The Complete Guide to Selecting the Best ATVs of 2021
Written by Preston V. B.
For most of the world, 2020 proved to be a year unlike any other. Unpredictable events impacted many industries, and the powersports industry was no exception. Many people found themselves with a surplus of time and traditional activities were limited due to state and local restrictions. Suddenly there was a tidal wave of new consumers, many of them first-time buyers, who were interested in ATVs. Most dealerships hadn’t anticipated this type of demand, and as consumers flooded into stores, inventory logistics were challenged plus dealers were understaffed to handle the unforeseen foot traffic. Those who have been in the business for more than 20 years have said they’ve never seen anything like it.
Table of Contents
For those seeking the best All-Terrain-Vehicle (ATV) of 2021, you’re in luck. This complete guide to selecting the best ATV of 2021 is a sequel to my in-depth coverage of the market in 2019. In this piece, I’ll give a more distilled version of the past couple of years to highlight the exciting evolutions that the Model Year 2021 (MY21) brings us. If you need a primer on some of the basic definitions, you can check out what is an ATV.
How the market has changed
In general, manufacturers will change as little as possible from one year to the next, going for things that have a significant visual effect but minimal impacts on their manufacturing processes, like changing colors. With this, they’re still forming the same body panels; they just swap out the raw materials’ color. Other methods include mixing and matching features or adding a single new feature at a time. Then, every few years, they’ll surprise everyone by completely redesigning an existing product or even launching something completely new. All of this is very carefully strategized, like a secretive game of chess. These days, the product makeovers have been getting more interesting as consumers get savvier and manufacturers pay more attention.
What the top brands are doing in 2021
Arctic Cat, now also known as Tracker Off-Road when found in Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s, remains a strong contender in value, namely, initial cost. While official service centers may be fewer and further between, the Arctic Cat name retains a devout following of fans who remain satisfied with the product.
CAN-AM, the ground-pounding incarnation of Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), continues to blitz the market with its innovation and cutting-edge performance. Their off-road products come to us from just south of the border in Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, but despite that are only 30 minutes away from my childhood home in El Paso, TX. They are the ones who skimp on nothing, using premium quality parts, even by automotive standards, in all of their off-road vehicles. While some of their favorite tech can seem a bit quirky, like their ATV frame and rear suspension designs, they certainly perform well on the global stage.
Honda, no surprise here, continues to be a stalwart of reliability. Just as stated last time around, they seem a bit behind the curve on technological advancements, even though they have made great strides in the past few years. Honda is always a safe bet. If you don’t plan on going too crazy with modifications and just want it to do what it says on the box for years to come, then Honda is worth a look. All of American Honda’s off-road products hail from Timmonsville, SC.
Kawasaki’s ATVs are a pretty straightforward bunch. The whole line-up consists of two models, both named Brute Force. In the case of the larger 750, it is the most appropriate name. They have long had a reputation as being quite powerful among the Japanese makers while the rest of the machine is relatively simple. Kawasaki also stands out as a favorite manufacturer for shops to deal with from a parts and service perspective; I’m aware of several instances where they have been very accommodating and supportive of their customers, especially when dealing with warranty claims.
Polaris, while worthy of mention for sheer toughness and ability to withstand the wear and tear, they keep different priorities at the top of their list. While participating in their training program for dealership staff, I learned directly from the source what their intended targets are. Comfort, ease-of-use, and they do them very well. As previously stated, they continue to have the biggest suspensions and best seats in the ATV game. Also, their unique On-Demand All-Wheel-Drive system continues to be a centerpiece of their design. Hailing from Roseau, MN, Polaris continues to deliver freedom across America and around the globe. Uncle Sam is even a fan, choosing them to roam around the world.
Suzuki remains a contender in the industry with their line of Kind Quad ATV’s. Their greatest strength is consistency over time; they have made continuous and occasionally subtle improvements over time. They call their way onto what works, keeping the good stuff and tweaking the rest. All assembled with Rome, GA. The two larger King Quads have been keeping their owners happy since 2005. One benefit to this is that there tend to be more common parts that stay in production longer.
Yamaha continues to impress in two ways, first design quality, and secondly, by being the only manufacturer of honest-to-goodness sport quads. The design quality is especially evident in their full-size Grizzly’s chassis and brakes. Also, their engines are just as fine as the musical instruments carrying the same name. Any way you look at it, they know how to make a quality product that meets all modern expectations without forgetting what made it famous in the first place. Quality, balance, and performance, their products are well rounded and always satisfying. Yamaha also remains the last to endure in the pure-sport segment with not one but two different models, one of which is highly successful in racing. Dealership colleagues have even heard Yamaha reps speak of a resurgence of sport models coming out of the west coast. All of Yamaha’s quads, utility, and sport are all assembled in Newman, GA.
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Best ATVs of 2021: Value, Utility, Recreation, Overall Performance
Best Kids ATV – Arctic Cat Alterra 300
The Best ATV for (adult / 16+) Beginners in 2019 was the Arctic Cat Alterra 300. It remains a contender in the beginner / light use category, and for ’21, it gets an attractive new color called Earth Blue and a nominal price increase of $100, to $4,399. More advanced or demanding riders favoring the kitty will have to take another step up from ’19 as the 500 is no longer available. Still, the 570 remains, which brings Electronic Power Steering (EPS) as a standard kit as well as all the rest of what should be standard on a modern mid to full-size ATV, Selectable 4×4, Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI), and Independent Rear Suspension (IRS). As of this writing, 2021 pricing for the 570 has yet to be published; however, in ’19, it started at $6,799.
In this category, alternatives are Kawasaki’s Brute Force 300 and, despite being a bit smaller, Honda’s Recon. All of these are similarly equipped and priced within $100 of each other.
Best ATV for the Money – Polaris Sportsman 450 and 570
For the Best Value ATV, the CAN-AM Outlander 450 loses some ground in the form of a $300 price increase to $6,299. The 570 is only $700 away, an upgrade that brings more power being the first in the lineup to get the V-twin engine, making for noticeably smoother operation. From there, the other benefits of these machines carry on, premium components, and simple controls, tons of higher trim options and accessories, etc. Colors are also updated for ‘21 to Tundra Green and a Granite Gray with contrasting blue touches. Higher trims get the metallic finish colors as well. CAN-AM also provides the most variants of any manufacturer for their 450-570 models at 14, including a second seat in tandem (2-up) and a 6×6 where the rear rack is replaced with an expanded cargo bed/box.
The biggest news in this category comes from the new winner this year, Polaris.
They have completely overhauled their Sportsman 450 and 570 models, applying lessons learned from the larger Sportsman & XP models. The new middleweights look thoroughly refreshed and ready to take on what lies ahead. My favorite of the updates is finally relocating the battery from an exposed position low in the front of the frame to a proper elevated position just under the handlebars. Polaris has given us a long-overdue reboot of the models that finally get these machines caught up with the times. Pricing for the Polaris 450 starts at only $100 more, at $6,399 than the CAN-AM 450 for a fresh new design, the 570 pricing begins at the same point as its main Canadian competitor at $6,999. Of course, Polaris has you covered at various price points if you prefer more features or accessory packages.
Other noteworthy machines in the value category include:
Yamaha’s Kodiak, available in 450cc or 700cc versions and also holding onto their IRS and EFI. The base model forgoes EPS, preserving value at $6,199, but the higher trims bring it back for a price increase.
Suzuki brings their King Quad 400’s which get their jobs done but seem to be a bit behind technologically speaking, still using solid rear axles and air cooling. In a category where some others have evolved past that.
Kawasaki only has its Brute Force 300, which is by no means a bad product, but it can’t compete as it also lags in the tech and features department, similar to Suzuki’s offerings.
Honda has a lot to offer in the middle and beginning of its range. The Recon is almost, but legally not, a youth ATV and the next step up is the Rancher with eight trim levels and pricing from $5,499 for a base 4×2 up to $8,199 for a fully loaded 4×4. Someone is bound to find one of them that fits the bill. It just depends on what features you need or could do without.
Best All-Around ATV – Yamaha Grizzly 700 EPS
The Best All-Around ATV honor remains with Yamaha for 2021. Competition is just as tight as ever, as usual, between their Grizzly 700 EPS and Suzuki’s King Quad 750AXi. These long-time competitors are the genesis of the sport-utility category, now more commonly referred to as “recreation-utility,” which serves as the entry into the modern high-performance category that I’ll get to shortly. Since they offer proper pure-sport quads, Yamaha refers to their Grizzly as “utility” only, despite its natural athletic ability. The lineup for this (coming) year maintains the same simple layout with the fourth trim level added in the 2020 base model, RealTree Edge camouflage version, the SE, and the new top trim, each offering their colors and adding options one-by-one until you arrive at the new XT-R with its special color, larger wheels and tires, and winch as standard. This year’s unique colors are the SE’s Copperhead Orange, and the XT-R’s scheme keeps the matte black accents and swaps 2020’s Titanium Bronze for a Covert Green all XT-R trims, in ATV’s and Side-by-Sides (SxS’s) sport matching liveries.
Pricing sees a small increase of $100, starting at $9,999 with a relatively modest $10,999 for the factory dressed XT-R. That $1,000 difference from the base to the top-trim model is one of the smallest differences in the industry. To buy the wheels, tires, and winch on the aftermarket would easily exceed, if not double, that price difference. The brakes on the Yamaha are one of my favorite systems, fully hydraulic with separate front and rear systems, as the quad-hooning gods intended. The right foot pedal for the rear brakes operates a simple mechanical link to the master cylinder on the left handlebar. This sort of setup eliminates the need for parts that require adjustment being buried in the nether-regions of the machine and subjected to the elements that inevitably make said adjustments harder to perform.
The King Quad brings nine versions to the party for each of the two engines. It incorporates various combinations of power steering, camo, a “rugged package” set of pre-installed accessories, and SE and SE+ trim levels featuring upgraded aluminum wheels and special colors. One benefit to Suzuki is that both the 500 and 750 King Quads share the same platform and trim levels instead of Yamaha, which separates their smaller engine from their Kodiak, which can be had as a more value-oriented model. Pricing for the Suzuki only creeps up by $100 this year for the base 500, to $7,599 and $200 for the base 750 to $8,999. Colors carry over from 2020 with base Flame Red and Terra Green with higher trims adding white, and Metallic Matte Rocky Gray & Metallic Matte Colorado Bronze topping off the range. The most conspicuous change for 2021 is that Power Steering models and above get updated front and rear racks with composite/plastic surfaces. Suzuki’s website does not yet show 2021 information for the rugged package models at this time.
Kawasaki’s Brute Force 750 lives up to its name but carries on mostly unchanged for 2021. The new fragmented gray camo color is cool, though, and it can be had on most of Kawi’s off-road products, even some dual-sport bikes. While also certainly not a bad product, just as the 300, Kawasaki quads have long had a reputation as being a bit less refined than the competition. For example, when everyone else has moved on to electronic push-buttons or even automatically locking front differentials, Kawasaki still uses a mechanical lever on the handlebar that must be held for the duration of the desired locking. This is undoubtedly a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Best Performance ATV – Polaris Scrambler & Sportsman
My favorite category for the past few years is performance 2019’s Best Performance ATV winner was the CAN-AM Renegade 1000R, namely in X XC trim to be most specific. Their out-of-the-box desert racer makes several common aftermarket additions standard such as fully adjustable Fox shocks, beadlock wheels, and top tier tires from ITP. CAN-AM still retains the horsepower crown after their last bump up to 91 horsepower.
Yet, as I anticipated in 2019, Polaris quickly countered, although they did take a different approach, more on that in a few. The ‘Gade, in particular, took the crown in ’19 for having all the same muscle and sinew but with a lighter, rackless body, weighing in at 628 lbs for the base 570, 710 lbs for the X XC 1000R, and 991 lbs for the big X MR 1000R. These are as opposed to 704 lbs, 826 lbs, and 1,014 lbs for the Outlander in the same trims. For CAN-AM fans that wish to keep their racks, hitch mount, etc., the Outlander is the quad for you. The Renegade is available in six variants with three engines; the Outlander offers 39, with five engine choices. Eight of those with the 1000R.
To interpret CAN-AM’s alphabet soup, the “X” part denotes high-performance models. Whichever letters follow specify which terrain is it suited for, XC standing for cross-country, MR representing mud, and the newest addition, seen only in SxS’s, for the time being, is RC for Rock Crawling. As for engines, the “R” in 1000R represents the upgraded, second-gen. Engine tuning is now standard for the engine. The SxS Turbo engines have recently gained a second R for the most powerful versions.
Polaris, who is usually no slouch in the power department at only one or two ponies behind CAN-AM, which is nothing that a mod or two can’t fix, really shines in the suspension game. Polaris is usually ahead of everyone else in terms of ground clearance and suspension travel. They even design the underbellies of their quads to present as little contact as possible to what passes underneath. The geometry almost begins to mimic a boat’s hull, rising towards the front and rear, not to snag anything. Also, the suspension arms are arched to allow more headroom for obstacles. To get to the good stuff for ’20 and ’21, Polaris has created delightful monsters in the form of their XP 1000 S quads. Mimicking the terminology of their SxS’s, the S denotes larger suspension. Available in either the traditional Sportsman or cut-down Scrambler bodies, the XP 1000 S brings truly next level numbers, with a 55” wide stance, 14.5” of ground clearance, with 11.6”/12.5” (Sportsman/Scrambler) of travel up front and 14” of travel in the rear, all courtesy of some big Walker Evans shocks. Every one of these numbers is two to three whole inches or more above the next best thing. Having tried the Sportsman XP 1000 S over the same course as a solid sample of the rest of the off-road market, I can confidently say that these things out-handle the rest of the ATV market and about half of the SxS market too.
While excited about it, I’ll admit that I thought it a bit odd when I first heard about it and some of the design ideas that went into it, my main concern was weight and balance. At 970 lbs for the Sportsman and 881 lbs for the Scrambler both with a set height of 37” as opposed to about 34” for the non-S models. My concerns were all for naught as I threw a leg over it; the added stability won the day. The quad handled just as well as I hoped, the tail will kick out sideways, it will still wheelie over crests, and any airtime concludes with a plush landing, even at imperfect angles. Those who use these things for their designed purpose will want to adjust the shocks a bit, but that ability is built into them.
For all this, the Performance crown has changed hands for this year! Polaris has taken an all-new path to inject some overdue innovation into this flagship market segment. As one who favors quads, I am glad to see new stuff happening and look forward to what will come next.
In conclusion, we’ve had a fair bit of new product this year, a welcome distraction from current events. CAN-AM has done the second most work. On the whole, most of the product range gets updates in mechanical features, colors, even both in some cases. The new front locker, the Visco 4Lok, for the X MR quads adds a bit of manual controllability that has been missing until now, hopefully, that finds its way into more models.
Yamaha and Honda are all hanging in there with still-fresh products that received slight updates, mostly in terms of colors.
Arctic Cat, Kawasaki, and Suzuki carry on almost unchanged save for colors on some models. While the King Quad 500 & 750 are doing plenty well enough, but everything else from these makers appears virtually to be intentionally behind. One would think that Kawasaki’s Brute Force 750 should be getting updates any minute now, as I can’t remember the last time it got anything beyond a unique color. Given that it has the biggest engine of the Japanese make with a V-twin, the potential is there, and their fans would welcome it.
There is plenty to choose from these days, 144 choices to be exact, and although the average price has gone up a bit to $9,557, we’re getting more than ever before for the money. While there has been innovation over the years, I’m surprised that quads haven’t evolved into roadworthy vehicles similar to dual-sport or adventure motorcycles as it doesn’t take much to get them able to pass state inspections in many places. Some locales are becoming more accommodating, and aftermarket parts companies offer kits to fit the necessary signaling devices.
As always, it comes down to self-awareness and a bit of due diligence on the part of us consumers. Figure out what you want to do with a new quad, narrow it down to a few and then talk to your local gurus to make the final decision. There is a lot out there, even for industry professionals, so help us get pointed in the direction you want to go, and we’ll take you up that mountain. Good hunting, and happy riding!
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