Crunch! Clang! Pop! The sounds resonating from the underbellies of six utility quads as we slogged through the heart of Pennsylvania's coal country could have filled the pages of an old Batman comic book during a fight sequence. Screech! went the brakes on long, slippery descents. Whack! said the front racks as we blew through tight turns and slammed into rock-hard oak trees. Scrunch! moaned the skid plates as we tried to punch right through them with sharp-edged, gnarly piles of rocks. Hot exhaust systems hissed and sizzled like bacon in a frying pan as we plunged into icy creeks and mud holes. Four-wheel-drive and locking front differentials churned through milkshake-consistency slop as ATV Rider invaded the East Coast for some utility testing.
In short, we rode the hell out of these machines over three days, riding them as if we'd stolen them and then laughed at one another about each broken grille, steaming radiator, lost plastic fender rivet and sheared-off trailer hitch all the way back to the trailhead. The 450cc 4x4 utility market is hotly contested and full of bravado and swagger-just look at the advertising. One manufacturer claims its ATVs are the "Best On Earth." Another popular brand uses rough-and-tumble professional bull riders to endorse its machines. A third has stated about its quads, "There ain't an ounce of turn-back in 'em." Finally, another bigwig from an American manufacturer even challenged other company CEOs to a "duel" to settle, once and for all, who builds the best ATVs. That's all fine talk for the dealership showroom, of course, but what about where the rubber meets the trail? Can any of these six ATVs really back up that kind of braggadocio, or is it all just a figment of their respective marketing departments' imaginations?
That's where we come in. It would have been easy for the ATV Rider staff to stay in sunny California and go on a trail ride, engage four-wheel-drive a few times, form a hasty opinion and call it good. Instead, we traveled cross-country to Rausch Creek Motorsports in Valley View, Pennsylvania, and assembled a ragtag group of ATV test monkeys to batter away at what the industry has to offer, punching a time clock for a few days with what many consider to be the blue-collar, everyman ATV: the 400-450cc 4x4 utility. We tested the Honda Rancher 420 ES, Yamaha Grizzly 450, Suzuki KingQuad 450, Can-Am Outlander 400, Arctic Cat 400 and the Polaris Sportsman 450 ... all of which were equipped with four-wheel-drive, and some with locking front differentials.
Some of our testers were tall and skinny; some shorter and ... not so skinny. Some were highly skilled, and some were clumsy and inept, like yours truly. We both worked and played on all six machines to give you the most accurate idea of which model is most deserving of a spot in your garage, while testing in ways abusive enough to make engineers break clipboards over their knees in disgust. Enjoy!
Arctic Cat 400 Automatic
Decked out in lime green and brandishing a front grille reminiscent of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Arctic Cat 400 4x4 Automatic was easy on the eyes of some of our testers. Speaking of easy, the $5949 Arctic Cat started faster than wildfire. Without even using the choke, the 400 purred away about half a second after pressing the starter button. This was impressive, considering that daytime temperatures in Valley View hovered in the 20s and 30s, and the Arctic Cat is carbureted. This Cat has some long legs, too; it boasts a foot of ground clearance (which is best in class), and we were hard-pressed to get it to scrape over obstacles that hung up and momentarily stopped forward progress on other ATVs.
Unfortunately, those are about the only good things we have to say about the Arctic Cat 400 4x4 Automatic. Those of you who like to ride your ATV faster than 20 mph will find the Arctic Cat a disappointment because the general consensus among our group is that the 400 just ... won't ... turn. Period. We were as patient as could be with the Arctic Cat, blaming the tire pressure first. We checked, and the pressure was correct. Then, we blamed the tires themselves. The Goodyear Rawhides that are stock equipment on the Arctic Cat 400 aren't the best tires in the world, but they're not $20 Wal-Mart specials, either. We finally blamed each other for not leaning into the turns hard enough, but after quickly passing the Cat around among ourselves, we came to the conclusion that the steering geometry needs a complete redesign. Perhaps there is too much positive caster in the design that makes the 400 want to track so straight and true ... even when you don't want it to.
After being impressed by the sporty Arctic Cat DVX 400 in last month's issue, we were hoping for similar catlike reflexes from A.C.'s 400 4x4 utility. But the truth is that, compared to smaller and more nimble quads in this test, this kitty wallows in the turns like a house cat that just ate a bunch of Thanksgiving leftovers. On the bright side, a convenient, easy-to-access storage box sits right on top of the airbox, and a better-than-usual tool kit is hidden under the seat. Shifting the 400 into gear was pretty painless, and a 2-inch receiver hitch and stout frame let us know that this machine is ready for work. However, ergonomic quibbles, like only one brake lever on the handlebar, a foot-operated rear brake pedal that sits ridiculously high and a diff-lock lever that requires the rider to remove his or her right hand from the handlebar instead of just pressing a button with a thumb cost the Arctic Cat some points. The 376cc engine also seemed a little outgunned compared to the competition.
Who will like the Arctic Cat? Mudders. We have no doubt that we'll be seeing plenty of Arctic Cats at the Mud Nationals in Texas (look for that story in next month's issue). With the best ground clearance and a beefy frame, it's no wonder so many people choose Arctic Cats as a starting point for their wild, one-off, mud-bogging creations. For the rest of us who want to do a little trail-riding without experiencing excessive "pushing" through turns and stiff suspension, there are better choices than the 400 4x4 Automatic. It's not that the A.C. is a terrible quad by any means; it's just that the competition has stepped up their game, making the 400 feel about a generation behind.
Can-Am Outlander 400
We Can-Am, can you? What impressed us most about the buttery yellow $6299 Can-Am Outlander 400 was the Rotax engine. Even though it was pitted against 450cc models, the 400cc Rotax proved to be a scrappy contender in the power department. We were initially hoping that the Outlander 400's engine was the awesome, fuel-injected 800cc V-twin from the Outlander 800 cut in half. Alas, the 400 comes with carburetion. But it started easily enough, ran well and had that throaty, husky Can-Am engine growl without being overly loud.
The Outlander 400's four-wheel-drive system features a Visco-Lok locking front differential. Visco-Lok progressively transfers power from a spinning wheel to one with more traction. This happens automatically, and is one less thing to worry about when maneuvering through a slippery section of trail. The 4WD switch snicked into place easily, and the other controls in the cockpit were laid out well.
Although the 400 steers pretty well and has a nice ride, braking seemed to be a chink in its armor. When stopping hard (which was pretty much every stop for us!), the brakes made a horrible grinding sound, the same thing happened after a quick dunk across a creek. The one-lever brake system was universally panned among our test crew, yet we had to admit that the lever did feel very firm and gave us confidence. We'd like the Can-Am a lot better if we had individual control over the front and rear brakes with another lever on the handlebar.
Shifting the Outlander into gear was trouble-free, and it features nice storage room. The cargo racks worked well, and the seat is comfortable. So why aren't we gushing about the Can-Am Outlander 400? Something about the overall riding experience just didn't do it for us. Maybe the suspension was too pillowy, or the seat was too wide toward the back. Other machines in the group seemed to give a more spirited riding experience, overall.
Honda FourTrax Rancher 420 ES
Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't. With apologies to the people at Almond Joy and Mounds, sometimes you feel like shifting, and sometimes you don't. The all-new $5499 Honda Rancher 420 proved to be the most polarizing ATV in the bunch. Some loved the ESP (Electric Shift Program), while some wanted a totally automatic riding experience. There wasn't, however, any debate about whether or not ESP works, because it does-every time. Well, almost every time; the one incident in which we noticed that the Rancher 420 wouldn't upshift was while we were yanking half a ton of loaded trailer through a mud hole at full throttle, so we'll cut Honda some slack here. The other 99.99 percent of the time, ESP shifts crisply and precisely, whether you back off the throttle for a quarter of a second or shift under full throttle.
While CVT transmissions can have a vague and somewhat disconnected feeling, the five-speed, electric shifting Rancher provides a "direct-drive" sensation that makes it feel sportier than the competition and really makes the most of its 420cc, fuel-injected powerplant. For steep, slippery descents in snowy Pennsylvania, simply pushing a button to downshift and gain additional engine braking was a welcome feature. Conversely, if we wanted to "wind her out" a bit and hit the rev-limiter before shifting, we had control over that, too.
The new Rancher 420 has very quick handling, which is a definite improvement over the last generation Rancher. We were pleased to see two brake levers on the handlebar to give us individual control over front and rear. Though the front brake feels firm because it's a dual hydraulic disc, the rear mechanical drum brake feels wimpy, and the lever must be squeezed until it almost touches the grip before you feel you're actually applying any braking action. A chintzy storage compartment in the back doesn't hold much, and there is no button on the handlebar to engage and disengage 4WD. Rather, you must take your left hand off the bar and move a lever on the left-front fender-a feature everyone hated. When the going got rough, we found ourselves instinctively stabbing at the handlebar with our thumbs, hoping to find a 4WD button not there.
The Honda Rancher ES is the only ATV in this test with a solid rear axle; every other quad had independent rear suspension. Some riders liked the sporty ride that the solid rear axle delivered, and some thought it was beating their lower back into submission. The reverse mechanism wasn't too hard to master, but there is still some room for improvement to make the process feel a little more natural. We'd like to be able to downshift from first into neutral and then into reverse without having to press a button near the rear brake lever and hold it down while squeezing the lever, though that's still better than twisting a knob as on most sport quads. These are minor faults-but enough to bar the Honda from the top spot.
Polaris Sportsman 450
Our number one choice for work, the $6299 Polaris Sportsman 450 shined in the slop, its AWD churning frozen mud and ice into frosty goo while never losing forward momentum. Its locomotive powerplant kept the Sportsman chugging through whatever we steered into. Yanking an overloaded trailer through a mud pit was no problem. The Polaris' seat was quite comfy-a must for a day spent working in the saddle. Although cushy, some testers found its seat and midsection to have a wide feeling. "I just can't slide around and maneuver as easily as I can on the skinnier quads," one rider commented.
The front rack is very handy and trumped those found on the competition. It folds open to offer cavernous storage, and shuts quickly and simply. However, the rack holes themselves need work-both front and rear. There are plenty of holes in the racks, which at first appear to make tying something down a cinch, but almost all of them are useless. Try attaching a tiedown hook through any of them, and you'll be disappointed. Our only option was to hook the tiedown to the outside edge of the rack, but the massive section of telephone pole that we strapped on the back quickly overstressed and bent the plastic racks. An engineer would call that "beyond advertised specifications"; we call it "real world."
Getting the Polaris to stop is easy enough, but as with the Arctic Cat and Can-Am, our crew cussed the Polaris' one-lever braking. "I need independent control of my brakes. Squeezing one lever, shifting my weight and hoping for the best during a long downhill doesn't cut it!" one tester scribbled in his notepad. Like the Arctic Cat, the Sportsman 450's rear brake lever on the floorboard sits up unusually high to the point of being a nuisance.
Supple suspension, good ground clearance and a powerful engine made the Polaris Sportsman 450 a contender for the trail riding crown as well. So why didn't it win? The large, utilitarian bodywork coupled with the single-lever braking held the Polaris back. It just wasn't as fun to ride fast as other ATVs in the test. Also noted by the test squad was the Sportsman's fit and finish. Maybe it's the way the switches don't "snick" into place with a quality click like the Japanese ATVs, or maybe it's the way the shifter stubbornly went into gear sometimes. Despite the Polaris not feeling as tight off the showroom floor as other quads, the staff at Rausch Creek loves its Sportsman 800-battle-hardened with a few thousand miles on it. "Those are Rausch Creek miles, mind you!" one staffer said. We'll take their word for it, and we have no doubt that Polaris will sell plenty of Sportsman 450 4x4s this summer.
Suzuki KingQuad 450
It's like silk. It's like butter. Smooth as glass. However you want to put it, the KingQuad's shifter was easy like Sunday morning and should be the industry standard. Suzuki makes gettin' her in gear and hitting the trail a cinch. The KingQuad's fuel-injected 454cc engine motored us around at a brisk pace and was definitely no slug.
A convenient front storage compartment on the right-front fender has a lid that simply twists off for access to a water bottle, candy bar or whatever you want to cram in there. In back, there's another box that's bigger than the rest, giving the $6799 KingQuad excellent marks for storage to put a tow strap, tiedown or various tools. Bringing along a tow strap is a good idea because, with an excellent four-wheel-drive system and front diff-lock that's easy to engage, odds are you'll be using said strap to pull your buddies out of a stuck situation.
Ergonomics on the KingQuad 450 just made sense. There was no question about where anything was, which is nice during a panic situation. An intuitive, practical layout means both hands stay on the bar where they should be, instead of reaching over to fiddle with a lever or stuck switch. One minor quibble is a mushy rear brake pedal on the left-hand side of the bar. Rounding out the Suzuki's cockpit is a best-in-class seat that felt downright pillowy compared to the others.
When it was time to work, the Suzuki's small front rack costed it a few points. The KingQuad 450's overall work ethic was good, though, and it finished second when asked to pull or haul loads. It's fun to ride on the trails as well, so it's definitely worth looking over at a dealer before you make your ATV-buying decision. You're probably wondering, "Why didn't it finish number one in either category?"
The answer lies in the frame and suspension. The truth is that the Suzuki KingQuad 450 is essentially the same ATV as the KingQuad 700, but with a smaller engine. Something about that just rubbed some of our testers the wrong way: "It felt wide and bulky in the middle and not as light and flickable as other machines in this test," one rider said. In our opinion, if Suzuki would develop a chassis specifically for the 450 market instead of slapping a smaller engine into the KingQuad 700's body, the company would have a slam dunk on its hands in the midsize market. However, the Yamaha Grizzly 450 and Honda Rancher 420 turned more sharply, maneuvered more quickly and felt slimmer in tight trees because they have their own frames and plastic instead of borrowing from the Grizzly 700 and Rincon 680, respectively (thank goodness).
Yamaha Grizzly 450 Automatic
No one dreaded spending time aboard the $6299 Yamaha Grizzly 450. The Yamaha has a chassis that acts more like a playful cub than a full-grown adult bear, and trail riding the Grizzly 450 4x4 is just plain fun. The best brakes in the class can be found on the Yamaha, with hydraulic discs front and rear. No mush here-the Grizz stops quickly, and the levers are nice and firm. Four-wheel-drive and diff-lock buttons are well-placed, and the machine had an excellent crawling ability over Pennsylvania coal country's toughest obstacles.
The CVT transmission seemed slower to some of us. Yet when drag-racing Yamaha rep Pat Biolsi up a slippery, snow-covered power line hill in 4WD from a dead stop, Biolsi's Yamaha was dead even with the Honda, even though the Honda felt faster due to the crisp ESP shifting mentioned earlier in this article. We switched seats and raced again to eliminate operator error as a factor, and once again the two machines were dead even.
A thorn in the paw of this bruin is the shifter. The shifting pattern and mechanism is reminiscent of the older Grizzly 660, and it's just annoying. First, you have to step on the rear brake to engage the shift interlock mechanism; squeezing the front brake won't work. Then you must move the shifter down and over in a confusing pattern printed in small type on the shifter knob. After a water break on the trail, the Suzuki KingQuad was 50 feet down the trail before the Grizzly ever got in gear.
The engine propelled us very nicely, but its carbureted engine seemed slightly louder than any of the others. After stepping off of the Rancher and onto the Grizzly, some of our gang noticed more engine drone inside their helmets. It'll be interesting to see if Yamaha introduces fuel injection into the Grizzly 450 for 2008; in the meantime, the carbureted Grizzly gave us no starting or running problems during its tenure at the hands of our abusive testers.
When it came time to work, the Yamaha's racks were very well designed and easy to use, but the soft suspension that made the 450 such a blast on the trail handicapped it when loaded down or towing. Breaking the hitch tab during our towing test didn't cost it points and gained all of us some engineering knowledge. The $20 part is designed to snap under excessive stress, saving the rest of the frame from a major tweak-the same reason others had small tubing on their hitch receivers.
The Yamaha edges out the Honda Rancher 420 4x4 by a nose when it comes to play-riding. Although some of us still prefer to shift things manually, we're betting that most of you have a "pin-and-grin" mentality and just want to shift it in "drive" and go. The best trail-handling, the best brakes and good power mean that Yamaha's Grizzly 450 is a 4x4 utility ATV package that's too fun to ignore.
Today's ATVs are much more capable than those from a decade ago. With that, the trails get tougher, the skid plates become thicker, and the prices of new quads climb higher. Plonking down some cash on a new ATV is nothing to sneeze at, so choose wisely. Which one is for you? As usual, it all depends on what type of riding you plan to do, so we recommend browsing as many dealerships as possible. Flying back into Los Angeles allowed us to thaw out from the East Coast weather, but we'll be back next year, putting more utilities under the microscope and pushing the envelope of destruction, the ATV Rider way. Crunch! Clang! Pop!