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.
The Polaris Sportsman has the largest chassis and is also the heaviest, but it is, without question, the most comfortable machine in the group. The Sportsman has single lever braking, which is a nice touch for the newbie crowd. But I think the Polaris would be infinitely more fun to ride with separate front and rear brakes.
The Honda Rancher was the second most comfortable machine in the group, with a small chassis and controls that are very easily within reach. The Suzuki King Quad 400ASi and the Yamaha Grizzly 450 also had a compact feel that will suffice both the work and play crowd. The Kawasaki Prairie 360 has easy to reach controls, but the seat height is the tallest of the group. This gives an excellent view of the trail, but it doesn’t give the rider that feeling of truly being “in the saddle”.
Any one of these five machines is capable of working on the farm, the ranch, or around the house. To get the job done with the least amount of trouble, the ability to get through any type of terrain is a must, and for this, a functional differential lock is key. Of our five machines, only the Yamaha Grizzly 450 and Kawasaki Prairie 360 come with a front differential lock. The Sportsman 400 utilizes Polaris’ On-Demand True AWD, which transmits power from the wheels that slip to the ones that grip. The Sportsman 400 and Grizzly 450 both have IRS also, but the racks on the Sportsman 400 make tying objects down a challenge. Additionally, the Grizzly also has EPS, which virtually erases steering effort when the front rack is loaded to capacity. So, for true utilitarian capability, the Grizzly 450 packs a giant punch and gets the job done best.
When the work gloves come off and it’s time to tear down the trail, the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT and the Yamaha Grizzly 450 are neck and neck for the most fun to ride. Both machines have EPS, so rogue bumps, ruts, rocks, and roots along the trail are no match for the EPS. The Honda gives the pilot the option of manually thumb shifting through the five speed gear box with their industry exclusive ESP mode. The shifts are swift and give the Rancher a really sporty feel, thanks to the added power of an efficient fuel-injected power plant. The Rancher does not have a differential lock, so as long as your spritely adventure doesn’t include any obstacles that would require a diff lock, like rock crawling, it’s a blast to ride.
The Yamaha Grizzly 450 is also a colossally fun ride, with a sporty, compact chassis and plush four wheel independent suspension. The Grizzly’s Achilles heel is a carbureted engine that is both less efficient and less powerful than if it were to be available with fuel injection. Since the Grizzly utilizes a CVT and a carburetor, our tests at 10,000 feet highlighted this disadvantage. Therefore, the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT gets the nod in the “FUN” department.
At $5,699, the Polaris Sportsman 400 is the least expensive ATV of the group. It’s $2,100 less than the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT (the most expensive), and $600 less than the second cheapest machine, the Kawasaki Prairie 360. In a vapid economy like our current reality, every dollar counts. Simply put, the Sportsman is fun, sporty, comfortable, and capable. If you can live without EPS, the Sportsman is a great option that will save you a ton of money and still get the job done with ease. Editors note* Recently, Polaris released their 2015 Sportsman ETX to replace the Sportsman 400. It runs for $5899, and features a 30 horsepower, Electronic Fuel Injected (EFI) ProStar engine. It's the first Polaris EFI model for under 6 grand.
The greatest thing about the mid-size ATV market is the fact that there are so many different quality choices to choose from when making your next purchase. Each of the machines in our shootout is very capable, in both form and function. At the end of the day, when choosing the machine that is the best overall, factoring everything imaginable, the Yamaha Grizzly 450 EPS narrowly edges out the Honda Four Trax Rancher AT. The Grizzly has EPS, differential lock, IRS, low range, a compact sporty chassis, sealed rear brakes and an excellent reputation for reliability. If the Honda Rancher had differential lock, or the Sportsman 400 had EPS and fuel injection, this shootout may very well have ended differently.
As readers, the most important thing to take away from this shootout is the fact that any of these ATV’s is capable of completing a hard day of work or play while still engendering a smile on your face. Factoring in killer financing, steep rebates, and the knowledge gained from this ATV Rider shootout, now is a better time than ever to shop for your next mid-size ATV.