For me, major childhood milestones were defined by the various wheeled conveyances that served as placeholders until the day I got my driver’s license. The Little Tikes Cozy Coupe led to a Big Wheel, a BMX bike, and an Arctic Cat minibike (total rides: one, after glancing off my house at wide-open throttle). Eventually, I acquired a 1977 Scorpion Sting snowmobile, then a pair of ATVs: a Kawasaki Mojave followed by a Honda 250X. There was a golden interlude when my brother and I put the final miles on an old Subaru out in the woods, but then it was back to bicycles — and directing searing-hot envy toward friends who had lawn tractors.
Those years instilled an affinity for non-street-legal vehicles. So it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on a UTV, the term for overgrown ATVs with side-by-side seats, a steering wheel, and a roll cage. UTVs are so minimalist they make a raggedy Nissan Versa look like the lounge car on the Orient Express. But in the hierarchy of automotive stepping stones, a UTV seems like the penultimate step before a driver’s license unlocks the door to street-legal machinery. If they were around when I was fourteen, I would’ve spent a lot of time whining about not having one.
Like cars, UTVs have evolved to fulfill disparate needs, with two-doors, four-doors, and varying levels of creature comforts — which is to say, varying lack of creature comforts. The two-seat John Deere Gator RSX850i is your sports car, with a dry-sump Piaggio V-twin enabling a three-second 0-to-30-mph time. The Kawasaki Teryx4 750 4×4 EPS LE is more like a crossover, with four seats, power steering, and, for truly immoderate hedonists, a roof. Ain’t no tree critters fallin’ on yer head when you got a roof!
If the Teryx4 is a family car, it’s for a family of barbarians navigating the scarred ruins of a dystopian future. With two cylinders propelling 1627 pounds, the Kawasaki isn’t so much fast as unstoppable. In 2WD, it will go just about anywhere. Put it in 4WD and it’ll go everywhere else. If you’ve done something truly inadvisable and the rival horde is closing fast, drop the CVT into low and lock the front differential. Now you can drive up the side of a gravel-pit wall and summit the top, like I did.
The Gator, with 62 hp and a Fox Racing suspension, is even more entertaining. Stomp the throttle, and you’re thrown back in the seat as the torquey V-twin thumps out a drum solo from the bowels of the chassis. The Gator is stripped to the bare elements: steering wheel, seats, pedals, noise. It’s actually comfortable, even with sport seats specifically shaped for, uh, husky folk. “Unlike other sport seats that only accommodate thin operators,” the John Deere website reads, “this seat was designed to accommodate a wide range of body shapes.” That’s good, because if Sade wrote a song about me, it wouldn’t be called “Thin Operator.”
The Gator rather hilariously insists on its usefulness by including a stubby dump bed that is probably there to help justify the purchase of your Piaggio-engined, crazy-ass dune buggy. “Look, honey, this isn’t a toy. I’m going to use it for projects and so forth, transporting items and whatnot. It’s got a dump bed!” Both the John Deere and the Kawasaki cost $15,499, so some justification may be in order, given that is also the price of a Ford Fiesta S with an option or two.
If I had Larry the Cable Guy money, I’d own a fleet of these things. But the car still tops my vehicular hierarchy. I had a blast with them, yet I also have a blast in my Ford Bronco. Plus, the Bronco towed these things around like its little escape pods.
One morning I decided to inch the Kawasaki forward on the trailer behind the idling Bronco to get more weight on the tongue. The heretofore reliable V-twin cranked but refused to start. It occurred to me that the cocktail of diesel noxiousness chuffing from the Bronco’s exhaust might be potent enough to confound the Teryx4’s fuel-injection system, so I cut the ignition on the 7.3-liter Power Stroke and waited a moment for the air to clear. The Kawasaki fired right up. While I’m disgusted by the Bronco’s filthiness, I’m also proud of it for belligerently choking out its trendy new rival. Don’t worry, Bronco. I’m still a car guy.