Side-by-sides are a sort of an off-roading cheat code. Want to look like a rallying hero despite never doing much more than driving a Jeep down a flat dirt road? Hop into a side-by-side and hit the trails. Take a bad line, use too much skinny pedal, and a good side-by-side will still make you look like you know what you’re doing. Driving these machines is a blast, save for their transmissions. Many side-by-sides and Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTV) across several brands use CVTs, which sometimes makes you feel like you’re driving a big scooter, or perhaps a really capable Dodge Caliber. Honda bucks the trend and gives its UTVs a dual-clutch automatic transmission. I got to try out the Honda Talon 1000R-4 with this transmission and it’s amazing how much more fun it makes an already great experience.
American Honda Motor Co. is an impressive powerhouse. The same company that will sell you a Civic has subsidiaries that will sell you whisper-quiet generators, bright red tillers, engines for whatever crazy project you’re working on, and the best-selling vehicle of all time, the Super Cub motorcycle. Oh, and Honda’s first-ever V8 engine? Yeah, that’s one of its marine applications. That doesn’t even mention Honda’s innovative aviation division. Team Red has its hands in so many industries and it did not leave ATVs and side-by-sides untouched. Honda’s off-road equipment lineup includes four-wheelers and utility side-by-sides for field work.
Then you have the Talon, the flashy go-anywhere hooning machine with a DCT and available FOX Live Valve auto-adjusting long-travel suspension. Yep, your Accord may have a CVT, but this bad boy has a DCT and it’ll even allow you to choose your own gear adventure with paddles.
(Full Disclosure: Honda Powersports invited me out to MidAmerica Outdoors in Jay, Oklahoma to try out the Talon 1000R-4. Honda paid for my travel, food, lodging in a neat cabin, and partied with me in a lazy river until an intense midnight storm struck the MidAmerica Outdoors property. Apparently, if you have enough people running fast enough you can speed up a lazy river!)
How Did We Get Here?
Honda may have gotten into sport side-by-sides only recently, but the company’s off-road vehicle efforts date back to 1967. As the story goes, American Honda dealerships wanted something to sell during the winter when few people were riding motorcycles. Honda didn’t know what that vehicle was going to be, but it just needed something to sell in the winter. Japanese engineer Osamu “Tak” Takeuchi and his team spent a year testing various designs for different vehicles ranging from two-wheelers to six-wheelers that could traverse mud, sand, and snow. In the end, the team found what seemed to be the perfect functional and fun vehicle. Their prototype was a vehicle with a conventional motorcycle layout, but it had three wheels.
Tak’s team experimented with where to put those wheels but the ultimate breakthrough came when American Honda sourced some Amphicat six-wheeler balloon tires. When mounted to the prototype, traction and handling were good and the footprint on soft surfaces was exactly as the team wanted. The team tossed in the engine from a Honda ST70, birthing the ATC90. To this day, Honda says it was the world’s first all-terrain cycle.
The ancestor for today’s Talon is the 1977 Honda Odyssey FL250. This ATV resembled a go-kart but with beefier tires and instead of bars, it had a yoke for steering. Apparently, these were operated with hand controls, didn’t have a rear suspension, and yep, that protective cage didn’t cover much. Power came from a 248cc two-stroke engine driving a belt. The second-generation Odyssey hit the trails in 1981 and improvements included a full cage, plus a splash of Honda’s signature red color. The third-generation Odyssey, the FL350R, was released in 1985 and was a leap forward. The ATV got a suspension system, an electric starter, a reverse gear, and a wider track.
Honda’s ATVs took on a shape that’s a bit more familiar to today’s machine in 1989 with the release of the Pilot FL400R. These far more advanced proto-side-by-side ATVs featured liquid-cooled, two-stroke 397cc single-cylinder engines punching power out to CVT driving the rear wheels.
These machines weighed 593 pounds dry and that engine pumped out somewhere around 50 HP. You still controlled the vehicle through a neat yoke and as UTV Driver notes, the Pilot was in a league of its own. Nobody else had anything like it. Unfortunately for Honda, the Pilot sold for just two model years as the marque failed to find enough buyers for its $5,998 price tag. The Pilot eventually became so popular that there’s actually a collector market for them today.
Honda continued its development of ATVs and at one point even dominated the ATV market, but it was late to the launch and popularity of the modern side-by-side. Still, Honda innovated with its massive Big Red MUV700 utility side-by-side from 2007 with its three-speed automatic transmission with a torque converter.
It was a side-by-side that drove like a car. Then came the Pioneer, which further refined Honda’s rugged side-by-side and still had a novel automatic transmission. However, the Pioneer still leaned toward utility when the competition was rolling out the kinds of sporty side-by-sides you see in the desert and at off-road parks today. In 2018, Honda remedied that with the 2019 Talon.
The 2019 Talon 1000X and Talon 1000R were smart side-by-sides.
The 1000X was narrower and designed for better maneuverability while the 1000R was your ride for full sends as that machine was designed to take hard bumps while remaining stable. At the heart of those Talons was a one-piece frame and the 999cc Unicam parallel-twin, an engine borrowed from the Pioneer 1000 and CRF1000L Africa Twin adventure bike and its transmission was a six-speed DCT, also borrowed from Honda’s motorcycles and ATVs. That powertrain ran through Honda’s i-4WD system, which monitored the amount of slip in the wheels and sent power to the wheels with the most grip.
The 2023 Honda Talon 1000
Honda’s latest Talon takes the concept of the original and cranks it up to delightful levels. In its presentation, Honda noted that the four-seat Talon 1000X-4 was introduced in 2020, while the 1000R remained a two-seater. Honda has decided to increase its four-seater options in response to the market. Naturally-aspirated sport side-by-sides make up 43 percent of the market. Meanwhile, 70 percent of buyers opted for the Talon 1000X-4, indicating some strong demand for expansion.
As a result, now you can get the speedy and capable Talon 1000R in 1000R-4 four-seater form. Honda says you’ll want to buy the Talon 1000X if you’re a family trail driver. In other words, the 1000X is a bit more laid-back fun. Meanwhile, the 1000R is for the person who uses their accelerator pedal like an on/off switch. As such, the X has 14.4 inches of suspension travel up front and 15 inches in the rear while the R sports 17.7 inches of suspension travel up front and 20.1 inches in the rear. That should result in a less violent ride when you’re really sending it.
Likewise, the R benefits from a 118.7-inch wheelbase to the X’s 116.4-inch wheelbase. The R also has longer and wider suspension components, which add up to four inches of a wider stance than the X.
Starting with the cabin, the Talon 1000R-4 features seating for four where the rear passengers sit on an elevated platform that Honda calls stadium-style seating. In theory, this allows rear seat passengers to see the action ahead rather than just the helmets of the front seat passengers. I’ll return to the cabin later.
The cabin sports full coverage doors featuring cupholders and storage pockets. The ROPS, or rollover protection system (that’s the cage) has tubing enlarged from a 1.5mm thickness to 2.3mm. This should make the Talon safe in the unfortunate event of a rollover. Other safety additions involve a stronger differential seal, a helical spline to improve axle nut torque retention, and increased durability of the steering components.
Other cabin bits include grab handles for when the driver is really having a ton of fun, three-point seatbelts, and a switch panel for auxiliary electrical gear. All of this comes wrapped with plastic body panels and a frame painted in Honda’s glorious red or blue. Pictures don’t really do these colors justice, Honda really made the paint pop, can I have my motorcycle frames this shiny and bright?
The platform underneath all of this remains another bright spot for Honda. Power comes from a 999cc Unicam parallel twin borrowed from the Pioneer 1000, Africa Twin, and Rebel 1100. I’m told this engine is making 104 HP and its block is untouched, so most of what you see here you also get with the motorcycles. Also trickling down from the motorcycles is the Talon’s six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. I’ll go over why Honda did this in a moment, but Honda is the only side-by-side manufacturer offering a DCT. Most do CVTs, but you’ll also find hydrostatic transmissions out there in utility side-by-sides and Yamaha will actually sell you a side-by-side with a six-speed manual transmission, but only in the lower-end YXZ.
Honda’s DCT works like any other DCT. You can either let the machine zip through the gears for you, or you can use some hefty shift paddles to choose your own adventure. The idea is that no matter what, you can have that engine in the rev range you want it to be in at all times. The DCT also comes with a Sport mode.
Honda’s i-4WD makes it over as well. Honda says in the Talon 1000R-4, i-4WD is coupled to a torque-biasing limited-slip differential up front. As I said before, this system works to send power where it’s the most needed. The four-wheel-drive system features a rear locker plus an off-road ABS system and an optimized electric power steering system that returns to center by itself and requires less effort to turn.
Another highlight of the Talon 1000R-4 is its FOX Live Valve system. First introduced in 2020, this system is a semi-active suspension system that offers automatic and independent suspension adjustments. FOX Live Valve shocks are designed to provide a plush ride at low speeds, stability at high speeds, and allow for near-instant 20-millisecond adjustments. The FOX system also limits impacts with the ground and minimizes body roll. On the trails, we set the FOX Live Valve to its own Sport mode, which shores everything up so you get the side-by-side’s maximum allowable ground clearance. True to Honda’s word, there was an instant change from scraping rocks to gliding over them.
Honda will also be offering a ton of accessories for these vehicles. You’ll be able to get over fenders, splash guards, all sorts of lights, a stereo system, GPS, a heater, USB ports, mirrors, fuse boxes, a winch, and so much more. Honda even added a ground to simplify adding electric accessories. Speaking of mods, Honda tells me you will be able to add taller tires to the machine without pissing off its computers.
Why Honda Went DCT
Of course, through what I told you thus far, you’re probably wondering why American Honda has bothered to give its side-by-sides a transmission that its cars don’t even have. I mean, Honda has CVTs in its cars and Can-Am gets by just fine with CVTs, so why is Honda averse to CVTs for side-by-sides?
Engineers at the event explained that American Honda felt that CVTs left room for improvement. Specifically, the manufacturer’s engineers were dissatisfied with the reliability of the CVTs used by the competition. The engineers explained that the CVT belts of competitors either break or surfaces would glaze during hard runs. Further, Honda’s engineers felt that the “point and click” nature of a CVT doesn’t allow you to be where you want to be in the powerband when you want to be there.
In my own personal testing, I have overloaded Can-Am CVTs. When that happens, the side-by-side cuts all power so you don’t damage the belt or other equipment. If you’re trying to get through something rough, like the pile of rocks I was trying to climb through, you lose all momentum. Now you’re stuck between rocks and a hard place trying to get yourself moving again. Likewise, I see where Honda’s engineers are coming from. With a CVT, the engine will rev to wherever the CVT wants it to be. Sometimes that means going slow, but the engine is revving higher than it needs to be.
Continuing, Honda’s engineers say their DCTs are far more durable than a CVT. Giving an example, the engineers said that in some side-by-sides, if you jump with your foot still on the throttle, you can snap the belt on landing from the shock load. The engineers noted that Honda’s DCTs don’t have that problem.
Honda’s DCT eliminates those times when you snap a belt and have to do a trail repair. The transmission should last a very long time, too. However, it is worth noting that when your DCT eventually needs work, the guy with the CVT will probably look smug after seeing your repair bill. Still, I’d rather take the DCT.
Sinking My Talon Into Some Dirt
Our venue for the test was MidAmerica Outdoors in Jay, Oklahoma. It’s a massive playground where races and all sorts of off-roading events take place. During my test, which took place earlier in the summer, Oklahoma was quite dry. We drove the machines down very dusty trails but did get to challenge the Talon 1000R-4s with rocky and rutted trails deep in the woods, plus some fun in a stream. Sadly, there were only a few short times we achieved speeds above 30 mph, but Honda did take me out onto the dirt track with a racing driver to demonstrate the Talon could handle extreme driving.
What I got to experience was deeply satisfying. At first, when I entered into the trails, my Talon tester bottomed out on a lot of obstacles. I don’t blame it, as there were three grown adults in the vehicle. But like magic, putting the FOX Live Valve into Sport mode lifted us up enough to use the Talon’s full reach of 13.2 inches of ground clearance.
I did also use the FOX system in its automatic mode. Maybe it was just the extremely rough terrain, but the suspension didn’t feel a ton softer at low speeds. I ended up just leaving it in Sport mode for the extra clearance.
On the trails, the 28-inch Kenda eight-ply tires, this year’s replacement for the Talon’s previous Maxxis tires, always found traction and never left me feeling like I wasn’t in control of the machine. The tires, combined with Honda’s i-4WD, the rear locker, and low range, made sure that when I saw a hill, the Talon could climb it.
Our courses took us through areas that tested the Talon’s approach and departure angle as well as the machine’s water fording depth. At one point, I was driving through a creek and found an area deep enough that water streamed right over the dashboard. Soaking myself on that extremely hot day was totally worth it and the Talon didn’t care one bit.
The transmission is also a marvel. In a CVT-equipped side-by-side, you’ll mash the gas, wait a little bit, and then the power will come on. And when you let off the throttle, you don’t get any engine braking. Again, it’s very much like a scooter and when you’re just in the moment thrashing through the woods, a CVT hampers the fun a bit. Honda’s DCT is snappy and gets you going in a near instant. Then, you can grin swapping cogs with the shifter paddles like you’re some kind of rally driver. Or, just let the machine shift itself and still have fun. Putting the transmission into Sport mode will make the Talon hold gears longer and the gears shift even faster.
Something really nice about Honda’s DCT is that it will allow you to hold a gear. So, if you really want the side-by-side in first gear to climb a hill, you can do that. Likewise, the transmission will reduce your need to use the brake pedal as the side-by-side can be put into a lower gear, where engine braking is strong. If you, like me, are used to CVTs, this is a game-changer. It feels so much closer to racing a car through the woods than how other side-by-sides feel.
Honda’s DCT also allows you to have launch control, which isn’t at all practical, but it’s a giggle to leap from a stop and scoot down a dirt trail at breakneck speed. I was impressed by the DCT, especially the fact that it wasn’t fazed after multiple heavy climbs in the 100-plus-degree Oklahoma days. Sure, I wasn’t driving one of those turbocharged beasts from Can-Am, but I didn’t care because I was having so much fun. I probably would have driven myself home from Oklahoma in a Talon 1000R-4, taking only dirt roads, if Honda let me.
A Bit Small
While I loved a lot about the 2023 Honda Talon 1000R-4, there were a few areas that disappointed me. This is a machine that was designed in America by American engineers. I get that one of Honda’s goals was a slim, sleek side-by-side, but the cabin ended up being rather small. With the driver seat all of the way back and at maximum recline, my legs didn’t really have anywhere to go. The seat in the image above is fully back and as reclined it would go before hitting a safety bar.
I couldn’t use the dead pedal, so I shoved my left leg next to the brake pedal. Likewise, the steering wheel was so close that I felt like one of those old ladies who drive with their faces on their airbags.
Relief didn’t come from the wheel as it adjusted up and down but didn’t telescope. I was surprised that someone of my height maxed out the interior space. Mind you, I’m 5 feet, 6 inches tall. I’m not a tall person. There were people at the event who were far taller than me, and all of them reported even worse difficulties sitting in the driver seat. One guy basically peeled himself out of the seat. This wasn’t a problem with any of the Can-Am side-by-sides I’ve tested as all of them had big enough interiors that you could stretch out in them.
The passenger seats were better as you didn’t have to worry about the wheel or pedals. As a passenger, the interior volume felt much more usable and a bit closer to those Canadian rides. The stadium seating also sort of works. You really do sit higher than you would in other side-by-sides, though helmets do still block your view just a little.
My suggestion to American Honda would be that for the next generation of Talon, give it a telescoping wheel and maybe a few more inches of legroom. Once that’s taken care of, the machine would be more than a great off-road toy.
I had the time of my life behind the wheel of the 2023 Honda Talon 1000R-4. I felt unstoppable as if there wasn’t a hill I couldn’t climb, rocks I couldn’t skip over, or creeks that would stop me. And that’s how side-by-sides are supposed to make you feel. These are fun toys designed to be off-road beasts that make you smile, and Honda nailed that better than some of its competitors. I’m still impressed with how the simple change of adding a DCT eliminates the most boring part about driving a side-by-side. With a Honda, now you don’t have to deal with that whole scooter feeling.
Something I’d love to see in the future is a Talon turbo. The 104 HP motorcycle mill is fine, but its performance isn’t going to make you giggle. If you race your friend’s turbo Maverick you will need to wipe dust off of your visor. With that said, I had way more fun in this than in something like the Can-Am Commander, which makes about the same power.
The 2023 Honda Talon 1000R FOX Live Valve starts at $23,499. If you want four doors for more fun, you’re looking at $25,799. In some states, I bet you could even put a license plate on one of these, something kei truck owners are struggling with right now.
If you’re in the market for a 100 HP-class side-by-side, ditch the CVTs and get a Honda with the DCT, I don’t think you’ll regret it. But, make sure you sit in the driver seat before you sign on the dotted line.
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