When Honda introduced the FourTrax ATV to farmers in 1986, it called the machine its four-wheel workhorse. Those first FourTrax machines had either 350- or 300-cc engines and were recognized for their working-class reliability. But if those preceding models were workhorses, then the new 2005 TRX500 Foreman is more like a tractor, and a modern one at that. The TRX500 features a longitudinally mounted, air-cooled, electric start, 475-cc engine, an electronic five-speed push-button shifter option, beefed up clutch and a bulletproof shaft drive instead of a belt. The engine is brand new, not a bored out version of a smaller engine.

Honda debuted several versions of the new TRX500 during a press event at the company's new driver training facility in Alpharetta, GA. During the test drive, I was the only farm magazine editor in a group that included writers from assorted hunting magazines and ATV enthusiast publications. It took most of us only a lap around the wooded trails to realize that, like its predecessors, the new 500 is more working machine than racer.

Not a motocrosser

If the machine has a downside, it may be that its working-class attitude might not appeal to the speed and sport minded as much as some of its competitors do. Moreover, Honda makes a strong distinction between its “sport” and “utility” ATVs. While the TRX500 engine upgrade translates into an additional kick in the pants when you hit the throttle, the machine still falls squarely on the side of utility by virtue of its solid if less than lively handling characteristics.

Rough terrain is no problem with an improved double-wishbone front suspension, 7.5 in. of ground clearance and triple skid plates. But the Honda TRX500's suspension doesn't beg to be pushed fast around corners the way comparable Kawasaki or Yamaha machines seem to. After a few turns on the trail with the Honda, I was content to slow to a more moderate pace and enjoy the comfortable seat. I'm not saying that the Honda isn't fun to drive; it is. In fact, it may be a logical choice for the buyer who is torn between the terrain-gobbling capabilities of an ATV and the sedate functionality of a utility vehicle such as the John Deere Gator or Kawasaki Mule. (Honda was not officially selling a utility vehicle at the time of this writing, though word among Honda dealers has been that one will soon be on the way.)

Practical worker

At slow to moderate speeds, the TRX500 is exceptionally easy to drive in either foot-shift, full-automatic or push-button electronic shift models. My impression was that any of these Hondas are superior machines if your tasks include getting through a muddy field without dirtying your boots. (Honda's fender and floorboard design are still the best at keeping mud and debris away from the rider's feet.)

The front and back cargo racks are among the most heavy duty of any ATV. Less impressive is the Honda's welded-on pin-style hitch. It will probably do the job up to the rated towing capacity, but I'd like to see a standard receiver hitch, which would better match the capabilities of this machine. Fortunately, it should be pretty easy to install a better hitch yourself.

Many improvements

To its credit, Honda has made a lot of improvements, including a new front disc brake system with scrapers to remove mud and snow; a dual oil cooler designed higher off the ground to help ensure that the oil cooling system doesn't get clogged with mud; 4-wd via a simple electronic switch on the right handlebar and reverse via a switch on the left; and a 4.2-gal. fuel tank, which is a gallon larger than the tanks on older models. The biggest selling point may still be the longitudinally mounted engine, which aligns directly with the drive shaft. That should translate to more usable power and considerably less maintenance over the years.

Still carbureted

As with many of the company's new model motorcycles, Honda has chosen to stay the course on carbureted ATV engines rather than to rush ahead to fuel injection as some of its competitors have. While high-performance enthusiasts may lament this choice, carburetion may indeed be a better fit for a machine like the TRX500. That's because carbureted engines tend to shine at low “working” speeds. You can precisely ease on the gas to start out slow and controlled. Fuel-injected engines from some competitors have tended to be jumpy and erratic when you touch the gas at low speeds. Meanwhile, speed demons typically prefer the fast response of fuel injection for screaming down trails.

And that reminds me of yet another characteristic that I view as a plus for the Honda: It is noticeably quieter than most of its competitors.

Choices

Sometimes less is more, which is why I like that the FourTrax Foreman model offers a 2-wd option; it is the only machine to do so in the 500-cc range. If you're not going to traverse steep, muddy hills, ford deep streams or scramble over logs, why pay an extra thousand dollars for 4-wd? The Foreman 2-wd price is $5,299, and the price of the 4}4 is $6,299. The $6,499 Foreman 4}4 ES features a thumb-controlled, electronic push-button five-speed transmission that gives the driver control of engine and vehicle speed. That precise control of the gears makes the ES the most tractor-like of the bunch. For another $200, you can add on-board GPS to the ES. Although the GPS is designed to keep hunters from getting lost in the woods, it also could be handy for crop scouting, soil testing and precision ag applications.

For more information, contact American Honda Motor Co., 1919 Torrence Blvd., Torrance, CA 90501, 310/781-5139, visit powersports.honda.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 200.

ATV safety training

Companies that sell ATVs are encouraging customers to sign up for ATV rider training. A fast-paced half day of hands-on training includes pre-ride inspection, starting and stopping, quick turns, hill riding, emergency stopping, and swerving and riding over obstacles. Any ATV dealer can tell you how to sign up, and if you buy a new ATV, you'll get trained for free. If you already own an ATV, or just want the training, you can still participate for a nominal fee that compares favorably to the hospital bills you might avoid.

For more information about ATV driver training, call the ATV Enrollment Express at 800/887-2887. They can give you the location of the nearest ATV RiderCourse and enroll you on the spot. For more information about ATV safety training, visit 4wheeldrive.about.com/od/atvcoursestraining.