What is an ATV? Your Ultimate ATV Primer
Written by Preston V. B.
Table of Contents
For those not already familiar with specialty vehicles, any of several questions may be present. The most fundamental of which, and arguably the most herculean for your friendly neighborhood powersports salesman to answer is “what is a ___?” In this case, I will address an almost 40-year-old stalwart of the industry, the All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV), also known as a “4-wheeler”, or “quad.” I’ll cover an overview, including some common definitions, a couple of historical mentions, and a bit about what they do and why they’re important before moving on to some key terms, including modern improvements and safety improvements. I’ll then wrap up with some top accessories in terms of performance, utility, and safety, as well as setting some expectations for how much to pay to reach ATV Valhalla.
What is an ATV?
My personal definition of an ATV is a 4-wheeled motorcycle. It’s a rider-active, yet self-supporting way to conquer whatever you point it at. I’ll add some highlights from legal definitions of an ATV, although several aspects could use some updating. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) defines an ATV as “a vehicle that travels on low-pressure tires, with a seat that is straddled by the operator with handlebars for steering control.” Uncle Sam’s definition shares most of those elements and specifies ATV’s as having “three or four wheels.” My home state of Texas, as well as a few others, use language to the effect of “three or more tires in contact with the ground” and go on to differentiate quads from agricultural equipment as well as specifying a max width of 50″. Several states, particularly ones with a lot of public lands, have been leading the way in updating their definitions and how they accommodate quads on public lands. Some even allow for registration, license plates, and road use, since trails on public lands are, in essence, another form of a public road.
The History of ATVs
A historical fun fact about ATV’s, according to the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, UK, is that the first-ever “quadricycle” was built in the 1890s by Royal Enfield as a factory prototype by works manager Bob Walker Smith. The design was quite common around the turn of the century.
No piece on this subject would be complete without mention of the following; in 1970, Honda brought the three-wheeled All Terrain Cycle or ATC to market with great success, being featured in several major movies and television series. Safety concerns arose from the traditional 1-in-front, two-in-rear wheel arrangement, and despite a study proving that the most common fault was user error, an agreement was signed between distributors and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in April of 1988 that effectively ended production of the ATC.
As a vast improvement over the ATC, ATV’s as we know them today first came to market in 1983 in the form of the Suzuki LT-125. It had no suspension whatsoever; all bump absorption was handled by the low-pressure tires. Suzuki still proudly proclaims they are the “first on four wheels” and have led several waves of innovation in the field since then. Have a google at the ’05 King Quad 700 (LTA-700X)’ or the ‘Quad Racer LTR-450’.
What ATV’s Do and Why they’re Important
By nature of their design, quads provide several benefits and serve as a Goldilocks vehicle in today’s market, fitting nicely between dirt bikes and Side-by-Sides (SxS). They afford greater stability due to their track width, more traction from having more and larger contact patches on the ground, as well as greater load-bearing capacity than a bike. Unlike a SxS, quads remain “rider-active”, meaning that a rider can use their own body weight and other techniques to affect the handling over various terrains and obstacles. Also, with smaller overall size than a SxS, ATV’s are able to fit through more gaps.
These attributes provide several key benefits. First of which, is greater utility. There are a plethora of accessories available to outfit an ATV for just about any conceivable purpose. More on some of the best of those shortly. Secondly, ATV’s offer their own sort of high performance; while still being a rider-active vehicle, a rider can keep a few more techniques up their sleeve and use them. Also, they provide greater access to more types of terrain that could prove to be prohibitively inconvenient to many other riders. Lastly, they offer greater accessibility to more people; those with various physical impairments or ailments are once again able to ride aboard an appropriate ATV.
A Primer on Important ATV Terms
Quads have reaped the benefits of numerous technological improvements over the years. We have suspension now! In terms of design, the suspension has significantly evolved; most ATV’s now features independent rear suspension (IRS). Even subtle changes to the rest of the suspension geometry serve to increase comfort significantly, and reduce rider fatigue and prolong riding enjoyment. Better engines, with Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI), adapt to changing conditions like altitude and automatically tune themselves to provide ideal performance. Transmissions and gear trains have also evolved to handle the higher power levels from growing engines while delivering more control.
Most machines on the market these days use what is called a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which in essence is always shifting, allowing the rider to focus on other aspects of riding. To return a classic form of control during descents, Hill Descent Control and/or Engine Braking systems help regulate speed when heading downhill. These systems transfer the load from the brakes to the drivetrain to provide more consistent control and save wear on brakes and other components. Further enhancing traction are Locking Front Differentials, some of which can even lock automatically, locking all four wheels into rotating in unison regardless of the amount of grip each tire may or may not have.
Directly addressing comfort, Electronic Power Steering (EPS) makes the whole experience more enjoyable by reducing steering effort in all conditions, even in the most technical terrain, to levels easily managed by nearly all riders, regardless of size or strength. EPS, coupled with improved ergonomics in the form of suspension systems moved out of alignment with the rider’s body, so as not to transfer energy into the rider, as well as better seats, more natural control positions, etc. All serve to make the machine more pleasant to sit on in the first place. These improvements are underrated, especially by the die-hard ATV crowd, but usually win converts after just a single ride.
ATV Safety Equipment
Safety equipment has also seen updates over the years. Presently, more and more ATV’s are beginning to incorporate things such as electronic aids like speed governors when specific drive modes are engaged. For example, when in 4×4, low range, with the front differential locked, or when in reverse, machines equipped with a CVT engage governors to prevent excessive speeds while in those modes. Not to worry, though, if more power is required to avoid becoming stuck, an override button is available for temporary use. Furthermore, given the ability to ride on public lands in a slowly growing number of places, many manufacturers have begun fitting automotive-grade lighting, complete with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) or Department of Transportation (DOT) approval marking, to many of their machines. Also present is the ability to add mirrors, horns, etc. for use on said public lands.
Top ATV Accessories
Having selected the right machine, with the correct factory equipment, the only thing left to do is complete the package with accessories to fully tailor the quad to the ideal use. Enter the accessories. These usually fall into three categories: performance, utility, and safety. With the evolution of the ATV market in the past ten or so years, there are now more choices than ever.
Top performance accessories often include an exhaust system to enhance airflow through the engine and otherwise to let freedom ring on the trail. As road riders have said for years, “loud pipes save lives!” Quite possibly tied for first place among performance accessories are wheels and tires. Most Original Equipment (OE) wheels and tires tend to be a bit lackluster. Often seeming a bit small, they will get the job done, but leave something more to be desired. Lighter and stronger wheels are readily available, and some can even increase the overall width of the quad, improving stability. Tires are where the rubber meets the road, arguably one of the most useful accessories on their own. A rider can enjoy a massive improvement in traction and durability just from a well-chosen set of tires. Try riding in loose terrain with worn-out OE tires, then replace them, and you’ll see what I mean immediately. The whole machine will seem to have to work less to overcome the same terrain. Read GoRollick’s recommendations on the best ATV accessories here.
When it comes to utility, a ubiquitous go-to accessory is the good ol’ winch. Often described as being “handier than a pocket on a shirt,” a winch appropriate for the weight of the quad will almost immediately prove its worth on the first long ride. On my last ride alone, my trusty 700cc quad and its winch saved the bacon of my new 1000cc quad on three separate occasions. Aside from the winch, rack attachments are usually the next go-to accessory. With each manufacturer having their proprietary attachment system as well as an entirely independent catalog for direct mounting accessories, one can tailor their quad to just about any use.
This leads to task-specific parts. A common recreational item is a cooler. Others are more specific, such as a hunter’s gun rack or a farmer’s sprayer system for their fields. The list goes on, and on, and all of them will plug and play right into the hardware on the quad, often with as little as a flick of one or two small levers. On the same occasion as above, thanks to its trailer hitch ball and recovery straps, my 700 even went on to rescue the truck and attached trailer from shallow, but incredibly sloppy mud. The bottom line? It got us home that day. Thanks to about $50 worth of accessories. If you know it is something useful to you, never underestimate the value of a tailor-made accessory for your ATV.
Of course, I can’t speak of accessories without mentioning popular safety accessories. The most well known of which is additional lighting. One can easily double or triple the light output of their quad with a less electrical load than expected, thanks to Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology. They help both with seeing as well as being seen. In states where public road use is authorized, kits are available to add mirrors, a horn, turn signals, and all the rest of the parts to meet applicable standards.
ATV Price Expectations
In a previous article, I wrote about selecting the best ATVs of 2019; I stated an average market price just shy of $8,500. Even as one who has been a salesman in multiple showrooms, it is easy to become fixated with that single number and be unprepared for the quote from the local dealer. That average price is referring only to the MSRP, or the “unit price” in shop terms. Prices are stated in this way because they are the only way to compare apples to apples truly. Manufacturers also strive to keep dealers on the same playing field across entire market regions and nationwide. Other things that factor into the total “out-the door” (OTD) price change everywhere, across the whole country.
Common components of an OTD price are freight, setup or dealer prep, and of course taxes and state title/documentation fees. As for freight and setup or prep, the powersports industry is not Amazon Prime or Ikea. These machines are large enough to surpass being called mail, they are commercial freight, weighing hundreds of pounds and requiring special equipment to handle. All manufacturers, both powersports and automotive, deliver products on terms known in the business as Free-on-Board Origin (FOB Origin), meaning that products become the responsibility of the buyer once they reach the seller’s loading dock. The product then arrives at the dealership, but it is still packaged for shipping in a large crate. It takes a factory-certified technician to unpack and set up the machine properly. The manufacturer expects proof of this in the form of assembly checklists, which have to be signed and kept for record by the dealer. Properly performing and documenting this process is what preserves the manufacturers’ warranty and ensures top quality results for us consumers. The costs for each of these vary from shop to shop and location to location.
The last component is inevitable in this subject, just as it is in every other. The dreaded taxes and fees; these also vary by state and even county. To use Texas as an example, the sales tax for an off-road vehicle, since it not registered for road use, is the same 8.25% that applies to every other retail product. For more information on ATV Pricing, check out this article on how much is an ATV.
ATV’s, or quads as I have been referring to them throughout my life, are specific and well-designed products with a rich history that can enable riders of all abilities to have years of engaging, rider active, off-road fun. They have evolved vastly since their inception in the 1890s and commercial success in the 1980s. The latest improvements have made them even more comfortable and accommodating. Safety programs and features continue to advance in support of the sport.
In conclusion, I encourage all to learn more about products available, then visit your local showroom to determine which one is most appropriate. Seek training that is made possible by all reputable manufacturers, and embrace the ideals of intelligent ATV use. Understand that they are machines and will do whatever the operator tells them to do. As good riders, it is on us to maintain respect for and understanding of these machines so that we may preserve the sport for future generations.
When you’re ready to find your next ATV, be sure to check us out at GoRollick.com. You can:
- See nationwide inventory, specs, and incentive information
- Get an upfront, transparent price on your desired ATV
- Receive special offers on both the ATV, as well as additional accessories
- Take advantage of Bonus Savings plus the option to Buy From Home from select Certified Dealers
- Shop at one of our Certified Dealers who are committed to providing an exceptional buying experience
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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 quad to showcase how versatile they are. I’m also an Army engineer, served three tours in the middle east, and I continue to serve in the US Army Reserve.