How to Choose the Right ATV – What You Get For The Price

ATVs are very popular investments for both thrill seekers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Whether you are looking to invest in one for the pure joy of exploring the outdoors, enjoying mother nature and it’s scenery, or just simply catching some speed, there’s an ATV that’s just right for you.

On the other hand, you might be looking to purchase one because using mules as a source of labor is a bit of a thing of the past and your thinking a utility ATV may better suit your needs. No need to worry, I’m sure you’ll find useful information in this post to help you pick the right ATV for you as well.

Many outdoor enthusiasts are drawn to four wheelers, as opposed to two wheelers, such as dirt bikes, because you can reasonably expect to jump on and get going within a very short period of time.  The learning curve is relatively short, but becoming a skilled rider is the hard part.

So which vehicle is right for you?  Well, that’s difficult to say.

Experience level, purpose of use, and budget (of course) play a big role in the type of ATV you end up purchasing.  I’m hoping that after you read through this [rather lengthy] post, you’ll have a much better understanding of the styles and features that are right for you.

Different Models for Different Experience Levels

Knowing which model ATV to choose from is half the battle. Some models are similar in purpose while others are completely different. There are 6 different models that are worth mentioning.

Youth Models ATV

kid next to his atv

At about 50% the size of an adult ATV, these youth models offer a great way to introduce your child to the sport of off-roading. With a much smaller engine and lighter parts, it will be difficult for your little one to catch any serious speed or get wildly out of control.

These vehicles usually come with engines between 50cc to 100cc, but can get slightly larger. Their power is limited with low torque settings, little to no suspension, and an automatic transmission for care-free shifting (some even have only one gear setting).

These ATVs are starter models and are best suited for those under 100 lbs but can vary by make and model.

If you’re concerned about picking the right ATV and want to play it safe, this is a great introductory off-road vehicle.

Entry Level ATV

This class is the next step up from the youth models. Meant for people who are over 100 lbs., this vehicle is larger in size but is still contained when it comes to power.

This entry level vehicle provides a great starting point for someone who has never ridden an ATV and wants to start with a machine that is much more tame and won’t throw any surprises.

First time buyers looking for entry-level ATV sales account for one quarter of all-terrain vehicles sold, finding the right fit and model should be easy and straightforward.

Utility ATV

utility atv

Utility ATVs are the most popular among avid hunters, campers and ranch and farm owners and are used in industries such as agriculture and ranching where hauling is a constant task.

These muscled up vehicles come with 4-wheel drive, larger engines and more torque since they are commonly used for rough terrains and hauling and towing heavy things. Engine sizes can range from 150cc to 800cc so choosing the right engine size is important.

One of the reasons for their large popularity is these vehicles are extremely versatile and can tow other ATVs out of deep mud using a winch, they can haul heavy loads when the right accessories are used and because of the power they have, they are also a lot of fun when not being put directly to work.

Keep in mind that the price tag on utility vehicles is directly related to the engine size so if you intend to transport heavy loads or if you require more torque, you’ll also need a bigger engine.

On the other hand, if your terrain is relatively flat and dry with little plans to haul heavy loads then a smaller engine would work well.

Sport ATV

sport atv

If you’re looking for frightening speed, acceleration and catching some air then a sport ATV would be right for you.

Being the second most popular four-wheeler, the sport ATV has a lighter frame, a powerful engine, and is always designed with performance in mind.

Because these vehicles reach higher speeds than their UTV cousins and are meant for higher jumps (and much rougher landings), they are much more suitable for modifications.

Sport ATVs have a much more responsive suspension system and can respond to jumps, bumps and turns with more ease. Though you’re less likely to add on winches and trailers to this vehicle, you’re more likely to spend your money on engine and suspension upgrades.

Two-Up ATV

Two up’s started appearing in the market place about 15 years ago and were first introduced by Canadian manufacturer Can-Am.

These vehicles typically showcase a longer wheelbase and a slightly elevated back seat. They are well liked for their extra stability and boosted power though those who purchase this vehicle rarely have intentions of carrying extra passengers, instead they seek the extra riding comfort and ability to launch larger boats, push more snow and navigate steeper slopes.

This extra comfort and longer wheelbase comes with a heftier price tag weighing about $1,000 more than its single passenger cousin.

Side by Side ATV

Side by sides offer the combined power and versatility of a UTV with a pick-up truck style seating arrangement.

These vehicles naturally offer many convenient features such as rollover protection, cover from the elements such as rain, snow and strong sun as well as seating up to six people, in addition to any extra cargo you may be hauling.

Conveniently, there is a large variety of designs and manufacturers to choose from and the engines come in different styles including gas, electric, diesel and electric-gas hybrids.

This vehicle usually comes with a bigger price tag due to the extra power and seating capability. As an example, the Polaris Ranger Crew 900-6 has a ground clearance of 29 cm, carries cargo racks and provides seating for up to 6 people, but comes equipped with a price tag starting at $18,399.

Engine Types

To keep engines from overheating they all need some form of cooling mechanism, the two major cooling systems are air cooled and liquid cooled. Each has their pros and cons and what you’ll find is that it boils down to personal preference.

Lets address both. 

Air Cooled

air cooled 2 stroke engine

Air cooled engines literally have fins that allow heat to escape and keep the engine cool, but when too much heat builds up in the engine it affects the performance of your ATV and if not addressed, can cause serious damage to the engine.

Many older ATVs carried an air cooled engine and there are many riders who stand behind the air cooled system.

In general it requires much less maintenance and there is less concern for components to go bad, however, it does require more monitoring.

If the fins become blocked or clogged due to mud, dirt or other debris then it won’t be able to breathe properly and it runs the chance of overheating. You’ll also notice that driving the ATV for excessive lengths of time at low speeds will have an impact on its output. You can truly feel the engine struggling beneath you.

But there are ways around this.

You can purchase cooling fans and oil coolers to keep the temperatures in check. I’ve even heard of people carrying cold water with them to keep the engine cooler.

In general, if you anticipate using your ATV to haul heavy cargo for long periods of time then an air cooled engine is not recommended since using heavy torque will cause the engine to run hot. Air cooled engines are recommended for higher speeds.

Liquid Cooled

Most manufacturers are now switching to liquid cooled engines as they are more consistent and predictable. These engines simply don’t require as much monitoring during your adventures but will need more care and maintenance throughout their life.

Because there are more components to a liquid cooled engine, they require a routine maintenance plan and replacement parts can become costly when you factor in installation costs.

If you intend to use your ATV under more demanding conditions, especially on hot days then a liquid cooled engine may be the right fit for you. As with an air cooled engine, you can also purchase temperature gauges to keep you aware of what the engine is doing.

Under both circumstances, if the engine is pinging, it’s TOO HOT!

Electronic Fuel Injection

Back in the day, carburetors were responsible for maintaining the perfect air-fuel ratio and for many years it did the job very well.

As computers continue to advance, the air-fuel mixture is now controlled electronically and injected directly into the cylinder to create the perfect combustion chamber.

Through the use of an in-tank fuel pump, the gasoline is moved from the fuel tank through the fuel line and into the filter and is constantly being monitored through the ECU (Engine Control Unit). Think of this as the brain of the engine.

Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) bring several benefits to your ATV including consistent power at any speed, easier starts in all weather conditions, auto adjusts to altitude and temperature changes and better fuel efficiency.

Engine Cylinders

The difference between the two is probably obvious, but the performance and output is different. Though there aren’t many stark differences, here are a couple of items to point out:

Single Cylinder vs Two Cylinder

Again, the difference here lies in preference.

In general single cylinder engines are very light, have fewer moving parts and have a healthy output. They will be noisier and vibrate more (similar to that of a diesel engine) but will be more carefree and require less maintenance.

The two-cylinder engine will output more power with the same engine displacement, is smoother and more quiet. With this engine you are sacrificing weight due to more parts. CCs on this engine can comfortably exceed 1000 vs. the single cylinder engines, which usually don’t exceed 700 ccs.

Transmission

The majority of all terrain vehicles offered in today’s marketplace are found with completely automatic transmissions. Much like driving a car, pressing the throttle will make the vehicle accelerate without having to worry about properly controlling the clutch.

ATV manufacturers are now turning to technology that is usually found in snowmobile transmissions because they are less susceptible to flood during heavy rains or when crossing streams and rivers. These multi-gear transmissions are heavier than other belt-drive systems but are preferred by many riders because of their reliability.

The manual transmissions on an ATV are similar to that of a car and can be found with 5 or 6 gears that get shifted using a completely manual clutch or an automatic clutch.

If you are looking for the most control then the manual transmission will give you the ability to adjust traction, speed and performance at any time.

In fact, if you’re looking for a high performance ATV, nearly all sport ATVs come standard with a manual transmission to give you the flexibility needed during races.

Drive Systems 

Most drive systems you will see available today are shaft drive due to their durability and reliability.

Chain drives, similar to those found on your bicycle require more maintenance as they can stretch, break, snap or simply collect more dirt and debris.

It can also be dangerous if the chain snaps as you are climbing a mountain or steep terrain. Not only that, but the sprockets can bend or snap causing slippage or grinding of the chain.

In any event, chains can still be found in some ATVs and require regular cleaning and tightening but as with anything else, the more you take care of them, the longer they will last.

If your ATV will be used for leisure purposes then a chain drive system should more than suffice.

Shaft drive systems, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly popular because they require less maintenance and are more reliable. Since they are housed, they aren’t exposed to the elements and don’t require constant cleaning. They don’t collect things such as branches, twigs, leaves and mud, and stretching, snapping and tightening of any components aren’t a constant concern either.

Suspension Systems

Suspensions are a major component to an ATV and impact the quality of your ride, if you are heavy into racing then the stiffness of your suspension will have a huge impact on your ability to compete.

The two major suspension systems are swingarm and independent and I’ll go over both systems below.

Swingarm

This is the main component of the rear suspension for most modern ATVs and is meant to absorb shock while traveling either on dirt roads or off road on rugged terrain.

The swingarm suspension comes in a few forms:

Swinging Fork – the most basic of all swingarms, the axle is held on one end while the other end pivots vertically

Cantilever – an extension of the swinging fork, however, the shocks are absorbed using a triangulated frame

Parallelogram Swingarm – this suspension neutralizes “squatting” or dipping at the rear of the ATV under heavy acceleration. This type of suspension keeps the center of gravity as close to the front of the vehicle as possible to prevent wheelies.

Independent

Usually referred to as IRS (Independent Rear Suspension), this system is usually found on most sport utility vehicles because it is more stable as each axle functions completely independent of the other.

The IRS system usually offers a smoother ride but looses some of its handling capabilities on the corners. Also, this system is not recommended if you will be transporting heavier loads.

Braking Systems

Breaking systems are commonly found in two forms – either drum brakes or disk brakes and although disk brakes are offered in newer vehicles, drum brakes are still found in many vehicles today.

Drum Brakes

Is a hollow, cylindrical shaped drum that uses brake pads that protrude from the center of the drum outwards to create friction for stopping a vehicle.

These brakes are usually placed on the rear braking system since most of the stopping power is generated by the front tires and allows for the rear tires to generate less heat.

In general, drum brakes provide more braking power than disk brakes and last longer with less maintenance than disk brakes.

Here are some advantages to consider:

  • Less expensive to produce
  • Less maintenance due to better corrosion resistance
  • Requires less input force such as hydraulic pressure
  • Lighter weight

Disk Brakes

This breaking system uses calipers to squeeze a pair of pads together against a disk to create friction and eventually stop a vehicle. It is what is used in most major vehicles today and the technology has been well developed over the last 100 years.

This braking system is more consistent, creates less friction heat than the drum break and is preferred by engineers and designers because it is less likely to cause brake-induced steering or jackknifing (not that ATVs are at risk of jackknifing but you get the point).

Disks are the most common form of brakes in the US and can vary in cost depending on the type of material used.

Disks are versatile, but not indestructible, and can be damaged in a few ways – scarring, cracking, warping or excessive rusting. With proper maintenance, disk brakes can last a long time and be effective for performance use.

Two Wheel Drive vs Four Wheel Drive

I realize it may be very self explanatory but with ATVs, 2 wheel drive vs 4 wheel drive could mean the difference between getting up a very rocky and steep terrain or not or crossing a powerful, rocky stream (or not).

In it’s simplest form, 2 wheel drive is the distribution of power from the engine to the front two wheels of your ATV. Most ATVs will come with this distribution and, in general, the traction received in the two front tires is enough to get around most environments.

But…

Under some circumstances, it’s not.

And that’s when 4 wheel drive comes into play. Often seen as 4X4, 4 wheel drive implies that the distribution of power coming from the engine will be received by all four tires.

This provides more traction since all four tires will pushing, or thrusting, the vehicle forward.

4 wheel drive is particularly helpful when you’re faced with a rugged, steep terrain and will help much more in getting through it.

It does have it’s cons though…

Most riders who have a 4X4 spend most of their time riding with it off, in other words they ride in 2wd mode. Not only does 4wd consume more gasoline, but it’s a bit tougher to steer and just doesn’t have the sporty feel to it.

But the main reason riders spend most of their time in 2wd mode is because of the “fun factor”. 4wd is great because its reliable, but riders feed off of the thrill of feeling the power underneath them.

Electronic Power Steering

Contrary to a car, electronic power steering is not standard. In fact, most ATVs don’t come with EPS and adding it on usually comes with a sticker price of around $1,000.

It may seem like a lot, but after a full day of riding, it won’t take as hard of a toll on your arms and shoulders as a 4 wheeler without EPS.

Winter Options

If you’re using your ATV during winter months, especially for working purposes, you might want to consider adding some winter options to your ATV.

Here are a few:

  • Snow plow
  • Winch
  • Tracks
  • Heated hand grips
  • Hand mitts
New vs Used – which should you choose?

Awesome, after all the reading and research you’ve done you’ve decided on a certain type of ATV and you know what kinds of bells and whistles you want on it.

Great.

But you know that ATVs are an expensive investment and if you buy a pre-owned ATV you might get a solid deal.

Well, how do you know if you’re really getting a “deal”? Quads are meant to be driven by a tougher rider, but how do you know if it’s normal wear and tear or something you should stay clear of?

Here is a quick checklist of items to inspect before signing on the dotted line:

  • Be weary of Craigslist – there are many scams to be had on Craigslist so ONLY BUY LOCAL.   Never purchase a bike unseen and never purchase from someone you have only communicated with via email. That’s a recipe for trouble
  • Check for rust – rust on an ATV is a very bad sign and usually indicates that damage has taken place. External parts on an ATV are coated with a paint or rust inhibitor so if you see rust, it’s an indication that there has been some kind of impact
  • Inspect the undercarriage – lift the quad so that it is standing vertically on its rear wheels, do you see any obvious damage? Do the tires rotate freely? Do you hear any shaking or rattling?
  • Take a peek at the airbox – lift the seat up and remove the air filter, what do you see? If you see signs of water, dirt, debris and other elements of nature then it’s not a good sign as its likely made its way into the engine.
  • How does the motor look – check the motor oil for unusual signs like burnt smell or dark oil color. What is the viscosity like? Is the oil a thick lubricant or is it thin and runny which could mean overheating of the engine
  • Do the test drive – after you’ve inspected everything you’ll want to take it for a spin. How does it sound? Do you hear anything rattling, shaking, grinding or sound unusually off? Does the engine respond quickly or is there a lag?
  • Have a mechanic inspect it – if you’re just not quite sure then you can always have a professional look at it. Its worth paying a bit upfront to save yourself potentially thousands on the back end
  • Trust your gut – if things don’t smell right, don’t go through with the deal. Make sure to notice the small things like contradictions, stutters or brushing off of questions. If the seller is trying to quickly get you to sign, it’s not a good sign!

Owning an ATV is an amazing investment if you’ve bought into a vehicle that suits your wants and needs. Of course they might change with time, but at least you’ll know what options are out there when you decide to pull the trigger!