TO SHIFT OR NOT TO SHIFT?

By Joe Kosch

I have nothing against automatic transmissions; in fact, I’m a fan. I have one in my truck, and I don’t have to think back too far to recall situations where automatics in UTVs saved me from doom, aggravation and embarrassment. Even so, there was a time when I was stunned that no major UTV manufacturer offered UTVs with a manual transmission. There was also a time when I couldn’t see why anyone would willingly choose a car or truck without a manual transmission. Then, I discovered driving in traffic, which made me see automatics for the miracles they are, not devices designed to disconnect drivers from their machines and cheat them out of performance and fun. It struck me that this must be how mature adults think, so I made an effort to remember that thought in case I somehow got separated from other UTV and ATV riders and have to hang out with mature adults.

Fortunately for ATV and UTV enthusiasts, we not only get to choose machines with manual or automatic transmissions, there are also models, like Honda’s Talon and Pioneer UTVs and Foreman and Rincon ATVs, that have transmissions with automatic and manual shift modes. Yamaha’s YXZ1000R Sport Shift models offer manual shifting with some automatic functions; the transmission downshifts for you if you forget to when climbing hills or when you come to a stop.

It’s hard to imagine a serious sport quad like the Yamaha YFZ450R with anything but a fully manual transmission, but I didn’t realize how much I liked shifting in a UTV until I did it. It hit me years ago while I was banging gears on Honda’s first little Pioneer 500, the first UTV with a paddle-shift 5-speed gearbox. The Pioneer 500 isn’t a high-performance sport UTV, but the simple, satisfying fun of shifting made it one of the most fun UTVs I’ve ever driven. I thought I had changed, but I really missed shifting. Nothing beats holding a gear and feeling the engine pull towards redline, or the sensations and sounds of full-throttle upshifts. Honda’s clever transmissions are designed for crisp, quick throttle-on gear changes, so you get all the fun of speed shifting without worries that you’re trashing the transmission. The Yamaha Sport Shift transmission allows throttle-on shifting, too. It’s great.

As much fun as I’ve had shifting Hondas and Yamahas, I can’t help but think about how good machines with automatic transmissions have become, and how often I drive machines with manual shift mode in automatic mode. Honda’s shift programs have become so good, I often find I’m costing myself some performance and fun by doing the shifting. CVTs on current Polaris RZRs, Can-Am X3s, Yamaha RMAXs and others deliver a true always-in-the-right-gear feel that doesn’t make me miss shifting at all.

Whether they like to shift or not, riders of machines with geared, shiftable transmissions often say they don’t miss drive-belt worries. Drive-belt life and reliability are a concern for UTV and ATV enthusiasts with machines with belt-type automatics, but rider error is the cause of most belt issues. Taking the time to break a belt in and learning to drive with belt life in mind usually results in impressive belt life.

When I consider the current crop of UTVs and ATVs, I don’t feel one transmission type has a clear edge over the others, though all have their advantages. Some people have no interest in shifting and don’t care for the feel of a machine changing gears. Some love the sound and feel of shifting and can’t stand the thought of a rubber belt as part of the driveline. Personally, I like machines that shift, but not so much that I’ll choose them over machines with a belt-type automatic all the time. If you’re trying to decide on a UTV or ATV, its transmission should figure into your choice, but how you like to ride and how you feel about the other aspects of a machine, like its handling and ergonomics, are just as important as its transmission type.

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