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All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) can be categorized into two main categories — utility and sport. There are many variants of the ATVs. When you decide to purchase one, it is normal to want to weigh your options.
Utility ATVs make for the best purchase due to higher ground clearance, more straightforward operation, softer ride, and utilitarian options, while Sport ATVs are for those who are most passionate about competitive speed and performance.
This article will explore the considerations that an ATV buyer should employ when deciding on what model of ATV to purchase. We will look at the key characteristics of sport and utility ATVs to allow you to become a knowledgeable buyer.
Difference Between Sport ATVs and Utility ATVs
When deciding what ATV to purchase, it is important to start by knowing the main differences between a sport ATV and a utility ATV. These differences come down to design and function.
Purpose of a Utility ATV
ATVs are not all for sport or recreation. ATVs also have a role as practical work vehicles. A utility ATV is designed to meet the range, load, and accessibility requirements of work-specific tasks.
Their form-factor, ability to navigate different terrain, and ease of use, make them effective modes of transport in work-specific environments, such as ranching, and task-specific activities, such as hunting.
Purpose of a Sport ATV
A sport ATV is primarily designed for recreational and sports use. This ATV classification is an umbrella term that encompasses a large number of niche ATVs. There are sport ATVs specifically designed for racing, jumping, stunt riding, etc. and lack the practical aspect found in utility ATVs.
Sport ATV designs tend to incorporate more resistant suspensions and responsive engines than utility ATVs. They are also lighter in weight. This results in an end-product that provides optimized riding performance.
When Is a Utility ATV Right for You?
The answer to when a utility ATV is right for you is simplified if you have no interest in using your ATV for recreational use. Likewise, if you have a specific task in mind that you feel will benefit from the mobility offered by an ATV. These can include:
- Farm work and ranching. From shepherding livestock to hauling hay, spraying fields, plowing, and carrying equipment to repair fencing, a utility ATV can become a workhorse for farm and ranch-related work.
- Forestry work. Covering the vast distances involved with forestry work and wildfire prevention work involves navigating difficult and nearly impassable terrain. The nature of the work also calls for being able to carry or haul different payloads. A utility ATV is ideal for this.
- Security and monitoring work. A utility ATV is an economical alternative for patrolling and monitoring large open areas. They provide speed and agility to security work.
- Hunting. For reaching hunting areas that are deep in-country or that require traversing inhospitable paths, the utility ATV is well-suited for these tasks. Their payload and hauling capability make them ideal for carrying gear and extracting large game.
Can You Use a Utility ATV for Recreational Purposes?
If you decide on purchasing a utility ATV because your needs matched one of those listed above, that does not mean that you cannot use it for recreational purposes.
Most utility ATVs can be used recreationally. However, it is important to note that they will likely not match sport ATVs in terms of speed or responsiveness. For most casual recreational ATV riders, however, this should not be an issue as they don’t tend to ride their ATVs to performance limits.
An advantage that comes with using a utility ATV recreationally instead of a sport ATV is that it is better suited for off-roading. Utility ATVs tend to have larger ground clearances and softer suspension systems, making riding down rough trails safer and more comfortable.
There is an argument to be made that if your whole purpose for purchasing an ATV revolves around off-roading and rough country trailing, a utility ATV would be your best choice even if you have no work-related application for the ATV.
On the other hand, if your recreational riding is more speed-intensive or competitive, the limitations in the utility ATV’s performance may compromise your enjoyment of the vehicle.
There is also the issue of specialized equipment that might be attached to your utility ATV that would not make it suitable for recreational use. If you intend to purchase an ATV for both utility and recreational use, make sure that specialized accessories are removable.
When Is a Sport ATV Right for You?
If your only intended use for the ATV is for recreational use, a sport ATV might be a good choice for you. However, it is imperative to analyze how you define your recreational use scenario.
Sport ATVs are suited to those who seek speed and responsiveness. Being lightweight compared to a utility ATV, a sport ATV is going to deliver a faster ride even when sporting an engine of the same size or smaller as that used in a utility ATV.
However, as mentioned when discussing utility ATVs, a sport ATV will have lower ground clearance. This means that if you intend on riding it in rough terrain, you may encounter obstructions that a utility ATV would otherwise clear.
A sport ATV will be able to handle rough trails. However, it will not be able to overcome some larger obstacles that may be encountered in deep off-road situations, such as rugged foliage, weather-trounced trails, or the absence of a track altogether.
A good analogy to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to opt for a sport ATV is to view them as ATVs’ sportscars. They are going to outperform utility ATVs on speed and responsiveness but not on the smoothness of the ride nor the handling of rough trails.
What Are Side-by-Side ATVs?
A side-by-side “ATV” is one that is manufactured with two seats lined up side by side in a single row. Models exist that have two or three such rows for even more passengers. The category of ATV is reserved for single rider machines by the American National Standards Institute.
However, since many manufacturers do market these vehicles as ATV variants, it is understandable for some people to include side-by-sides in their purchasing consideration.
A side-by-side shares most of the powertrain characteristics of an ATV. The main difference being in the steering, acceleration, gear shifting, and braking mechanisms. These will resemble those found in cars as opposed to ATVs that use mechanisms resembling those of motorcycles.
In terms of design and function, side-by-sides are found in utility and sport variants. They mirror the applications and limitations of sport and utility ATVs. If you include side-by-sides in your list when deciding on what ATV to buy, you can apply the same analytical criteria that we have presented for ATVs regarding performance.
Where special consideration needs to be added to side-by-sides comes in transportation. While you can transport most sport and utility ATVs in the back of a full-size pickup, side-by-sides are different. Due to their wider and longer form-factor, most will require a trailer to be transported to the locations where they will be used. That is something that you should factor into your consideration.
Types of Transmission
Both sport and utility ATVs are available in manual and automatic transmissions. Due to the performance preferences of the demographics that predominantly opt for sport ATVs over utility ATVs, manual transmissions are the most common transmission for that classification of ATV. Conversely, manual transmissions are more popular with utility ATVs.
What type of transmission you choose should depend on your experience with ATVs, who will be using the vehicle, and its primary use.
Automatic Transmissions on ATVs
An ATV with an automatic transmission will make operating the unit easier. This can be advantageous if you are new to ATVs. Different people with varying degrees of experience will be driving it, or if the vehicle’s use will be for utilitarian purposes requiring the driver to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. This also holds true if you plan to use the ATV on hills and slopes.
Most ATV automatic transmissions will have a lever to choose between high and low gear. The former setting will provide you more speed while the latter will provide you with stronger torque — ideal when hauling or pulling heavy loads.
In terms of cost, automatic transmissions will add slightly to the cost of the ATV compared to the same unit with a manual transmission. It should be noted, some ATV models, especially in the utility sector, are only available with automatic transmissions.
Manual Transmissions on ATVs
Much as with a motorcycle, the manual transmission on an ATV allows you to have precise control over the engine’s RPMs. This can be very beneficial when you want to apply maximum power under ideal traction conditions and less when you need to compensate for poor traction.
When adding the transmission type to your calculus in determining which ATV to purchase, make sure to factor in the complexity required to operate an ATV manual transmission. The process is very similar to that of a motorcycle. Shifting gears requires you to employ the clutch, gear lever, and throttle at the same time. If you are on a slope or hill, the brake also comes into play.
With practice, the process becomes second nature. However, if you only plan on using the ATV occasionally or plan on allowing other less experienced riders to take the controls, having a manual transmission can be a net negative compared to the added performance that it provides to an experienced rider.
Manual transmissions can be very beneficial when taking turns, especially at a higher speed. By controlling when a gear shift occurs, you avoid the potential of an automatic transmission shifting gears in the middle of a tight and fast turn. The result of that can be a momentary loss of control or balance.
That level of added control is why manual transmissions are more common in sport ATVs. With greater speed comes a greater need for responsiveness. Manual transmissions contribute to that. When performing repetitive tasks, especially at slower speeds or requiring stronger torque, manually shifting gears can become tedious and tiring.
Should You Buy a New or Used ATV?
After you have decided whether a sport or utility ATV is best for you and you have taken into consideration the collateral details — such as type of transmission, size, color, etc. — you need to consider whether you want to purchase a new or used ATV.
Much as with a car, the advantages of opting to purchase a new ATV include:
- The ATV would have an active manufacturer’s warranty.
- Mechanical failures would be less frequent.
- Spare parts would be more readily available compared to older models.
The disadvantages of choosing a new ATV are basically related to cost. A used version of a similar model of ATV will be considerably less expensive in the used ATV market.
If you plan on making full use of the ATV on a regular basis, the advantages of opting for a new unit makes practical and economic sense. However, if you want to purchase an ATV solely for recreational use a handful of times during the year — or if you merely want to see if ATV riding is something you and your family will enjoy — a used model would be best.
Account for the ATV “Learning Curve”
Excluding purchases for a specific and proven utilitarian purpose, a first-time ATV purchase will usually be accompanied by a learning curve and a period of acclimation to the machine and ATV riding in general.
New buyers often fail to take this into account. Instead, they opt for what they believe to be their “ideal” machine. This is more often than not based on their aspirations for the “ATV lifestyle.”
It is not unusual for a first-time ATV buyer to purchase a unit that is not the best for them as operators or fulfill the purpose they wanted. This is why buying the most expensive ATV that you can afford, the newest, or the most powerful, is not always a good idea.
Keeping your options open should be the rule of thumb for a first-time ATV purchase. Avoid locking yourself down in terms of functionality. Choose a category of ATV at a price range that will allow you to become familiar with ATV-ing and safe ATV operation comfortably.
It is for this reason that a first-time ATV buyer might want to consider a utility ATV with an automatic transmission over a sports model with a manual transmission, for instance.
As you become more experienced with riding ATVs, as you develop practical experience riding and maintaining them, you may discover that your original intention to own and operate one has changed.
By that time, you will be more knowledgeable about what type and model of ATV you need. This will put you in a better position to make an informed purchase and make selecting a higher-priced or particular ATV model a wiser choice.
Pros and Cons of Sport ATVs
Pros of Sport ATVs
- Lighter in weight compared to utility ATVs.
- Faster and more responsive.
- Easier to transport to riding locations.
- Ideal for racing and other competitive events.
- Design and aesthetics add a “cool factor.”
- Enhanced suspensions for safe high-speed turns, bumps, and jumping.
- Generally less expensive than utility ATVs.
Cons of Sport ATVs
- Lack of storage and payload space.
- Lower ground clearance compared to utility ATVs.
- Lower torque makes them inadequate for towing.
- The same enhanced suspension that offers excellent handling can make for an uncomfortable bumpy ride.
- In most cases, it requires a manual transmission to get the most out of the vehicle.
Pros and Cons of Utility ATVs
Pros of Utility ATVs
- Most can be used for practical as well as recreational purposes.
- Higher ground clearance makes them a better option for true off-roading.
- Allow you to carry gear and other payloads.
- Suspension allows for a more comfortable ride.
- Strong torque makes them well-suited for hauling and towing.
- It can be used in a wide variety of work-specific tasks.
Cons of Utility ATVs
- Not as fast as sport ATVs.
- The added weight makes them more of a challenge to transport to riding locations.
- Their suspension is not optimal for high-speed turning or jumping.
- Designs lack the “flash” of sport ATVs.
- Generally more expensive than sport ATVs.
The Final Rundown
The decision to purchase an ATV is discretionary when for recreational purposes. When for business and operational applications, it can be seen as a capital investment for your business.
In either case, the determining factor for choosing one will be how you intend to use the ATV.
If payload, torque, ground clearance, and off-road capabilities are essential, the utility ATV is the best bet. If speed and responsiveness are what you seek and you have no intention of using your ATV for any utilitarian purpose or subject it to intensely rough terrain, the sport ATV makes a sound choice.