After a truck and boat, a side-by-side utility vehicle probably would be one of your most expensive toys. So we took to the mud and throttled five popular 2015 model side-by-sides to figure out what we liked and what we'd change.
The ones we picked to check out are all two-seaters. Three of them, the Ranger, Honda and Kubota, use bench-seat configurations, while the Kawasaki and Yamaha have bucket seats. Driving included gravel roads, as well as trails strewn with ruts, logs, mud holes and rocks.
The units also did their time in the proverbial wood shed by pulling logs and hauling firewood. We used food plot implements, toted hunters, game and a retriever named Bailey.
Honda Pioneer 500
Clean, simple and utilitarian is Honda's mantra with the Pioneer. Cab doors have a nice, rotating release that open with one hand. The cab area is clean with no transmission lever. In its place, the Pioneer has a remarkable five-speed transmission via two paddles handles on the steering column.
The right side adjusts up; the left side gears down. Putting the machine in neutral and pulling a different pull-lever in the middle of the dash achieves reverse. Just like reversing a Honda ATV, it takes a little practice. This manual, clutch-free on-the-fly transmission is heart of the Pioneer.
Using the system took a little getting used to. Once I settled into the shifting, it was exceptionally controllable and far more fun to drive than the others. The Pioneer is a notably more capable side-by-side than its predecessor, The Big Red. The ground clearance was good, and the front bumper is highly protective.
The Pioneer was a tough beast on the trail. To test its pulling ability, a 20-inch, 10-foot birch log was tethered to the back and hauled with the log digging into the ground up a steep hill. In low gear, the 475cc EFI engine pulled it stress free.
There is no power steering, but the geometry of the unit's steering system made it a non-issue and the side-by-side was not fatiguing to drive.
This unit has plenty of power and will go just about anywhere for $8,500. You'll be spending a lot less scratch than on many other brands, and this machine really speaks value. As a bonus, you're going to have a hard time breaking this side by side, after all it is a Honda.
What We Liked: Excellent quality. The low gear that will pull a remarkable amount weight for less than 500cc engine. Unique, effective transmission.
What We'd Change: A hard seat and it's difficult to get in and out of the driver's side, especially if you're a large human. The rack in the back is great for strapping a deer, but not as ideal for firewood or other rural chores.
Engine Type: Liquid cooled, EFI, single cylinder 4-stroke
Engine cc: 475cc
Bed Capacity: Rack rated for 400 pounds
Tow Weight: 1,000 pounds
Curb Weight: 1,010 pounds
If you want to go fast, really quickly, and want a sophisticated suspension that's comfortable yet forgiving while moving at a notable clip, the Teryx is about as fun and possibly more important, as durable as it gets.
For 2015, the Teryx is now in its second year of production and the company has set some impressive standards from last year (see July-August 2014 issue for a review on the 2014 model).
Kawasaki's established V-twin received some major upgrades in 2014; a revised piston crown, raised compression from 9.3:1 to 10.7:1; increased mass added to the crank and the flywheel; and a new cam and a retuned exhaust help the refined transmission ratios deliver a 7-plus percent increase in power with a 10 percent increase in torque. This power plant is robust, whether it's speeding down a trail or dragging a log to a woodshed, which it did with absolute authority.
The Teryx begs to be driven hard, with steering so responsive I found myself rarely gripping the steering wheel hard. Instead, my hands smoothly moved around the wheel effortlessly making instant changes with literally no feedback, even with hard hits. The vented disc brakes have steel hoses, and I could not get them to fade.
The result is a nearly flawless, intensely sporty, performing side-by-side that will comfortably hold two large passengers without shoulder rub. The top speed of 50 mph is easily reached, and the Teryx smoothly floats over some of the most dangerous terrain at some of the highest speeds I have ever driven.
Still, pretty quickly, you'll find it's not perfect for sportsmen. There is a bed, but it's small, and it sure isn't big enough for your gear, let alone your gear and mature deer. It's sexy, but you're going to want to trade some of that appeal for practical considerations.
What We Liked: Near-perfect mix of high performance trail riding, ride quality and massive off-road performance. Built in the USA.
What We'd Change: It's louder than many others, and has a very limited bed area.
Engine Type: Liquid cooled, EFI, OHV v-twin 2 cylinder, four-stroke
Engine CC: 783cc
Bed Capacity: 600 pounds
Tow Weight: 1,300 pounds
Curb Weight: 1,560 pounds
Polaris Ranger 570 EPS
The popular Ranger series has significantly evolved in the last three or four years, and the Ranger 570 may just be one of their best layouts yet.
To power this unit, Polaris upgraded the 570cc EFI engine that really kicks out the 44-horses when you lightly touch the pedal. The transfer system has three modes; four wheel, two and limited slip Turf Mode. The side by side is at home when you ask it to go fast, or hang tight on a trail.
Compared to the Honda, it commands a wider stance at 58 inches; a welcome compromise when combined with the Electronic Power Steering. The result is a lower rate of fatigue when you drive this unit aggressively. The brakes are remarkably strong and have a nice, balanced feel at the pedal.
Polaris deserves kudos for the comfortable seating position. There's an adjustable height on the steering column that will let any robust man slip into the driver's seat. There is a handy glove compartment and storage shelves.
The back area has a one-handed, self-dump bed that's practical, and easily held the all firewood we could put in. The log-pull test was impressive and demonstrates the unit's ability to perform farm chores, like pulling food plot implements.
The ride at slower speeds was among the best of trio. It smoothed out many of the root-strewn trails that were pretty bumpy. The Ranger has a very wide turning radius but it was less work with EPS.
What We Like: Lots of power, easy steering and very quiet.
What We'd Change: Needs lots of room for turning. High price tag. Door netting required two hands to close and rods that hold it are clumsy.
Engine Type: Liquid cooled, EFI, single cylinder four-stroke.
Engine CC: 567cc
Bed Capacity: 500 pounds
Tow Weight: 1,500 pounds
Curb Weight: 1,024 pounds
If getting there is half the fun, then the Wolverine is worth the ride. This side-by-side all-terrain vehicle comes with a lot of features that hunters will find useful, including powerful engine, excellent ground clearance and awesome handling; this animal drives like a 4x4 truck that can slip between trees.
It also has cup holders, a glove box, two center-console boxes and a little room under the seat for storage, which is good since the only real complaint is that the rear box is small, just enough room for couple of boxes or maybe one big deer.
It does, however, come with a 2-inch receiver for pulling up to 1,500 pounds, and accessories can be added, such as a spare tire holder and a gun case, for customizing to personal needs.
Two of the best features, however, are the one-way sprag clutch for all-wheel engine braking — really nice for downhill curves — and the three-point seatbelts. The seatbelts keep both driver and passenger securely fastened, even if confidence rises just a little too much when flying around curves and you just happen to get stopped by a tree. Trust me, I know.
What We Liked: Handling impressed, as did the reliable clutch.
What We'd Change: The rear bed is impractically small. High price tag.
Engine Type: Double overhead cam, fuel-injected, liquid cooled
Engine CC: 708cc
Bed Capacity: 300 pounds
Towing Weight: 1,500 pounds
Curb Weight: 1,311 pounds
Let's just say at the get-go, if you're looking for a sexy UTV with the acceleration of a sportscar, Kubota's RTVs are not for you. But, if you're in the market for two-passenger diesel UTV that will carry heavy loads and be reliable, then maybe this Kubota should be on your short list.
Kubota's RTV-X900 is the only diesel we tested. You'll get good power in the form of torque, but sometimes you'll wonder if this three-cylinder engine will have the power to get you over hills.
Flatlanders with a penchant for taking it slow but gettin' 'er done, however, will love these vehicles. We tried out the X900, the budget-choice of the three.
We liked the aggressive engine braking. It gripped any hill on the way down, and gave us full control. We liked the ample legroom for driver and passenger.
That's so rare nowadays when companies are trying to cram features into smaller spaces to increase trail performance. And, what truly made us smile, the workhorse has a substantial rear bed designed to carry 1,100 pounds. That's all your gear and a deer or two! You won't be first at the finish line, but you'll have put in a good day's work.
What We Liked: You won't have to worry where you'll put the deer.
What We'd Change: Acceleration is go-kart-like; it did not like going up hill with a load.
Engine Type: 3-cylinder, 4-stroke, 21-horse liquid-cooled diesel
Engine CC: 898cc
Bed Capacity: 1,100 pounds
Towing Weight: 1,300 pounds
Curb Weight: 1,653 pounds
Most of these vehicles give you something the others do not. But the two-passenger Honda Pioneer 500 has a great combination of power, handling and a rare, reasonable price.
For a 475cc engine, the Pioneer has impressively powerful torque, which is a big deal for pulling food-plot implements and many other tasks.
The unique gear-shifting system takes some getting used to, but, like a standard automotive transmission, you won't be in a rush to get back to an automatic once you realize you have more control of the power.
The base model starts at about $8,500, that's a third less than some of others we tested. If you've got money to burn, or a desire for serious speed, look elsewhere. But the Honda gives sportsmen a lot for their bucks.