Today, the Yamaha Grizzly is an institution. It’s the focus of clubs, the centerpiece of a subculture and a fundamental part of American outdoor life. The Grizzly is such a basic pillar of the ATV landscape that it seems it’s always been here. But 15 years ago, there was no Grizzly; in fact, there were no large-displacement ATVs of any kind. The 1998 Grizzly 600 was the first of its breed.
It was a different world back in 1997. The ATV industry was emerging from a cold war of sorts, embattled by lawyers, hamstrung by legal departments and harassed by the mainstream media. With all that going on, it was downright amazing that the first Yamaha Grizzly 600 could be conceived and built. As it turns out, it was brought to life with very little internal corporate struggle. “We had some very bold management at the time,” says a Yamaha engineer who was working on the project. “Given the politics of that period, it’s amazing how easy it was to talk them into it.” At Yamaha, in 1998, the visionaries got their way, and the upper boundary for utility ATVs was shattered. The Grizzly 600 was the first of the “Mega ATVs,” a category that’s still being stretched today.
The first Griz 600 was the biggest ATV in the world at the time. That didn’t last, but the machine’s popularity never faded.
The Yamaha Grizzly didn’t create the sport of mud bogging, but it was one of the key players.
FIRST THE EARTH COOLED
To understand the Grizzly breakthrough, you have to understand the rather short history of 4x4 ATVs. It all started between 1985 and 1987. That was when the 4x4 concept was initially applied to ATVs, first by Honda in 1985, then by Polaris, Suzuki and Yamaha in 1987. Yamaha’s was the Big Bear 350, the first of the Yamaha bears. At the time, all guns were blazing in the ATV world. Three-wheelers had given way to four-wheelers, and most enthusiasts were naive enough to think that was that; there would be no more outside interference in the sport. Not so. At the end of 1987, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Yamaha, Honda, Polaris, Suzuki and Kawasaki, declaring ATVs hazardous products. The manufacturers negotiated with the government and eventually agreed to a list of restraints and conditions. Nowhere in the resulting consent decree was there anything about limiting the size of 4x4s. But, the whole matter scared the industry into a long, deep hibernation.
In the years to come, all the sport ATVs slowly disappeared—all except those made by Yamaha. As for utility ATVs, progress was slowed to glacial speed. Through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if you wanted a four-wheel-drive quad, you had a choice between 250s and 350s. Yamaha started to snap out of it first. In 1993, the Kodiak arrived. It was the first totally new utility ATV we had seen, and at the time, we thought it pushed the limits. Polaris was next. In the summer of 1996, the Sportsman 500 arrived. Again, we thought that was as far as you could practically go. But as it turned out, those models were simply paving the way for the Grizzly age.
THE GRIZZLY HAS LANDED
We first got brief glimpses of something big in the hands of Yamaha test riders in the spring of 1997. We even reported seeing a badge that had a bold “600” on a test quad—markings of any kind are very unusual for prototypes, which are usually well disguised. Then the announcement came. There was, in fact, a new 600cc bear from Yamaha. We first tried the Grizzly 600 in central Mississippi, with Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre as one of our test riders.
It was a mind-blower. The motor was adapted from the Yamaha XT600 dual-sport motorcycle of the time. That model had dual carburetors, but the Grizzly used one 40mm Mikuni CV carb. The transmission, on the other hand, was all new. Previously, Yamaha had been reluctant to climb on the CV transmission bandwagon because that design typically lacked engine braking. The models of the age would simply freewheel on deceleration, putting more demand on the brakes. For the Grizzly, Yamaha developed a one-way clutch that allowed normal engine braking. That was a big breakthrough. Yamaha engineers also gave the 600 separately controlled front and rear brakes. It was clear that the machine’s weight was a subject of big concern, and designers wanted the 600 to stop as well as it accelerated. The dry weight was claimed to be 639 pounds at the time. Prior to the arrival of the Grizzly and the Sportsman 500, we had never seen a quad break the 600-pound mark. In fact, it’s said that Honda and Yamaha had a gentlemen’s agreement to keep the maximum weight of any new ATVs under that admittedly arbitrary figure. That invisible barrier was bent, but not by a huge margin.
The Griz had more new stuff too: four-wheel-drive was engaged with the push of a button, it had more towing capacity than some cars, and it had a massive oil cooler. Then the technology race was on.
TIMES MOVE FAST
The Grizzly 600 ruled as the king of the 4x4s for four years. In that time, user groups sprang up all over the country. The entire sport of mud-bugging flourished, and soon events like the Highlifter ATV Mud Nationals came into being. Today, it’s not unusual to see 14,000 attendees at a mud event, and the growth of the sport can be credited in large part to the Griz. In spite of this success, Yamaha went right back to the drawing board to design the 600’s replacement. As good as that first Grizzly was, it had shortcomings that were immediately apparent. The biggest was its suspension. The original Grizzly had swingarm rear suspension and MacPherson struts in front. Polaris had fully independent suspension, and Suzuki had double A-arms all the way around its new KingQuad 500. On top of that, Bombardier had a 650 coming, and Kawasaki was rumored to have a twin-cylinder 4x4 in the works. There was no time to be idle.
In 2002, the Grizzly 660 was released on the heels of its sport stablemate, the 2001 Raptor 660. It had virtually the same top end as the Raptor—a five-valve, liquid-cooled affair with a big boost in power. The entire chassis was new from the ground up. The swingarm in the rear and the struts in the front were gone, replaced by double-A-arm, independent suspension on all four corners with sway bars. Yamaha gave the Grizzly a push-button front differential lock and better instrumentation. But just as important as the technical attention, Yamaha gave the Grizzly a new look. Someone decided that utility quads didn’t have to look like little tractors. The new Grizzly was sleek and smooth. It looked more like a sports car than a farm implement. With those changes, the new 660 settled in for the long haul. It had the power and handling to withstand the coming storm of the Mega ATVs. Which it did. In the face of multi-cylinder quads from Kawasaki, Polaris, Arctic Cat and Can-Am, the Grizzly remained on top, or near the top, of its class in sales.
When other Mega ATVs arrived, Yamaha fed the Griz. The 2002 model got a bigger motor, independent suspension and much-improved styling.
The five-valve head was a Yamaha trademark for years. With the coming of the 700, its time had come and gone.
A NEW DEAL
After five years, there wasn’t a need for performance that forced Yamaha to update the Grizzly. It was simply the advancing tide of technology. Two things hastened the arrival of a new Grizzly in 2007: the coming of fuel injection and power steering. As Yamaha is prone to do, the entire quad was once again redesigned. A 44mm throttle body was linked to a sophisticated 32-bit ECU. The five-valve head was scrapped in favor of a more conventional four-valve design with cost as the biggest factor. Not only is a four-valve engine easier to manufacture, but it’s cheaper to repair for the consumer. As one Yamaha engineer said, “The time for the five-valve had come and gone.” The bore was increased 2mm, bringing the displacement to 686cc.
Yamaha didn’t design power steering into the first prototypes of the 700, but the demand arose, and it was accommodated. The geometry was slowed down so that the EPS wouldn’t make the steering too sensitive. The frame and suspension got another redesign. The new model was about an inch shorter and an inch wider. The central rear brake was changed to separate brakes on each of the wheels, and the pull starter disappeared. There would be no more back-up for the electric starter, just as there are no more hand cranks for automobiles.
Now that the 700 has been a fixture in Yamaha’s line for six years, it continues to evolve, but only in small details. For the most recent changes, it received new gas shocks and Maxxis tires in 2012.OLD GRIZ MEAT
You would think that with a 15-year sales history there would be a big inventory of Grizzlies on the used ATV market. Not so. We perused Craigslist and found very few for sale on the West Coast. There were several in the south, most around the $4000 to $5000 range. It’s likely that with the economy still slow, Grizzly owners simply aren’t parting with their furry pets because they can’t afford a replacement. Kelley Blue Book puts an ’08 700 base model at just over $5000, whereas a new one is nearly twice that much.
With so few changes in its run, the determining factor is condition, not age. Our advice is to go with either a 660 or a 700, as the performance and appearance are similar. The 600s are getting a little old now, and a bargain might not be such a bargain. Chronic problems are few, but if you have questions, a good resource is www.grizzlycentral.com
. The forum has a wide variety of tech subjects and a fairly small bozo factor.
The fact that the Grizzly has been without a major change for the longest period in its existence might make you think that something big is overdue. We don’t see it that way. The 700 might not be the biggest, most powerful 4x4 ATV in the world anymore, but that’s okay. It turns out that being the biggest was never the main reason for its popularity. Compared to its rivals, the big Grizzly is as good now as it was in the beginning. The only real difference: now its advantage is that it’s smaller than the rest. Funny how that works.
Brett Favre starred on the cover of the August 1997 issue of Dirt Wheels as a special guest tester.