Honda Rugged Open Air Vehicle concept first drive review: Bigger is better

Supersizing a UTV magnifies its fun factor.


Admittedly, I had low expectations going in. Usually, concept vehicle drives are terribly restricted to slow speeds over short distances, and for good reason. Concepts are typically exceptionally expensive-to-produce one-offs, with costs that measure in the millions. In other words, they're usually far too precious to let grubby media hands pilot them.

The Honda Rugged Open Air Vehicle falls right in line with the conceptual ethos. As an automaker better known for the Accord and CR-V, Honda built this vehicle last year to show off what they're capable of, but that was pretty much it. The carmaker/powersports company currently has no plans to produce this plus-sized, Ridgeline-based utility terrain vehicle (UTV), so it's a miracle this machine is even seeing the light of day in 2019.

Six months after the Rugged Open Air Vehicle was unveiled at the 2018 SEMA show, I find myself in the middle of the Mojave Desert at Honda's high-security proving grounds. I'm about to drive the largest UTV I've ever laid eyes on. It's not as imposing as a Ford F-150 Raptor or a trophy truck, but for a side-by-side, the Honda Rugged Open Air Vehicle is colossal, sitting about 30 percent wider and 70 percent longer than a typical UTV.

The jumbo proportions magnify the Rugged Open Air Vehicle's aggressive design. The machine oozes a "drive me hard" presence that serves to taunt. (Remember, at this point, I'm expecting a pretty slow and staid stint behind the wheel. Thankfully, I'll soon be proven wrong.)

Yep, there's a Ridgeline underneath that UTV skin.


How it's made

According to John Barlow, lead engineer on the vehicle, "[We] ordered a special whitebody from our Alabama factory with only the parts we needed, which included the front engine room structure, front/mid/rear floor, and bed and tailgate structure." Barlow tells Roadshow that starting with a bare, non-e-coated body was important, as it made welding easier."

Once out of assembly, the "separated at birth" magic began. First, Honda gave the ROAV's suspension a 2-inch lift and then widened the track with 2-inch spacers at all four corners. Instead of fitting sheet metal around the passenger compartment, the oversized side-by-side got a racecar-style tube frame.

With the structure in place, Honda then began blending the DNA from its Pioneer 1000 UTV into the witches' brew. The Rugged Open Air Vehicle's doors, headlights and taillights were all lifted from the Pioneer. To match those UTV-sourced components, Honda custom-skinned the rear bodywork, 3D-printed the nose and then hand-fabricated the skid plates.

Some waterproof paint and a Pioneer 1000 steering wheel make this Ridgeline dash appear appropriate for UTV duty.


Moving inside, the dash panel was lifted from another donor Ridgeline and then slathered in weather-resistant paint, just like the rest of the interior. Upon closer inspection, I notice there are 7,000 miles on the odometer. "[We] obtained a Ridgeline that was due to be crushed, as its intended life had been served, so this vehicle, in its former life, was [...] used for development testing," Barlow says. "Therefore, we were able to salvage parts from a soon-to-be-crushed vehicle." Barlow adds that this move significantly reduced the project's cost and time expenditures.

Keener eyes will notice that, unlike the Ridgeline, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle's shifter is mounted on the dash. That's because the concept uses the shift handle from Honda's Odyssey minivan, while the steering wheel is another part lifted directly from the Pioneer 1000. The parts-bin scavenging continues onto the Civic Type R seats wrapped in water-resistant upholstery from -- you guessed it -- the Pioneer 1000. Even the door nets are Pioneer 1000-derived.

The Civic Type R seats also look appropriate in their off-road surroundings.


Finally, to finish everything off, Honda fitted 33-inch Dick Cepek tires on 18-inch Fuel Vapor wheels, which help give the Rugged Open Air Vehicle 14.1 inches of ground clearance. Approach, departure and breakover angles are 34, 26.5 and 27 degrees, respectively. According to Honda's estimates, the UTV transformation leaves the concept about 200 to 300 pounds lighter than the Ridgeline on which it's based.

The entire conversion from Ridgeline to Rugged Open Air Vehicle takes about two-and-a-half months, and the signatures of each of the 61 people involved in the project are featured prominently on the back of the concept.

This thing pegs the badass meter.


How it drives

To my surprise, I'm pretty much left to my own devices around one of the Honda Proving Center's off-road testing courses.

The Rugged Open Air Vehicle is powered by the same 3.5-liter V6 found in the Ridgeline. In production spec, that amounts to 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, but the concept vehicle's custom exhaust might unleash a couple more ponies and pound-feet. Power is then sent through a six-speed automatic transmission and onto all four wheels. From the driver's seat, this circa-4,000 pound side-by-side feels like one of the most powerful UTVs I've tested.

In my first two laps, I had the Rugged Open Air Vehicle in the same Sand Mode available on any Ridgeline, Passport or Pilot you can buy on the showroom floor. Having also driven a Honda Passport on the same dirt course, I can report that the Rugged Open Air Vehicle handles with about the same neutral character as its production platform mate.

During antics like this, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle does a great job of not beating me up.


The Rugged Open Air Vehicle's advantageous weight loss doesn't present itself on the dirt track, but regardless, feels plenty quick, allowing me to get up to 66 miles per hour on the course's longest straight. Whether at high or low speeds, the lifted suspension soaks up bumps nicely, and keeps body movements in check while cornering.

Just like the production pickup truck and SUVs that share their platform with the Rugged Open Air Vehicle, the steering is plenty accurate and quick, and I find it easy to locate my threshold braking points thanks to the well-modulated brake pedal.

Despite there being three sweet jumps along the off-road course, the only thing I was not allowed to do was jump the concept UTV. If the Rugged Open Air Vehicle were ever to hit production, I'm sure, at that point, Honda would let me jump it. With that clearance, I would happily oblige… many, many times.

ROAV mode needs to be made available on every Honda/Acura product with all-wheel drive.



For my two final laps, I press a big, red button to the left of the steering wheel labeled "ROAV Mode." Sand Mode was plenty of fun for my first couple of laps, but ROAV Mode gives me the giggles. Suddenly, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle feels like it's rear-wheel drive. Throughout the course, I'm even able to hold onto a couple of drifts.

It's funny to think this concept is built off a nose-heavy, transverse-engine, front/all-wheel drive platform. With ROAV Mode engaged, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle is just about as tail-happy and rotates as easily as any other production UTV I've tested.

But because of the concept UTV's 125.2-inch wheelbase, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle feels more forgiving… perhaps more than any other side-by-side I've driven. With typical UTVs, you have to be much more on edge with the controls because smaller dimensions make everything happen more quickly. As well, you have to be quicker to countersteer and swifter in your course corrections.

Just put it into production, Honda.


But with the Rugged Open Air Vehicle, you're afforded more reaction time, so you can have just as much tail-out fun, but be more relaxed within that enjoyment. On top of that, because the concept uses so many off-the-shelf parts, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle doesn't feel like a concept at all. It actually feels a few executive signatures away from production.

Having grown up in a world of off-road toys, I know firsthand that powersports culture is marked by one-upmanship. If Honda were to build something like the Rugged Open Air Vehicle, the company would instantly have the largest and baddest UTV on the market. It may sound crazy, but I actually think there are many potential buyers who would love the bragging rights they'd have with the Rugged Open Air Vehicle. They'd also be eminently pleased with its performance.

Even as a concept, the Rugged Open Air Vehicle is already one of my favorite UTVs ever, and if it were to go on sale, it would be a game-changer and the talk of off-road haunts everywhere. If the side-by-side never makes it to production, though, I'd still love to see ROAV Mode show up on the Ridgeline, Passport, Pilot and Acura MDX. These SUVs are already nice to drive, but they'd be pretty damn addictive in the dirt with an extra helping of power and torque sent to the rear wheels.