What is a UTV? Your Ultimate Primer
Written by Preston V. B.
Table of Contents
For those new to the UTV market, information overload is a common hazard. As I have written previously in my last piece on the best UTVs of 2019, there are 145+ offerings to choose from across the 6 major manufacturers. The market is only growing this year, even in times when many other industries and businesses are suffering.
My local shop sold over 240 machines in May alone, and that was done after everybody involved anticipated a slowdown, and the sales staff was reduced to three salespeople. That’s not a typo, three salespeople, with the help of good management who didn’t hesitate to roll up their sleeves and hit the floor and made May of 2020 an all-time record month. I even saw a member of the corporate ownership team, over 40+ stores, grab a worksheet, and sit down at a table with customers. How would you like to buy a computer from Michael Dell himself?
Here, I aim to help make sense of the basics, providing a solid foundation of knowledge with which to navigate this year’s massive market. I’ll keep it fairly simple here, addressing four broader concepts. The first is an overview of what a UTV is these days from its origins to distinguishing features and the value they provide. The second are some key terms to be aware of when shopping and making a decision. Next is how much one should expect to pay for a new machine. Following that will be the top accessories for these machines, putting the icing on the cake to meet each customers’ aspirations for their new vehicle.
What is a UTV?
The UTV, or Utility Terrain Vehicle, is an evolution of the traditional ATV. Given what many have dedicated their ATV’s to and even begun pushing the limits of other vehicles to accomplish, manufacturers realized that an ATV, as much as I personally love them, just couldn’t measure up to developing demands of consumers. Born from utilitarian origins years ago, these machines have evolved into what we know today, even expanding into other more leisurely and even sporting pursuits. Modern UTV’s now almost universally, across manufacturers, come in three major flavors; utility, recreation, and performance or “sport.” The latter of these continue to push boundaries of performance.
The distinguishing features of a UTV come from their very nature, their architecture/design. The most apparent example of this is the seating arrangement. Having parallel, or side-by-side seating is the primary mark of these vehicles, so much so that it is coining an alternate name for the whole segment (more on that in a few paragraphs).
Behind that, both literally and figuratively, is the cargo space. All of these vehicles make use of at least some space behind the driver and passenger compartment as cargo space. Occasionally, that space is occupied to various extents by mechanical components such as snorkels or intercoolers, but archeological evidence proves that its original purpose was accommodating cargo.
Another benefit intrinsic to them is occupant protection; the nature of their design allows all occupants to be fully enveloped in protective steel tubing, known as a “Rollover Protective Structure” or “ROPS” for short while being securely strapped into supportive seating complete with head support.
Some pros and cons of their design are as follows. Their size and weight can make them a bit more difficult to accommodate and transport; thus usually a trailer is required to fully contain them (outside of a handful of more enlightened states who allow limited road use of these machines). They weigh more than twice as much as the biggest ATVs, reaching 1,500 to 2,000 pounds and up to 158” in length and from 50” to 72” in width.
Generally speaking, however, a side-by-side (SxS)’s center of gravity is lower even than my ATVs. Maybe I’ll get to write another piece about how hard It was to chase one down while riding an ATV… I say that to mean that a SxS is generally more stable than an ATV, even at speed and over more technical terrain. All of these add up to a SxS offering greater capability and versatility, higher capacities mean more can be added, and more can get done in terms of both utility and performance.
Pound for pound, these are the highest performing vehicles on the market. They provide more bang for the buck than just about anything, especially when speaking of full-size utility and performance/sport models. Sure, some used trucks or SUV’s can be had for the same or less money, but they will struggle to do what these can.
Key UTV Terms
Some important terms to understand when shopping are as follows. First is the very term itself; “UTV” and “SxS”, are essentially interchangeable. “UTV” can stand for a few different things, but all have the same effect. It serves as an easy spin-off of the 38-year-old concept of an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) while expressing their greater capabilities. Nowadays, to accommodate uses beyond the strictly utilitarian, the broader sounding term “Side-by-Side” abbreviated as “SxS” is becoming the go-to term. Referring to the common seating arrangement is proving to more effectively include the growing number of purposes for these machines. Even a few trade names are beginning to become genericized and used as common terms. Mule, which is actually a trade name belonging to Kawasaki as well as Ranger, belonging to Polaris, have been used as generic terms. Some of my foreign friends, from north of the Red River, or east of the Sabine have been heard using the word “buggy.” No matter the exact term used, nowadays, odds are they are referring to the same thing.
As for some technical terms, nerd warning, there are a few major features that one should understand before diving into the deep end of the market. The four biggest ones are Independent Rear Suspension (IRS), Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI), Electronic Power Steering (EPS), and Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). I chose these to discuss because they are not universal to all machines and can be deciding factors in which SxS one chooses. Here is a bit about what they do.
Independent Rear Suspension (IRS)
IRS allows each rear wheel to move through its suspension travel or stroke regardless of what the opposite wheel is doing. This makes for a smoother ride and a bump encountered by one wheel will not affect the other. It also allows for higher ground clearance, or more space underneath the machine, as well as greater vertical wheel travel, allowing it to overcome more and larger obstacles. A non-independent, or solid-axle system could be more durable and handle heavier loads, but does so at the cost of comfort and performance when not heavily loaded. Improvements in IRS systems over recent years have almost completely overcome non-IRS systems.
Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI)
EFI is another term/feature that should be universal by now, but still hasn’t quite reached 100% awareness yet. EFI makes operation of any engine easier and more efficient. For one, EFI systems can acknowledge input from their own sensors and automatically adjust their operation to adapt to even vast changes in altitude. In addition, there are many options available for digitally tuning an EFI system for higher performance. Generally speaking, EFI systems are just plain more efficient, and better than their predecessor, the carburetor. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of these systems, then crack open a beverage and watch this.
Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)
CVT’s are another almost, but not quite, universal system onboard a UTV. This subject is best summarized in this video. These systems make operation much easier by making shifting seamless. It seems as though you always have the right gear for the moment because it is constantly working to make sure that you do. Of course, what becomes the critical link in a CVT is the belt that drives it all. High-performance applications are familiar with belt failure and are prepared to repair it, even trackside during a race. There is a lone manufacturer that chooses to stick to metal gears in their transmissions, and that is Honda. Yamaha has either option available in their sport model, the YXZ1000R, but Honda’s entire SxS lineup is 100% belt free.
How much to expect to pay on your next UTV
There are a few factors to consider when setting price expectations. First is the price itself, the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price or MSRP. What that is, is the price alone for the machine. As covered last time, the average MSRP for a SxS in 2019 was $16,387, but most things tick up by a hundred or two every couple of model years and of course, there are new models released for model year 2020 as well. The next few factors vary for each market and location, the MSRP is the only true constant, the only way to get an apples-to-apples comparison of starting price. Manufacturers work hard to ensure that the playing field is kept even, hence the term “MSRP.”
The next factors, also common, are usually referred to as “freight and setup” although there are a few other phrases to the similar effect that ultimately mean the same thing, “dealer prep”, etc. They refer to the cost of getting the machine from the factory to your local shop and getting it ready to run so you take it home. Unfortunately, this is not Amazon Prime or Ikea; we can’t pick them up from the factory ourselves and put them together at home. These costs are averaged out over all the units of a given type so that they are the same for everyone and for each type of product. In the case of SxS’s, which are the largest items in the powersports industry, the freight portion is higher than most other things available. Freight can range from about $700 to $1000.
From there, there is set-up or prep. This is critical to the longevity and reliability of the machine. Factory trained and certified technicians run down a factory provided a checklist for each particular machine and verify that everything is within specification. The checklist is actually signed by all involved, including us customers, and is kept on file by the dealership and reported to the manufacturer where it is used to validate and initiate the factory warranty.
All labor costs are determined by how long it should take to complete the job multiplied by the cost of labor per hour. Setup for a SxS can range from $600 to $800. Even pre-owned machines will have labor costs.
The final components of total cost to a customer is the local taxes and fees. In states where vehicle registration is not required,, the vehicle is subject to normal sales tax, as opposed to slightly reduced tax rates for road vehicles like motorcycles and automobiles. For example, Texas charges 6.25% for road vehicles and the full 8.25% for “off-road vehicles.” Usually, taxes are calculated based on the sum of the vehicle price, freight, setup, and any additions or accessories. After the taxes, there are fees that are typically charged by a combination of state, county, and local governments that pertain to registration or titling of the vehicle. Speaking of my locale, these add up to about $160 to $220. To sum it all up, beginning with the average MSRP and adding the top of the aforementioned ranges, here’s what to expect. $16,387 + $1,000 + $800 + $220 = $18,407. To learn more check out our guide to how much you can expect to pay your next UTV.
Best UTV Accessories
There are a plethora of accessories that can be added to UTVs. It helps to break them down into 3 categories. The first is protection, consisting of roofs, windshields, doors, etc. Anything that serves to protect occupants. Next is performance, meaning anything that makes it play harder, namely exhaust systems, fuel system tuning, wheels & tires, suspension upgrades, snorkels for deep mud, etc. The catch-all category is convenience, as in anything that makes work or play easier such as winches, storage containers or racks, and even additional lighting and audio systems.
Beginning with protection, a roof undeniably takes the cake as the first accessory to be added. Some higher trim models include one, but most need to have one added. There is a wide range of options as well, from simple molded plastic ones all the way to metal or composite roofs that are load-bearing and can accommodate additional hardware. The sky is the limit for putting stuff between yourself and the sky. Prices can range from as little as $300 to over $3,000.
Windshields are a close second to a roof and have almost as many options from fixed plastics to glass versions with built-in wipers that can be opened. Doors can then round out the entire protection package, with some manufacturers including fully enclosed cabs with heat and air conditioning.
As for performance, the aftermarket is the fastest to respond to demands for greater performance and that can be seen in how it has shaped today’s market. All sorts of power adders are available, from simple air filter upgrades and slip-on mufflers all the way up to (bigger) turbo kits. Suspension and the rest are included as well, from normal tire replacement all the way to suspension lifts and up-sized wheels and tires with a wide variety of tread patterns to tailor your machine to your favorite terrain. Of course, a deeper sounding exhaust, in addition to helping the engine breathe easier, will let people know you’re here. You know, for the safety of course!
Finally, for convenience, are the things that make life easier, whether for work or for play. The most common and useful are winches for recovery of yourself or friends when stuck. From there, it’s storage, be it in the form of containers or racks. Most manufacturers have their own proprietary attachment systems that make installing them a breeze. As for the more luxurious, there are additional lighting systems, usually LED’s and even some that can change color. To complement the added flash are audio systems that can be self-contained in soundbars, or incorporated into an appropriate roof. That topic can make for its own entire article with the range of options available. You can check out our list of best available accessories to see what works best for you.
What is a UTV? That’s a big question. But here we’ve covered an overview, including what sets them apart as their own products as well as some key terms to understand when narrowing down the field. We’ve also covered a necessary elaboration on how much to expect to pay. A little bit of expectation management, as well as understanding the value that your local shop is trying to provide goes a long way here. Wrapping it up, we covered the most common accessories to round out the whole package.
The SxS segment of the powersports industry has become much bigger in recent years, even dominating some market areas and it shows no signs of slowing down. Even with the state of things as I write this, my local shop was completely cleaned out of sport models, and they don’t know exactly when more will arrive. I hope this has helped clarify the subject and helps you arrive at a better conclusion while there is still some inventory out there to be had.
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More on Preston
A native of El Paso, TX, where you don’t need to load the quad into a truck before actually riding it. I studied business in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2011. I have been riding ATV’s for over 25 years and have worked in multiple (6, if we need to be exact) dealerships, in all three departments, both powersports and automotive. A true enthusiast and tinkerer who wants to see the sport continue to grow. A long-held goal is to design and build my own quad to showcase how versatile they really are. I’m also an Army engineer, served three tours in the middle east and I continue to serve in the US Army Reserve.