They are one-third the size and cost of your pickup, yet around the farm, they can be far more valuable because of their versatility and functionality. That’s why multi-passenger all-terrain vehicles, more commonly known as “side-by-sides” or “UTVs,” are becoming as common a sight in rural America as compact tractors, maybe even more so. Although the blindingly fast sport-model side-by-sides feed the need for speed, it’s the slower, work-oriented UTVs and sport-utility models that rule the day if you are a land-owning country dweller.
UTVs can typically tow more than half a ton, carry 500 or more pounds in their manual-tilt beds, and be easily outfitted with a host of accessories including front and rear blades, three-point hitches, enclosed cabs, heaters, cargo racks, winches, and lights. They are akin to driving a miniature Jeep, and many come equipped with electric power steering, tilt-steering wheels, all-wheel-drive, and disc brakes.
These compact, agile, fuel-efficient, go-anywhere machines can be accessorized to handle any number of work-related tasks landowners face from plowing roads to herding cattle, hauling firewood to cultivating crops, towing trailers to winching. And when the work is done, they provide a safe, fun, comfortable means for family and friends to explore the great outdoors, be that hunting, fishing, camping, or off-roading.
The biggest challenge facing first-time UTV buyers is sorting out which model is going to be the best fit. Buying a UTV is just like buying a pickup — let your needs dictate the size and style. To that end, there’re a few areas to pay special attention to when side-by-side shopping:
Bed: The bed on UTVs is often overlooked at purchase, yet it quickly becomes the most used item once the machine reaches the homestead. Is it big enough to handle a load of cut-to-length firewood stacked tight and tidy, or hold a couple bales of hay within the bedsides? Is the bed designed to accept side racks and accessories so you can quickly and easily change it up to do some other tasks? How easily does it tilt with a heavy load such as sand, gravel, or dirt? How much weight can be placed on the tailgate in case something heavy is set on it?
Seats: The second most overlooked item many first-time buyers don’t pay enough attention to is the seats. But after spending a couple hours driving, seat comfort and support play a big role in driver fatigue. Is the driver’s seat slide-adjustable, so the taller driver can get comfortable? Does the seatback tilt? Are the seats comfortable in both width and padding? When the seat is adjusted, does it feel like you are driving a tractor or your pickup? The latter is what you want if you’re going to be using a side-by-side for more than just a few daily trips to the barn and back to the house.
Hitch: Most of today’s UTVs come equipped with a hitch, and they are rated anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 pounds towing capacity. Is it a 2-inch receiver tube, which is the common size for most trailers? Is the UTV rated to tow the trailer(s) or tow-behind equipment you have in mind for your particular needs? Does the UTV you are eyeing have the hitch accessories and attachments for cultivating, plowing, seeding, or sprayers? Even the smallest of utility trailers can easily have a loaded weight of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds.
Suspension: Here’s where test rides play a big role. Take the UTVs and side-by-sides you’re considering for a test ride over ground off the paved or graveled surface of the dealer’s lot. If you are going to be driving over pastures and farmland, the terrain is far from smooth. Ride becomes paramount to safety, control, and comfort. How much suspension travel, front and rear? One or 2 inches more travel between one machine and another makes a big difference in ride quality. Are the shocks adjustable so you can control the ride quality when towing heavy or have the bed loaded? If you’re going to be towing a lot or hauling heavy material in the bed, a self-leveling rear suspension is nice. Is the machine four-wheel independent suspension or does it have a solid rear axle? The latter are cheaper to purchase, but the trade-off is a considerably rougher ride than their independent suspended counterparts.
Engine: Most of today’s side-by-sides are powered by four-stroke gas engines. But diesel and electric models are available. Diesels are a great alternative for larger farms and ranches where other farm equipment is diesel. Diesel UTVs are typically limited to top speeds less than 40 mph, so traversing long distances isn’t nearly as quick as the gas models that can top 60 mph (although 60 in a UTV feels very fast). Diesels are big on low-end torque, which is good for towing and ag-related work. Electric UTVs are slowly coming to market. They are virtually silent running, and that stealthiness is a big attraction to hunters. They are also marketed as eco-friendly. The downside to electric UTVs is high initial cost, shorter operating range before recharging is needed, significant recharge times, heavy curb weight, and the high cost of replacing a bank of batteries when they fail.
Drivetrain: All of today’s UTVs (other than electrics) are belt-driven constant-velocity transmissions (CVT) in one form or another. CVTs in the utilitarian side-by-sides maintain a constant rpm while the internal clutch and belt-drive system adjusts for the speed and throttle demands, just like a snowmobile or personal watercraft. A UTV that’s going to be used a lot for work-related tasks benefits from Hi- and Low-range, and the ability to shift between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive as the needs demand. Another good design for those used in hilly/mountainous terrain is “engine-braking,” which means when you let off the throttle, the engine’s compression helps slow it down. Not all UTVs feature engine braking, relying instead on the belt/clutch system to help in that regard. Having “locking” differentials, which means both rear (and/or front) tires are providing power and traction at the same time, is beneficial when plowing or working in loose, soft, or muddy conditions. Does the machine offer “turf mode”? Turf mode means just one rear wheel is under power, minimizing tracks while making a sharp turn in soft grass.
Cab: Most UTVs come with half-doors, and a roof of some sort either as a standard feature or as an option. But if you are planning on using your machine for work around the farm, day in, day out, sunny weather or nasty, a full cab ups the comfort level in regions where rain, snow, and high humidity are seasonal regulars. If a full cab is an option, how well does it seal out not only rain and mud, but more importantly, dust? Dust is the biggest nuisance in full cabs. Heat and air conditioning make an easy day working in what would otherwise be miserable conditions. Single windshield wiper or dual? The latter is best. How good is side and rear visibility? Can the cab be easily removed or reconfigured? Do the windows open, or can they be easily removed? A cab is a big investment, so it pays to choose the UTV that has the best cab available.
Style: UTVs used to be just work mules, with rough-riding suspensions, low-horsepower engines and bare-bones interiors. They have come a long way with power and interior comfort. But crossover UTVs have high-output engines, better organized interiors, more storage area, and longer-travel suspensions with adjustable shocks, which is why these sport utility side-by-sides have become so popular. The sportier UTV models usually have the same towing and load-carrying capacities as their work brothers, yet provide enough of the recreational attributes of the high-end sport machines to give owners that multi-use value. Crossover UTVs, which generally cost $2,500 to $5,000 more than a base UTV, typically have electric power steering, adjustable seats, digital instrumentation, better lighting, winches, and nicer tire and wheel packages, as well as a wider array of available accessories. Resale value is also higher on sportier UTVs.
Cost: Like the pickups and SUVs we use to tow side-by-sides, prices vary greatly. A nicely equipped, two- or three-passenger crossover side-by-side that can handle the farm tasks and double as a family recreational vehicle is going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000. That doesn’t include the cost of a trailer, which you will need.
Related: Find product information on specific 2018 side-by-side models.
Fifty years ago, Bruce W. Smith sold Grit newspapers as a teenager in southwestern Oregon. Today he pens automotive and ATV-related articles for a number of national publications and is a recognized automotive journalist specializing in pickups.