What is the Difference Between ATVs and UTVs?
Written by Preston V. B.
Table of Contents
The powersports industry has been exponentially busier over the past three or four decades. The most apparent growth has been in the off-road sector and has come with more than two wheels. Beginning with the relatively short-lived All-Terrain-Cycle, or ATC, better known as a three-wheeler which gave way to what we have today, the All-Terrain-Vehicle or ATV, more commonly known by various names, including four-wheeler or quad. If you want to be an expert in all things ATV, check out our ultimate ATV primer.
More recently, and growing even faster, is the larger relative of the quad, the UTV, also known as Side-by-Side (SxS). Do you have more questions on UTVs? We’ve got you covered with our ultimate UTV primer.
All this evolution combined with growing numbers of participants in the sport inevitably raises our question: What is the difference between ATVs and UTVs?
Differences in Design
The most obvious differences are in their design and appearance. Quads bear a closer relation to motorcycles. Distinguishing features include a saddle-type seat that is straddled by a rider. Handlebars turn muscle movements into steering input, more directly connected to the rest of the steering system, with power assist systems less than ten years old as a commonly available feature. Controls are well divided between hands and feet, with braking of front and rear wheels often separated and certain models retaining their foot-shifted transmissions. Quads/ATVs are the smaller and lighter of the options here, weighing from 400 to up to 1,100 pounds, ranging from 70” to 85” or so in length, and almost exclusively 48” to 50” wide. Almost. The latest evolution of the ATV, coming from Polaris under the banner of the 1000-S models in both Sportsman and Scrambler forms, has pushed the boundaries of height and width at almost 50” high and a greater 55” wide due to its massive suspension.
UTVs/SxS, by contrast, are more automotive. They feature bench or bucket seating, in single or dual rows accommodating up to six people. The controls are similar to those found in modern cars, especially since automatic transmissions are ubiquitous across this segment. The ability to shift gears being relatively new to the most sporting of UTVs, appears in the form of paddle-shifted transmissions similar to what’s found in modern sports cars. While accomplished through a wheel, steering is still more directly connected to the rest of the steering system. Fewer rotations of the steering wheel reach the full lock, making quicker steering inputs easier to perform. Assistance in the form of power steering is now standard on all but the most spartan models. The obvious differences that come with all this are that while UTVs have greater capacities, they’re much larger and heavier than ATVs. While that may sound like a drawback to those with high-performance aspirations, one thing it allows for is a lower center of gravity. With more space to put major components, they can be set lower in the chassis, making for great handling.
Life off the trail: Storage, Transport, and Maintenance
We can’t live by our ATVs or UTVs alone as much as we may like to. Given that reality, there are a few considerations to make when deciding which vehicle you want to live with.
The main factor is storage, as when not in use, it can’t exactly be folded up and put in your pocket. The footprints occupied by each span a wide range, although they are roughly the same ratio, being longer than they are wide. Bear in mind that the usual minimum size for a one-car garage is 10’ wide by 18’ long (120” x 216”) or 180 square feet. I know, that’s unacceptably tiny, right? That’s a rant for another day. Here’s an idea of the dimensions to plan around for each machine. Looking at a combination of the two largest UTVs, the CAN-AM Defender Max X MR for its height, and the Maverick X3 Max for its width and length, plan to accommodate a machine that is up to 165” long, 73” wide, and 82” high, taking up 84 of those square feet. ATV’s in contrast, take up about half as much space or less. The largest ATV’s are CAN-AM’s Outlander Max, a two-seat touring model measuring 94” long, 48” wide and 53” high, or about 32 square feet. The only one larger is the longer Outlander 6×6 at 125” long, bringing the footprint up to about 42 square feet, or half that of an UTVs.
The natural counterpart to storage is transport, and the weights of each are proportional to their sizes. The Polaris Ranger Crew North Star Edition tips the scales at 2,371 lbs, taking the crown as the heaviest UTVs. Considering all the features packed into it, that’s no surprise, it is a smaller truck with a fully enclosed cab and heating and air conditioning systems, just to name the major features. As for the heaviest ATVs, we look again to CAN-AM’s two big ones. The Outlander Max weighs 900 lbs, while its 6×6 brother is the big kid on the block at 1,170 lbs.
Most quads will fit in the bed of a truck, with the length being the only question. Standard length (approx. 6’) beds in mid or full-size trucks will readily get the job done with the tailgate left down. The only asterisk is the half-ton (1500/150) trucks with a full-size back seat/crew cab; these trucks get their extra cab space from the bed. Trailers are an option for quads, depending on the tow vehicle’s internal cargo space and the amount of extra gear to be packed. With lower weights and smaller sizes, simple trailers will do the trick even with smaller tow vehicles. Such trailers are readily available at local hardware stores, some even under $1,000. I run a 7’x16’ enclosed trailer that is 7’ tall, which holds both of my full-size sport-utility quads.
UTVs, on the other hand, almost always require a trailer, even with full-size trucks. There are the less common instances where decks are installed onto three-quarter or one-ton trucks (2500, 3500) that provide enough space to park an UTVs with single row seating not in but on top of the bed. For anything beyond a modest 2-3 seat UTVs, a trailer is required in most cases. Only the smallest UTVs are marketed as fit in a truck bed, such as the Kawasaki Mule SX, one of the most compact models available. For those who opt for an enclosed trailer, height will need to be factored in as well.
Maintenance and mechanical requirements for both quads and UTVs are virtually identical, especially for models born in more recent years, say the mid-2000’s or later. Fuel injection, Liquid cooling, CVT transmissions, hydraulic disc brakes, and electronic power steering are standard on a majority of machines in both segments. The only difference may be scale in certain cases, with some UTVs having larger components and requiring more fluid to fill some of them. Parts are not always interchangeable between the two, even if they seem so, but the designs are similar enough that the other will not cause any extra work if you can manage one.
Aside from maintenance is modification. Accessories available for each are mostly the same, with the obvious exception of doors and roofs, which are 99.99% of the time exclusive to UTVs. Common types of accessories that can be had for both are wheels & tires, suspension replacements or lift kits, air intakes, Engine Control Unit (ECU) tuning, exhaust systems, winches, lighting, underbody protection, cargo management, and even satellite navigation and audio systems. The capacity for and scale of each type are the only difference. Either a quad or a UTVs can be set up to suit one’s desires fairly easily. The only question is how much anyone wants to accessorize or modify their machine.
Hitting the trails
When it comes to getting out and doing what these machines do best, there is another small set of considerations to bear in mind. The best way to sum them up is access to riding areas, private/commercial vs. public/government-managed, and dynamics or handling when riding.
Private/commercial riding areas are each unique in what they provide and which riders they cater to. While many welcome all types of off-road vehicles, some can be very specific. Is it a large trail park? It is most likely open to all with minor restrictions on certain trails. Most of the time, vehicle type restrictions per trail distinguish between bikes and everything else but don’t usually draw lines between quads and UTVs. My go-to trail park is situated in a recharge zone for an underground aquifer. What does that have to do with us riders? No washing of vehicles anywhere on the property to protect subterranean water sources. Is it a smaller, more dedicated facility, like a track? It is likely limited in the vehicles allowed to run on them. A couple of motocross tracks near me have expanded to serve UTVs but skip right over quads. These cater to those interested in short-course racing. When planning to visit a private/commercial riding area, make sure to do diligent homework beforehand and be prepared for any policies they may have, as they can vary greatly.
Public or government-managed areas may require some sort of permit or sticker to grant access. These are typically part of a state-level program such as the Texas OHV Program. Regulations tend to be more standardized across public riding areas. Many do have a width limit for access to most trails at 50”. While nearly all quads fit within that, except for Polaris’ 55” 1000 S Sportsman & Scrambler, only early model UTVs and modern ones specified as “trail” models fit between the steel and concrete bollards at the trailheads. Another common regulation that most manufacturers and aftermarket companies already meet is the requirement for a spark arrestor in the exhaust system, usually in the form of a metal screen at the muffler’s exit. This is usually held to federal standards set forth by the US Forest Service. While I haven’t directly encountered one myself, I’ve heard of exhaust noise limitations in some places. Just as with any other place, a little homework beforehand will prevent potential issues.
Ready to hit the trails? We’ve got the best ATV and UTV accessories to complete your outdoor excursion.
Dynamics & Handling
The dynamics/handling of each machine is perhaps the biggest difference between the two vehicles. These differences are due to the size and layout of each. The quick and easy explanation is “ride in vs. ride on,” referring to UTVs and ATVs, respectively.
UTVs, while heavier, offer much more space to house their major components. Engines, transmissions, and other gearboxes can be situated between and behind the seating, which lowers gravity. Larger suspension systems and wider track widths further spread the load. These factors all contribute to increased stability. While the handling is arguably easier/better, subjectively speaking, the amount of stability is relatively fixed. There’s less that can be done to augment as it may help certain situations off-road. Heavy accessories or cargo mounted high on the machine will have an adverse effect on stability.
Quads, on the other hand, are ride-on machines. Every ATV safety course will use the term “rider active” to describe them. What this means is that a rider’s body input can influence them. When working with a narrower and lighter machine, rider body position can have greater effects on handling. They use body weight to help keep it planted by weighing the higher side of the machine down. Some mechanical tricks can be used to help as well. Wheels with different offsets or wheel spacers can add 1” to 3” to the track width. Also, original equipment (OE) tires are almost always less durable and lighter weight. Switching to tougher, more aggressive, and heavier tires lower the center of gravity. For example, my ’07 King Quad 700 is arguably one of the best handling quads around to this day, and I have since installed aftermarket wheels with wider offsets. The tires went from the OE 4 ply rating to an aftermarket ten ply rating with a more aggressive tread and even a DOT rating. These add up to a lowered center of gravity and better stability in speed with a reduced body input requirement.
When deciding between an ATV or a UTV, there are a few questions to ask yourself.
- What are you able to accommodate and transport? How many other people or how much gear do you want to bring along?
- Is the riding the end or the means?
- What sort of experience are you looking for, a simpler ride-in one or a more dynamic ride-on one?
Personally, I prefer a more engaging, rider-active sort. I like to pack light and move a little faster than at a leisurely pace.
Given that, I have a pair of ATVs that take shelter in an enclosed trailer. Also, on the off chance that one has a problem, I have a backup. As I always say in conclusion, develop a plan for what you’re trying to do, then look for the best solution.
Need even more advice? Check out our other helpful tips on ATVs and UTVs:
- The Ultimate Guide to Buying an ATV or UTV
- The Complete Guide to Selecting the Best UTVs of 2021
- The Complete Guide to Selecting the Best ATVs of 2021
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- Get an upfront, transparent price on your desired ATV
- Receive special offers on both the ATV as well as additional accessories
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