Whenever you hear about a company downsizing, that’s usually not good news. But in the case of Honda’s recent unveiling of the Pioneer 500 side-by-side, we can tell you from firsthand experience that this downsizing is just right.
After a successful launch of the Pioneer 700 last year (“Pioneer Breaks New Ground For Honda,” Dirt Toys Magazine, September, 2013, page 17), Honda unveiled the Pioneer 500 earlier this year.
Our opportunity to ride the Pioneer 500 came this summer in the mountains above the LA Basin near Silverwood Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest on some tight, twisty 50-inch trails, the ideal proving ground for the smaller Pioneer.
The Pioneer 500 is not just a downsized Pioneer 700. While there are similarities to both Honda vehicles, there are some significant differences as well.
50 Inches Wide
For starters, there is the width—and the overall dimensions of the vehicle for that matter—of the 500, which at 50 inches is 10 inches narrower than the 700, making the 500 a little more versatile when it comes to trails with width restrictions. Had we been riding the 700 on some of the trails we blazed in Southern California, we would have scraped off more than just a little paint. We would be wedged between some pretty big trees and rocks, whereas as the Pioneer 500 slipped through quite easily.
The Pioneer 500 is also shorter in length (102.5 inches vs. the 700 at 114.8) and height (72.4 inches vs. 77.6 inches). The Pioneer 500’s wheelbase is 73.1 inches, compared to the 700’s 76.8-inch wheelbase. The shorter wheelbase was a plus in negotiating some of the very tight turns on the trails we experienced. That’s not a knock against the 700—or any other vehicle with a longer wheelbase—but rather simply an observation as to how well the 500 can take on those kinds of trails.
The compact Pioneer 500 also easily fits in the bed of a full-size pickup truck.
The Pioneer 500 is also 251 lbs. lighter than the 700 (and 386 lbs. lighter than the Pioneer 700 four-seater). It is definitely a compact side-by-side, which is just one reason it scoots around as well as it does on those tight trails. For those who will use the Pioneer 500 primarily as a work vehicle, especially on the farm, that means less soil compaction when driving around in the fields.
Take a look in the cab of the 500 on the driver’s side and there is a very noticeable difference between this vehicle and the 700. Located on the steering column between the steering wheel and the dashboard are paddle shifters (think miniature Dumbo ears) which operate the five-speed gearbox. The left paddle shifter downshifts while the right upshifts.
One Honda official told us that shifting with the paddle shifters is “intuitive.” We found the paddle shifters easy to use and it doesn’t take long at all to learn how. There is no clutch to worry about; you just have to focus on the paddle shifters. We think the paddle shifters definitely ramp up the fun factor on the Pioneer 500 and keep you more engaged as the driver. Again, it’s not a knock against the 700 and its transmission; the 500 is just different.
One piece of advice we came to appreciate when we first drove the Pioneer 500 was, in most riding conditions, to start out in second gear, not low. Low is for very slow riding conditions such as rocky terrain or maybe mud as well as towing. You can almost hear when it’s time to upshift and it was fun to shift up and down while riding through the mountains near Silverwood Lake. When upshifting you don’t have to let off the gas like you would if you were shifting with a clutch. It’s fairly smooth shifting from gear to gear.
Shift engagement from one gear to the next in the 500 is helped by a shock-absorbing judder spring in the clutch assembly and a momentary fuel cut during shifts that helps smooth the transition from one gear to the next.
However, when downshifting, we found it wise to let the vehicle slow down a bit before shifting from fifth gear down to fourth if you’re at the top of the powerband. We hit the rev limiter at about 40-41 mph with two people in the vehicle and found if we let the vehicle slow down five or so mph, it downshifts a little easier. Regardless of what gear you’re in, when downshifting, it’s best to let off the gas for a brief second to shift.
We also came to appreciate the five-speed electric shift transmission on downhill slopes. It provides excellent engine braking and never “releases” when the vehicle gets to a slow speed like some competitors’ vehicles have a tendency to do.
The transmission does come with a reverse gear as well.
Another noticeable difference is the cargo box, minus the box. Rather than use a box on the rear of the vehicle, Honda chose to put a decent-sized flat steel rack there so, theoretically, you could carry something wider than the Pioneer 500 or something that extends past the end of the vehicle without having to be hemmed in by the sides of a box. The load capacity of the rack is 450 lbs. and there are multiple hook points for tie-downs. Honda does also offer accessories for the rear cargo area if you want a more traditional way to carry gear. The Pioneer 500 features a 1,000-pound towing capacity.
There is one area we think the Pioneer 500 has a leg (wheel?) up on the Pioneer 700—the door/net combo. An easy-twist knob releases the latch that holds the door shut and when you twist it to open the door, both the door and net open together as one unit. The door swings open a full 180 degrees and it’s easy to get in and out of the vehicle.
What drives the Pioneer 500 is a familiar engine if you follow Honda at all. The 475cc liquid-cooled OHV, single-cylinder four-stroke is the same engine as what is found in the Foreman ATV. We’ve already mentioned that the engine tops out about 40 mph so it’s not going to set any land speed records, but it was plenty enough power for the tight, twisty trails we experienced in Southern California, where the elevation ranged from about 3,400 feet where we unloaded to our highest riding point at 5,100 feet. It was what we would maybe call spunky.
At the higher elevations we drove in Mackay, ID, where you start riding at 5,906 feet and go up from there, the engine had to work a little harder but we still enjoyed how the vehicle responded. We had it floored all the way uphill as we headed out of town and the Pioneer 500 gave all it had and we made it to 8,000-foot plus elevations.
The suspension is basic, offering a double wishbone setup in the front and rear with spring preload adjustability in the rear (but not the front), allowing you to play some with the setup for different riding conditions and loads. There is a modest 5.9 inches of travel front and rear and ground clearance is 9.6 inches. If you’re looking to pound the whoops and rattle the washes, then the Pioneer 500 isn’t your vehicle. But if you want a nice vehicle for mountain trails or for work and play, the Pioneer 5 is worth a look.
Our wish list on the Pioneer 500 would include cinch straps on the seatbelts and storage in the cockpit, where there is really none at all.
But those are fairly minor gripes, especially considering the fairly modest MSRP price of $8,499, which makes it a pretty good buy for a very decent side-by-side.