BURNET, Texas—A beautiful field of flowers, blossoming with bright blue buffalo clover and vibrant red Indian paintbrushes, is being flattened by the eight fat tires of the 2016 Argo LX. The amphibious ATV snorts as it trundles through the rock-riddled field of Reveille Peak Ranch, 90 minutes north of Austin. It’s ugly and off-putting, this Argo, but it’s also one of the only vehicles in the world that could’ve brought me to this secluded and serene spot high above Texas Hill Country.
The people that created the Argo
Some Germans looked at the American ATV market and decided they could do better, so they found a polyurethane tub, put an engine in it, and then attached four axles bookended by eight steel wheels. No need for suspension as the soft tires wouldn’t hold much air and soak up impacts on the trail. And said tires would be designed to double as waterwheels and rudders during low-speed nautical adventures.
Brilliant, but the Germans who ran Argo and its umbrella corporation, Ontario Drive and Gear LTD, loved challenges, not customers. Function came first, with form standing dejectedly somewhere far in the distance. Their six- and eight-wheel Argos proved to be extremely capable machines, climbing over and wading through just about everything, but they were horribly executed, rusting when left out in the rain and reflecting little of what customers wanted. For example, owners would be thrown from their Argos simply because no one at the company considered how best to hold occupants in. In the ’90s, Argo sold about 4,000 ATVs a year. That number had halved not long after the new millennium, and things looked grim.
The people that keep Argo going
Ontario Drive & Gear came under new ownership in 2004. Along with Argo, the new shepherds took control of ODG, which manufactures the gears and transmissions for the Argo, as well as Argo’s aerospace and robotics divisions. They immediately started to rejigger the company, first securing a contract with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to build a moon rover that’s supposed to launch in 2020, and then turned their attention to the Argo ATV.
“Our biggest market is over 65, and they can’t get in the thing,” says Enoch Stiff, president of Argo. Comfort and ergonomics are now tantamount to functionality, and while Stiff is quick to admit the Argo is still very modest, he says it’s now much better than it used to be. He and the rest of the team at Argo added 34 dealerships in the U.S. last year alone, and they’re looking to penetrate the lifestyle ATV market and not get stuck in their hunter-filled niche. “This is about grandparents and grandkids,” says Stiff. “The Xbox has taken over,” noting that he wants Argo to be seen as a tool for helping families get outside and spend more time together.
Unattractive in a lot of ways
If kids don’t want to be seen shopping with their parents, then they definitely won’t want to be seen driving around with Grandma in this repugnant bath on wheels. If Ted Cruz knocked up Medusa during a sweaty night together, their spawn would still be more attractive than the Argo. It’s garish, tacky, and as aesthetically pleasing as Steve Buscemi’s smile, and I spend as little time as I can staring at the eight-wheeled Argo before I snatch a set of keys and hop over the side of a right-hand-drive, top-of-the-line LX model.
Its interior isn’t much better than its exterior. The handlebars are plucked from a BMW bike, the seat bench is soft but not at all supportive, the grips are made from the same squishy rubber as dog toys, and the dash is covered in cheap, carbon-fiber-like plastic trim. There’s a USB port that charges my iPhone, but neither it nor Bluetooth will let me link to the Jensen audio system for some reason. The worst part of the Argo’s interior is that because of the way the body tub is shaped, there’s very little room for your feet and it’s dang near impossible to get comfortable. So I stop trying, pin the throttle, and take off down a red-dirt fire trail. For such a brawny machine, the Argo is very sensitive, what with its jerky starts and touchy steering. The Argo literally steers like a tank by locking up the wheels on one side of the ATV to turn, which takes a lot of getting used to and a lot finesse to keep from snapping side to side.
Looks aren’t everything
I’m almost ready to write off the Argo as a twitchy, ugly novelty with no real appeal until I come to a staircase made out of eight, long, jagged stone slabs. I barely slow down before the front tires slam into the first stair, the front end of the Argo hops in the air, and the eight-wheeler skips up the stone staircase. I thought the suspension-free Argo would toss me around, but no; its tires, each with about 2 psi of air and held on by bead-locked wheels, soak up hits like a punch-drunk boxer. I put the Argo in neutral, roll backward down the steps, and then climb them again. And again, and again, and again. Something so stupid shouldn’t be so fun. I immediately forget about the Argo’s abhorrent appearance and dismal attention-to-detail and focus instead on its impeccable knack for having fun. I crack the throttle again, split the difference between two thick trees, and start up a hillside with no paths or trails.
Where most ATVs would tiptoe, the Argo stomps. I wouldn’t dare do this in a run-of-the-mill ATV, but the Argo inspires hubristic gung-ho and puts your sense of self-preservation on mute. Part of me wishes I’d worn a helmet as I storm up and over boulders, but then I might’ve missed the everything happening in my peripherals, like snakes slithering under sandstones, rabbits cuddled up in the grass, and cows and their calves wandering through the brush.
When I come across straight and somewhat smooth bits of ground, I get the Argo up to about 28 mph, which isn’t bad for a 1,450-pound bucket. With every dip in the road, a puff of white smoke shoots from the foot-long exhaust pipe that juts out of the hood from the 30-hp, 0.7-liter V-Twin engine. I don’t slow down for the many muddy, waterlogged valleys or the jagged features that would fatally wound a Jeep Wrangler. I brake only for boulders I’m worried I’ll bottom out on, which are few and far between, and the animals that sit in front of me stunned, trying to understand the outrageous Argo.
I come across another Argo with water pouring out of all sides, its drenched occupants sitting on the ground next to it. “We loaded four people into the Argo,” they say, “and tried to take it out onto the pond, and…” Which is when I remember this thing can go on water, so I stop listening, wave goodbye, and drive the Argo headfirst into the murky pond. For a split second, I’m sure I’m going to sink, as the front end is completely submerged before the back end even leaves dry land. But when the whole Argo hits water, it tips back and forth and bobs for a few seconds before settling down.
The helix tires froth the water, churning up an astonishing 300 pounds of thrust as they do, but the Argo can only manage 2 or 3 mph at sea. So I hold the throttle steady, sink back into the cushy seat, and scan the Jensen radio for local stations, landing on something that blends religious talk and smooth jazz. The wind overpowers the steering when I go to turn, so I have push away dead tree branches as I make my way back toward shore. The Argo isn’t a great boat, but that’s OK because it’s a great ATV that just so happens to be a sort of crappy boat as well.
Laugh at it; laugh with it
My smile mirrors those of the people watching me come ashore to the sound of a silky smooth oboe. Muddy water pools under each of the Argo’s eight tires as I hop out, which is when I’m reminded of just how hideous the ATV is. It makes me cringe, because the Argo is an amazing machine with capabilities beyond belief, and its appearance will keep it from being taken seriously by most enthusiasts. The ideas and engineering behind the Argo are sound, so it’s up to the somewhat new owners to take this awesome machine and transform it into something sexy that can take you to the world’s most secluded and serene spots, by land or sea.
2016 Argo 8×8 Amphibious ATV Specifications
|Engine:||0.7L OHV 4-valve V-2/30 hp|
|Layout:||0-door, 6-passenger, front-engine, 8WD ATV|
|L x W x H:||124.0 x 60.0 x 47.0 in|
|Top Speed:||28 mph (observed)|