ATVs are the perfect machines to explore the great outdoors with. Learn about basic ATV parts and features and why they’re critical to fun and safe riding.
ATVs are composed of three major component sets: the engine and drivetrain, the body, and the suspension. Working together, this trio of systems makes the magic happen, enabling you to enjoy your backcountry thrills. And when you have the proper understanding of how these parts work and function, you’ll be better able to enjoy the capabilities of your ATV.
These parts work together to serve one purpose: propel you through gnarly terrain in the great outdoors. The parts and components of an ATV are designed to take a serious beating without leaving you stranded.
To best explain these ATV parts and features, we’ve done our own extensive research while also tapping into our own personal expertise. The result? The most comprehensive ATV guide out there. Let’s get started.
Primary Parts and Features of an ATV
As we mentioned, the ATV essentially leans on three different component sets to be the off-road champ it is. Driving the whole thing is the engine and drivetrain; keeping it upright and level is the suspension. The body protects all the hardware and while providing you a perch to sit.
ATV Engine and Drivetrain
Like any mechanical, self-propelled machine, the heart and soul of your ATV is its engine.
Displacements typically run from as small as 100cc to a full liter or more. Horsepower follows much the same spectrum, with the low-end models putting out lawnmower levels of power and the brawniest checking in with well over 50 horses. One of the most powerful ATVs on the market, the Can Am Renegade R, makes just shy of 100 horsepower.
ATV engines can be either two-stroke or four-stroke depending on the manufacturer, brand, and price point.
ATV Two-Stroke Engines
On the more affordable end of the scale you’re most likely to find ATVs equipped with two-stroke engines. These engines are so named because they need just two strokes to complete the combustion cycle. The first stroke handles the intake and compression; the second stroke takes care of combustion and exhaust.
These engines spin at high speeds and are more raucous than their four-stroke brethren. They’re also small and lightweight, making them excellent for applications like ATVs. Though they’re built with durability in mind, two-strokes do typically require more careful maintenance. However, keeping to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule should ensure a hearty, long life out of any ATV two-stroke.
Two-stroke fuel is a concoction of gas and oil - typically 50 parts gas to one part oil - which means you’ll never have to do an oil change. Why? Because the oil is circulated through the engine during the combustion process. For the proper fuel mix, plan on either buying premixed two-stroke fuel or otherwise blending the correct balance of fuel and oil yourself.
ATV Four-Stroke Engines
A four-stroke engine is similar to what’s under the hood of your typical automobile. What the two-stroke does in two steps the four-stroke does in four. First is the intake stroke, followed by a separate compression stroke. On the third stroke combustion happens, and on the fourth and final stroke the exhaust fumes are pushed out of the cylinder.
By taking twice as many piston strokes to accomplish combustion, four-stroke engines operate at lower revolutions per minute (RPM), enabling smoother operation. Four-stroke engines are also much quieter and refined.
Another nice thing about four-stroke engines? Because they drink regular gas, you can just top off your jerry can at a gas station and later dump it right into your ATV gas tank. No need to mess with more expensive premixed fuel or trying to be a driveway alchemist.
- No oil changes necessary
- Noisy, rough operation
- May need more frequent repair
- Requires oil/gas fuel mix
- Smooth, quiet operation
- More reliable
- Runs on regular gas, no mixing required
- Bigger and heavier
- More costly
ATV Suspension and Tires
A quick glance at a typical ATV suspension can be overwhelming. The whole arrangement seems a fantasyland of whimsically-curved metal tucked neatly behind an ATV’s fat tires and small body. Only when you begin to consider each component individually does it begin to make sense. Let’s consider each major suspension part in turn:
ATV Springs and Shocks
Perhaps the most important suspension elements are the springs and shocks. Both work together to achieve the same purpose: to quickly quell any unwanted body movement and to absorb the shock of sudden impacts.
Springs keep things steady and level. If your vehicle doesn’t have springs, your ATV would jolt up or crash down with every bump and hole on the trail. It’d be like driving slow on a washboard road, only far worse.
To envision these components in action, picture your ATV at stock ride height on paved road. The pavement is smooth as glass; as your ATV travels along, it maintains a steady, comfortable height. All is well. Right?
Not so fast. Now imagine that a branch suddenly appears across this road, leaving you no choice but to drive over it. What happens? As the front tires hit the obstacle, they begin to push upwards as they naturally attempt to drive over the obstacle. When this happens the tires are also pushing up against the resistance of the front springs.
The spring rate - which essentially measures how much force is required to compress the spring - is no match for the upward force of the tires. The spring compresses, and in doing so absorbs some of the energy that would have been otherwise transmitted the rider. The result is that the spring takes the brunt of the impact so that the sprung weight - that is, everything supported by the suspension - suffers only a small jostle.
Shocks do much the same thing as springs, working to absorb any impacts you might encounter while riding. Their main job is to counteract the oscillations of the springs - without them, your springs would do their best impression of a slinky, leaving you wishing for a barf bag. The smooth, controlled action of shock absorbers is key to enjoying a smooth, controlled ride.
Shocks are also far more customizable than springs. With different types of shocks available - including adjustable units - you can plug and play in an effort to dial in exactly the sort of ride and handling you’re looking for.
By far the most common shock type out there is the monotube, single-reservoir hydraulic shock. As the name suggests, these shocks feature a single tube filled with a viscous hydraulic oil that helps dampen impacts and resist compression. Inlets built into the shocks ensure the hydraulic fluid moves at a controlled, specified rate.
Dual-reservoir shocks up the ante by adding an additional supporting chamber alongside the primary reservoir. If you reach the end of your standard shock travel, the extra reservoir kicks in and injects extra fluid into the piston chamber to maintain shock performance even at the extreme ends of its travel. It’s overkill for most of us, but a lifesaver if you race or constantly ride on the ragged edge of your ATV’s capability.
Monotube shocks typically aren’t adjustable, which means they’ll always offer the same performance no matter what. Some shocks, however, allow you to adjust the flow rate of the fluid via manipulation of the inlet valves. These adjustable shocks feature a knob that’s known as a clicker to easily change the damping rate; the name comes from the audible sound made with each twist of the knob.
Why bother adjusting the shocks on your ATV? Different trail conditions require levels of damping. Trying to get big air on sand dunes has a very different effect on your suspension than if you were trying to blitz up a rock-strewn trail. The ability to adjust your shocks to a specific riding style and environment is the best way to maximize performance everywhere you ride.
In the car world, automotive enthusiasts know that the cheapest, most effective modification they can make is upgrading their tires. Why? Because grip is everything. All the power in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put it to the ground effectively.
It’s much the same with ATVs. Your ATV tires will determine how effective you are at getting from here to there. And because ATVs can be driven in such a wide variety of terrain, it’s worth learning what tires make the most sense for your application.
The most important element in your tire decision is tread design. Those crazy tread patterns you see on ATV tires aren’t just for aesthetics: the design dictates overall grip, wet-weather traction, cornering and handling, and more. Each rib and cut helps control how water, mud and snow are dispelled and how well the tire will grip.
If your happy place is waterlogged trails and deeply rutted two-tracks, you need a tire with an exaggerated, aggressive tread that can displace even the thickest mud. The fat tread will enable you to rip through your favorite mud hole and not lose grip, thereby keeping you from getting stuck.
If you're a desert runner, that fat tread would slow you right down, if not get you stuck entirely. For sandy conditions, you need a sand tire, which features a shallower tread that almost looks rudimentary in its simpleness. There’s nothing rudimentary about its effectiveness, however. The broadly space and scalloped design is tailor-made for sailing through soft sand without issue.
Dry, rocky trails use an aggressive tread that looks similar to the mud tire, just with smaller, tighter channels between the raised tread. That’s because the amount of water and mud these tires are designed to encounter is much more modest than with mud-dedicated tires. This tire design is also a great all-purpose tire for those who want something a bit more versatile.
That said, the best all-purpose ATV tires are the aptly-named all-terrain tires, which are sometimes known as trail tires. These tires offer the best all-around experience at the expense of specialized performance. For a balance of price, ride quality and capability, trail tires are your best bet.
ATV Body, Seat and Handlebars
Walk into a powersports showroom and for a moment all the ATV specs you were pouring over earlier fall away. In front of you is an ATV in all its fat-fendered, angry-headlight glory. You’re smitten.
There’s no denying the aesthetics are part of the allure of the ATV. But beyond that, the body is functional as well, protecting you from the worst the trail has to offer and providing you the captain’s seat to your ATV. And like everything else on this list, there’s more to the body, seat and handlebars than meets the eye.
At first glance, ATV handlebars seem obvious and unimportant. All they do is steer the thing, right? In fact, that’s why they’re so critical. Understanding your handlebars is the first step to achieving superior control of your ATV.
Let’s back up a minute. Unlike a UTV, ATVs rely on handlebars rather than a steering wheel to turn the front wheels. In fact, this difference is one of the major differentiators between an ATV and UTV. Off-road four-wheelers with steering wheels, such as side-by-sides, are not ATVs.
Handlebars are also how you turn a bicycle, motorcycle or dirt bike, but on those two-wheelers it’s also critical to lean into turns as well - in fact, you’re not so much steering those machines as guiding them with your own weight transfer and a maybe a small nudge of the handlebars.
On an ATV, of course, you can’t really use that technique. That’s partially why these things can sometimes be so hairy to pilot: the high center of gravity, short wheelbase, and handlebar steering don’t make for a very wieldy machine. It’s easy to tip one of these even if you’re a seasoned rider.
That’s why it’s all the more paramount to have handlebars that ergonomically work for you. To judge your setup, observe your arm motions as you work the bars. When you turn all the way out in either direction, is your outside arm fully extended? If so, you may want to reevaluate your seating position or handlebar setup. You want to never be in a position where you may overextend your arm during a turn, as that could easily lead to a loss of control.
If you do feel that your handlebars aren't’ adequately positioned, consider upgrading. Aftermarket handlebars are available that offer different angles, sweeps, widths, and heights. Most important of these factors is height and width, as that’s what will impact your riding comfort the most. We suggest sampling some different handlebar types if you can to get an idea of what feels the most comfortable for you.
The body of your ATV cloaks your suspension, gives you a place to sit, and, well, just looks cool. But different bodies can often be found on different types of ATVs, and the type of body you might want should go hand in hand with how you plan to use your machine.
The most common body style is the utility ATV. This is the classic ATV: a simple, boxy sort of body usually has plenty of space to strap down cargo and is strong enough to carry the tools of your trade, be that ranch feed or your hunting rifle. Style plays second fiddle to functionality on these models.
Sport ATVs wear much racier bodywork. These are designed foremost for fun, and are what you typically see out on the OHV trails on any given weekend. If you’re looking for style and plan on using your ATV for recreation rather than practical purposes, this is your model.
There are also side-by-side ATVs, which can hold a passenger but aren’t quite up to par with the larger, more sophisticated side-by-side UTVs. These models are for much more pragmatic purposes than sport ATVs. Look for them parked behind your local rural fire department or town hall.
H3: Tag: ATV Seats
Perhaps most important of all is the seat. After all, you’ll hopefully be spending a lot of time in the saddle enjoying your new toy - shouldn’t the seat be comfortable? And similar to the handlebar situation, a comfortable seat is also important to safe riding. Because an ATV requires riders to constantly be shifting their weight around, a large, comfy seat is crucial to proper operation.
Because most ATV seats are large, it’s common to think that a passenger could be brought along for the ride. In fact, that’s expressly not the case - in fact, carrying a passenger is often actively discouraged due to the fact that they may inhibit the rider from having the full range of motion necessary for safe operation.
That’s the reason for the big seat, actually: it’s more padded area on which to shift forward, back, and sideways as you dance with the ATV down your favorite trails. Because staying upright on an ATV is as much about steering as it is about weight placement, a big, comfortable seat is a must.
About THE AUTHOR
I'm 30 years old. I am a software developer and I am a freelance writer on the side. I've been riding ATV's since I was 15. I personally own a Polaris Sportsman and a Can-Am Defender.Read More About Shawn