First Ride – The John Deere Gator XUV 550

First Ride – The John Deere Gator XUV 550

2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.green.front-left.riding.on-grass.jpgIn every manufacturer’s lineup, there are models that mark watershed moments of major change.  In the hardworking utility vehicle market, John Deere first found success with the five wheeled AMT, then enjoyed an even greater following with their next generation Gator.  Last year they celebrated a huge milestone when the 500,000th Gator rolled off the line at their Horicon, Wisconsin plant, but other companies took notice of the Gator as well.  Polaris quickly capitalized on a loyal sportsman following with their Ranger, while Yamaha catered to performance lovers with the Rhino.  Kawasaki continues to offer their Mule utility vehicles, but the Teryx also appealed to the sporty crowd.  Clearly, customer tastes had evolved into the desire for both work and play.

The engineering and marketing crew at Deere carefully watched market evolution as well, and the result is one of those watershed moments of change that marks a new direction for the Deere Gator lineup.  To meet the needs of homeowners and weekend sportsman but remain true to their hardworking heritage, the Gator lineup has branched out into two distinct platforms.  On one end are the full-sized, hardworking Gators like the 825, but with the new XUV 550, the Gator now appeals to recreational riders like never before.2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.close-up.rear-suspension.jpg

Gator XUV 550 First Look

Since the Gator XUV 550 is all new from the ground up, we were anxious to dig into the new design.  It’s the little details that can make or break a model and there was plenty to discover on the new Gator.  Even from a distance though, it’s a very pleasing design and overall styling is modern, sporty, and tough.  We really like how the body lines flow from front to back, and surfaces are contoured not only to complete the sporty look, but for functionality.   A closer inspection of the bodywork showed a smooth surface in most areas, but Deere wisely gave a textured finish in areas likely to see abuse or abrasion from branches, grit, and general wear.  The anti-scuff texturing is a nice touch that will help keep the Gator looking great for years.  The bodywork also seems tough, pliable, and able to take a beating, but it’s under the skin where you really find out what a model is made of.

Like every Gator before it, the new XUV 550 is solid!  Main chassis members are a combination of beefy steel tubes and formed plates all welded together in a frame that is more than capable of taking any abuse you can give it in this configuration.  As it sits now, nobody is going to have a problem with this chassis, but it also hints at the future.  We’ve seen spy shots of Deere’s sporty new RSX 850 model supposedly to be released this summer, and we’re betting it will be based on this platform.  Rather than talk about every little detail though, we’re going to show you with a pictorial inspection.2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.close-up.reciever-hitch.jpg

Crew Comfort

No part of the Gator speaks to Deere’s new design philosophy more than the cab area.  Gone is the intrusive wheel well and tractor style seats; this Gator is built for comfort.  As with all Gators, it was easy to hop in and out of the XUV 550, and we found the standard high-back bench seat to be comfortable.  Three point shoulder and lap belts keep the driver and passenger in place and seating position is much like most other Side x Sides.  The ultimate in protection, though, is the certified ROPS structure.  Thankfully, there is plenty of leg room for both riders, and a center divider helps keep the passenger’s feet out of the pedal area.  We also like how the floor feels solid and not flexy.  On some competing models, the floorboards flex a little and we’ve even poked sticks through twice.  The dash has also been completely reworked, and Deere went ALL-OUT with storage!  Unlike any Gator before it, the new XUV has storage everywhere, and for hauling anything from bales to white tails, there is a tough composite dump box at the rear with multiple tie-down loops.    2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.close-up.egine.jpg

Engine & Suspension

The new Gator XUV 550 is powered by a 16-hp, 570cc, air-cooled, v-twin gas engine which provides good torque.  We were especially happy to find the CVT air intake and engine air intake are located high in the chassis to keep out any dirt or water.  A dual range transmission featuring HI, Low, Neutral, and Reverse gets the XUV rolling, and top speed is listed at 28mph.  The engine runs on regular fuel and the fill cap is located just outboard of the driver’s seat.  While there is no actual fuel gauge, there is a view window under the seat and right between the driver’s feet to check fuel volume in the 4.9 gallon tank.  

Firing up the Gator is a simple matter of holding the brake and twisting the key.  The engine can be started in gear, but you’ll need a foot on the brake either way.  Once running it purrs nicely and never really gets any louder even at high RPMs.  Slipping the transmission into gear was easy with the dash mounted lever, and with a stab at the throttle, we were rolling.  With only 16 hp to work with though, nobody is ever going to hand you a checkered flag.  Still, the 28 mph top speed should be fast enough for most owners, but it’s not going to be an overly exciting ride.  It will, however, be a smooth ride and the suspension on the adjustable shocks soaked up any of the rutted terrain we could find.  We also tried the transmission in Low which offers increased torque for pulling loads, but whether in Low or High, we were able to climb medium grades without hesitation.  Deere built the XUV 500 for torque and not top speed.2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.close-up.rear-bumper.jpg

Deere Trail Details

On our first test drive, there were a few things immediately noticeable about the Gator that we really liked.  Visibility over the hood is very good.  The dash and hood angles make it easy to see what’s ahead.  Turing radius is also extremely tight and on par with some full-sized ATVs.  Slipping the XUV into 4wd had almost no effect on steering effort at the wheel, or on overall turn radius, and only with the differential lock engaged was there a difference.  The diff lock didn’t really change the steering wheel feedback, but with all the tires biting at the ground, it’s harder to pull tight turns, and a lot easier to pull up grass.  For ordinary driving, you’ll never need the diff lock engaged, and when you do need it, ripping out a little grass is the least of your problems.  At that point you’ll probably be glad the XUV offers good splash protection as well.  As always though, there are a few things they might want to consider for future models.  2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.close-up.cab.jpg

We love the easy access when hopping in and out of the Gator XUV seats, but that also means there isn’t much between the edge of your seat and the ground.  We’ve come to appreciate the higher seat side bars on other models, and although this might slightly impede entry or exit into the Gator, especially for bigger riders, a little higher, padded side bar holding you in place would be worth it.  Side nets might be even better.  As Deere continues to push the performance aspect of the Gator, this will become even more necessary.  The second thing we think they should consider is a foot guard for exactly the same reason.  It’s very easy to drive the Gator with one foot pointed outside, and we’ve seen many riders do it.  You don’t want your foot to catch any close passing tree, rock, or rut.  Kawasaki had the exact same issue until they installed a small, foot protection panel on their Teryx a few years ago.  It solved the problem and even provided a little more splash protection.  The third thing we would really like on the Gator XUV 550 is a digital display.  Deere has the best digital display in the business in their Gator 825, and we would love to see some version of it in the XUV 550.  It provides plenty of useful information, and it’s just too handy not to have, especially considering it would add little to the overall cost.  It’s well worth it!  To be fair, we jumped all over Honda for exactly the same thing, and for making the glove box door an accessory! 2012.john-deere.gator-xuv550.green.front-left.parked.on-grass.jpg

Even with our wish list for future XUV models, the new Gator XUV 550 is a huge step forward for Deere into the recreational category.  We love the sporty, sleek, yet tough look!  You’re not going to win any races – ever – and we would gladly take more power in a chassis that can clearly handle it, but the new models were designed to meet the needs of recreational users, to offer good off-road capability with a supple suspension and 4wd, and to go in the back of a pickup.  The comfortable, well thought out cab area is a HUGE improvement and we can’t say enough about the awesome new storage areas.  As with all Deere models, fit and finish is outstanding, and you can even get a Realtree Hardwoods™ HD Camo pattern if the traditional John Deere green and yellow doesn’t work for you.  Deere also has over 75 available attachments and accessories to customize all Gator XUV models, such as cabs, brush guards, and custom alloy wheels.  We can’t wait to get our hands on one for some extended trail testing, but just from our first inspection and test rides, there is a lot to love in the new Gator XUV 550.  

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May 10, 2012

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