Yellow Honda ATV
When it comes to picking a new mid-size ATV, there are plenty of different choices and the competition is incredibly stiff. Mid-size machines may not have the reputation for oozing power and machismo like their big-bore brothers. However, what they lack in sheer muscle, the majority of these machines offset with exceptional agility and lower cost. Better yet, mid-size ATV’s are equally capable of accomplishing a hard day’s work for the common man as machines that cost twice as much.
We gathered five of the industry’s best mid-size four-wheel drive utility quads, trucked them across the Mojave desert through what looked like the set of Breaking Bad, then climbed nearly 10, 000 feet into the picturesque beauty that is the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Kennedy Meadows, CA. The altitude helped separate the men from the boys, figuratively and literally, referencing both our competitors and our test riders. At the end of the day, we left the lush green granite peaks thoroughly impressed with the quality and capability of these mid-size working class offerings.
All five of our competitors utilize four-stroke powerplants. The Honda Four Trax Rancher AT and Suzuki King Quad 400ASi sport fuel injection, while the Kawasaki Prairie 360, Yamaha Grizzly 450, and Polaris Sportsman 400 rely on old-school carburation. The Kawasaki Prairie 360 and Suzuki King Quad 400ASi are air cooled, while the Yamaha Grizzly 450, Honda Four Trax Rancher AT, and Polaris Sportsman 400 utilize a higher-tech liquid cooled design. The most advanced engine sits in the Honda chassis, with the Rancher being both liquid-cooled and fuel injected.
Since we conducted most of our test at nearly 10, 000 feet, all of the fuel injected machines compensated for the altitude and started easier than the carbureted machines. That’s not to say the carbureted machines wouldn’t start or run, they just didn’t do either nearly as efficiently as the fuel injected ATV’s because they lack the help of a computer optimizing the air/fuel ratio for altitude and atmospheric changes.
Even though the Sportsman 400 is carbureted, it was the fastest in our top speed runs. With a true 455cc engine, it’s the largest mill in the group. But, at 688lbs, the Sportsman is ironically also the heaviest. We never got an official top speed run with the Kawasaki Prairie 360, but with the smallest engine in the group and a lack of fuel injection, it certainly felt the slowest.
The Suzuki King Quad 400ASi had decent power, due in part to its digital fuel injection. But with only 376cc, the only engine smaller was the 362cc Prairie 360. The Yamaha Grizzly 450 and Honda Four Trax Rancher AT felt like the athletes of the group, with a sporty feel, responsive engines, and a compact, lightweight chassis.
When it comes to transmissions, this group of machines reminds me of the song Big Bird used to sing to me when I was a kid. It goes like this…”One of these things is not like the others, which one is different, do you know?” That giant awkward yellow bird would hopefully not be as horrified that I’m using him as a reference as I currently am with myself, but it’s the truth. All of the machines in this shootout use a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), except the Honda Four Trax Rancher. The CVT’s are all very similar, with a belt driven transmission and Low, High, Neutral, and Reverse gears to select from. The Honda is different, which I admire. In the Four Trax Rancher AT, Honda utilizes an electronically shifted twin-clutch five-speed transmission that can either be manually shifted via thumb shifter buttons in ESP mode, or the rider can choose to let the computer row through the gears on its own in AUTO mode.
CVT’s have come a long way, and they’re said to always be in the right gear. On bigger bore ATV’s with large reserves of power on tap, the engine keeps the CVT fun, with enough power to float the front end over obstacles. On our mid-size machines, the smaller displacement engines don’t have that type of power. That’s why the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT adds a level of fun. If you like shifting, Honda is the only manufacturer that offers that in a four wheel drive utility ATV, and this guy likes that!
Only two machines in our shootout have a locking/unlocking front differential. Four-wheel drive ATV’s are truly only three-wheel drive, with a front differential typically transferring power from one front tire to another to gain traction. To get through the worst terrain imaginable, the ability for all four wheels to tug at the terrain simultaneously is a must. The Yamaha Grizzly 450 and the Kawasaki Prairie 360 sport a diff lock, which locks all four wheels together to get through the gnarliest terrain. The Polaris Sportsman 400 doesn’t have a diff lock, per se, but the On Command True AWD works impressively as well.
Suspension and Handling:
The Kawasaki Prairie 360 and Suzuki King Quad 400 ASi both utilize a swingarm and solid rear axle with a single rear shock, while the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT, Yamaha Grizzly 450, and Polaris Sportsman 400 all rock Independent Rear Suspension (IRS). On harsh terrain, there is no doubt IRS provides a smoother ride than a solid rear axle. Of all the machines, the Sportsman 400 provided the plushest ride and its seat is phenomenally comfortable.
Only the Rancher and the Grizzly are available with Electric Power Steering (EPS) as an option. Both our test machines were EPS models and although it adds $700 to the price of a Honda and $600 on the Yamaha, EPS is worth every penny. Due in part to a great IRS and the integration of EPS, the Yamaha Grizzly 450 and the Honda Four Trax Rancher provided the sportiest ride, balancing both comfort and aggressive handling into the mix.
Wheels, Tires, and Brakes:
All five of our shootout participants have dual hydraulic disc brakes up front. On the back end, the Polaris Sportsman and Honda Rancher are the only machines with hydraulic disc brakes. The Yamaha Grizzly and Kawasaki Prairie have a sealed wet multi-disc brake, which is great for operating in sloppy, muddy conditions. The Suzuki King Quad 400ASi utilizes a dated rear drum brake.
All of our test machines come with steel wheels. Steel is much heavier than aluminum and the steel wheels will eventually get rusty in spots where they’ve gotten scraped with rocks. If you purchase a Grizzly 450 in Steel Blue, the $300 premium scores you a set of stylish aluminum wheels as well.
In this mid-size battle, none of the machines come with a premium grade tire like a Maxxis Bighorn. Those types of tires are heavy and expensive, but they’re also extremely tough. So, to keep costs down, manufacturers typically don’t supply a stellar tire on mid-size ATV’s. All machines but the Honda Rancher comes with 25” tires on 12” wheels. The Rancher instead uses 24” tires on 12” wheels, giving it a lower center of gravity. The Yamaha Grizzly comes with Maxxis tires that are certainly not Bighorns, but they performed the best during our testing.