Whether used for spraying, checking crops or livestock, handling chores or just basic transportation, today's ATV continues to gain greater acceptance as a needed and valuable tool for the farm.

Because of this, we persuaded our Team FIN farmers to stay a few more days after testing pickups for our Truck Rodeo (see October issue, page 4) to give their opinions of the latest four-wheelers on the market. All were eager to help.

Serious protocol. First we developed testing protocol to include braking and handling, pulling and hauling a heavy load, driving over rough terrain, and the comfort, convenience, maintenance and service of the machines. We then asked Arctic Cat, Bombardier, Honda, Kawasaki, Polaris, Suzuki and Yamaha to supply one model that best fits the farm market. All but Bombardier sent machines (the new Traxter wasn't available yet) and safety equipment.

Not all the companies brought their largest model, so farmers were asked to consider size differences to make fair comparisons. They rated the ATVs in each event on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).

Even though it only "won" the hauling event, Yamaha's Grizzly received the highest overall average score of 3.9. The Arctic Cat 500 and Kawasaki Prairie 300 had very close scores of 3.85 and 3.8, respectively, and the Suzuki Quadrunner 500 and Honda FourTrax Foreman ES tied at 3.7. The Polaris Sportsman 500 was just a shade behind at 3.65.

The top-rated machine and the bottom-rated one were separated by only a quarter of a point in overall average score. One farmer aptly summed up the performance of the ATVs when he said, "All the machines were quite good; there were no real dogs here."

However, differences in these iron horses do exist. As an astute buyer, you need to define your needs in horsepower, powertrain, operator comfort and service ease - and even consider dealer support - and then select which features best fit your use criteria.

Braking and handling, unloaded. The farmers tested braking and backing up by maneuvering through pylons, then driving on sections of a road course. All the machines scored well, within a half point of each other.

The Kawasaki, the smallest horsepower rig tested (although not lightest in weight), drove to top honors in this category. Farmers were impressed with the 290-cc, air-cooled, four-stroke engine, claiming it handled the hills as well as the 500- to 600-cc machines. And its automatic tranny was a hit with most testers, who stated they'd rather put the machine in gear and go than bother with shifting any day.

"The Grizzly [Yamaha] offered the best engine braking on downhill terrain," said Ohio farmer Daryl Bridenbaugh. A few farmers downgraded it slightly for being somewhat top-heavy while cornering. The massive Yamaha, with a 595-cc engine, and the Polaris, with 499 cc, tied for second place in this category. Nebraska farmer Scott McPheeters thought the Polaris "delivered the tightest turning radius of the group."

Comfort and convenience. During the numerous test rides during the two-day event, farmers continually analyzed each ATV for comfort and convenience, and they were tough. Although the other tests garnered scores ranging from about 3.6 to 4.4, this test scored low with ranges from 3.0 to 3.4. Kawasaki won this category by edging out Arctic Cat, Honda and Yamaha by one tenth of a point.Benefits cited on the Honda included a headlight on the handlebar for good night viewing, a handy digital speedometer, and rear electrical outlet to aid in spraying. Steve Webb from Needham, IN, thought that the Honda "had the most quiet ride of all models," and Illinois farmer Gary Appleby liked the design and styling of both the Honda and Yamaha.

The testers had both praise and concerns about Honda's new push-button shifting, because although it was very easy to shift, the gear changes often jolted the rider. Testers went back and forth on Polaris's and Yamaha's 4-wd on-the-go shift button, but in the end they appreciated it as a feature. "It's nice but you must take your thumb off of the throttle to use it," said Webb.

The Arctic Cat received praise for being one of the most solid pieces of equipment, but farmers commented that the heal/toe rocker shifter was more difficult to learn than straight toe shifting or an automatic transmission. John Bovill, Beresford, SD, thought all of the models could use less plastic.

Iowa farmer Rolland Schnell liked that the Yamaha gave a choice between 2- and 4-wd. He said that the Yamaha has "improved maneuverability in 2-wd and allows 4-wd traction."

Towing power. Farm-ers tested towing capabilities by hitching each machine up to two trailers: first one hauling 420 lbs. of sandbags, then the other trailer with 840 lbs. They climbed and descended the steep hills of the motocross track to really put the four-wheelers to the test. The Arctic Cat captured first in this category, followed closely by Polaris, Honda and Yamaha.

"All machines handled the load well on the smaller grade in either high range or second speed," said Schnell. "And the engine braking on the Honda and Yamaha was great." Gary Appleby gave the Polaris and Yamaha an "excellent" for downhill braking.

The smaller Kawasaki finished the towing category in last place, but it was only a little more than a half point behind the leader. Illinois farmer Jack Appleby commented, "With only 290 cc, it truly is the mouse that roared.'"

Pack-mule strength. To test the ATVs' hauling power, sandbags were put in both the front and rear racks of the machines. Our testers then took them through the pylons and on the motocross track to determine handling with a load. Yamaha earned the top spot, outdistancing all others by a comfortable and consistent margin. Farmers reported that almost all the models were difficult to steer on the pylon course and that some seemed more top-heavy with a load. Kansas farmer John Engelland said that the Suzuki was the easiest to maneuver and steer under load and thought that "the Polaris and Yamaha steered sideways when braking."

Gary Appleby commented that it's during situations like this type of hauling that you really need automatic shifting. "Being able to shift into 4-wd on-the-go is a nice feature, when you really need it," he said.

Four-wheeling. A two-inch rain the night before the 4-Wheelin' event made the motocross track - and the testing - more challenging. Built for motorbikes, the hilly - and subsequently muddy - terrain became the perfect surface for the group to cut loose and test the handling and steering capabilities of each machine.

After climbing up and down the steep and sloppy hills of the track, the testers barreled through a pit area, in between pylons spaced at uneven intervals, to test steering, suspension, climbing and descending.

Kawasaki beat out all the others with a score of 4.0 to garner one of its three category wins. Yamaha and Suzuki tied for second place, both scoring 3.9; Arctic Cat received a score of 3.8; Polaris, 3.7; and Honda, 3.3.

Maintain and service. Although many of our Team FIN members enjoy tinkering with equipment, they still rate a vehicle's ease of maintenance and service as a top priority. During this test, company representatives walked around their machines, explaining maintenance and service aspects, while farmers challenged them with questions.

Five ATVs were within mere tenths of a point of each other. The Arctic Cat earned its second category win here, followed closely by the Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha.

Bridenbaugh cited Arctic Cat's sealed back end (a rubber bladder that expands or deflates to protect it) as "a good feature to keep out dirt and moisture," and thought that the Polaris had the best front CV joint protection.

Finishing at the bottom was the Polaris Sportsman, docked by all farmers as having too much plastic to remove to get at components, along with numerous grease zerks (found only on this machine) needed to lubricate its independent rear suspension.

User-approved. In the end, all Team FIN members headed home with big smiles on their faces after fun, yet grueling, days of testing. Although they discovered differences and some picked favorites, they all claimed that any of the machines tested would be a good workhorse to have around their farms.