with the Sport mode selected and then shifting on the fly when I wanted more revs.
If Sport Mode still doesn’t suit your fancy, toggle that rocker again and go into full Manual mode and take advantage of the paddle shifters at 9 and 3 o’clock of the steering wheel. This puts you in complete control of the gearbox.
At all four corners of the Pioneer 1000 sit Bighorn 2.0, which we are all familiar with. With 27” tires at each corner, the 3-seat boasts 12.9” of ground clearance, while the 5-seat model loses a half inch with 12.4” of clearance. The Pioneer 1000 gets 10.55 inches of suspension travel up front and 10 inches in the rear. The suspension on the 3-seat model features a pre-load adjustment in the rear, while the 5-seat model has self-leveling shocks back there. The 5-seater's rear shocks feature a trick bypass that, when loaded, allow oil from the primary system to find it’s way into a secondary system. After a few cycles of the shocks, they pump themselves back up to stock ride height automatically. This means that you can have a full 1,000 pound load in the box and within a few hundred feet, the machine will be back to stock ride height.
I realize that this has been pretty spec-heavy thus far, but these specs are not the best part of the Pioneer 1000. The best part of this machine is how well it tackles non-work adventures. The Pioneer is quite fun to drive and handles itself well when moving at a rapid pace. It feels planted, although a little pushy in the corners at times when in 2wd (rear diff locked), but then again, I might have been going through those corners a little faster than Honda would have liked.
Full disclosure: I liked 2wd and locked so much that I spent 98% of the day in that setup. I only needed to use 4wd during one part of my test and it performed wonderfully. I was crawling through a delicate area and didn't want to tear up the ground, so I was in 4wd and was very light on my throttle input. The Pioneer did a fantastic job carrying me and my load over some large rocks and felled trees. Careful driving and using the 4wd system, both locked and unlocked, I was able to leave the area as if I had never been there.
We spent most of our time on fire roads and maintained double track, so I can only comment on how it climbs over a few rocks and such. Honda did prep a short course to showcase the capabilities of the Pioneer, so we got to check out the articulation, ground clearance, and breakover angle, as well as a big hill climb. There were only a few instances where I found the undercarriage on breakover in the 5-seat, and never on the 3-seat model. That half inch and weight difference was actually significant.
As for the rear seating, it looks a lot less comfortable than it is. I popped the rear seats up and climbed back there for a few minutes. It was more comfortable than I thought it would be. Honda thought about putting actual adults back there and added some neat comfort features like a recess under the front bench so that your feet have a place to go in the foot well. I wouldn't want to spend all day back there, but a few miles wouldn't be bad.
If I were going to pick at this machine, I would not have a long list. There are a few things that I would like to see changed. The paddles could extend down a little further. The paddles are mounted to the steering column and I found several instances where I was mid-turn, both hands on the wheel, and found air instead of a paddle.
The rear seat is nice, but the ingress and egress is rather awkward and makes for dirty jeans on a muddy day. The door opens nice and wide, but you still have to drag your leg across the open wheel well and close to the tire. For older folks, getting in and out of the seat would be right out of the question. There is a step, but I couldn't figure out how to use it to help get in and out.
Also with the back seats, it took me a few minutes to sort out how to put them down, as the handle was not clearly marked. I had to examine the mechanism and trace it back to where I thought a handle would be. With the rear seats deployed, there is not much storage space left in the rear. Honda will offer a bed extender ($299.95) that will allow for a full sized cooler.
At the end of the day, it may have been the Montana air, or being on the river on which "A River Runs Through It" was filmed on, but I couldn't help but appreciate the versatility of the Pioneer. Whether dragging the boat out to the river is your job or your hobby, the Pioneer 1000 is a great tool for the job.
The Pioneer 1000 sits near the top of the segment's price schedule, starting at $13,999 for the non-EPS 3-seater, and $15,199 - $15,999 for the EPS model. The extra set of seats in the back will run $16,199 and the Deluxe model will be $17,199-$17,999. Honda came to market with a machine that is a very serious competitor in the utility/recreation segment. The line has been cast and the rest of the OEMs need to take notice.
It sounds like this transmission is the answer! I think it offers the best of both worlds and the machine built around it is also equally up to the task.