Decisions, Decisions

By: Army Man
Questions about which ATV to buy, youíve all heard them before. Theyíve come from a buddy, a relative, or even another web crawler. You may have even posed them yourself. They usually go something like this...

"Iím eight years old, four foot two and weigh 55 pounds. What would be a good ATV for me to buy?", or "Iím twenty eight years old, seven foot four and weigh 395 pounds. What would be a good ATV for me to buy?"

Indeed, what would be a "good" ATV for fellows like these? With such limited information, the best anyone can do is hazard a guess. In the first case, any 50/80cc mini-quad sounds about right, and in the second case... how about a Caterpillar D9, or maybe an M4 Sherman tank?

Itís not really an easy question to answer, is it? The key here is the use of the word "good". My Websterís New World Dictionary lists 14 definitions for the word "good". The first of which is "suitable to a purpose". There is a broad spectrum of ATVs available for a broad spectrum of uses. While the framer of the question probably had some thought regarding the quadís intended use, he certainly did not articulate it clearly. Our decision making journey begins here with intended use, more specifically, primary intended use. What is it you plan to do with your ATV four times out of five? Intended use might be dependent on the kind of riding terrain near your home, or on what type of quads your buddies ride, or on any of a myriad of other factors. Only you can determine the appropriate use for your ATV, but that decision will drive all remaining decisions.
Are you in a quandary about which quad to buy? Do you feel as if you are comparing apples and oranges when attempting to evaluate similar features on different machines, even when they are within the same product line? Are you wondering if a model upgrade is worth the extra bucks? If you are mildly confused, or if you just plain donít have a clue, then I cordially invite you to look over my shoulder as I wind my way through the process of buying my first ATV. I will endeavor to be informative, entertaining, and, hopefully, instructive, so you come away with a few useful tips and techniques to aid your own decision making process.
Let me introduce myself. My nom de guerre, or "handle" in the lingua franca of the web, is "Army Man". A moniker hung on me by a less than sober friend of my younger brother. This event occurred in the spring of 1971 at a party to celebrate my return to civilian life after three years of military service. The moniker has stuck with me ever since. While in the Army I was a helicopter avionics repair specialist plying my trade in various parts of South East Asia for nearly two straight years. Iíve been employed as a chemist doing quality control work on nuclear fuel for the Light Water Breeder Reactor developed by the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. I was later employed as a chemist working with fluid bed catalysts for the production of maleic anhydride, a plastics precursor, from butane. And Iím now employed as a computer systems analyst and bank officer. I have spent most of my professional life engaged in problem identification and resolution, and the sifting and correlation of data to expressly quantify fine differences in order to facilitate decision making. Come with me now as I begin my deliberations by considering what the primary intended use for my quad will be.
Iíve ridden street and dirt motorcycles for 33 years. I currently own an Ď87 Kawasaki ZG1000 Concours sport-tourer and an Ď88 Honda NX250 dual-sport. These motorcycles represent the best combination of features and performance for the kind of riding I do. The Concours is not a lumbering land-yacht like a full dress touring bike, nor is it the chiropractorís best friend like an all-out sport bike. Itís big enough to be comfortable, though at 6 feet 2 inches I get a lot of wind noise over the top of the windshield, and itís compact enough for my semi-spirited sport riding. I use the Honda for mild dirt riding, backwoods exploring, and short trips around town. It has no problem keeping up with expressway traffic and it has all the street-legal accessories that allow me to ride it, rather than truck it, to the woods.
The entrance to several square miles of great dirt riding lies exactly one mile from my house. This area, locally known as "40 acres", is perched on a series of hilltops along Route 837 a mere five miles from Three Rivers Stadium and the center of downtown Pittsburgh. It consists of gas and electric utility right-of-way and their poorly maintained access roads. It has proto residential streets that were roughly carved out by bulldozers long ago and then abandoned. It has abandoned slag dumps. Pittsburgh was once the steel capital of the world and the detritus of over a century of steel making still abounds. It is punctuated by steep hills, valleys and small streams. In places it is bounded by near vertical drop-offs that terminate at Route 837 and the Monongahela River. In other words, itís a perfect dirt riders paradise. I had begun exploring this dirt riders paradise several years before on my NX250. While I had covered most of the main trails, there were still many areas I wished to explore further.
The Honda doesnít lack for power, but its street bias tires, and my reluctance to get into areas of deep mud and brush, were preventing me from exploring all of the places that I wanted to go. I initially considered acquiring a somewhat larger pure dirt bike, but quickly rejected the idea because another bike, no matter how dirt oriented, would still have some of the same problems the Honda does, namely, limited carrying capacity and no real brush-busting ability. It would also have the added inconvenience of not being street-legal. I would have to truck it to wherever I was going to ride it. A bigger dirt bike wasnít going to solve my problem.
I came upon the solution to my problem almost by accident. I was browsing through the motorcycle magazines at the newsstand when I encountered a copy of Dirt Wheels magazine. There on the cover was the answer to my problem, an All Terrain Vehicle. If I was going to have to truck something to the woods, it would at least be something with some serious carrying capacity and much better mud and brush capability than any dirt bike. I bought the July Ď95 issue of Dirt Wheels and the Dirt Wheels 1995 Buyers Guide. I read and reread the articles and descriptions turning the facts over in my mind again and again until I had virtually memorized the contents of both magazines.
I spent hours contemplating just how I might use a quad to explore "40 Acres" to the fullest extent possible. I even rode my NX250 to the end of several small side trails, parked it, and walked around for an hour just to familiarize myself the type of terrain I would encounter. Finally, after several days, during which I thought of little else, I had the scope of my quadís primary intended use clearly and concisely defined. I wanted to be able to do the following things:

(1) Bulldoze through the brush and mud that I now consciously choose to avoid.
(2) Pack a lot of gear that I couldnít possibly put on the NX250.
(3) Engage in semi-spirited trail riding and hill climbing.
(4) Sit down and enjoy the scenery.
(5) Within reason, not worry about losing my balance while doing it.

I could now proceed to the next step of the project, selecting a machine type that would best satisfy the requirements of my primary intended use. After several days of reading, I had a good handle on the various types of ATVs available. I ruled out the sport quad type because it had no luggage racks and its speed potential would be wasted in the areas of dense brush that I planned to explore. The sport/utility quad type would function considerably better than the pure sport variety, but its limited rack space and woefully inadequate fenders, that didnít appear capable of keeping me clean and dry, ruled it out as well. Within the well defined bounds of my primary intended use, I decided that the utility type quad best suited my needs.
This brings us to secondary intended use. Secondary intended use is what you plan to do with your quad that fifth time out of five. Secondary intended use is what you tell your wife or parents the machine could be used for. Itís a great selling tool. And make no mistake, youíll need all the ammunition you can get when "selling" the wife on the idea that you need, in her opinion, yet another toy. In my case, I said "Just think honey, your poor widowed mother will no longer have to shovel snow from her driveway. I can put a plow on this thing that will make short work of her driveway and ours". Iíve lived to regret saying it, but thatís another story.
I began searching the want ads for a good used ATV. For over 25 years I have made used vehicles my vehicle of choice. I have always been more than willing to let someone else take the depreciation hit and still get a great vehicle by looking for a late model, low mileage, mint condition example. For example, the Concours was two years old, had 7900 miles on it, and was purchased for $3100. At that time a new Concours cost $8000. The NX250 was two years old, had 3200 miles on it, and was purchased for $1200. At that time a new NX250 cost $2800. Both have served me exceptionally well.
I quickly discovered that there is no such thing as a used ATV that could meet my rather stringent used vehicle criteria. Unlike motorcycles, people seem to keep quads forever. There were never more than a handful offered for sale in the local papers. And late model, low mileage, mint condition examples were offered at outrageous prices. Many were so badly abused they were not worth buying regardless of price. If I was going to have to pay nearly the price of a new one anyway, then I may as well buy a new one and get a warranty.
I initially focused my attention on the small displacement 2WD models. As a first time user, my idea was to enter the sport as cheaply as possible. My first choice was the Yamaha Timberwolf. It had received very high marks in the Dirt Wheels Buyers Guide. But a quick comparison of the 220/250cc class quads with the 300cc class quads showed the 300s to have the advantage. For about 14% more money, I could get 20% more displacement with little or no increase in weight. Then a 300 it is, or is it? I thought I had the matter settled. But upon further reflection as to how the ATV might be used, thereís that primary intended use again, I began looking at the 4WD models. Once again I quickly discovered that if I were to buy a 4WD ATV it made no sense to look at the 250/300cc class vehicles because they were no more powerful than their 2WD cousins, weighed anywhere from 75 to 100 pounds more, and had the added complexity of multiple gear ranges. In the end, cheap went by the boards as it became obvious that the logical choice was a 400cc model, but which one?
As luck would have it, the July Ď95 issue of Dirt Wheels featured a road test of four different 400cc 4WD utility ATVs... the Honda Foreman, the Kawasaki Bayou, the Polaris Xplorer, and the Yamaha Kodiak. I must have read and reread the article a dozen times as I mulled over the facts and conclusions presented by the testers. Of the four ATVs tested, I eliminated two of them from consideration based solely on the results of the Dirt Wheels road test. I eliminated the Yamaha because it finished last in the road test, it had a decidedly under-powered engine (a fact confirmed by a road test of a Ď96 model Kodiak in the September Ď95 issue of 3 & 4 Wheel Action), and it was unstable enough to suffer a tip-over. I eliminated the Polaris Xplorer even though it finished second ahead of the Bayou and the Kodiak, had the lowest list price, the most powerful engine, and the best suspension. I eliminated it because it was a two-stroke with no compression braking, it had an integrated braking system that no tester liked, and it used chain drive. For me, chain drive on a utility ATV is a problem waiting to happen. I decided that any quad I bought must have shaft drive.
In the Dirt Wheels test the Kawasaki Bayou only finished third, but Dirt Wheels seemed to lean heavily toward all-out performance and handling in arriving at their conclusion. Though they did concede that the Bayouís suspension worked best in the slow technical sections of the road test, they also said it had a more lumbering feel than the top finishers. But they didnít factor in some things that I feel are equally important as performance and handling. No one operates any vehicle flat-out all the time. In the case of utility ATVs, most, if not all, will spend the vast majority of their lives at less than warp speed.
The initial winnowing process left the Honda Foreman and the Kawasaki Bayou vying for my consideration. The Honda finished first in the road test and was praised by all testers. The Honda had great handling, an engine nearly as powerful as the Bayou, a unique drivetrain layout, a slightly lower list price, and a 65 pound wet weight advantage. But the Honda had some negative aspects, and the Kawasaki some positive aspects, that werenít addressed by the road test. Based solely on the road test, I really had a hard time deciding between the Foreman and the Bayou. The following were additional criteria I used to help make my decision:
Engine performance:
The road test indicated that races and trailer pulls between the Foreman and the Bayou were a tie. Assuming riders of equal weight, the Bayou was able to propel 65 pounds more weight to the same velocity as the Foreman. This indicates the Bayou has somewhat more real horsepower and torque than the Foreman. Also the specifications show the Hondaís peak torque occurring at 6000 rpm and the Kawasakiís at 5000 rpm. In view of the Hondaís more oversquare bore and stroke this is not surprising. It also points out that the Kawasaki delivers more power in the low and mid-ranges where most real-world riding and pulling take place. Advantage Kawasaki.
Trailer pulling ability and carrying capacity:
Trailer pulling ability was not quantitatively measured by the road test. They provided neither gross weight nor tongue weight. The specifications indicate the Bayou can pull 252 pounds more than the Foreman at nearly triple the tongue weight, 88 lb. vs. 30 lb. The Bayou has a larger rear luggage rack, but smaller front luggage rack than the Foreman. However, you are more likely to carry a large load on the rear rack than on the front rack where it could block your vision. Advantage Kawasaki.
Engine cooling and engine noise:
The Kawasaki uses liquid cooling the Honda air/oil cooling. For a vehicle most often used at low or slow speeds for long periods of time, liquid cooling is far superior. Liquid cooling also damps mechanical noise that tends to radiate off the fins of an air cooled engine. Advantage Kawasaki.
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