Off-Road Adventures: ATV vs. Side-by-Side – What are the differences?

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For most consumers, buying a car or truck is relatively easy.  You know your likes, dislikes and preferences based on previous ownership experiences.  Yet, shopping for an off-road vehicle can be frustrating if you’re new to this type of adventure.  With this in mind, it’s essential to understand the broader categories of off-road vehicles before looking at specific brands or features.  So, let’s explore ATV and side-by-side vehicles and the primary features and characteristics of each. 

What’s an ATV? 

An ATV, or all-terrain vehicle, is an off-roader with four wheels, a handlebar for steering and a motorcycle-style seat.  If you’ve operated a snowmobile or motorcycle, then you’ve notice the similarities (minus the four wheels, of course) along with the extra body movement needed to control and steer the vehicle.  Most ATVs are designed for a single rider like this 2019 Polaris Sportsman 850, but you may come across the occasional model with two-person seating in tandem (front-to-back) style.  ATVs are sometimes referred to as quads or four-wheelers.  

What is a Side-by-Side? 

Like its smaller ATV counterpart, a side-by-side (SXS) off-roader goes by many names, including UTV (utility task vehicle) and SSV (side-by-side vehicle).  Whatever you call it, think of an SXS as a golf cart on steroids.  Here is a 2020 Can-Am Maverick X3 that will give you an idea of what we mean.  So, an SXS is more car-like and is operated by a steering wheel and foot pedals.  While most SXS models will handle two or four passengers in paired rows with seatbelts, the largest side-by-sides can take up to six riders in two rows of three.  Every SXS comes with a roll bar, and most can be equipped with a windshield and a rear window.  Some models come with fully enclosed cabins and climate control.   

Are ATVs and SXSs Street Legal? 

It’s always safe to assume that ATVs and SXSs are not legal for street use; they’re called off-road vehicles for a reason.  However, the laws vary by state, and in some states, the law can even vary by county or town.  It’s a hodge-podge of rules that may not allow ATVs to be on a public road, but a properly equipped and insured SXS can travel on the same roadways.  Some states allow ATVs only to cross public roads, while other states permit SXSs to travel on a public street only when used for farming purposes.  In general, the more rural an area, the more flexible local regulations are.  However, never assume anything about street-use regulations for off-road vehicles. Always first check with your motor vehicle department or local law enforcement.      

What To Consider About Off-Road Vehicles:


Shopping for an ATV or SXS usually begins with a thought on budget.  This can range anywhere from a used ATV that needs work (and costs a few hundred dollars) to a brand-new and fully loaded SXS that can cost as much as a new car.  Just as buying a used car is a smart money-saving move, buying a used ATV or SXS not only keeps costs down but is an excellent way of starting with an off-roader if you’re less sure about what you want. For example, an affordable ATV is a great starter vehicle, but later on, you may prefer a more advanced ATV or an SXS with better capabilities. 


When considering an off-roader, one of the first questions you want to ask is, “What will I use it for?” If you’re just looking for some single-person fun during warm weather, then an ATV may be the perfect off-roader.  If you’re looking to joyride with family and friends together in the same vehicle (and in all kinds of weather), then stepping up to an SXS is the logical choice.  You’ll also want to consider if you need an off-roader for specific tasks like hauling wood or towing a trailer (which also means going with an SXS).  Think of an ATV as focused on fun, while a properly equipped SXS can handle business and pleasure.  Take note that off-roaders can be fitted for different purposes, including middle-of-the-road models that seem do it all.  Yet, other models are designed around specific uses, such as having an upgraded suspension for longer drives or a chassis engineered to handle the rigors of extra rough terrain and airborne adventures.   


You’ll also want to figure out where you will use an off-roader.  For example, as much as you may want a six-person SXS, such a wide vehicle will not be the most practical on a narrow trail.  Likewise, if accessing your favorite paths requires first bringing your off-roader by regular automobile, you can probably roll an ATV in the back of a pickup truck.  However, unless you go with a narrower trail-class SXS, a side-by-side will need its own trailer. At the same time, if your off-road exploits involve water crossing, you’ll need to take a closer look at an ATV’s or SXS’s fording depth.  Knowing where you will use your off-roader is equally as important as knowing how you will use it. 

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