WIDE OPEN: Electric car shock

By Joe Kosch

This machine is easily identifiable as an off-road UTV without any drive train at all. If the motivation installed burns gasoline, hydrogen or electrons, it will still be a way to enjoy off-road.

As I eased the General to a stop at a part of the trail that crossed a road, I looked for oncoming cars and spotted something I didn’t expect—a Tesla electric sports car. The speed the car was going and the way it accelerated on the uphill turn on the mountain road got me thinking that I wasn’t the only driver out having fun that day. I know electric UTVs are common already. Can-Am, Polaris and several other brands have them, but other than Nikola’s NZT, they’re not what I’d call performance models. It looks like that will change soon. Polaris just partnered with Zero Motorcycles, the current leader in electric motorcycle powertrains, and announced plans to offer electric options in its core business segments by 2025. If what I’m seeing with other motorized vehicles is any indicator, the time may come when even the most serious pure-sport gas-powered UTVs will be challenged by electric models.

At the moment, I’m not all that excited about seeing the engines I like so much being outperformed and put out to pasture by silent, soulless, battery-powered motors. Electric motors may generate tremendous torque at every speed, but I like the way good-old gas burners build power unevenly. Who doesn’t like the rush of a highly tuned engine coming on the cams or building boost and hitting the meat of its power curve? I love the way gas engines sound and feel, and I even like the way they smell. I’m also partial to gas powerplants because I understand them. Gas engines speak a language I can understand. I know when they’re running right and when something’s wrong. When something is wrong, I usually have a pretty good idea how to fix it. In my experience, electric motors work great or not at all, without much warning in between, except that foul, familiar burned electrical smell.

Even so, I’ll have no trouble smiling behind the wheel of a high-performance electric UTV that really performs well. It will take time to adjust, probably no more than the fraction of a second when I feel an electric UTV accelerate harder than any gas-powered model I’ve ever driven, but I can see myself accepting gasoline engines as obsolete technology. I’m a big fan of vintage vehicles, so I’ll still enjoy a spin in a piston-engine UTV from time to time.

Letting go of gasoline engines might seem like it will be tough, but I think most UTVers will find it easier than they expect. I remember when four-strokes replaced two-strokes as the dominant engine type for high-performance ATVs. Most riders I considered two-stroke lovers forgot two-strokes as soon as they experienced the strong, broad power of modern, quick-revving four-strokes. A neighbor of mine is a big radio-controlled plane and helicopter enthusiast who also likes gas engines and rides UTVs, ATVs and dirt bikes. Now that electric radio-controlled aircrafts perform really well, he doesn’t miss his gas-powered machines a bit. Not all UTV fans like engines as much as they like driving their vehicles, either, and many lack mechanical skills. Electric UTVs are sure to require less care than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, which will be good for gearheads and non-gearheads.

It’s also true that not everybody is a big fan of the gas-engine sound, or fuel-burning vehicles for that matter. Electric UTVs might be the best ambassadors for off-roading that have come along in years. Silent, clean side-by-sides can’t offend sensitive non-off-roaders like gas models can, and they might get some people out on the trail who would never have tried it.

Think I’m ready to push the piston engine into the grave? No way. I’m not going to cry if that’s what the market wants, though. Electric vehicles are a modern reality, and electric vehicle power is a technology that’s sure to see serious development in the future. For now, I look forward to every time I fire up a gas-engine UTV, and I’m looking forward to more great technology from high-performance car engines to show up on our vehicles, like variable valve timing, direct injection and electric turbochargers. If gas engines in UTVs progress like they have in cars, they won’t give up the battle with electric motors without a spectacular fight.