The rider sits on and operates these vehicles like a motorcycle, but the extra wheels give more stability at slower speeds. Although typically equipped with three or four wheels, six-wheel models exist for specialized applications. Engine sizes of ATVs currently for sale in the United States, (as of 2008 products), range from 49 cc to 1000 cc.
ATVs were made in the United States a decade before 3- and 4-wheeled vehicles were introduced by Honda and other Japanese companies. During the 1960s numerous manufacturers offered similar small off-road vehicles that were designed to float and were capable of traversing swamps, ponds and streams, as well as dry land. Typically constructed from a hard plastic or fiberglass "tub", they usually had six wheels—all driven—with low pressure (around 3 PSI) balloon tires, no suspension (other than what the tires offered) and skid-steer steering. These early amphibious models were the original all-terrain vehicles—or ATVs. Contrary to today's ANSI definition of an ATV, they were intended for multiple riders sitting inside, and would usually have a steering wheel or control stick rather than motorcycle-type handle bars as stipulated in the current definition.
Since the advent of three- and four-wheeled straddled ATVs, these have more or less 'taken over' the term, leaving aside the 6x6 and 8x8 floating variety, now mostly known as Amphibious ATVs (AATV).
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 motor, 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 has 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 engined machines to compete against Honda's monopoly, in the market, 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 a manual clutch and 5- or 6-speed gearbox, and the Kawasaki Tecate KXT250 with a 249 cc two-stroke with 5-speed gearbox and a manual clutch. 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.
In 1985 Suzuki introduced to the industry the first high-performance 4-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 5-speed transmission for 85–86 models and a 6-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. 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 5-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 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 4 years.
At the same time, development of utility ATVs was rapidly escalating. The 1986 Honda FourTrax TRX350 4x4 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 3-wheel ATVs caused all manufacturers to switch to 4-wheeled models in the late '80s, and 3-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 3-wheel models made them popular with some expert riders. Cornering is more challenging than with a 4-wheeled machine because leaning into the turn is even more important. Operators may roll over if caution isn't used. The front end of 3-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 3-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 90 miles per hour (145 km/h). Utility models are generally bigger four-wheel drive vehicles with a maximum speed of up to 72.5 miles per hour (104 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 4-wheel drive (back wheels driving only), or 6-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. Examples of high-performance models (racing) include the Yamaha YFZ450, Honda TRX450R, Suzuki QuadRacer R450, Kawasaki KFX450R, Can-Am DS450, Polaris Outlaw 525 S, Predator and the Outlaw 450 MXR, as well as the original sport models no longer produced, such as the Honda TRX250R, Suzuki LT250R and LT500R Quadracers.
ATVs designed for fast trail riding include the Yamaha Raptor 700R/660R, Yamaha Raptor 350, Kawasaki Mojave 250, Kawasaki Lakota Sport 300, Honda Sportrax 400EX, Suzuki QuadSport Z400, Kawasaki KFX400, Bombardier/Can-Am DS650, Can-Am DS-450, Arctic Cat DVX400, Polaris Scrambler 500, Polaris Outlaw 500, Polaris Outlaw 525 (independent rear suspension IRS), Kawasaki KFX700, Polaris Predator 500, Can-Am Renagade 800, ADLY 320U Commander, 320S Taifun, New Force 500S/500L Hunter, Gamax AX 300 Tenet and AX500 EFI Emperor. Three-wheeled performance models included the Honda ATC250R (1981-1986), Yamaha YTZ250 Tri-Z (1985-1986), Kawasaki KXT250 Tecate (1984-1987) and the Tiger 250 and 500 (mid 1980's).
Three-wheelers designed for fast trail riding include the Honda ATC350X and the Honda ATC200X. Dakar Rally Moto Group 3 quads are designed for toughness and adaptability to a very wide range of dry terrain.
Critics point out that blanket policies concerning age are not sufficient and often use, as a fact, that early-teen male children are physically larger and stronger than many adult women riders. Some jurisdictions have either banned minors (typically those under 10 years of age) from using ATVs or are considering such legislation. Advocates of ATVs argue that starting younger improves safety. They recommend that children can develop the necessary expertise by starting at as young as 6 years of age instead of waiting until age 18. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission approved the sale of sub-50cc ATVs for use by children as young as age 6. Current CPSC/Manufacturer sizing of youth oriented ATVs is more in line with those under age 10, whereas older youth (11-16) usually have a hard time riding ATVs of such diminutive size and thus are likely to disobey the safety guidelines and ride a larger (250cc) machine.
In 1988, the All-terrain Vehicle Safety Institute (ASI) was formed to provide training and education for ATV riders. The cost of attending the training is minimal and is free for purchasers of new machines that fall within the correct age/size guidelines. Successful completion of a safety training class is, in many states, a minimum requirement for minor-age children to be granted permission to ride on state land. Some states have had to implement their own safety training programs, as the ASI program cannot include those riders with ATVs outside of the age/size guidelines, which may still fall within the states laws.
According to The New York Times on September 2, 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission met in March 2005 to discuss the dangers of ATVs. Data from 2004 showed 44,000 children under 16 injured while riding ATVs, 150 of them fatally. Says the Times, "National associations of pediatricians, consumer advocates and emergency room doctors were urging the commission to ban sales of adult-size ATVs for use by children under 16 because the machines were too big and fast for young drivers to control. But when it came time to consider such a step, a staff member whose name did not appear on the meeting agenda unexpectedly weighed in." That staff member was John Gibson Mullan, "the agency’s director of compliance and a former lawyer for the A.T.V. industry" - the Times bases the claim on a recording of the meeting. Mullan reportedly said that the existing system of warnings and voluntary compliance was working. The agency's hazard statistician, Robin Ingle, was not allowed to present a rebuttal. She told the Times in an interview, "He had hijacked the presentation. He was distorting the numbers in order to benefit industry and defeat the petition. It was almost like he still worked for them, not us." CPSC reports of ATV deaths and injuries show an increase in the raw numbers of deaths and injuries that is statistically significant. The rate of deaths and injuries, which takes into account the fact that the number of ATVs in use has risen over the last ten years, has been shown to have experienced no statistically significant change.
In Minnesota alone, it is projected there will be more than 1 million registered ATVs by 2010. There are about 300,000 in the state now.
While the deep treads on some ATV tires are effective for navigating rocky, muddy and root covered terrain, these treads also dig channels that may drain bogs, increase sedimentation in streams at crossings, damage groomed snowmobile trails and cause significant destruction in many ecosystems. Studies have also shown that ATVs may help in the spread of invasive species such as Centaurea (knapweed) and Lantana. Because both scientific studies and U.S. National Forest Service personnel have identified unregulated Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs) as the source of major detrimental impacts on national forests, the U.S. Forest Service is currently engaged in the Travel Management Process, wherein individual forests are restricting all off-road motorized travel to approved trails and roads. This is in contrast to its previously allowed, unregulated cross-country travel across all national forest lands, except for specifically designated wilderness areas. Although ORVs had been identified 30 years ago as a threat to wild ecosystems by the Forest Service, only after pressure by an unlikely alliance of environmentalists, private landowners, hunters, ranchers, fishermen, quiet recreationists and forest rangers themselves (who identified ORVs as a "significant law enforcement problem" in national forests ) has action been taken. The Travel Management Rule was initiated in 2004; completion is expected in 2010.
ATV advocacy groups have been organized to purchase property or obtain permission of landowners or both. Many US states have the clubs build and maintain trails, suitable for ATV riding and educate ATV riders about responsible riding. Most of these clubs are NOT compensated for their efforts from taxpayer money, as the type of trails needed by ORVs are unnecessarily destructive of soils, slopes and flora and not needed by any others using wilderness and forest trails. Many have also formed separate governing bodies that license ATVs separately from other ORVs. In some places, the monies from gas taxes and registration are used to create more trails to ride and to perform grooming and maintenance; however, these monies do not cover costs to the taxpayer for reparations of resource damage or rescue and hospitalization for accidents involving ATVs and other ORVs.
Self-regulation of ATV use has proven particularly difficult. One public complaint against ATVs is excessive noise. Although the majority of ATVs comply with noise regulations, there are those whose intentional violation can disturb the activities of other recreational users for miles across open landscapes. Tampering with an ATVs exhaust silencer and spark arrestor is illegal on all US federal lands and most state lands. However, enforcement is spotty. It is also possible to install after-market exhaust systems that do not have spark arrestors. These systems are intended for closed course racing and not for use on public lands, but little or no enforcement is applied to insure they are used appropriately.
Further, off-road vehicles, including ATVs, frequently go off designated trails, thus creating new spur trails. This process is called trail proliferation. In areas where the vehicles are confined to designated trails, enforcement is fairly straightforward; however some states have laws that permit use on vaguely defined, undesignated trails. Until recently, most National Forest lands were completely unregulated, even allowing ORVers to cut their own trails, some across private lands. Some states (Michigan for one) have mandated that if this proliferation of trails continues, the certification of forests is in jeopardy and the trails will be closed.
Fellow outdoor recreationalists, who have expressed concern about irresponsible ATV use, include snowmobile users who resent improper use of exclusive snowmobile trails, ATV trail-riders whose trails have been damaged by improper use and hunters whose game has been driven off by those riding during prime hunting times. In addition, virtually all other outdoor recreationists - including horseback riders, fishermen, hikers, birdwatchers and even mountain bikers, have issues with ATVers, due to their noise, destructive behavior and self-righteous attitude. While many in the ATV community attribute vandalism, 'resource damage' and dangerous behavior to 'bad apples', a plethora of studies have found that a large percentage of ATV riders admit to traveling off legal routes and disregarding 'trail etiquette'. Moreover, "90% of ORV users cause damage every day they ride. Most will violate a rule, regulation or law daily," said one Bureau of Land Management ranger in a survey of BLM and Forest Service personnel. (See for reference compilation.)