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2017 Ultimate UTV Evaluation

With a 1,500-pound trailer behind your machine, you begin the steady crawl up a grassy hill. You switch the machine into work mode, reducing the amount of throttle and fuel to the engine. The climb continues at a smooth pace – so smooth, you almost forget the heavy load in tow.

After unhooking the trailer, you switch into standard mode and head toward the winding trails surrounding the test site at the Jackson Lake House Estate in Dahlonega, Georgia. With a flip up into performance mode, you unleash the entire engine, giving you more than enough power and responsiveness to tackle the steep climbs, rocky patches, and tight turns. 

It was this performance that put the Polaris Ranger XP 1000 at the top of the Successful Farming Ultimate UTV Evaluation. The machine was able to take on the demands of heavy loads and trails, bolstered by the UTV’s selectable throttle control. 

This was the third extensive UTV evaluation done by the Successful Farming team. While the evaluation has adapted each time, the goal is still to provide you with information about how UTVs perform in ag applications. Keep reading to learn about all seven of the side-by-sides at the 2017 evaluation.

utv-evaluators
EVALUATORS

This year’s crew of evaluators included me as well as UTV experts Derrek Sigler from Michigan and Rick Sosebee from Georgia. 

  • Sigler (right) grew up on a beef and row-crop farm in Michigan. For the last 11 years, he has covered ATVs and UTVs extensively for Outdoorhub.com, North American Whitetail, and Fruit Grower’s News magazines. 
  • Sosebee (left) has contributed to a variety of print and online publications during his 14 years as an ATV journalist, including ATV.com, Offroad.com, Hobby Farms magazine, and Fieldandstream.com.
  • I (middle) was raised on a farm in Iowa. I’ve covered machinery trends and topics, including ATVs and UTVs, for Successful Farming magazine for the past four years. I also organized the last Ultimate UTV Evaluation. 

For farmer feedback, I also invited local farmer Scott Sorrells from Dawsonville, Georgia, to join us. He was only able to participate in a portion of the evaluation, so his test scores are not included in the overall numbers. 

polaris-ranger
Machines

The 2017 evaluation focused on crossover utility/recreational models with 650- to 1,000-cc gas engines. This year's lineup included:

Editor’s Note: There were several other manufacturers who declined the invitation to participate in the 2017 evaluation.

yamaha-viking
Tests and Scoring

You’ll notice that each UTV has a number of stars next to it. This rating is based on the machine’s total score out of 150. Here’s how points were awarded.

  • General observations, including rider comfort and storage. 30 points
  • Unloaded test on a challenging trail. 35 points
  • Half-loaded test on the same trail, where each machine’s cargo bed was loaded to half of the machine’s hauling capacity. 35 points 
  • Fully loaded test on a short course, where each machine was loaded with its maximum hauling capacity. 25 points 
  • Towing test on a short course with a 1,500-pound trailer. 25 points

can-am-defender
general observations

When you first sit down in a UTV, you get a pretty good feel for how things are going to go, Sigler says. He points to the Defender, which came in just behind the Ranger in overall points and scored a 29 in this category out of 30. 

“From the driver’s position, everything is close at hand, so you can shift and check speed or rpm without taking your focus off your task,” he says. “The construction of the seats is comfortable and durable.”

Sosebee also appreciated the bucket-style seats in the Defender and those in the Viking and Ranger, as the seats “seem to wrap around you and provide bolstered support.” However, he noted that the flat-bench seats, like those in the Mule, have advantages, which Sorrells agreed with. 

“I have multiple poultry houses, so I spend a lot of time pulling up to a house, getting out, getting back in, and going on to the next one,” says the farmer, who has 180,000 chickens in six buildings. “It’s important how easily I can get in and out of a machine. The Mule seemed to be the most open with wide doors and a bigger floorboard area.”

john-deere-gator
unloaded test

For the first part of the test, Sosebee wanted to get comfortable with each machine and experience the UTV’s trail manners. “For me, cab noise had to be the biggest notable detail. Some vehicles were simply too loud for carrying on a conversation in the cab,” he says. “The Ranger seemed to have the most quiet cab. I could talk in a normal tone.”

On the trails, each evaluator also took into consideration power, steering effort, and handling. 

“The Ranger, Defender, and Pioneer, all being 1,000-cc machines, were the draw here,” says Sigler. “To be honest, all of the machines did well.

“The Ranger with its digital throttle system tuned into performance mode was just too much fun. That machine ripped down the trails,” he adds.

Sorrells felt the same way about the Ranger. “All around, the Ranger seemed like it had the most power and was the most consistent with or without a load, making it a versatile machine. It was also a lot of fun unloaded,” he says.

In the off-road world, there’s a saying shared among ATV and UTV enthusiasts like Sigler and Sosebee: There’s no replacement for displacement.

“While this is true to a certain extent, when you’re in tighter situations, great handling beats out horsepower,” says Sigler. “Yamaha was the first company to come out with power steering for the ATV/UTV market, and the company has perfected it. With the smallest engine in the test, the Viking holds its own by having great handling and decent power.”

Ultimate UTV Evaluation: Unloaded Test

honda-pioneer
half-loaded test

Loading each of the vehicles with half of its cargo capacity allowed the evaluators to see how well the suspension would respond on the trails as well as how the handling would be affected. It’s important to note that before any of the loaded or towing tests, the preload collars on the rear shocks were adjusted.

“The preload adjustment puts extra load on the spring and preloads the shock so that it can handle more weight before bottoming out. This is something that is encouraged when inching up to the cargo limits,” explains Sosebee. “In most machines, the trail manners became a little more sluggish as the weight would tend to sway the vehicles a bit in the opposite direction of the intended turn.

“The Pioneer remained steadier than most and maintained a healthy ground clearance even when partially loaded,” he adds. 

For Sigler, there wasn’t much difference in the performance between the unloaded and half-loaded tests. “Taking these machines out on the trail with either 300 or 500 pounds, depending on each machine’s maximum capacity, resulted in no major change in handling or performance,” he says. 

kawasaki-mule
fully loaded test

Fully loading the utility vehicles added an entirely new dynamic to the testing. This was where we discovered the limits of the suspension as well as the extent that weight plays a factor in the controllability of each machine,” says Sosebee. 

The first challenge for the machines in this test was a steep hill climb. “In our minds, this is what we figured would help separate the machines,” says Sosebee. “However, each and every machine made a steady climb with minimum wheel spin. The weight seemed to plant the rear ends well and gave us more traction.”

All of the evaluators were impressed with the workhorse ability of the Mule. “You really couldn’t tell there was a load back there,” says Sigler.

“The Mule is built for working,” adds Sosebee. “So it was no surprise that it would keep on chugging along when loaded. One thing we did notice was that because of the longer wheelbase, the Mule seemed to drag its belly over washout banks or water breaks on the trails more than the rest.” 

The long wheelbase proved to be a pro on the towing test, though. “This gave the Mule a bigger platform to keep the load in check,” says Sosebee.

Other standouts on this test included the Pioneer and Gator. “With a namesake like John Deere, you expect a certain workability, and the Gator did not disappoint,” says Sosebee. 

Sigler agrees, adding, “The steering was effortless, braking was strong, and it handled the load well.”

The Pioneer also had a high score on this test with 21.7 out of 25 points. “Two things set the Honda apart: the transmission and the suspension,” says Sigler. 

Unlike the other UTVs that have CVTs with belts, the Honda has dual clutches and can be run in automatic or manual. “In automatic, you can feel the machine switching gear as you’re going, which takes a little getting used to,” explains Sigler. “Or you can use paddle shifters to manually change gears.”

In manual mode, the engine braking is “as close to perfect as you can get,” he adds. “Put it in low range, first gear, and you can crawl to an almost dead stop even with 1,000 pounds.”

Ultimate UTV Evaluation Loaded Tests

textron-stampede
trailer test

Like the fully loaded test, engine braking was a critical component for the trailer test. “With most of the machines, to get some semblance of engine braking, you have to keep the rpm up,” says Sigler. “For the Stampede, if you kept the rpm around 1,800, the engine braking was good, offering very good control. Under that rpm threshold, the machine starts to freewheel, and you need to use the foot brake.”

Once again, the Pioneer’s engine braking performed well on this test. “The Pioneer would actually slow the load gently, lowering the overall speed well past any of the other machines,” says Sosebee.

The other big factor for this test was horsepower, of course. “The big, multicylinder engines like the Ranger, Defender, Pioneer, and others excelled due to the extra power,” says Sosebee. “We did also notice that the single-cylinder machines, like the Viking, were able to get the job done regardless, however.”

Sigler notes that each machine was able to pull the trailer quite well, despite the heavy load. 

Ultimate UTV Evaluation: Versatile Machines

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