2011 John Deere Gator XUV 825i First Ride 0
Way back in 1987, John Deere released its first ATV-sized utility vehicle. But the company’s slogan, “Nothing runs like a Deere,” sure didn’t apply to that thing, if you took running to mean going fast. But now, JD, a US-based company, finally has a machine that really does run, the Gator XUV 825i. The XUV stands for “crossover utility vehicle” and, at the recent press introduction at Carolina Adventure World, the company boasted that the 825 provides the best combination of performance and work capability. Before we buckle ourselves in and find out if that’s true, let’s have a look inside the Gator.
Powering the 825 is a liquid-cooled, 812cc, EFI, DOHC, Inline Triple, the first from a major ATV manufacturer. It’s got four-valves per cylinder, making it a 12-valve motor! If that sounds like something straight out of an automobile, it’s for good reason; the engine is from a mini car manufactured by Chery International in China.
John Deere claims 50 horses for its XUV and a top speed of 44 mph. The company says that makes for the most power in class. Notice they didn’t say “fastest.” That’s because the 825, at 1630 lbs, is around 200-lbs heavier than other machines in the class. And just what’s in that class? JD calls them “Heavy Duty Utility ATVs” and a JD insider told me that Kawasaki’s Teryx might be the closest competition. Thanks to the engine’s original design for a car (with all kinds of accessories running at the same time), the Triple gets a big 75 amp (at 6K rpm) alternator, which should run everything you might choose to bolt on and plug in. The tranny is a standard-fare CVT (fully-automatic, belt-drive). A right-hand lever selects high/low range, neutral, and reverse.
For 2011, the old XUV 850D diesel Gator gets bumped up to an 855 and, with 25 horses and a 32 mph top speed, it’s claimed to be the fastest in class and have the most horsepower. JD told us that increasing the power beyond that would require cost-prohibitive emission controls.
The Backbone of a Deere
The rolling chassis for all three new Gators, which includes the 625i (a replacement for JD’s XUV620i), is identical and more sporty than before. Suspension travel has been increased to eight and nine inches front and rear. The shocks are preload adjustable on all four corners. A sway bar in the rear limits unwanted body roll in turns. For better stopping power, the hydraulic disc brakes get two pistons each and larger rotors. The parking brake is a fully sealed, independent system. If you try to drive with the brake on, a loud beep warns you to stop being and idiot (okay, I fess up) and release the right-hand lever.
An alligator’s a pretty tough animal with a thick hide, just like these Gators. Instead of the plastic skidplates found on some UTVs, the 825 and 625 get a burly steel underbelly skidplate. JD told us that it adds weight and robs some power, but they feel it’s well worth the tradeoff. The armor will retrofit older-model Gators. The occupants are also protected with a triple-certified roll cage. If you try to drive without your three-point seat belt fastened, a seat-belt warning light—the first in the industry—pops on.
Oh Dear! A Deer on a Deere!
Also impressive on this Deere is how much stuff it will haul around, including the weight of several deer (or a couple gators). The rear cargo box alone has a 16.4 cubic-foot, 1000-lb capacity, which is the most in class, according to JD. Plus, the sides of the cargo box remove easily, giving a completely flat platform onto which you could easily load a pallet, for example. Even with the sides removed, you still have at least 21 tie down points, JD says. (Clearly, the company put a lot of thought into these machines.)
The rear cargo door, which easily lowers 180 degrees, opens with a single, auto-style handle. The entire bed tilts back with the standard gas assist; an electric power lift is optional, and it comes from JD factory-installed, as do most items in the long list of accessories and options. The rear cargo area comes with a bare steel floor, painted floor, or coated with a heavy-duty, spray-on liner. The Gators will tow 1500 lbs, and they have a total payload capacity of 1400 lbs.
Bucket seats are standard, with sport-type high-back seats or a bench (seat belts for only two) optional. We learned from JD that the design of the bench gives an inch or two more room rearward. Standard are two-inch hitch receivers, rear and front. Also integrated into the design is a recessed winch mount location, and rear bumper lights.
John Deere is understandably proud of its Quik Clamp (tool-less) attachment system, which accepts a windshield, fuel packs, long-handle tools, gun boots, rear cargo divider, metal rear storage boxes, front brush guard, fender guards…well, lots of stuff, and more to come, JD says. The Gators also have recessed areas on the cage to easily mount all kinds of lighting options.
Numerous tire and wheel combinations are also available, factory installed. We know that, with other manufacturers, factory installed accessories and kits are usually a great bargain for the consumer, and JD says theirs are, too.
After all of JD’s hoopla over the work capabilities of the 825, we were beginning to wonder if it was going have much in the way of sportiness (and, frankly, it doesn’t look all that fast). But looks are deceiving. Our two trail loops at CAW included some wide-open sections and one very steep climb, so we made a beeline for those areas to check out the power.
Well, it’s got power, that’s for sure. It pulls hard all the way up to a respectable top end. The machine easily torqued its way up that steep climb. The tires hooked up well and, even though the front popped up on a mid-hill ledge, the machine never felt like it was going to loop out. A shootout will tell the tale, but our seat-of-the-pants impression is that, for power and acceleration, the 825 will hold its own against every UTV except the Polaris Razr.
The sound is refined, definitely different than a Single or Twin, and not quite as deep. It’s still a very healthy sound, but maybe too healthy for hunters or quieter commercial applications. The 625 (89 db at your ear) is rather loud, too. Apparently, the stock exhaust is free breathing, but the air intake and air filter are curiously tiny. For even more performance, factory-installed, more open exhausts are available for the 825 and an FMF design for the 625.
The 625 has significantly less power everywhere than the 825, but still torqued its way up the steep climb, even from a dead stop at mid-hill. The power of the big diesel is comparable to that on the 625, but it’s not as loud and doesn’t have the rattle sometimes associated with those high-compression beasts. Actually, our biggest complaint with all three Gator motors is simply starting them; you must first shift to neutral. For use where you’re continually stopping and starting, we prefer the ability to start in one of the drive modes and—to please the corporate lawyers—with the brake pedal depressed.
Drive modes include high, low, reverse, 2WD, AWD (the front wheels engage only when the rears slip), and front differential lock. The range selector on one of our 12 test units needed adjustment and the motor wouldn’t start without carefully jiggling the drive selector into the microscopic sweet spot. On another test unit, maybe also in need of adjustment, the gears intermittently ground away rather than engaging.
The CVT works well, and doesn’t have the clatter we’ve sometimes noticed with those units. There’s no hard hit on the take off, and the machines get moving smoothly but with authority. We do have two issues with the design, though. Both the CVT and carb breathers are 20 inches from the ground and exposed. There were no water crossings on our two loops and we wonder if this was by JD’s own design!
Also, the engine braking engaged only part of the time on downhills. A JD rep explained to me that the company is on top of this and there will be an update either prior to production, or a running change during the first model year. With the machines on the floor in July, we wonder about the likelihood of the former. On the other hand, hydraulic-disc braking power is excellent on these machines. The feel is progressive at the pedal, and the bias between the front and rear brakes is perfect.
Is the Gator Comfortable?
The overall layout and comfort level is good on the Gators. With the exception of the two misadjusted drive selectors, all the controls and switches work well and have a quality feel. Only two small areas bug us a little (we gotta nit pick here ya know!). The passenger handholds seems sturdy enough, but neither is very comfortable, particularly for a smaller rider; the right hand is either too far forward or a little high, depending on the roof options, and the front handhold (it’s either that or a bar to secure glove box items!) is too far forward. So, you’ve gotta grab the edge of the seat with your left hand.
Also, we’d like some kind of right-foot restraint for the passenger. Come on, it’s really not that big a deal to lift your foot over a little bar or something, is it? Plus, it would make for a sportier look. JD says that foot restraints, if available at all, will only be through the aftermarket. Seats are plush enough, and the shape and configurations are good. The steering wheel is a comfortable compound, and the distance from the rider is comparable to that on other UTVs.
Steering and Handling
Steering itself is pretty easy, even with the diff lock engaged, but it’s at the expense of a rather large steering ratio lock-to-lock. This is okay when cruising, but when riding really aggressively, you’re spinning around the wheel too much. The upcoming power steering (see sidebar), should solve all that.
Even though JD explained they were trying to design for a rear end that doesn’t slide around too much, understeer (one possible solution) isn’t a problem here. The Gator turns as precisely as any of the sport/utility UTVs. Body roll is minimal in aggressive turns, and the machine stays very flat and stable. The additional two-inches of width, as compared to most other UTVs, certainly helps this. Additional width can mean a wide turning radius, but the Gators can turn more sharply than some quads! Which raises a concern that the front might hook in a turn and suddenly whip the bars full lock. Well, that didn’t happen to us during our full day of testing.
Suspension action is plush enough over choppy terrain, but we did get it (or the skidplate) to bottom harshly on a small gulley. Polaris’ Razr probably would have soaked this up, but then again, the Gator isn’t meant to be the absolute sportiest side-by-side. It does track well and doesn’t tend to follow or grab at parallel rain ruts. A Fox shock kit with remote reservoirs should be available soon, again factory installed, and that should bump up the sport level even more.
Overall, the Gators have a solid feel, and a lot of thought and experience went into their design. John Deere tried to achieve the best possible balance between sport and utility and, particularly with the 825, the company certainly succeeded. Suggested retail for the standard 825i in the green/yellow scheme is $11,200. For olive and black add $100. The camo version is $11,750. Check out John Deere online at www.deere.com.