The ink was not even dry on the glowing reports on Yamaha's new Grizzly and its revolutionary Electric Power Steering system before Big Red returned the technology volley with a quickly drafted announcement-it too had an EPS system.
But there was a catch-and a big one-the system wasn't ready to show, just yet. It seems that Honda was supplanted once again by Yamaha (remember Doug Henry and the YZ400F motocross bike?) in fielding a new technology. Well, once they got over the shock, the Honda team went to work to get their version ready for the press to sample-even flying in the engineers from Japan to get our feedback on their gem.
One immediately obvious difference was the course Honda is taking with EPS versus Yamaha's. Whereas Yamaha decided to simply incorporate the new technology into its redesign of the Grizzly 700, Honda is offering it as an accessory option on its Foreman 500 for an additional $400-$500. It's an interesting gamble-will customers pony up the big bucks to include a new technology, or will they prefer to stick with the old ride and spend the money on other farm equipment? Why do I say that? Well, the Foreman is Honda's number-one-selling big 4x4 utility ATV (the Rancher holds the title of highest seller at 40 percent of the total). Based on the company's market research, the intended customer is over 43 years old with 15 years of riding experience who rides about 1000 miles per year (the most of any Honda ATV) doing agriculture work, hunting and trail riding. With such a diverse stable to choose from, Honda opted to debut its EPS on the Foreman rather than the more trail-orientated, automatic-transmission-equipped Rubicon 500, as the company planners figured power steering will be a bigger aid to slow-moving, working-man chores such as spraying. The ability to ride with only one hand on the controls-enabled by the EPS-would be a winner to this crowd, and Honda wants to make sure the technology is accepted (that translates to profitable) before introducing more models with EPS. It's typical of the cautious Honda approach-and a reason the company has lost the lead on a technology it has been working on for 20 years!
Yes, Honda had power steering about two decades ago in hydraulic form, but it was big, heavy and not really needed on the smaller utilities of the day. However, as the displacement, weight and power of 4x4s grew, it became apparent to more than one group of engineers that power steering was a needed mechanism. Honda turned to its automotive division to adapt the electric power systems adorning its cars to ATV usage and durability needs. The rough environment a utility ATV sees requires the systems to be rugged and durable without being too heavy. Those are tough standards to meet and part of the reason EPS has had such a long gestation.
At first glance, the Honda system bears more than a passing resemblance to the Yamaha EPS. Both use a sealed electric motor to drive a metal worm gear that pivots a nylon sprocket mounted on the steering spindle. And while the names and some of the colors are different, the basic operation is the same. A coil-area sensor detects the movement volume/direction of the steering stem and sends the information to an ECU, which then tells the motor which way to turn, how much assistance to render and what speed to turn at based on its software program. Yeah, for those of you paying attention, that's also the gist of how Yamahas functions. And your eagle eyes don't deceive you, either-it does look different. Besides the different detection-sensor setup, the Honda system also has a unique build sporting a more compact design that has the electric motor orientated rearward-aiding in mass centralization. And Honda service guys will like that it is Honda Diagnostic System (HDS)-compatible, enabling them to easily troubleshoot it should the inconceivable occur and it breaks.
Beyond all this technobabble, we really want to know how well it works. Right? Honda orchestrated an impressive method to exhibit its new electric wizardry by having non-EPS Foremans and an EPS-equipped demonstrator for the journos gathered to try it out. After a loop around the adapted trail at the Honda Rider Education Center in Colton, California, aboard the old-school 500, we headed out again on the EPS model. Before even driving off the parking paddock, we noticed the lighter steering. The 15-pound unit pays for its weight in markedly big dividends. The rougher the terrain, the bigger the smile as the EPS makes steering effortless, and it acts like a steering damper, absorbing the harsh jars as the wheels hits big obstacles. There is less bar-wrenching in the rough 4x4-style environment. Charging the wicked little whoop section was no longer a rear-end swap meet and revealed another secret-a stiffer front suspension. Of course, it made sense once we heard it. As the EPS allows the rider to hit obstacles harder, the increased speed of impacts translates into a need for stiffer suspension. The ride improvement was such a radical departure from the non-EPS Foreman that we immediately asked the gathered Honda crew, "Why is this an option and not standard?"
Yes, it is that good. How does it compare with the Yamaha version? That's the same question the Honda engineers asked those of us who had spent time on both machines. Well, they both work as advertised, and this could possibly be standard equipment in a few short years-much like the other E-advances (electric starting and electronic fuel injection) that we have now and can't remember how life worked without them. The big difference between the Honda and Yamaha EPS isn't the system but rather the machine using it. The 597-pound 475cc Foreman ES model has manual shifting (via the button-operated Electric Shift Program) and a solid rear axle and is still breathing through a carburetor. In contrast, the Yamaha Grizzly sports a 686cc EFI motor, IRS and an automatic transmission while hitting the scales at 600 pounds. Not much of a comparison, really. The two are only the same in that they are each company's highest-selling big-bore 4x4 utilities that now have EPS. Perhaps in a few months we'll pit them side-by-side to see how they act in the same terrain-it won't be fair, but at least it answers those pervasive "which one is better" questioners