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Utility Players - Mid-Size Utility ATV Roundup


ATVs with Power, Performance, and Handling
Written By: 
John Arens

2010.arctic-cat.450.red_.front_.riding.on-rock.jpgMost ATV owners use their ATV to do a little work around the farm or yard, to get back to the hunting stand, or for weekend recreation exploring a leafy forest trail. Maximum pulling power and top speed are not a high priority, but handling, performance and reliability is. While big bore ATVs are typically seen as those offering 700cc's or more, there are many excellent mid sized utility atvs ranging from 450 to 650cc's providing more than enough power for the vast majority of consumers, and with the features they desire.

Arctic Cat

Arctic Cat 450, Arctic Cat 550, Arctic Cat 650

Regardless of the product line, Arctic Cat is a company that thrives on competition. Whether it's with their sleds, ATVs, or Prowlers they love to pull up next to you and wait for the green flag to drop. When they don't have a model built for a class they'll build one as they did when they were the first company to offer an ATV designed for mud racing!

The Arctic Cat utility lineup offers no less than 11 variations of models between 450 and 650cc's, which should cover everybody and every situation. All the models share chassis features such as dual A-arms in the front, independent rear suspension, 10 inches of wheel travel at each end, and a very forgiving 11 inches of ground clearance. Hydraulic disc brakes are used on the front and rear of each model, and the suspension is unique in that it features Arctic Cats “Ride-In” technology which lowers the center of gravity as you climb aboard, and a supple initial shock stroke.2010.arctic-cat.450.red_.right_.climbing.over-rock.jpg

The Arctic Cat engines are made in their St. Cloud, MN engine plant and they are specially designed for the rigors of off road use. All the engines are SOHC, liquid cooled, 4 valve 4 stroke power plants with specially designed hemispherical-shaped heads. Electronic Fuel Injection feeds nearly all of the models except the Mud Pro 650, and the Arctic Cat Duramatic CVT style automatic transmission is perfectly mated to the engine.

We’ve always found the Arctic Cat ATVs to be comfortable. Controls are well layed out, the seats are firm enough to move around on and still plush enough for all day rides. We like the center-mounted, digital instrument package that tells you everything you need to know, but the Limited Edition units come with an old-school needle speedometer. Underneath the center-mounted display is a perfectly placed storage compartment. One EXCELLENT feature is the new Arctic Cat throttle housing that is much smaller and very comfortable. Cat also redesigned the 4-wheel-drive / differential lock button attached to it and the new button is the best in the business. It’s great!

The "S" model Arctic Cats have a new power steering system designed to provide consistent feel from the wheels at any speed. As you pick up the pace, the system gradually reduces input so you always feel connected to the terrain. It provided just enough help to make steering a breeze, but not so much that it felt disconnected from the ground. We also found the tires do a good job of hooking up on solid rock, slippery mud, or loose terrain.

On our last ride the EFI equipped Arctic Cats ran extremely well, and throttle response was predictable and controlled whether coming off idle or at high rpms. Excellent ground clearance meant trail obstacles were no problem, and the variable assist power steering made the handling predictable and confidence inspiring. These are the best Arctic Cats ever!


Suzuki KingQuad 450 AXi, Suzuki KingQuad 500 AXi with Power Steering

Some quads have good power, some ride well, and some can haul more than a pack mule. The really great quads can do all that and much more, and both the Suzuki KingQuad 450 AXi and KINGQUAD 500 AXi with POWER STEERING are GREAT quads! We've even named one as ATV of the Year in its class!

The engine on both the KingQuad 450 and 500 is a liquid cooled, SOHC, 4 valve, 4-stroke power plant. The Electronic Fuel Injection works perfectly and there is almost zero engine vibration in the bars or the foot pegs. The transmission is a CVT system which Suzuki calls “QuadMatic” and gear selection is the best in the business. Hydraulic disc brakes are found at both ends, and the rear brakes are an enclosed oil bath multi-disc system that we can all but guarantee you will never wear out.

Everything is exactly where it needs to be on the KingQuad. One feature we really like is the large digital display that shows gear selection, mph, engine conditions, fuel, and other functions. Just off your right knee is a 12 volt accessory outlet and a small, sealed compartment. A larger, water resistant compartment is located under the rear fender. Durable bodywork extends down to a sturdy serrated foot peg, and the floorboards offer large drain holes. Once underway the KingQuad 450AXi and 500AXi feel nimble on the trail! Suspension action is quite good from the dual A-arms at the front and from the Independent Rear Suspension, and very little body roll is noticed. Suspension action is good also but it can get a little bouncy in the deep whoops. We also tested the Suzuki around the farm and we have yet to find a task it can’t handle. It's got more than enough power to get the job done. Every test rider LOVED the electronic power steering. The system provides the perfect amount of turning assist, but also the right amount of feedback so that you still feel connected to the terrain.

We really like the KingQuad 450 AXi and 500 AXi but there are a couple things we would change, the first thing being the rear tires. When the trail gets slick or it comes time to slog through mud you’ll wish you had something better. The second area is a maintenance item. Although the Suzuki has a dipstick for a quick oil check there is a panel covering it. It can be removed, but not without pulling a bunch of those “push-pin” style plastic fasteners we've come to hate.

The Suzuki King Quad 450 AXi and 500 AXi has been extremely reliable in everything from silty dust to tank deep water, and the filter stays both clean and dry. Regular maintenance chores are easy, and as long as you show it a little care, it will take care of you. The more time we spend on the Suzuki KingQuad 450 AXi and 500 AXi, the more we like it!


Can-Am Outlander 500 EFI, Can-Am Outlander 650 EFI

Can-Am likes to say "WE DON’T NEED TO CONVINCE YOU TO BUY ONE. THAT’S WHAT THE THROTTLE’S FOR." With a 60hp, 650cc engine that cranks our more power then several big bore utility ATVs on the market, they may be right. Then again, across the board the Can-Am engines generally are class leaders in power, but other unique features are hallmarks of the Can-Am lineup as well.2010.can-am.outlander500efi.yellow.right_.climbing.over-rock.jpg

All of the Can-Am utility ATVs are designed around the SST (Surrounding Spar Technology) chassis with dual A-arms at the front of the 650 EFI, MacPherson struts on the 500 EFI, Fuel Injected Rotax engines on both, and the TTI trailing arm rear suspension for consistent geometry throughout the shock stroke. Last year Can-Am redesigned the front bodywork on the Outlander lineup not only to update the look but for better airflow as well. We've always thought the Can-Ams were roomy and comfortable, and that has not changed. One feature we really like is the D.E.S.S. coded key, and should some thieving ner-do-well take a liking to your Can-Am he won't get far. The only way to start it is with the correct key although the dealer can reprogram it if your name is on the title. All Outlanders come with Can-Ams Get-On-and go CVT style transmission.

Every manufacturer has their own four wheel drive system and the Can-Am 4wd system is unlike any other. Called Visco-Lok, it engages whenever it senses a speed difference between the two front wheels, and it also has the advantage of transferring extra power to the wheel with the best grip. The Outlander 500 EFI is shod with 25 inch tires in the base package, but the 650 EFI and all upgrade 500 EFI packages come with 26 inch tires.

One option we will always want on the Can-Ams is their Dynamic Power Steering system. The DPS offers two preset options and it's easy to select between the two for how much steering assist you want. Everyone who tries it likes it!

We've been riding the Can-Am ATVs for years in just about every type of terrain. They've proven extremely reliable with nothing more than oil and air filter changes, and we've yet to have any other problem.


Polaris Sportsman 550 XP

There is so much to love about the Polaris Sportsman 550XP we hardly know where to begin. The XP feels more like a sport ATV than a rack toting, 4-wheel-drive utility quad. An excellent handlebar bend, a comfortable throttle, and a narrow seat manage to keep the legendary Polaris comfort, and this ATV makes you feel as if it was custom built for you. Under the bodywork the engine is mounted longitudinally (sideways) in the chassis, which really helps with the ergonomics, but also means longer belt life and very efficient power delivery. The wide fenders on the XP offer good splash protection, and the automotive quality paint job is durable and beautiful.2010.polaris.sportsman550xp.green_.front_.riding.on-trail.jpg

The 40 hp, fuel-injected, liquid cooled, single-cylinder 4 stroke gives a quiet but healthy rumble, and is both powerful and smooth on the trail. Engine functions and other info can be found on the digital instrument cluster, but the real joy begins as you head out onto the trail. The new 550XP gets a high performance clutch with a roller system, and the result is a more noticeable snap off the bottom with an extra 10mph top overall speed. We managed to top out at 66mph.

In a departure from Polaris' long love affair with struts, both the front and rear of the XP features dual A-arms with a perfectly dialed in suspension that is super plush over almost any trail condition. The XP delivers the agility of a much lighter, smaller sport/utility ATV, and you can charge into the whoops and rough terrain with confidence. Exclusive 26-inch Terrathon tires on 14-inch cast aluminum wheels help smooth the ride as well. When it comes time to climb hills the Sportsman XP has no problems, and for getting down safely the standard Engine Braking System (EBS) and Active Descent Control (ADC) allow the XP to crawl down at a snail’s pace. Keep your thumb off the throttle and it will take care of everything else. As great as the Sportsman 550XP handles however, there is still another feature that can make it even better, and it can be equipped with Electronic Power Steering as well.

We’ve been on practically every ATV ever built and we can think of no ATV that has ever met its goals better than the Sportsman 550XP. It’s a whole new level of performance, and it is quite simply the best ATV there has ever been. We know that is a bold statement, but the 550XP excels in every way.

Polaris Sportsman 500 H.O.

The Polaris Sportsman 500 H.O. is the utility ATV that started a revolution. It's been a favorite of hunters, ranchers, and trail riders for more than a decade, and Polaris has sold them by the trainload.

A liquid cooled, 498cc High Output (HO) 4 stroke engine powers the old school Sportsman, and like all the other Sportsman ATVs it features a CVT style transmission. When the trail gets sticky or you've got a heavy load to pull the On-Demand All-Wheel Drive (AWD) senses wheel slip and kicks in the other axle. When you get back on solid footing the system senses that also, and converts to 2WD when you don’t need it.

The Sportsman was the world’s first ATV with IRS, and it’s one of the features that made it a leader both on the trail and in the showroom. We've always loved the ride of the Sportsman 500, and at the front are MacPherson struts with 8.2 inches of wheel travel. The Independent Rear Suspension is very plush and offers 9.5 inches of travel. We've always been fond of the tires as well, which get great traction and clean out in heavy mud.

Perhaps our favorite feature of the Sportsman 500 H.O. has nothing to do with power or suspension, but is always a HUGE concern on a utility ATV: storage. The Sportsman 500 H.O. has the greatest factory storage box in the history of ATVs! In fact, we really miss that feature on the new XP chassis. The cavernous, sealed front storage rack can handle a ton of gear, and you can still strap bigger stuff to its top! If Polaris had not introduced the new XP chassis the Sportsman 500 H.O. would still be one of our favorites.


Yamaha Grizzly 450 Auto 4x4, Yamaha Grizzly 550 FI Auto 4x4

Encounters with Grizzlies often end badly for unfortunate campers, and sometimes for the bruin as well. We promise any Yamaha Grizzly inhabiting your camp will be a much more pleasant experience.2010.yamaha.grizzly450.blue_.front-right.riding.on-trail.jpg

Yamaha brands nearly all of their utility ATVs under the Grizzly name, and just like the namesake North American predator, they are a formidable force. In the mid-sized utility ATV category there are two Grizzly models, the 450 Auto 4x4, and the 550 FI Auto 4x4, and both share a chassis and many key features with the mighty Grizzly 700. It's the Grizzly's bite that keeps campers awake at night, for the 450 Auto 4x4 that means a 421cc liquid-cooled, SOHC four-stroke engine fed by a 33mm BSR Mikuni® carburetor. The 550 FI offers a 558cc 4-stroke SOHC 4-valve liquid-cooled engine, the Yamaha Fuel Injection system and Mikuni® 40mm throttle body, and a ceramic-composite cylinder liner for outstanding durability and better heat dissipation. The cylinder head has also been optimized to deliver excellent throttle response and low-end power as well. Yamaha's Ultramatic® CVT transmission gets the power to the wheels on both models, and a one-way sprag clutch gives the Grizzly its natural-feeling engine braking system. In our testing the engine always engine fired right up and ran smoothly with good throttle response and a light throttle pull. Regular maintenance is extremely important to us, and thankfully the air filter, and oil check and change points were all easy to access.

The lightweight steel chassis of the Grizzly 450 and 550 features fully independent long-travel suspension with 5 way preload adjustable shocks, although the 550 offers a little extra ground clearance and extra wheel travel. On both models the Yamaha On-Command 2WD/4WD feature lets you switch between 2WD, limited-slip 4WD, and fully locked differential 4WD with a push of a button. A center mounted digital instrument panel offers a speedometer, odometer, dual trip meter, hour meter, 4WD status, transmission position and clock. Yamaha wanted to be sure the rider was comfortable on all day rides, and a thick, comfy seat is appreciated by all. Fully integrated floorboards keep rider’s feet dry and feature serrated foot pegs, and large front and rear fenders offer excellent splash protection. For the ultimate in comfort the GRIZZLY 550 FI Auto 4x4 offers an added convenience, and it can be equipped with power steering!

Storage is extremely important on any utility ATV, and the Grizzly comes with two, water-tight storage areas. One is located in the front fender while the other compartment is hidden just under the seat. Along with its storage compartments, durable steel racks on the front and rear of the Grizzly can haul plenty of gear for any weekend expedition.

The YAMAHA GRIZZLY 450 Auto 4x4 and the GRIZZLY 550 FI Auto 4x4 are both more than capable of working all day, or back country exploration. They're as controllable as a puppy, as reliable as a packhorse, and will go anywhere you ask. Expect smiles instead of scars!


Kymco MXU 500 4x4 IRS

The MXU 500 has been the flagship model of the KYMCO ATV lineup. For 2010 the MXU received major changes that make it even better, including Independent Rear Suspension.

The muscle for the MXU 500 4x4 IRS comes from a DOHC 499cc liquid-cooled four-stroke engine spinning a CVT transmission and a shaft drive system. Kenda Pathfinder tires are mounted on beefy steel wheels, and the MXU has a healthy 10.2” of ground clearance with 7.5 inches of wheel travel at each end. Since the MXU is designed for utility work sturdy steel racks can haul 100 pounds at the front, and 200 at the rears. There is even a receiver hitch, and when it comes time to stop discs brakes are found at both ends.

Aboard the MXU 500 4x4 IRS you will find pretty much everything in the usual places including an easy to read digital display that shows fuel level, 4WD/2WD status, trip and mileage info. Just below the digital readout are the gear selection lights and the key. To the left of the tank is the gear selection lever, and although it works well we wish it was mounted a little further forward because the housing protrudes from the bodywork and tends to dig into a taller riders left knee. Our MXU always purred to life very easily.

There are a lot of things we like about the MXU 500 4x4 IRS and a big one is ease of maintenance. The air filter is under the seat, on the left side of the engine is a sight glass for a quick oil check, and just ahead of that is the oil fill hole. We found the frame and chassis components to be sturdy and well made, and the plastic bodywork seems to hold up to abuse. There are a couple things we would change however.

The MXU 500 needs more storage. We would also like to see revised front end geometry to help with high speed handling, and a third change would be to reshape the bodywork around the shifter.

On the trail the MXU 500 4x4 IRS could conquer almost any obstacle and handling is vastly improved thanks to the IRS. The engine runs very well with good throttle response, and it could go pretty much anywhere we wanted to take it.


Honda Fourtrax Foreman Rubicon

Depending on whom you ask, the Rubicon is either: A: the Italian river Caesar crossed, B: a river and trail system on the California / Nevada border, or C: one of the hardest working ATVs on the planet. All three answers are correct, but we’re pretty sure Honda named their ATV for its trail conquering capability.

Rugged, rocky trails may have been the inspiration for the Rubicon, but the front dual A-arms and the steel rear swingarm smooth out the trail with 6.7 inches of wheel travel at each end. The torque sensitive Electronic Power Steering even gives an assist as it absorbs forces that would usually be transmitted back through the bars.

Power for the FourTrax Foreman Rubicon and FourTrax Foreman Rubicon GPScape is provided by a liquid-cooled, longitudinally mounted 499cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine driving the fully automatic Hondamatic transmission. Shifting is super easy thanks to the Electronic Shift thumb buttons, and switchable 2WD/4WD enables the rider to shift between 2WD and 4WD with the simple push of a button. The continuously variable automatic transmission can either handle all shifting for you or you can do it yourself with the thumb buttons. The transmission spins a sophisticated variable-ratio hydraulic pump, delivering power to the wheels through shaft drive.

So what’s the difference between the standard Rubicon and the FourTrax Foreman Rubicon GPScape? The GPScape model features Hondas nifty Electronic Power Steering system which is perfect for winding through tight trails all day, and the GPS insures you'll get back home. Set your waypoints, watch your compass, and you’ll make it back to camp by dinner. The GPS is even wired into the vehicles electrical system which means you never need worry about dead batteries to replace. The Rubicon can be much more than a backwoods explorer however, and it’s perfectly at home towing a trailer around the yard or farm, and just like the trail system it's named after, whether at work or play the Rubicon is one tough ATV.

Honda Fourtrax Foreman

Honda ATVs have been the gold standard for reliability, and disappointed riders are far between. We have a Honda three wheeler old enough to buy a drink anywhere, and it still runs perfectly after nothing more that oil and air filter changes, and one new spark plug in the 90’s for good measure. If there was ever an ATV that portrays a hard working image it is the Honda Foreman.

At the heart of the HONDA FOURTRAX FOREMAN 4x4 is a 475cc air cooled, single cylinder 4-stroke engine fed by a 36mm carburetor. Unlike most utility quads, the Honda transmission uses an autoclutch gearbox activated by either the Electronic Shift thumb button system, or a traditional foot shifter. A flick of your thumb engages 4WD and the TraxLoc differential will help pull you along. Dual A-arms are found at the front while a rear swingarm and dual shocks get the job done at the back. Travel at both ends is listed as 6.7 inches, with 7.5 inches of ground clearance, and braking is accomplished via dual hydraulic disc brakes on the front, and a single mechanical drum brake at the rear. There are actually 3 models of the FOREMAN 4x4 offering either Electronic Power Steering, Electronic shift, or a manual foot shifter.

The FourTrax Foreman feels very “Honda-ish”. The seat is wide and thick, the digital display is very easy to read, and controls are well marked. To the left of the steering column is a small compartment and at the rear is a much larger storage bin. Steel racks are found at both ends.

Front end geometry makes the Foreman very stable, but also a little hard to turn. We prefer the model with Electronic Power Steering. The shocks were adequate for most trails, but at fast speeds the back end can get a little bouncy. We also found the rubber brake lines can be spongy at times.

The Honda Foreman is the working mans ATV. Most see almost no regular maintenance yet take more abuse than a government mule, and unless they’ve been backed over by something much bigger they’re ready to go every morning. They may not be the fastest or most sporty ATV in the class, but they never give up.


Kawasaki Brute Force 650 4x4i, Kawasaki Brute Force 650 4x4

Kawasaki could have named their Brute Force ATV lineup “Brute Torque”. It's as if all the Brute Force models think they're a big bore sport ATV trapped in the wrong bodywork and there is a race to win after the work is done.2010.kawasaki.bute-force650.green_.front_.riding.on-trail.jpg

The power behind the Brute Force 650 4x4 and 650 4x4i is a liquid cooled, 633cc 90 degree, V-twin engine fed by dual 32mm Keihin carburetors. The air intake tract is located high in the frame to help keep out any dirt, and inside the engine Kawasaki uses aluminum cylinders with an electrofusion coating to help produce more power, and to disperse engine heat. A high capacity radiator is used as well.

Transferring the power to the wheels is the Kawasaki Automatic Powerdrive System (KAPS) CVT transmission with low and high range, neutral and reverse. We've found the transmission always shifts very well and has been highly dependable, providing excellent control. Power is delivered through a shaft drive system, and on the 650 4x4 that means the shaft runs inside the rear swingarm, while on the 650 4x4i it runs between the frame rails on the independent rear suspension.

Even when sitting still the Brute Force looks rugged. The fenders provide excellent splash protection, the foot wells are large, and the seat is comfortable. Controls are mounted on a comfortable set of handlebars, and there’s a switch on the right handlebar to activate the limited slip 4WD system. On the left handlebar is a small lever for the front differential which works progressively. The more you pull, the more the front engages. The front headlight pod includes a digital speedometer, odometer, twin trip meters, clock, hour meter, and fuel gauge. Storage is important, and there is a waterproof box on the left front fender, and a mesh pocket on the right. Both the front and rear racks can haul a combined weight of 264 pounds.

The difference between the Brute Force 650 4x4i and 650 4x4 is the suspension. The 650 4x4i model comes with dual A-arms at both ends and IRS, while the 650 4x4 comes with a solid rear axle, cast aluminum swing arm, and MacPherson struts at the front. Handling on each machine is very good, and about the only advantage is the 650 4x4i offered a little extra ground clearance and comfort, but each unit will get you through the rough trails. Both models have a nimble, point and shoot feel which is unusual for a utility ATV, and the only time we found the limits of the Brute Force suspension was in long, rutted sections.

The Kawasaki Brute Force 650 4x4i and 650 4x4 perform extremely well. All of the engines put out amazing power and offer tons of controlled torque. They're ready and well equipped for work or play.