Compact Focus: Utility vehicles

In the time that contractor Ricky Weand has owned his Bobcat 2300 utility vehicle, he has come to appreciate its usefulness. “I was looking for a lightweight vehicle for my excavation and construction business that had the attachments in the front,” he says. “This vehicle is more maneuverable than a pickup. We work in areas where we build structures such as buildings and parking lots. When we run the vehicle around the backfill area, it’s perfect because it doesn’t tear up the parking lot. With the UV’s rubber tires, it also is easy to steer. It really comes in handy.”

Weand owns Custom Building and Excavation, a Reading, Pennsylvania-based company where he does residential and commercial building work. He purchased the 2300 in October and gets as much use out of it as he does his excavator and backhoe loader, the other two vehicles in his small fleet.

At first glance, the utility vehicle looks better suited for golf courses and may seem undersized to handle heavy tasks, but its four-wheel drive capability and light footprint has several advantages over pickup trucks. Both vehicles move material and personnel around on the worksite, but the utility vehicle doesn’t do extensive damage to sensitive surfaces. It can also use paths too small for a truck. It’s compact, agile and performs applications such as hauling, transporting personnel around the worksite, pushing rock, or plowing snow during the winter months.

“It’s a great vehicle to be able to get around from one building to another and you can haul things,” says Dan Muramoto, product manager for utility vehicles, Kubota. “It’s one of those vehicles that once you own one, you don’t know how you ever lived without it.”

It is also powerful enough to tow equipment such as welders and cement mixers and on some models, the cargo area can dump materials such as dirt or rock.

“It primarily has to do with access,” says Kevin Lund, group product marketing manager for utility vehicles, John Deere. “It is also dependent on the type of contractor. Landscaping contractors for example, want to have a vehicle that can drive on somebody’s lawn. They have low weight, low ground pressure and don’t tear up the ground. It is hard to get around with a pickup truck or a skid steer and not leave a trace. Turf friendliness is a big deal. There are a lot of places you don’t want to take your pickup truck, but will take your utility loader.”

“This vehicle is designed for off-road work,” adds Alberto Diez, general director for AUSA. “There are recreational vehicles similar to this one, but these are not recreational vehicles. This vehicle is designed for working in a special environment such as moving light equipment from one place to the other. It is also good for a supervisor to help him control the jobsite.”

The right vehicle for your site
It can become confusing spec’ing this vehicle if you are not sure which model to purchase or rent. Many manufacturers design several types of vehicles for various applications such as landscaping, recreational, rough terrain and even military uses.

An important point to consider is the type of drive system on the vehicle. Two-wheel-drive vehicles optimize turf friendliness and excel in landscaping applications because of their light footprint. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are better for gaining traction in muddy, wet or icy conditions. Most utility vehicles come with both rear two-wheel and four-wheel drive.

Several utility vehicle models have six-wheel drive which combines the power of the four rear tires with the front two for additional hauling power. The benefit to six-wheel drive is that the weight of the materials placed in the cargo box is spread out over a wider footprint.

Most utility loaders use a continuously variable belt-driven transmission, which means you can transfer engine RPMs at variable speeds. Kubota’s RTV900, however, uses variable hydrostatic transmission or VHT taken from tractor technology. VHT uses a variable displacement pump and a hydraulic motor. All power is transmitted by hydraulic fluid. CVT is more common on utility vehicles.

Other issues to consider with this vehicle are attachments and ground clearance. Some models can be equipped with a variety of attachments that can make an application easier including brooms, snow blades and hitches or accessories such as tire chains, backup alarms, vehicle covers or side tool kits. The 2300 for example can be attached with pallet forks, a snow blade, a bucket or a mower. Some models also have a feature that allows you to dump the cargo box.

The proper ground clearance needed for this vehicle depends on the application. Muddy or rough terrain requires higher ground clearance so the undercarriage doesn’t become caked with dirt or damaged by rough terrain. Some manufacturers either produce machines with a various ground clearances or offer aftermarket kits to adjust it if necessary.

Pros and cons
You can get a utility vehicle with the benefit of four-wheel drive for about the same price or less than other vehicles. A pickup costs a bit more than the average utility vehicle, but when you factor in insurance and license tag fees, the UTV offers considerable savings.

“A contractor will find lower capital and operating costs versus a pickup,” says Jan Rintamaki, marketing manager for Polaris’ Ranger vehicle. “Utility vehicles such as the Ranger can go where pickup trucks can’t and deliver as much work with a smoother ride. Our research shows once that once contractors buy a Ranger, they use it 57 percent of the time over a pickup truck.”

Even with the benefits of the utility vehicle in off-road applications, there are limitations with this machine. Most utility vehicles have a top speed of 25 miles per hour, which is slow compared to a truck, but fast compared to trying to get around your site in a heavier skid-steer loader.

“I get around the jobsite a lot quicker and get things done a lot faster,” Weand says. “I don’t really want to run a skid-steer that goes eight miles per hour when I can have a UV that goes 25 mph. I save money not having to go back and fix things I am trying to work around.”

Power issues
The utility vehicle can be powered by diesel, gasoline or electric engines. Gas or diesel are more common in building construction applications or sites with rugged terrain because electric engines present problems in certain conditions.

“Electrical doesn’t work well in off-road conditions,” says Alberto Hidalgo, AUSA multiservice manager. “Also batteries cannot be used a long time.”

Electric engines do have some benefits. They are quieter to run and ideal for indoor applications because they don’t create emissions such as diesel or gas engines. They are often used on golf courses where a light footprint is a must. The trade-off to this is once battery power runs out, it takes several hours to recharge. Although diesel can add up to $1,000 to the retail price, it provides the best torque for the vehicle.

Another extra -“It doesn’t use as much fuel,” Weand says. “The trade off is I can’t handle as much as a truck. But for the smaller projects we do, we are not going through nearly as much fuel.”