Suzuki QuadSport Z400
The Suzuki Z400's black plastic looks awesome when freshly washed and wiped down with silicone spray. But as we all know, ATVs don't stay clean for long, and a bunch of swirl marks and other little scratches showed up as clear as day on the Z after just a couple of rides. Its T-shaped seat is slimmer and racier than the Arctic Cat's and is actually designed with some comfort in mind. If you're the type of rider who appreciates power in the upper-rpm range and likes lots of it, the Arctic Cat or the Suzuki is for you-just pick your favorite color. Holding the throttle open while skimming across the crest of a virgin sand dune is a blast on both of these bikes, while the Honda's torquier engine runs out of breath at higher rpm. Skilled riders who don't mind working the clutch to stay in the perfect gear will find the Suzuki and the Arctic Cat right up their alley. But it should be noted that both of these machines also have fussy parking brakes.
Kymco Mongoose 300
Fun and eager to please-that's the Kymco Mongoose 300 in a nutshell. In the engine department, this Mongoose lacks sharp teeth to compete with the Honda 300EX, but its easy-to-use automatic transmission will please beginners who would otherwise be frustrated with a manual clutch and lose interest in riding. Even under riders with any serious skills (or weight), the Mongoose just couldn't pull itself up big sand dunes. Part of that has to do with the CVT transmission sucking up some of the power, but the main reason is that at 270cc, the Mongoose's engine isn't that much larger than a 250's. The suspension bottoms out very easily, but then again, this is an entry-level quad and we didn't expect much in the first place. It's also a very cold-blooded machine-an experienced rider should take the Kymco out for a couple of minutes to warm it up before handing it off to a beginner; otherwise, the machine will constantly stall when shifted into drive and the newbie will lose confidence in his ability. At $3649, the Mongoose 300 is a whopping $1250 cheaper than its closest rival, the Honda 300EX, and $1350 cheaper than a Yamaha Raptor 350. The build quality was better than expected, though the chain did stretch easily and the transmission occasionally ground horribly when the machine was shifted from a dead stop. Is the Mongoose a bargain? That depends-is there a Kymco dealer near you? Parts availability for Kymcos in your area could be the deciding factor on whether to buy a Mongoose or ante up and go for the Honda or Yamaha. The Taiwanese-made Kymco isn't quite up to par with Japanese ATVs in terms of power yet, but don't mistake it for a Chinese junk quad you can buy at Pep Boys for $500. This company is an up-and-comer in the competitive ATV market.
Here's an ATV that feels closer to the Raptor's 350cc than the 300 it's equipped with. Like its older brother, the 400EX, the Honda 300 has a torquey, air-cooled engine. This torque played an important role in chugging us around, and more than one tester was surprised to find it was "only" a 300. It stopped well, turned pretty quickly and was a hoot to wheelie and just goof around on. With its typical Honda build quality, this ATV can probably take years of brutal punishment from beginners and keep on ticking. A revised reverse gear mechanism makes backing up an easier affair than it once was, and fresh bodywork gives the little Honda a more-modern makeover. It was a balanced machine with all the parts working in harmony; the suspension was just right for a 300 and was always predictable. "Performance First" may be one of Honda's slogans, but the 300EX's motto is "Fun First."
Yamaha Raptor 350
It's hard to argue with an extra 50cc of displacement-that's how much the Raptor 350 has over its competition. The Raptor's plush suspension, Cadillac-cushy seat and likable engine earned it a fan base right away with our testers. The Yamaha bridges the gap in entry-level performance and full-on power of the 400cc machines. The Raptor's simple, easy-to-use parking brake lever is hands down the best in the business, but the reverse was awkward and difficult to engage. While all other machines (except the automatic Kymco) used a twist dial to engage reverse, Yamaha makes the rider reach underneath the gas tank and lift up, then back, on a T-shaped handle. It doesn't feel natural, and some gear grinding occurred as we attempted to engage reverse. The Raptor sports a six-speed manual transmission, while the Honda 300EX has a five-speed and the Kymco an automatic CVT transmission. If you manage to ride this ATV fast enough to actually need sixth gear, you're outriding the suspension by a long shot and are probably on the verge of crashing big-time-but nevertheless, it's nice to have options.