Open-air, off-road driving in side-by-side style
I’m cold. On a blustery winter day in the high desert near Barstow, California, the near freezing wind rushes though the exposed bodywork and is only slightly impeded by the multiple layers of clothing that I’d hoped would insulate me. We’re doing about 40 mph (64 km/h) through an especially fun part of the trail, plunging down and up into deep whoops in the loose dirt.
My wife, fellow automotive photographer Jessica Walker, is behind the wheel, and she’s deliberately changing her throttle inputs in a mesmerizing cadence as we go from peak to valley, in order to avoid scraping the top of the next hump. A liquid-cooled 999cc inline-twin sits just behind me, and the engine noise, mixed with the frigid air rushing into the bottom of my helmet, is muting most of what I can hear. But through the wind, the engine noise, and the sound of the suspension and the tires plunging through the dirt, I can hear Jessica giggling.
Say hello to the Honda Talon 1000R. Launched last year as a 2019 model, the Talon 1000R is Honda’s first foray into performance-oriented side-by-sides. Late to the game and among a crowded field of competitors from Can-Am, Polaris, Kawasaki, and Yamaha, Honda is looking for its slice of this popular pie. Newer to the side-by-side scene than even the Talon, this is my first time behind the wheel of a fast UTV. That’s not to say I haven’t spent a lot of time on dirt. Throughout my 10 years on staff, I’ve had the opportunity to take part in many off-road adventures. I also recently splurged and spent the day with the amazing instructors at DirtFish rally school in Snoqualmie, Washington. Strapped into their Subaru WRX STI rally cars, they teach you the proper ways to drive fast on dirt with a focus on vision, weight transfer, and throttle control. The school is addictively fun and leaves you jonesing for another taste of rally fun. So when Honda offered to let me borrow the Talon for a week over the holiday break, I jumped on it.
The Talon 1000R’s I-2 makes 104 hp. A six-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters directs that power to all four wheels when needed. Automatic modes, especially in Sport mode, worked flawlessly most of the time, letting me concentrate on the trail ahead. When I decided to grab the paddle and intervene, it was usually so I could downshift and zip up a hill a little faster or induce a slide around a tight turn in the trail. Helping to keep you moving is Honda’s I-4WD traction system. Similar to systems found in the automotive world, I-4WD uses brake impulses to direct power to the wheels that have grip through a torque-biasing limited-slip differential. The benefit of I-4WD instead of locked differentials is that you don’t have to stop to engage them; it diverts power as you go. Being a side-by-side newbie, I doubt I ever came close to the limits of the Talon’s traction capabilities, but I can say the system worked smoothly in the background to keep going through the deeper sandy stretches and up steep hills.
The suspension is really the party piece of any performance side-by-side, though. The Talon 1000R uses adjustable Fox Podium 2.5 shocks and a unique four-plus-link rear suspension. Is this setup better than that offered by Can-Am, Polaris, or any of the other ones on the market? I honestly can’t tell you; this is the first one I’ve had the pleasure of driving. I can tell you that having 17.7 inches of front and 20.1 inches of rear suspension travel is really, really fun. Even the Ford Raptor, a purpose-built street vehicle, only has 13.0 inches up front and 13.9 inches in the rear. The closest experience I’ve had to flogging the Talon through the uneven desert terrain was the short ride I was given in a SCORE (Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts) race truck, shortly before the builder left for the Baja 1000. Everyone should experience a vehicle like this at some point in their life.
Even with all of its performance side-by-side parts and capabilities, the Talon 1000R still drives like a normal Honda. The seats are super comfortable and supportive. The I-4WD system worked silently to keep me on the trail. There is also a confidence that driving something from Honda, a company known for building great, reliable street cars, gave me as beginner UTVer. It was approachable and unbelievably fun.
The sort of unadulterated fun that causes grown adults to revert to a childlike state and giggle is hard to find in this world. Sport UTVs, sport side-by-sides, whatever you want to call them have increased in popularity over the past decade for this very reason. If there are trails to explore, rocks to climb, or dunes to conquer, you will see individuals and families slipping, sliding, climbing, and jumping these four-wheeled fun machines. With performance levels and capabilities only previously available to specialty modified off-road vehicles, the newest generation of sport side-by-sides are built to fulfill all of your Baja 1000, Dakar Rally, and King of the Hammer fantasies.