An all-terrain vehicle (ATV), also known as a quad, quad bike, three-wheeler, or four-wheeler, is defined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as a vehicle that travels on low-pressure tires, with a seat that is straddled by the operator, along with handlebars for steering control. As the name implies, it is designed to handle a wider variety of terrain than most other vehicles. Although it is a street-legal vehicle in some countries, it is not street legal within most states and provinces of Australia, the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom. In the UK, a recent variant class of ATV is now road-legal, but there are few models available in this class.
By the current ANSI definition, ATVs are intended for use by a single operator, although some companies have developed ATVs intended for use by the operator and one passenger. These ATVs are referred to as tandem ATVs.
The rider sits on and operates these vehicles like a motorcycle, but the extra wheels give more stability at slower speeds. Although equipped with three (or typically, four) wheels, six-wheel models exist for specialized applications. Engine sizes of ATVs currently for sale in the United States range from 49 to 1,000 cc (3 to 61 cu in).
The term “ATV” was originally coined to refer to non-straddle ridden six-wheeled amphibious ATVs such as the Jiger produced by the Jiger Corporation, the Amphicat produced by Mobility Unlimited Inc, and the Terra Tiger produced by the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the introduction of straddle ridden ATVs, the term AATV was introduced to define the original amphibious ATV category.
Honda made the first three-wheeled ATVs in 1970, which were famously portrayed in the James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever and other TV shows such as Magnum, P.I. and Hart to Hart. Dubbed the US90 and later—when Honda acquired the trademark on the term—the ATC90 (All Terrain Cycle), it was designed purely for recreational use. Clearly influenced by earlier ATVs, it featured large balloon tires instead of a mechanical suspension.
By the early 1980s, suspension and lower-profile tires were introduced. The 1982 Honda ATC200E Big Red was a landmark model. It featured both suspension and racks, making it the first utility three-wheeled ATV. The ability to go anywhere on terrain that most other vehicles could not cross soon made them popular with US and Canadian hunters, and those just looking for a good trail ride. Soon other manufacturers introduced their own models.
Sport models were also developed by Honda, which had a virtual monopoly in the market due to effective patents on design and engine placement. The 1981 ATC250R was the first high-performance three-wheeler, featuring full suspension, a 248 cc two-stroke engine, a five-speed transmission with manual clutch, and a front disc brake. For the sporting trail rider, the 1983 ATC200X was another landmark machine. It used an easy-to-handle 192 cc four-stroke that was ideal for new participants in the sport.
Over the next few years, all manufacturers except Suzuki, developed high performance two-stroke machines, but did not sell as many due to the reputation already secured by Honda. These models were the Yamaha Tri-Z YTZ250 with a 246 cc two-stroke engine and a manual five- or six-speed gearbox and the Kawasaki Tecate KXT250 with a 249 cc two-stroke with a five-speed gearbox. In addition, other smaller or lesser known companies, such as Tiger ATV, Franks, and Cagiva, produced racing three-wheelers, but in much smaller numbers. Few of these machines are known to exist today and are highly sought by collectors. There is a fan base for three-wheelers.
Production of three-wheelers ceased in 1987 due to safety concerns: three-wheelers were more unstable than four-wheelers (although accidents are equally severe in both classes). A ban on sales of new or used three-wheelers and a recall of all remaining three-wheelers has been proposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Suzuki was a leader in the development of four-wheeled ATVs. It sold the first model, the 1982 QuadRunner LT125, which was a recreational machine for beginners. Suzuki sold the first four-wheeled mini ATV, the LT50, from 1984 to 1987. After the LT50, Suzuki sold the first ATV with a CVT transmission, the LT80, from 1987 to 2006.
In 1985 Suzuki introduced to the industry the first high-performance four-wheel ATV, the Suzuki LT250R QuadRacer. This machine was in production for the 1985-1992 model years. During its production run it underwent three major engineering makeovers. However, the core features were retained. These were: a sophisticated long-travel suspension, a liquid-cooled two-stroke motor and a fully manual five-speed transmission for 1985–1986 models and a six-speed transmission for the 87–92 models. It was a machine exclusively designed for racing by highly skilled riders.
Honda responded a year later with the FourTrax TRX250R—a machine that has not been replicated until recently. It currently remains a trophy winner and competitor to big-bore ATVs. Kawasaki Heavy Industries responded with its Tecate-4 250.
In 1987, Yamaha Motor Company introduced a different type of high-performance machine, the Banshee 350, which featured a twin-cylinder liquid-cooled two-stroke motor from the RD350LC street motorcycle. Heavier and more difficult to ride in the dirt than the 250s, the Banshee became a popular machine with sand dune riders thanks to its unique power delivery. The Banshee remains popular, but 2006 is the last year it was available in the U.S. (due to EPA emissions regulations); it is still available in Canada, however.
Shortly after the introduction of the Banshee in 1987, Suzuki released the LT500R QuadRacer. This unique quad was powered by a 500 cc liquid cooled two stroke engine with a five-speed transmission. This ATV earned the nickname “Quadzilla” with its remarkable amount of speed and size. While there are claims of 100+ mph stock Quadzillas, it was officially recorded by 3&4 Wheel Action magazine as reaching a top speed of over 79 mph (127 km/h) in a high speed shootout in its 1988 June issue, making it the fastest production ATV ever produced. Suzuki discontinued the production of the LT500R in 1990 after just four years.
At the same time, development of utility ATVs was rapidly escalating. The 1986 Honda FourTrax TRX350 4×4 ushered in the era of four-wheel drive ATVs. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit, and 4x4s have remained the most popular type of ATV ever since. These machines are popular with hunters, farmers, ranchers and workers at construction sites.
Safety issues with three-wheel ATVs caused all ATV manufacturers to upgrade to four-wheel models in the late 1980s, and three-wheel models ended production in 1987, due to consent decrees between the major manufacturers and the Consumer Product Safety Commission—the result of legal battles over safety issues among consumer groups, the manufacturers and CPSC. The lighter weight of the three-wheel models made them popular with some expert riders. Cornering is more challenging than with a four-wheeled machine because leaning into the turn is even more important. Operators may roll over if caution isn’t used. The front end of three-wheelers obviously has a single wheel, making it lighter, and flipping backwards is a potential hazard, especially when climbing hills. Rollovers may also occur when traveling down a steep incline. The consent decrees expired in 1997, allowing manufacturers to, once again, make and market three-wheel models, though there are none marketed today. Recently the CPSC has succeeded in finally banning three-wheeled ATV’s with attachments to bill HR4040. Many believe this is in response to Chinese manufacturers trying to import three-wheeled ATV’s. The Japanese manufacturers were also behind this legislation, as they have been held responsible for years to provide ATV Safety training and to apply special labels and safety equipment to their ATVs while Chinese manufacturers did not.
Models continue, today, to be divided into the sport and utility markets. Sport models are generally small, light, two-wheel drive vehicles that accelerate quickly, have a manual transmission and run at speeds up to approximately 80 mph (130 km/h). Utility models are generally bigger four-wheel drive vehicles with a maximum speed of up to approximately 70 mph (110 km/h). They have the ability to haul small loads on attached racks or small dump beds. They may also tow small trailers. Due to the different weights, each has advantages on different types of terrain.
Six-wheel models often have a small dump bed, with an extra set of wheels at the back to increase the payload capacity. They can be either four-wheel drive (back wheels driving only), or six-wheel drive.
Sport models are built with performance, rather than utility, in mind. To be successful at fast trail riding, an ATV must have light weight, high power, good suspension and a low center of gravity. These machines can be modified for such racing disciplines as motocross, woods racing (also known as cross country), desert racing (also known as Hare Scrambles), hill climbing, ice racing, speedway, Tourist Trophy (TT), flat track, drag racing and others.