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What Is A UTV And What Is The Difference From An ATV?

by Matt Powell | Last Updated:  October 4, 2019

UTVs have spiked in popularity over the last decade or so and are widely available at almost all your local powersports dealers. While ATV sales and especially sport ATV sales have declined, the ever growing popularity of UTVs has pushed manufacturers to focus more on their bread and butter in the off road world. They have the added benefit of appealing to families, weekend warriors, and the performance race enthusiasts as well.

A UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) differs from an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) by having doors, a roof, more storage space, and a steering wheel. ATVs are meant to carry 1 passenger while UTVs can carry up to 6 passengers!

ATVs have been directly competing with UTVs since around 2008 when powersports manufacturers decided to dive head first into the 450cc sport ATV market AND start marketing performance UTVs. This was kind of an experiment that allowed the UTV to flourish while people slowly moved away from ATVs. This is not to say that ATVs are not popular, because they are, but manufacturers are following what their customers want more of right now.

Regardless of your choice of vehicle, you should always wear the proper gear and I have done all the legwork for you by compiling the best gear right here on my recommended gear page.

What Is A UTV?

If you came here to find out the difference between a UTV and an ATV then you first need to learn about what a UTV actually is. ATVs have been around since the 1970s and have come in 3, 4, and 6 wheeled versions so they are nothing new but a UTV is distinctly different.

A UTV is a Utility Terrain Vehicle, a Utility Task Vehicle , or a Utility Vehicle. People use these 3 terms synonymously and they all mean the same thing. Its original purpose was to be a utility vehicle to allow the rider to tow and haul whatever they needed from one place to another. Over the years manufacturers started designing UTVs for more than just utility and for performance. The Polaris RZR is a great example. It packs a punch with the power it creates from the factory and it also has the ability to tow, haul, and carry passengers.

When Were UTVs Invented?

The first designated UTV was the Lockley Ranger from 1970. So UTVs have been around since the 1970s? Why are they just now getting so big? Well like I said, performance UTVs were being designed and appealed to a broader audience in the late 2000s and once their popularity started to grow, it has been growing since and become more well known.

What Type Of UTVs Are There?

There are tons of models of UTVs out there and if you look at any manufacturer this will be true. Many people just call anything a UTV nowadays that fits a certain profile but in reality there are 3 categories to consider when talking about UTVs.

Sport

Sport UTVs are just like sport ATVs and are meant to have fun, race, and generally go fast wherever you go. They are popular on basically any type of terrain because they can do almost anything you need from riding the dunes, to trails, and even racing. UTV racing is becoming bigger and bigger as the years go on so keep an eye out for events near you.

Sport UTVs already have a very large selection of aftermarket parts to customize and tweak your UTV to be faster, safer, and a lot cooler looking. When I look at modded out UTVs I always think about how cool they look.

Utility

I for one, remember utility UTVs from back in the day when we used to ride around my Aunts property on her Kawasaki Mule and it wasn’t very fast, but it was definitely fun. We used it to tote plants, dirt, shovels, and rakes back and forth doing yard work throughout the day and to just ride around the property at night.

The point is, utilities are suited for hauling and doing work activities on farms and anywhere else you need a hauler. It is kind of like a golf carts older brother.

Sport-Utility

A sport utility UTV is the best of both worlds. I have seen this category more than any other because they serve multiple functions. They can still go fast and go about anywhere you need them to go. The added benefit is that you can use a sport utility UTV on the farm, on the trails, or to haul whatever you need from a farm to a trail.

These are more popular with families because they typically have more than 2 seats and provide family fun all day. My 6 year old son says he wants to drive on every time we see one, no matter where we are.

Why Are UTVs Called Side By Sides?

UTVs are called side by sides or SxS because they typically seat two to six in seats that sit beside each other. This is a more general term that people use and oftens does not accurately depict what the vehicle actually is. 

Single seat UTVs may become a new thing and make the term side by side a bit more obsolete now that Polaris has released their single seat version of the UTV called the ACE in 2014. Their first versions of this model received mixed reviews and didn’t really fill the gap that was needed to become a popular single seat side by side. In 2017 they improved on several aspects of the design and the ACE rocketed forward into popularity with UTVers as a new single seat option.

What Is The Difference Between An ATV And A UTV?

I often wondered what the difference was between an ATV and a UTV besides the obvious and after a lot of research, I have finally found out everything that makes them truly different.

Is a UTV Or ATV Better?

This question is largely dependent on what you want from the vehicles. Each vehicle brings its own advantages to the table when you are looking at riding different terrains and performing different tasks.

ATVs are smaller and lighter than UTVs and are designed to be able to attain faster speeds ranging from 50-80 mph and turn better than a UTV so if you are looking for your speed fix, then you might want to consider an ATV for your offroad purchase.

UTVs are considered to be safer because they have the rider in an enclosed system with seat belts. They are heavier and general go much slower, around 35-55 mph and are much taller making them handle a little different. You can’t take turns as fast as you can with an ATV because there is more risk of rollover.

Seating Configuration

ATVs require the rider to straddle the seat with your legs on either side on foot pegs. This can get uncomfortable after long rides or when traversing very rough terrain. ATVs are also only meant for one person to ride so it limits the ability to take friends or family out in one vehicle. ATVs are generally less safe due to not having seat belts like UTVs.

UTVs come with seats that you sit in like a regular car. You can upgrade them for more comfortable seating and you also get the added benefit of having seat belts installed for extra safety. While utility ATVs can tow trailers, a utility UTV is more suited for the job because their suspension is set up better for their larger frame and allows more stability when towing.

Steering System

The steering system between the two is totally different and poses its own advantages and disadvantages. 

ATVs have handlebars similar to dirt bikes and motorcycles and allows you to turn the front wheels left and right. Depending on whether or not your ATV comes with power steering, this can be a cumbersome task in certain situations. If you want to know more about power steering on ATVs then take a look at what I wrote about it over here.

Modern UTVs all come equipped with power steering and are driven like a car. This means that there is a steering wheel in front of the driver and the driver is in a seated position behind it. This is more useful for the size and weight of a UTV with several passengers because it will produce less effort for the driver. The downside to this style of steering is that you can have moments where your steering will not be as responsive as if you were steering an ATV.

Winshields

Simply put, ATVs do not have windshields. They are meant for one rider and it is commonplace for ATV riders to wear a helmet and goggles to prevent debris from causing injury.

All UTVs are not equipped with windshields but it is a nice feature because it will keep limbs and other debri from striking the driver and riders at all. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still wear a helmet and goggles because it is still and open vehicle and you want to be as safe as possible.

Tip: You can buy quick release windshield clamps that will help you remove and replace your windshield or windscreen without having to use tools if it gets damaged.

Roll Cages

I have seen ATVs with aftermarket or even homemade “roll bars” on the back of them but this doesn’t provide anywhere near as much protection as UTVs with roll cages.

Roll cages are designed to protect the driver and passengers in the event of a rollover. You don’t have the luxury of jumping off or out of the way like you do in an ATV so this is a necessary feature. 

Size

ATVs, even the large utility ATVs are lighter than most UTVs today. ATVs are smaller and lighter than UTVs and are designed to be able to attain faster speeds and this smaller size makes them easier in most cases to maneuver and to get out of sticky situations. If you get stuck in the mud, depending on severity, an ATV is easier to get out. Check out all the methods for getting your ATV unstuck in an article where I covered several options on getting unstuck with and without a winch.

Acceleration, Braking, And Shifting Gears

ATVs consist of several levers that are used for braking, throttle, and shifting gears. It can be a lot to learn and master so it has a bit higher point of entry for brand new riders. Below is a picture that illustrates the common set up for a manual transmission ATV. As you can see there are a lot of levers that are used.

In comparison, UTVs are driven like a car so you have your steering wheel, brake pedal, and gas pedal. In a manual UTV you would add a clutch pedal and a gear shifter. When you compare the amount of levers or pedals you come up with about 5 so there isn’t any more or less going on but most people are already familiar with how a car drives so the point of entry is a little lower for a UTV when it comes to steering.

List Of Modifications

PerformanceUtilitySafetyNavigation/Comfort
TiresLED LightsRoll CageGPS
Beadlock RimsLift Kit4 to 6 Point Seat HarnessesUHF/VHF Radio
ShocksWinchFire ExtinguisherMap Holder
Tie RodsSkid PlatesDoorsRadio & Speakers
Exhaust System
Rear Divider
Intake System


As you can see there are a lot of mods that can be done to a UTV. This is by no means a complete list because there are tons of customizations that you can do to tailor your machine to you and personalize it to your style. 

Other things like graphics, paint schemes, and accessories can be the head turners that set you apart from the rest of the crowd and male more people take more notice of UTVs.

Can You Make A UTV Street Legal?

The answer to this is 2 pronged. Yes, you can make a UTV street legal but it depends on what state you live in. About half of the United States have laws in place that allow you to make your UTV street legal as long as you comply with the standards set forth by the state you will be operating in.

What Is Required To Make Your UTV Street Legal?

In the states that allow a UTV to become street legal there isn’t generally a lot that a UTV doesn’t offer in order to make this possible but you will need to make some additions to your vehicle to comply with most laws and they include:

If your UTV has some of these already then scratch them off your list. Be sure to contact your local DMV and get yourself up to date on the laws and what you need in order to be completely legal to drive your UTV on the road.

Street Legal Kits For UTVs

Many companies sell street legal kits that come with all the different things you need in one place so you don’t have to go searching everywhere for individual items. These kits are great because they come with the majority of what you need and allow you to get on the legally much sooner.

ATVs and UTVs are alike in a lot of ways but it is their differences that make them unique to one another. The UTV market is continuing to grow and it is about time to step into one and see for yourself. 

My name is Matt and I am the founder of DirtWheelRider.com. I want to do my best to give you all the information needed in your offroading endeavors.