Super potent Utility Terrain Vehicles provide function and fun

There is only one way to splash through the mud.

A UTV is a four-wheel “utility-terrain vehicle” designed for serious off-road fun. Sure, you can use them for hauling rocks around the yard, or pulling a tree stump out of the ground, or you can just strap yourself in for a joy ride across the prairielands, wind one down a mountain trail, or simply plummet into a deep mud pit and make a mess of things.

Two recent models from John Deere and Polaris push the envelope more than previous models. Both the 2013 Polaris Ranger XP900 and the 2013 John Deere Gator RSX 850i Trail offer a car-like driving experience with a brake and gas pedal, steering wheel, rugged 12-inch tires, and a storage box. At first glance, they look similar, but the Ranger is 60-inches wide compared to the slimmer 56-inch Gator.

The Ranger uses a massive 900cc engine with enough power to push your head back when you jack-rabbit from the starting line. The Gator uses a similarly-potent 850cc engine. That’s the most startling spec on both machines because early UTVs had much smaller engines designed for work and not speed.

The extra oomph on both models is a bit curious, though. The Ranger’s engine is rated at 60-horsepower while the Gator is rated at 62-horsepower, even though it’s smaller. This means the Gator has a bit more push off the starting block to give you a head-start on the way to the deer stand.

For mudding and winter use, both vehicles offer 2x4, 4x4, and 4x4 lock modes -- the 2x4 mode providing power to the rear tires. The 4x4 mode drives the front wheels only if it senses slip, while the 4x4 lock mode provides full-time power to all four wheels. The normal 4x4 mode is handy because you won’t tear up your lawn as easily – the tires only engage as needed.

For trail riding, the Ranger has 12-inches of ground clearance to avoid rocks and tree limbs compared to only 10.3 inches for the Gator. That might not seem too important when you are driving around on your lawn or taking the kids for a spin, but could make a world of difference on a more rugged drive in the country. No one needs a broken axle in the middle of nowhere.

At 2000-pounds of towing capacity, the Ranger specs out higher for hauling compared to the Gator at 1200 pounds. This is slightly odd in that the Gator holds a torque advantage of 58.5 lb-ft vs. 53 lb-ft over the Ranger. It also has a front winch with a remote control you can use to pull out small stumps in your yard or yank a car out of the ditch during a blizzard.

Similarly, the Ranger’s payload capacity is rated at 1500-pounds compared to 800-pounds for the Gator. That’s important for those who go trail riding if you want to bring the mother-load of gear: logs for a campfire, food for a week, and maybe a few cans of gasoline. By the way: you may need the gas extra gas for the Gator, its fuel tank is only 7.4 gallons compared to 10-gallons on the Ranger.

Do both models provide the right balance of utility and fun? Sure. In light testing over a few weeks, I found both to offer a smooth ride over a rolling Minnesota prairie. The Gator has a hungry growl that the Ranger can’t match, but it also steers more like a truck than an ATV.

Ultimately, the Ranger has the better specifications for rugged yard use and trail riding, while the Gator is a hair faster with a bit more torque for an explosive, thrill-per-pound ride. One thing they have in common, though, is a starting price of $12,999, with the Trail model of the Gator tested here ringing in at $14,995.

They may like to get dirty, but, unfortunately, machines like this don’t come dirt cheap.