The Complete Guide to Selecting the Best UTVs 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. Some people suddenly found themselves with a surplus of time. Those with the means that were previously too busy suddenly became anxious consumers. The combined effects of this are that smart businesses prepared for the worst case, a drastic decline in demand, yet the reality that came to be was the opposite. Inventory held constant similar to those before the pandemic, but demand shot up dramatically, while the logistics and dealers were understaffed. Those who have been in the business for 20+ years have said they’ve never seen anything like it.
Table of Contents
For those seeking the best Side-by-Side (SxS) or UTV of 2021, this ultimate guide has the best of best for 2021. In this guide to the best UTVs for 2021, we’ll dive into how the market typically evolves, explore each segment, what it offers, and then highlight what is new for the Model Year 2021 (MY21). If you’re researching older models, or you need a primer on some of the basic definitions, you can check out my definitive guide to selecting the best UTVs of 2019 or what is a UTV.
Nature of change in the market
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’s lineup for ’21 loses two models. The Stampede and Havoc cede their territory to the Prowler. This may have been a case where they were too similar (even I had a hard time telling them apart). The Prowler and Wildcat XX carry on mostly unchanged, save some new colors. The Wildcat sees a $1,100 price increase but includes Fox 2.5 Podium QS3 shocks with bottom-out control. Power is a competitive 130 HP for a non-turbo engine, and all other aspects of the machine are competitive in today’s market.
CAN-AM offers by far the most variants of their three nameplates. Their alphabet soup is the murkiest here with their SxS’s, but once you learn to see the Matrix, it does start to make some sense, and you’ll appreciate the plethora of choices. They offer 24 different Defenders for utility, seven Commanders for recreation, and 25 Mavericks in the performance segment. The Commanders see the least change of the three while the Defenders bring a few more variants to expand the long-bed Pro models and the 6×6. Usually pretty spartan in the past, the Pro and 6×6 models can be had with some of the more comfortable trim levels these days. For example, a Defender Pro can now be had in Limited trim with a full cab. Circling back to performance, their grip on the power crown has tightened even more now that the Turbo RR models are on the loose with their 195 horsepower. Many of the Maverick X3 models are new-but-not-entirely, in that CAN-AM has updated the versions and trim levels by rearranging many models into new combinations of acronyms and features. While most of it has existed before this year, we now have unique combinations of familiar stuff. One new thing is the Smart Lok differential technology.
While the two entry-level X3 models will save some coin, the rest of the lineup sees either no change or small increases in price. All Defender models see slight price increases as well.
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.
Honda holds steadier than CAN-AM, sticking to their two nameplates. The Pioneer family does welcome a new addition that should fit very nicely between existing relatives. The Pioneer 520 retains the convenient midsize dimensions but packs a bit more power than the baby 500, but most notably a real box type bed instead of the 500’s flat tubular rack. Higher up in the 1000cc territory, both the three and five-seat Limited Editions save $1,100 for the five-seater and $1,500 for the three-seater while all others see nominal price increases. In the Talon performance lineup, the narrower, trail-oriented X model adds a four-seater, and both the two-up and 4-up can be had with Fox’s Live Valve suspension.
It reads inputs through the suspension and other onboard sensors to adapt the suspension to what you’re doing at the moment. Taking a sweeping left-hand turn at speed? Live Valve will detect that and stiffen up the right (outer) side to reduce body roll. Read more about Fox’s Live Valve system here.
Kawasaki’s extensive Mule lineup carries on, just as it’s famous for, as mostly unchanged. Prices do sneak up by $100-$200 or so across the board, but other than that, “it ain’t broke,” so they didn’t have to fix it. The recreational Teryx lineup loses the unique grey camo color, but all else remains. The sizable sealed storage area behind the seats of the 2-seater, nearly at the feet of where the rear seats would be if they were there, is a welcome addition. The biggest news from Kawi technically comes from last year, with the addition of the mighty KRX 1000 performance model. This one has all the right stuff to compete in the performance category, big suspension, bead lock wheels, aggressive tires, etc. In true Kawasaki fashion, they don’t mention horsepower, but they do brag about torque! The KRX is also geared a bit lower than most performance SxS’s, an appropriate competitor for the KRX would be the rock crawlers from Polaris and CAN-AM.
Polaris has caused a bit of confusion in the utility segment this past year by offering two different 1000 cc Rangers. Here’s the difference: The “Ranger 1000” is a single overhead cam (SOHC) engine, while the “Ranger XP 1000” is a dual overhead cam (DOHC) engine. The SOHC engine is slightly less powerful, but the power it makes is available earlier in the RPM range; it is more diesel-like. The non-XP is the workhorse. True to form, the XP is the more powerful, higher-revving sibling and is the more playful of the two. That playfulness does not come at the expense of its ability to work through; it is still a Ranger through and through. Engines aside, the trim levels differ slightly. If it is bells & whistles you’re after, then the XP is for you. From cup holders designed for everyone’s favorite abominable-snowman-named tumblers up to sound systems and their GPS navigation known as Ride Command, Polaris has something for you. The smaller Rangers carry on mostly unchanged.
The recreational General range stands fast at straightforward four versions, regular and XP, 2 or 4 seats. Prices drop slightly or see no change aside from the new use of the XP initials that do increase. This happy medium between the Ranger and RZR provides a more comfortable cabin and supports all of Polaris’ advanced options and accessories. Designed for recreation, no matter how long it lasts, seats are more supportive and comfortable without engulfing or squeezing as RZR seats would
The RZR lineup for 2021 gets slightly simplified and less alphabet soupy, a welcome break these days. Prices even hold steady or drop slightly as well. Each model is more clearly distinguished from the Trail to the wider Trail S, through the four higher performance XP and Turbo and Turbo S models, culminating with the new for 2020 RZR Pro XP. Each of these four is also available in 4 seat versions as well. Aside from these, two terrain specific special editions are offered as well, the Trails & Rocks, designed for technical terrain including rock crawling and the mud-focused High Lifter.
Yamaha’s utilitarian Viking streamlines its trim levels with the 3-seater now matching the 6-seater plus a base model 3-up for a total of 7 choices, plus one from last time around. EPS, EPS Camo, or Ranch Edition covers all the bases for the Viking. All recreation and performance models get the added XT-R trim level beginning in MY20 and carrying on in MY21 with colors updated from a matte bronze to a matte “covert green” that goes very well with the matte black accent panels and graphics and wheels that retain the bronze. Other included items are larger tires and a winch, and a digital screen in the dash.
The recreational Wolverine gets a whole new model, called the RMAX, available in 2-up or 4-up configurations. I have had the chance to sit in an RMAX 1000 and its XT-R brother. Both clearly show that Yamaha hasn’t wasted any time studying their competition, and they’re good at it. Possibly the most exciting bit here is the new engine. The RMAX gets a new 1000cc engine while the older Wolverine X2 and X4 have their 850. It is a comfortable place to sit for long days playing while retaining some essential working functions, like the dump bed, even if in slightly smaller dimensions than the workhorse Viking.
Now onto the “pure-sport” category, as Yamaha calls it. The trims for the YXZ 1000 R see no change other than the addition of the XT-R. The YXZ is the only thing not under Honda’s wings that offer a geared transmission that is shiftable by hand-operated paddles. There is only a $100 increase over the last year or two for the SE trims while the rest don’t change at all, and the XT-R tops out at $21,799. This machine earns its title as a pure sport with its 1000cc engine, mounted at an angle to lower the center of gravity for better cornering at speed. Yamaha even offers a genuine turbo kit for it. New for 2021 is Fox2.5 Podium RC2 shocks, bringing full adjustability and 16.2” of travel up front and 17” in the rear. The sharp body lines of the YXZ come to a point low in the front and give excellent forward visibility.
Best UTVs of 2021: Value, Utility, Recreation, Overall Performance
Best UTV for the Money – CAN-AM Commander (most machine for least price)
The CAN-AM Commander is one of the original SxS’s on the market; it was tailor-made to take on all comers before the market was split into the three parts we know today. As CAN-AM’s first SxS, it had to do everything well enough to earn its keep in an ever more crowded market. With a base price holding steady at $11,199, it’s a full-size machine at a mid-size price. There are others at lower prices, such as Kawasaki’s Mule SX, 4000, or 4010, but none of those deliver what the Commander does. Storage/cargo capacity in the form of the unique dual-level bed, suspension with up to 10” of travel, 71 hp from an 800cc V-twin, premium components like braided stainless steel brake lines that still fit right in today are all standard on the Commander. Even adding power steering, you’re still well within value territory. The next closest competitors to the Commander are priced at least $2,000 (or more) higher and still aren’t quite well equipped. 2019’s best overall winner just swaps one crown for another this year.
Best Utility UTV – CAN-AM Defender (Pro & 6×6)
While not having quite as many trim levels or special editions as Polaris, the CAN-AM Defender offers greater hardware choice than its chief competitor, the Ranger. This year makes available the long bed Pro model as well as 6×6 options as well. No matter what you’re hauling, from hunting to agriculture to heavy industry, there is a Defender that can get it done. With the introduction of the Pro and 6×6, CAN-AM claims the top spots in towing, up to 3,000 lbs and payload capacity of 1,700 lbs, and a cargo box capacity of 1,000 lbs. Add to that a 1000cc, 82 hp v-twin engine driving six wheels, and there is little that can’t be done. The suspension is up to the task and soaks up curb sized bumps without batting an eye. The Defenders also stand out for their interior’s usefulness, with ample storage and seats that fold up individually to allow for even more storage. CAN-AM has been studying all of its competition in this segment, and it shows. For those in which the vehicle is the means, not always the end, The Defender Pro and 6×6 have earned their place at the top of the list.
Best Family UTV and Recreation UTV – Yamaha RMAX, followed by Honda Pioneer -4 or -5
Honda makes a strong case for the best recreational SxS, with its fold-away rear seats and a list of other features that make it well suited to a wider variety of less intense uses (check out our test ride and review of the Honda Pioneer 1000 EPS). However, the Yamaha Wolverine X4 took the honors for best recreation/family SxS in 2019. They did so with an assortment of design ideas aimed at improving fit & finish, and handling of the machine, ensuring that it will still be at its best even when saddled with the whole family’s weight. This year, Yamaha has one-upped themselves with the new Wolverine RMAX 4. This entirely new model makes extensive use of lessons learned by studying the competition’s latest and greatest. Ergonomics in the RMAX are second to none. All touchpoints are textured or rubberized for better grip and feel; it even has knee pads! All trims of the RMAX have many slots to add accessory switches and even a couple of spots that look like they could accommodate a couple of speakers. Even with my just below average stature and the adjustable seat pushed back, I can still reach all the controls. The modern body lines and lighting of the RMAX give it a fresh and aggressive look that is sure to excite. Visibility is good at all angles, too; only a slight lean outward gives you a clear view of the tire for precise line selection on technical terrain. The RMAX steals the show just with the sheer amount of study that seems to have gone into it; this is arguably the most distilled version of all the lessons learned in the SxS world to date.
Best Overall Side-by-Side UTV – CAN-AM Maverick X3 any Turbo RR
While Polaris made great strides this year, taking top honors in two major categories, they faced stiffer competition. Their mighty RZR Pro XP is genuinely an impressive machine, especially when equipped with their Dynamix suspension system (essentially a further modified version of the Fox Live Valve system). It is a whole new chassis with a beefed-up drivetrain made to handle the heavy modification rigors, such as larger wheels and tires, and putting said mods to use. Everything about this machine, all the way down to the noticeably stronger clunking sound made when it is put into forwarding gear, says that it means business. Looking at specs from its main competitor, though, it is bested in two key aspects, power and width. While the differences are not too great, we are talking about the two most important measures of this sort of machine. The RZR Pro XP puts its 184 horsepower down through a 64” width.
The CAN-AM Maverick X3, specifically the “X RS Turbo RR,” packs their latest engine, that’s the “RR” part, producing 195 horsepower, and apply that to the earth through a 72” wide suspension system. Yep, a full 6 feet wide. There is also an available “Smart-Shox” suspension system to give Polaris’ Dynamix a run for its money. Another leap in innovation is the “Smart-Lok” system, which completely changes how the front differential is locked while in motion. This system is the goldilocks of lockers, as opposed to the manual/push-button systems that are 100% on or off with no in-between, and the opposing auto-locking systems that have a reputation for blindly doing whatever they want to do, working well or not, with little to no feedback or input to the rider. With Smart-Lok, you tell it what terrain you are in by using simple toggle switches. The system reads its sensor inputs and applies a flexible locking level as needed to maximize the driving experience. Racers from Baja to Dakar all sing the praises of the Smart-Lok system. As for myself, I am on a never-ending quest for the most engaging driving/riding experience and never shy away from another control or button to connect me to the experience. Having a smart locking system is the best of both worlds; I can tell it what to do or leave it to work its magic. Given this combination of features, The nod goes back to CAN-AM for the top performance SxS of 2021.
As you can see, we’ve had a fair share of new products this year, a welcome distraction from current events. It has been an incredibly eventful year for CAN-AM as they get the nods in value, utility, and performance. I’m anticipating that there will be a bit of a wait before their next round of updates, but hopefully, I’m wrong about that.
Polaris is still no slouch, keeping hot on the trail of CAN-AM. Polaris is the only one to offer anywhere near as many choices. The ball is in their court now, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I see the potential for some significant innovations. They certainly have the capability for it, so I will be anxious to know how they plan to counter their primary rival. A bit more power never hurts. Maybe they’ll widen the Pro XP a little bit or perhaps refresh the General’s bodywork. Whatever they do, I’m looking forward to it.
Yamaha is asserting their presence this year with the new recreation model and by holding the line with arguably the most proper pure-sport SxS out there. They are the ones who use the phrase “pure-sport” well. Their reputation for well-thought-out products precedes them, and I look forward to seeing how else they will apply new tech to other products in the hopefully-nearer future.
In summation, there is more than ever to choose from these days; the industry as a whole continues to outdo itself. There are 188 choices, to be exact, and although the average price has gone up a bit to $17,946, we’re getting more than ever before for the money. SxS’s continue to be, pound-for-pound, some of the highest performing vehicles on the planet. States that are blessed with public lands that allow off-road vehicle traffic are even accommodating them with license plates to allow for public use.
When navigating these ever-expanding marketplaces, as always, it comes down to self-awareness and a bit of due diligence on the part of us consumers. Know what you want to do with a new machine, narrow it down to a few, and then talk to your local experts to make the final decision. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t say this; please bear with us these unusual times as inventories and logistics continue to be strained while demand is either normal or above average. 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 luck hunting and happy riding!
Check out more helpful UTV guides and articles:
- What is a UTV? Your Ultimate Primer
- The Ultimate Guide to Buying an ATV or UTV
- Best UTV and ATV Accessories (2020)
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