ATV vs. 4 Wheeler vs. Quad: Key Differences For Beginners

People who are just getting started with off-road vehicles may encounter a lot of concerns. One of the most common questions is: are ATV vs quad vs four-wheelers the same? The quick answer is NO. 

Some may be surprised to know, but these three terms have been used interchangeably, thus causing great confusion. If you want to know more about these three types of vehicles to make the most out of your riding, scroll down now!

What Is An ATV?

ATVs are for off-road use only

ATV is an overarching concept that refers to an all-terrain vehicle capable of operating on many different terrains, like sand, rocks, or mud. They come with low-pressure tires and straddled seats, used for racing, trail riding, hunting, farm work, etc.

This term represents many things, such as three-wheeled off-road vehicles, military vehicles with at least 6 wheels, or large trucks. Following this concept, you might also consider UTVs (utility vehicles) as part of a broader category.

Generally, an ATV should have at least three wheels, big tires, and one or two outside seats. We do not mean bicycles or motorbikes but those used for rough terrains.

three wheels atv
Three wheels ATV

In 1970, Honda hit the market with three-wheeled off-road vehicles – the first ATVs. They became the precursors to the introduction of quad – recreational off-road vehicles in 1980. The idea quickly rose to fame but fizzled out in the late 1980s due to safety concerns. 

In today’s society, people have become familiar with ATVs that are used for recreation, heavy-duty transportation, or farm work.

What Is A Four Wheeler?

Honda 300 Fourtrax exterior

As the name implies, four-wheeled vehicles are vehicles with four wheels. Specifically, they are ATVs installed with a four-wheel drive system for added security. Hence, some people sometimes interchange the term with trucks or jeeps with similar features.

Some novices might think that any vehicle with 4 wheels can be called a four-wheeler. Basically, it’s true. An ATV with 4 wheels, a jeep, or a truck with 4WD is considered a 4-wheeler. So you can see that 4-wheelers belong to the ATV category.

truck with 4WD
truck with 4WD

Honda released its first four-wheeler in 1986. 4×4 technology quickly overtook the market as consumers, especially young people, began paying more attention to motocross and off-roading.

Racers feel the fulfillment of excitement in their bones as they struggle to control the four wheels navigating through the wilderness. These vehicles have won adventurers’ hearts to conquer ice, snow, or mud.

What Is A Quad Bike?

Suzuki Quadrunner 250 top speed
Suzuki Quadrunner 250

A quad is an ATV with 4 wheels, featuring RWD, 2WD, or 4WD. It’s small and driven by a motor, easy to tip over if not controlled properly. You can ride it on beaches, fields, or forests, but not streets, suitable for farmwork, construction sites, or recreation.

Most outdoor enthusiasts define quads as recreational ATVs. That said, this ATV category covers all off-road vehicles intended for non-commercial use regardless of design as long as they have three or more wheels. 

On the downside, the first tricycle ATVs experienced restrictions of instability and safety. Although Kawasaki and Honda have tried to provide outstanding drivetrains and improve quality, they still fail to solve the problem completely.

It was not until 1985 when Yamaha introduced the Banshee, which performed well in the sand. It became a huge hit, taking the popularity of quads to new heights. Unfortunately, the manufacturer has discontinued production due to environmental accusations.

Differences Between ATV And 4 Wheeler And Quad

An ATV can be a quad if it has 4 wheels, which can be 2WD or 4WD. A four-wheeler is an ATV with 4WD, or a so-called 4WD quad. ATVs have small size with at least three wheels and multi-purpose performance. Four-wheelers feature a larger dimension, while quads have lower ground clearance.

Number Of Wheels

While 4-wheelers are fixed on the number of wheels, ATVs can have 3 or 4, or even 6 wheels depending on the manufacturer and intended use. That is to say, a 4-wheeled ATV can be deemed as a 4-wheeler. 

On the other hand, four-wheelers open up a larger interior space for two. Two seats allow the rider to accompany a companion on adventurous routes.

Quads with 4 wheels are the most popular design on the market today. Although you can still find three-wheeled models occasionally, they don’t change the basic perception of this type of vehicle.

The number of seats helps to distinguish the three. ATVs and quads are designed for a single operator, so they have only one seat. This also means less passenger capacity and cargo space.


Honda TRX 450R
Honda TRX 450R driving

All 4-wheelers feature four-wheel drive, while consumers have more choices when considering ATVs and quads. These vehicles have either two-wheel or four-wheel drive.

If you are considering an option for entertainment, the drive system does not play an important role. However, things change when you look for a machine for practical use. 

The basic choice – is two-wheel drive, which means the vehicle on rear wheels fails to provide racers with advantages in off-road situations. It is best to pick the other for stronger performance.


From the number of seats of the two vehicles, it is safe to conclude that the ATV is smaller than the 4-wheelers. In detail, the former has a shorter wheelbase and lower ground clearance, which results in its lighter weight. That’s why small and young adults favor it. 

On the other hand, 4-wheelers have an aggressive look that motivates the conquest of adventurous riders.

That said, ATVs are generally larger than quads, even though both have one seat for a single rider. Going into detailed design, ATVs have the higher ground clearance to maintain their excellent performance on trails. 

Better suspension and wider wheelbase also contribute to stable riding through types of terrain. In contrast, quads struggle to overcome large obstacles and rough surfaces due to their small ground clearance and narrow wheelbase.

Maneuverability & Performance

The difference in size has affected the driving experience. For ATVs, you can expect easy maneuvering and maneuvering around. This feature makes sense when you operate in tight spaces or make turns. Plus, you do not have any difficulty accelerating and reaching maximum speed.

Regular ATVs are generated for utility works such as plowing snow, pulling logs, etc. These monsters work well at hunting grounds or agricultural areas thanks to their superior towing capacity to haul heavy loads.

For example, some models can handle up to 748 kgs, and the average for those on the market today ranges from 200-550 kgs. You can load a large log, a loaded trailer, or even a small boat in one load. This means you can invest in a built-in front or rear rack to increase the storage space of your vehicle.

Another plus for ATVs is the comfort that facilitates operators to work long hours in the saddle. Their primary design also enhances the smooth experience compared to the competition.

Meanwhile, the larger four-wheelers ensure comfort and stability. It is no surprise that older operators prioritize them for their long rides. Large interior space and bulky appearance also allow them to withstand more loads.

Quads, on the other hand, excel in other aspects, including speed and maneuverability. In detail, small vehicles have no trouble accelerating if all you do is participate in racing or trail riding.

Plus, operators find it easier to turn or work in tight spaces. Some professional riders can even perform amazing jumps with quads in extreme stunts. In turn, they offer less grip in snow or mud, reducing their appeal in off-road driving.


In general, ATVs are generally suitable for lower-income people due to low production costs on small engine displacement. However, prices vary depending on the brand, model, and built-in features. For example, the basic ATV design charges you around $3,000, while premium options with whistles and bells may go up to $10,000.

That said, ATVs are typically more expensive than quads due to the wealth of attachments. For example, you should invest from $5,000 to $15,000 to enjoy a strong capacity. Meanwhile, quads usually only cost you $5,000 to $10,000 for full functionality. This is also comparable to 4-wheelers’ price, spanning from $2,000 to $15,000.

Determine Which Suits You Best

Honda 300 Fourtrax exterior

If you look for a more versatile (for work and recreation), go for an ATV,  but expect to pay a bit more. Meanwhile, 4-wheelers are best for farm work (towing, transporting), and quads are geared towards recreational uses, like on the beaches, forests, etc.

Riding Style

As you have seen above, each type serves a specific purpose which becomes the first and foremost criterion for your selection. If you still fail to decide on intended use, investing in an ATV – the most versatile option for work, racing, and even leisure is safe.

If you are looking for a powerful machine for rugged terrain, there’s no better bet than a four-wheeler. On the other hand, quads become your trusted companion to add fun to your recreational activities on trails or sand.


Beginners can’t invest in anything other than ATVs. It’s easy to learn to steer and control under any circumstances. After gaining experience, you consider moving to four wheels and then quads. Do not try to skip the acquaintance process or choose what does not fit, or you might end up in an accident.

We once tried to drive a quad on our field to transport potatoes to our warehouse, but the vehicle tipped over just halfway since we couldn’t control it well on the rugged and muddy field.


Quads are usually the best choice, followed by ATVs and then four-wheelers. However, you should consult dealers for exact pricing because the final cost varies due to location, brand, model, or accessories.


What Are The Safety Precautions I Should Take When Riding An ATV?

Here are a few things that you need to keep in mind when operating an ATV

  • Stay on the set trails and obey the traffic laws
  • Wear safety gear, including goggles, a DOT-approved helmet, gloves, boots, and long pants.
  • Never start if your vehicle contains more than the allowable number of passengers
  • Say no to kids and strictly keep young riders under control

What Are The Laws And Regulations Regarding ATVs?

ATV laws vary from state to state, but there are some general regulations to follow:

  • The age restriction ranges from 12 to 16-year-olds
  • Riders must apply for the required license or permit
  • It’s compulsory to wear a helmet and eye protection in any local
  • Some states ask for vehicle registration and insurance
  • ATVs are considered for off-road operation, so some governments limit their activity area to dirt roads, narrow trails, and private property.


In everyday life, some people confuse quad vs 4 wheeler vs ATV and mistake them for one another. This should not be a big deal until you get interested in off-road vehicles and want to find one that matches your preferences. 

Don’t panic! Let’s start with the definition mentioned above and then compare it. It may take time, but not impossible to distinguish the three options to find the best one for you.

See more: Are ATV Street Legal?

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Daniel Barker


Daniel Barker was introduced to racing in 2006 when he experienced his first track day on his Suzuki sv650. With more than 15 years of experience on his track. Daniel is known as for his high-energy riding, drifting, precision stoppies and technical riding ability on virtually any motorcycle.

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