A funny thing happened while we were all sequestered during the pandemic: we decided we hated being cooped up. As a result of that revelation and that many folks continued earning salaries with no vacation destinations to spend them on, people swarmed to recreation vehicles as a form of escapism from our confined realities.
Collector cars, boats, and motorcycles all rose steeply in value as folks snatched up machines they always dreamed of owning but never before jumped on. Similarly, ATVs grew in popularity while inventories plummeted, leaving many of us who entertained the idea of buying one in dismay as there were none to be had.
Fortunately, inventories are growing again and those of us who still haven’t shaken the idea of first-time ATV ownership have a better chance at picking one up. Entering the world of ATV ownership can be a dizzying experience with much to consider before laying down a mittful of cold, hard cash. From scouring various ATV websites and Reddit groups, speaking with some owners and borrowing a new Honda TRX520 Rubicon, I’ve compiled five key considerations before beginning a search for an ATV.
Type and Cost of ATV
While motorized four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles can be traced back to the 1890s, it’s really been since the 1980s that ATVs have grown far more widespread as a recreational vehicle. During the mid-’80s, the three-wheeled all-terrain cycles (ATCs) first gained popularity, quickly supplemented by high-performance, four-wheeled versions first by Suzuki, then Honda and Yamaha, before others followed suit.
Today, Canadian shoppers are spoiled for choice with ATV options available from long-standing makers like Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Polaris, and Canadian-made BRP Can-Am, plus an increasing presence from newcomers like Chinese brand CFMoto. Nearly all of these makers offer ATVs in both sport and utility formats, plus larger side-by-side (SxS) machines that can resemble a cross between a dune buggy and a pickup truck.
We’re focused here on the traditional ATVs where a single rider straddles a saddle and steers via handlebars. These machines are smaller and lighter than SxS versions. Plus, with top-spec, optioned-up SxS units tallying upwards of $50,000 or more, ATVs are significantly less costly, even at the top end of the spectrum.
For most of us, budget is always a consideration and to that end, expect to spend $12,000 to $15,000 for a new ATV between 500 cc and 700 cc in size and with a host of features included. Entry-level units are roughly half that cost, while the largest, 1,000-cc units can fetch nearly $20,000. A well-maintained ATV holds its value well, so even moderately-used ATVs can command nearly-new prices.
Unlike many leisure machines, ATVs can be fundamentally useful tools and countless units are employed on farms, ranches, and by public services to enable easy and swift access to places that other machines can’t easily reach. As a recreational toy, they can offer a much longer season of use – if not year-round in places where snow isn’t too deep – that can double as a utility vehicle for plowing snow, towing a trailer for yard work or for hunting. But several makers also offer small, squat, and nimble ATVs with two-wheel drive that are designed to provide high-speed dirt thrills, for play on motocross courses, over jumps and tearing around open fields. Determining how you want to use your ATV is a good first step in the shopping process.
Having spent several years enjoying off-road-capable vehicles like Jeeps and Broncos, climbing rocks and exploring wooded trails, the four-wheel drive utility ATVs that enable me to go exploring places I can’t reach with a Jeep were most enticing. To that end, the Honda TRX520 Rubicon I had used served that purpose well, with enough ground clearance and off-road capability to get me well off the beaten-path, but also with enough storage and racks to secure some tools to clear new trails, too. That it offers so much utility is the icing on the cake.
Who you are as a rider will also help steer you toward a smart ATV choice. Along the lines of how you plan to use your ATV, it’s important to consider your experience and riding style. Speed demons will obviously lean toward the sporty two-wheel drive ATVs, or the largest, high-powered units. The big displacement, high-powered 4x4 ATVs are not only able to tow more, but for thrill-seeking riders, they can also help power out of mud bogs or climb steep, rocky trails better than smaller units.
Still, even if you intend to put your ATV to work hauling things around the acreage, note that the sheer size and mass of the larger displacement ATVs can make them challenging for smaller riders to manage. Those just starting in the sport may wish to look at utility ATVs in the 400-cc to 500-cc range that can still offer an impressive amount of off-road capability. Note that for sporty ATVs, 250-cc to 500-cc machines weigh significantly less than utility ATVs and can be very fast.
Most manufacturers offer very small units – some as little as 50 cc – to help safely introduce children to the sport of ATVing.
Features and Accessories
Both the Honda TRX520 and Yamaha Grizzly 700 I’ve ridden recently were never short of torque and easily climbed over everything I threw at them. Plus, these machines, and similar 700-cc or higher units from Kawasaki and Suzuki, offer electric power steering that make them easier to ride than smaller or older ATVs that lack those features. Additionally, those models all offer independent rear suspensions that make climbing over obstacles easier and smoother than units with a single rear suspension.
Because of the breadth of uses of an ATV, the accessories available from the manufacturers and the aftermarket are nearly endless. From a practical standpoint, adding additional skid plates, larger wheels and gnarlier tires can make an ATV more capable – or at least get it further before getting stuck. Riders can opt for hand guards and windshields to help protect them from stones and branches, too.
There are also various racks, auxiliary lights, storage boxes, and specialized holders for provisions like rifles or chainsaws to help make ATVs better tools in the field. While some OEMs strongly discourage two-up riding, others, like Can-Am make optional passenger seat placements.
In 1987, production of all three-wheeled ATCs was voluntarily ceased based on their perceived inherent instability and a rising raft of injuries to riders from rollover incidents. While studies showed that four-wheelers weren’t necessarily any less prone for rollovers at speed, since those early days, manufacturers have sought to advance safety through improvements to the suspensions, handling, and braking systems.
Even so, ATVs do come with a considerable element of danger if not treated properly or ridden with a reasonable amount of respect and training. ATV buyers should also plan on suitable safety wear when riding, including a pair of sturdy boots, gloves, and a properly fitting helmet, at the very least. A good pair of jeans and a jacket can also help prevent scratches from branches and bramble, and worse, should the rider be ejected from the ATV suddenly and unexpectedly.
ATVs can be incredibly fun and tremendously useful tools. Buyers should take their time, do their research, and choose a unit that suits their riding style, experience, size, budget and intended use. Happy trails!