How to choose the right ATV

The perfect 4-wheeler for you is out there

Story by Steve Casper, Nov. 19, 2007

The best news for potential ATV buyers is that today there are more ATV choices than ever before, which means you can get the perfect machine for your riding style and intended use. However, the wide selection does make whittling down your options more difficult.

Buying an ATV is a big investment and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Since today’s four-wheelers generally have good long-term durability, they will last several years.

With a little research, you can go into a dealership fully armed with the info you need to make the right choice when buying a new quad. Your ultimate goal should be to buy a machine that not only fits you just right and is easy to ride, but also has plenty of power for your needs, a comfortable suspension system, the appropriate ‘thrill factor’ and all the features you’ll need for getting any chores done.

Most of models of ATV can be classified into one category, although there are many models that cross over into more than one classification because of certain features. In fact, the lines between some of the categories have begun to blur in the last decade as nearly all of the manufacturers have designed their utility models with considerably more performance for those riders who want to get the complete ATV experience (work and play) from one machine.

Youth models

Among the choices in the youth ATV class is the Yamaha Raptor 80.The youth, or mini, classification has recently been one of the fastest-growing segments in the ATV world. These are basically smaller, lighter and less-expensive versions of the adult models. Nearly all of them are designed for play and recreational trail riding with the family, yet some models can be quite competitive in the youth division racing in stock form.

In this category, there are a number of lesser-known brands that offer mini machines, many of them designed and built in foreign countries. As a result, the price range and difference in quality tends to vary more than other categories. Engine sizes range from 50cc to 125cc (there’s a lot more two-strokes here than in other categories) and most feature an automatic transmission.

Entry-level four-wheelers 

This class is the next step up from youth models as far as size and price go. Some also call this category the ‘recreational trail class.’ These machines are designed to be easy to ride with fairly tame handling manners and powerplants. The engines are typically no-frills, air-cooled four-strokes that range from 125cc to 250cc. Some machines feature automatic transmissions, while others require shifting, but no clutch to operate. All of the full-sized quads built today, including all the ATVs in this class, have some sort of suspension system both front and rear.

These machines are a great starting point for people who have never ridden off-road vehicles before. Another group of riders that prefer four-wheelers from this class are those who are physically smaller than the typical adult riders who prefer to keep their speed at a casual pace. Yet tough trail situations, such as overcoming big mud bogs or boulder fields, quickly tax these machines beyond their limits.

For outdoor chores such as snowplowing, a 4x4 quad is the best machine for the job.Utility quads

Utility ATVs are by definition designed primarily for heavy-duty work, such as hauling cargo on the front and rear racks, pulling a trailer or farm implement or pushing a plow blade. That’s why these machines have become so popular among people who own large amounts of land.

A number of industries, law enforcement officers and service personnel also use this type of ATV, and they’ve been a favorite of hunters, campers and fisherman since their inception in the mid-1980s.

Utility quads have typically been regarded as sluggish- handling behemoths with slow, but powerful, engines and a limited amount of suspension travel. But that has changed. Today, utility four-wheelers are built to be fun and comfortable on the trails. When the going gets rough in the mud, rocks or steep hillclimbs, modern utility quads typically come through like champs. They have a high ground clearance and get great traction.

Some utility ATV models feature four-wheel drive, while others get by with two. And in many cases, the exact same model can be purchased in either version (with the price difference typically being around $1,000). There also are dozens of extra features that can be found on utility quads, such as storage boxes, auxiliary electrical outlets, removable headlights, independent rear suspension and liquid-cooled engines. Four-stroke engines ranging in size from 250cc to 700cc power most utility quads.

Sport utility ATVs

The Yamaha Grizzly sport-utility ATV is among the favorite machines of mud boggers.The sport utility category has probably done more than any other to increase the popularity of four-wheelers. These machines combine the working capabilities of utility quads with the sporting characteristics of the performance and racing ATVs. Because of their flexibility, these machines are offered in a wide array of models offered year after year and are often the best sellers.

Sport utility quads can be looked at basically in two different ways: You can describe them as sport machines with racks, a trailer hitch and 4WD or you could say they’re utility quads with faster engines and longer travel suspension. In fact, when you look under the skin of many of these sport utility ATVs, you’ll find that the manufacturers actually based their original designs for these quads on already existing sport or utility models.

The best part of these machines is that you literally can spend the morning mowing the lawn with your quad and then take the same machine out for a fast afternoon trail ride, tackling jumps and churning out big broadslides. Sport utility four-wheelers are generally very easy to ride and are a great choice for novice trail riders. They can also tackle the tough stuff like mud bogs and hillclimbs just as well as the utility quads can.

Most feature completely automatic transmissions and floorboards rather than footpegs and they also come in both 2WD and 4WD. They typically have four-stroke engines ranging from 250cc to 800cc.

If riding fast and catching air is your goal, a high performance sport ATV such as this Honda Sportrax 450R is what you need.Sport quads

The machines that fit into this category were built with one goal in mind: fun! Sport ATVs typically feature peppy engines, long-travel suspension, a relatively light overall weight and great handling for both the track and trail. Sport four-wheelers are great at jumping, hitting the rough stuff, sliding around corners and popping wheelies. Experienced riders can fly down the trails at a quick pace that keeps them on their toes and gives them plenty of exercise.

Sport quads also have a racier, more aggressive look to them when compared to utility or sport utility ATVs. In fact, modified sport quads are popular in the beginner classes at motocross and TT races and can be raced nearly stock in cross-country events.

Most sport four-wheelers rely on a five-speed transmission with a manual hand-controlled clutch. This makes them more challenging to ride than the automatic models, but in the long run the shifting skills you’ll learn riding them will come in quite handy if you ever want to go racing or step up to a machine in the high-performance category. With just a few exceptions, four-stroke engines ranging in size from 200cc to 400cc power almost all sport ATVs.

High-performance ATVs

High-performance quads are the Corvettes and Ferraris of the ATV world. They’re designed to accelerate the fastest, jump the highest and broadslide the longest. Whether you’re in the sand dunes, woods or desert, there’s nothing that can blaze down a rough trail like one of these race-bred machines. They’ve got fast, water-cooled powerplants with either five- or six-speed manual transmissions and the longest travel shocks of any class. Race-like handling is the goal of every manufacturer in this highly competitive class.

In the late 1980s, two-stroke engines powered virtually every high-performance four-wheeler offered. That has changed entirely as high-tech four-stroke engines, many of which are patterned after their dirt bike counterparts, now dominate the class. Engine sizes currently range from 350cc to a whopping twin-cylinder 700cc monster. To win at the top levels in racing, a rider pretty much has to utilize a high-performance quad.

Though high-performance ATVs work great on the trail, they do have some downfalls, such as lower ground clearance and subpar mud bog and boulder capabilities. Most of the quads in this class are harder to ride due to their manual gearboxes and clutch and their high-strung engines. And although the suspension can take some huge hits, the tighter-wound high-performance ATVs generally don’t deliver the same comfortable ride on the trails that say a sport utility quad might. In fact, when a high-performance quad is ridden to its full potential, the operator usually isn’t even sitting down.

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