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Front Page » August 16, 2012 » Focus » UTV or ATV: That is the question.
Published 1,153 days ago

UTV or ATV: That is the question.

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Deciding which kind of machine to buy to ride in the wilds of Utah can often be a problem for some people. Before three and four wheel ATVs the choices were very limited. Jeeps, Baha Buggies or dirt bikes were what people usually took out.

Today the sport of off-road riding has exploded and no where more than Utah can one find so many places to go and so many ways to get there.

While some still prefer larger four wheel vehicles, the side-by-sides that many manufacturers are building are making a big dent in the number of those in four wheel drive trucks and SUVs on trails.

And where dirt bikes used to roam in large numbers, the standard four wheel ATV has become the common form of transportation.

As I watched off road motorsports for years, the transition has been phenomenal. So many of the two wheel riders of 20 or 30 years ago now ride the four wheel machines, it is almost amazing.

While a lot of young people love the machines too, what has happened is that the baby boomers who once dominated the trails with YZs, DTs, KXs and Elsinores are finding the four wheels to be more to their liking. And unlike the heyday of Japanese motorcycles dominating the numbers in the two wheel machines (with apologies to KTM, Husqvarna, Bultaco and many others) many four wheelers and side-by-sides are built in North America today.

Question arise from many getting into the market though about which to purchase. Some families have both, but for many this is not only impossible initial cost wise, but also logistically.

The differences between the two kinds of machines are striking, yet there are similarities, particularly that of having fun in the outdoors.


The side by side grew out of the early concept of the Baha Buggy that so many people built and bought during the 1960s and 70s. However that was more an influence than the concept. For much of the 20th century golfers had been riding in golf carts, either electric or gas powered. In addition many maintenance organizations had three and four wheel carts they used for work purposes. These often had bench seats and could accommodate more than one person. Usually they had beds on them to carry tools or materials too. Some of the most well known ones were built by a company named Cushman.

Soon many of these kinds of vehicles moved beyond the workplace and into the play place. One group of dirt bike enthusiasts I used to ride with in the 70s was a family in which the father/grandfather owned what we all called the "Hootenany." I can't even recall what brand that machine was, but it was a three wheeled utility vehicle and we often used it as a base out on the trail. I remember when I broke my collar bone in a fall off of my Elsinore in 1976, the next week I was riding around in that following my friends with the patriarch of the family at the wheel. At that time and for some time after I never saw another machine like that used for recreation.

Then came along some small four wheeled sand buggies built I believe by Honda. Those were billed as for kids, but they were more like fast go-carts with wide tires and suspension that could take the bumps (well at least theoretically).

In early part of the last decade manufacturers began to build side-by-sides as not just a machine that can be used for utility work, but for real fun. The movement began by adapting those utility machines, but has now moved into machines that do everything from hauling logs rocks and dirt to those that are made to race right out of the box.

Side-by-sides (UTVs as they are now called too) come in all colors and configurations. While not all manufacturers who make regular ATVs make them, most do. Some have very limited versions (largely workhorses or ones that will carry a lot of people) while others produce a who range of machines.

The most popular machines are the ones that seat two people. They are generally short and often meet the 50 inch rule (some trails only allow machines under 50 inches to travel on them). At the recent UTV Jamboree in Marysvale on the Paiute Trail system, the vast majority of UTVs were of this kind.

However, four seaters under 50 inches have now been developed as well. And some machines that are a little wider have seat belts for up to six people.

These latter machines are often purchase by those with children who either aren't old enough to ride ATVs yet or because of the expense of separate machines, are more affordable.

As with most machines, engine size has to do with performance and the cost of buying one as well. UTV engine sizes vary from 450 to 1000 cc machines. More power with larger engines are certainly coming in the future, with a few manufacturers already working in that realm with some stock machines.

The price of purchasing a UTV has a large range, depending on the kind, equipment and options. The least expensive type are the utility machines with usually only two seats and a dump or solid bed in the back. Some of the machines that are bigger that carry a lot of passengers are also on the lower end of the costs scale. Interestingly, it seems, the narrower the machine, and often the smaller it is, the more it seems to cost. Prices range from the basic models of a line of machines from around $10,000 to as much as $23,000 for a tricked out with options factory unit.

At least one company is also manufacturing a "mini" UTV now that can be driven by children under 16.

On a few special models use two cycle engines. Most have four cycle engines like a car.



ATVs are a very different animal than a UTV. A UTV allows riders to sit alongside the driver and can sometimes accommodate more than two people. Most ATVs are only built for one person, although a few models are actually manufactured for two.

The truth, however, is that most people ignore this fact. Despite the warnings right on the machines not to ride anyone, literally all machines carry two people at least some of the time. The exception, generally are the sport machines which usually don't have a seat that will accommodate two people.

ATVs came into being in 1970 when Honda started building three wheel machines, (the ATC 90) largely using engines from their successful line of motorcycles. The balloon tires proved a hit and took the place of complicated suspensions on motorcycles at the time. These proved popular and soon other manufacturers were doing the same. Honda really had much of the lock on the market so other models were fewer and farther in between. However there was a problem.

The three wheelers, meant to be more stable than a motorcycle, weren't. They often crashed and tipped over causing a lot of injuries and some deaths. That was nothing new to the cycle world, but for some the numbers became to big. In 1981, Suzuki came out with a 125 cc machine that offered four wheels. Slow selling at first the sales took off and soon other manufacturers followed suit. The three wheeler disappeared from their lines (the last ones were built as late as 1987), although a few can be seen today still riding around trails, small towns and as utility machines for farmers and ranchers.

The four wheeled ATVs of today are often also fitted with "trunks" that allow the rider to store materials in the back out of the elements and dust. These trucks often come with "lounging seats" which are officially supposed to be used for the rider to sit back on when they are stopped to have a drink or eat lunch. However almost everyone uses them as a riding compartment for other riders or even animals such as dogs and cats. This is despite the fact that all of them come with written warnings not to use that addition to the ATV as a riding seat.

For some the UTV is like driving a car while the ATV is like riding a motorcycle. While both points of view are true, there are certainly differences between them. UTVs are smaller than the smallest of cars, are lighter and can handle terrain that cars near that size could never bear.

While the rider straddles and ATV much like a motorcycle, the balancing and way to ride them on certain kinds of terrain is almost completely different, in fact sometimes opposite.

ATVs can come in a variety of engine sizes. Small ATVs can have as low as 50 cc engines on them (meant for kids). Adult rider models can have up to 1000 cc engines that produce 80-90 horsepower in stock configuration.

Some sport ATVs also have two cycle engines. These are generally meant for racing and speed.

The price range for new ATVs can go from around the mid $3000 range to upwards of $15,000 for a large 1000 cc machine, depending on options and other equipment.

Which to buy

If one had an unlimited pocketbook it would be easy to say to a family "buy one large UTV and a couple of ATVs." But particularly when buying new, the range of costs can be extremely high.

And the cost of buying a machine is only one consideration. Here is a list of things to consider.

•For a family with small children (under 8 years old) a four seat UTV might be the safest buy. With helmets on and strapped into seats built to hold them, these machines are much safer than riding those same children on the back of an ATV. That doesn't mean the sport is without risk, but a roll cage around the kids and that seat belt are added protection in the case of an accident.

•Children can ride ATVs that are the right size for them on public land if they are 8 to 16 years old and have passed a state test on the internet. That means however that the parent must closely supervise them as they learn to ride and when they are riding.

•All children under 16 must wear a helmet whether in a UTV or on an ATV. This is an additional cost that must be considered when buying a machine. Helmets also do not last forever. Once someone lands on their head with one, they should be discarded because their structure could well be weakened.

•Consider how you will haul the machines to places you want to go. One ATV will usually fit in the back of a regular pick up truck. To put it in you will need to buy ramps (boards work, but can be dangerous) and straps for tying down the machine are a necessity (another cost). More than one will require either a rack on the bed of the truck, a flatbed truck bed or a trailer. If you want to haul more than two ATVs of standard size you also often need more than a standard car to pull that trailer. Trailers can be pricey, and installed hitches to haul them also need to be considered in the budget.

For a UTV, only large pickup beds can accommodate them and stronger ramps (this time not boards at all) will be needed to load them.

A mixture of machines will also require more hauling apparatus. Many people also like to take the machines camping and they may already be pulling a trailer to stay in so the that means additional units to haul the "toys."

Many of those who use ATV pull camp trailers and an ATV/UTV trailer. This requires the right vehicle (usually a large SUV or heave duty truck) and the ability to drive it. State law also only allows the length of any units hooked together for such purposes to be under 65 feet long.

•Cost of machines. In the cast of a tricked out UTV one can buy three or four standard ATVs for the price of one of these. However, big ATVs with big engines and lots of options can actually exceed the price of many UTVs. Its all a matter of setting a budget, understanding what you need (as opposed to what you would like to have) and finding good deals. Some dealers throw in extra value items such as a helmet, a trunk box, or other items.

One thing to remember to. Like any vehicle the cost of owning these machines never stops. You will have to pay sales tax and licensing fees. Off road vehicles must be licensed each year, so put that in the budget too. And good maintenance is a must. Dealers can provide that for you, or you can do some of it yourself, but the costs are still there. Maintenance on an ATV or a UTV is every bit as important as it is on the car you drive to work each day.

Also plan on things getting broken at times. It is the nature of the beast that things will not only wear out but on the trail where trees stick out, rocks poke up and cliffs appear quickly there are times when damage happens.

Buying a machine can be fun and the riding time spent with people you love is priceless. Kids love ATV/UTVs and few adults, once they have ridden one, can resist getting on one again. It is a great sport.

Just do it in safety and follow the rules of the trail to keep riding areas open to all who enjoy the thrill of the air in their face and dust on their boots.

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August 16, 2012
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