Diesel becomes attractive option as fuel prices soar

SINCE the arrival of ATV ‘quad bikes’ in the mid-eighties, there have been demands for a diesel alternative to petrol models.

That these requests initially fell upon deaf ears was down to the relatively low sales volume, the UK market, even at its peak, struggling to better 10,000 units a year. In the USA, the key world market for ATVs, annual sales routinely exceeded 100,000 units.

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Arctic Cat and Massey Ferguson have done a great job in revving up interest in diesel ATVs.

With the main ATV manufacturers all fighting for a slice of the US market, it should come as no surprise that building a diesel bike for Europe in general, but the UK in particular, would not meet with much success. But it was not for want of trying.

In 1993, Oxfordshire-based E.P. Barrus developed its D-Bat diesel. In simple terms, the original models matched a Polaris 250cc petrol ATV chassis to a 300cc Yanmar single cylinder diesel power unit.

The resulting machine underwent a degree of evolution – a switch to a 350cc chassis and 400cc diesel engine, boosting both reliability and performance. But these chain-driven machines did need careful owners. Production ceased in 1997.

Then there was the Diablo from independent engineer Gifford Langley and latterly his Diesel Quads company on Anglesey. The Diablo diesel was powered by a series of different engines, the most appealing of which was the 850cc Yanmar liquid-cooled triple cylinder.

The D-Bat was a modest success, with promising initial sales that prompted Polaris to develop its own diesel model.

The Diablo project meanwhile soldiered on with little financial backing and sales volumes remained low.

The relative success of the D-Bat prompted US maker Polaris to develop its own diesel-powered machine.

Launched in 1999, the Polaris 455 diesel had all the ingredients to be a success: shaft drive, 4WD, independent suspension and a decent power unit – the Fuji liquid-cooled single developed 11hp and 21.6Nm of torque at a modest 2,500rpm. This made the diesel a good machine for towing.

The initial production run of Polaris models all suffered from a weak big end in the engine, which led to a raft of warranty and modification work.

The next batches made in 2000 and 2001 were pretty much sorted out, constant velocity joints replacing plain universal joints used on the drive shafts of the original.

Despite its promise, however, the Diesel 455 just did not sell well enough to justify its production costs and manufacturing ceased.

Sales outside the UK had proven pretty slow, with unsold diesel machines from other markets allowing Polaris in the UK to continue to sell the diesel into 2003.

These Polaris machines are now sought after as a used buy, incidentally, but it is increasingly difficult to find a good one these days.

Fast forward to 2005 and Massey Ferguson stepped into the diesel market with its MF700D ‘AgTV’.

Powered by a Lombardini 686cc SOHC twin-cylinder liquid cooled diesel developing 17.0hp at 3,600rpm and torque of 40.5Nm at 2,000rpm, this machine has enjoyed sales since launch at the back end of 2006 equivalent to 400 to 450 units a year.

It would be good to say this machine was purpose developed for agriculture, but the reality is somewhat more prosaic. The US military needed an ATV that could run on diesel, so Arctic Cat and military specialists Roush Technologies came up with a solution that subsequently, with red plastic and badging, morphed into the Massey.

The MF700D has been produced by Arctic Cat in Austria. Originally, the plan was that Massey would sell the ATV through its dealers, but by late 2007 the marketing of the machine had altered to the stage where Arctic Cat dealers are now the more active in the market.

This essentially means you can buy the same diesel ATV with Massey or Arctic decals. It is always tricky to talk about pricing, but the £7,500 sticker price of the MF700D when launched can be seriously bettered by shopping around.

In common with its diesel predecessors, the MF700D/ Arctic Cat 700D are not the nimblest of machines. Get up and go is perfectly acceptable, but probably tardy in comparison to a petrol ATV with a decent-sized engine.

Based around the three-in-one ‘long wheelbase’ chassis that affords two-up seating, the 700D is not the most manoeuvrable either – a turn radius of around 4.65m – but with the intitial purchase price having drifted downwards and petrol prices drifting upwards, some buyers are prepared to overlook manoeuvrability.

The flip side is that the 700D is a very comfortable machine, the extra 200mm in its wheelbase helping to smooth the ride already made good with independent suspension. It is also designed to take two riders or, perhaps more usefully, a rear load platform.

In terms of dependability, reports from users suggest the 700D is not prone to any major issues, a weak shaft on the initial batch of machines having replaced by a much meatier design that is common to all current production machines.

Running costs are harder to pin down, but as a guide the manufacturer was suggesting at the model’s launch that users should expect to at least halve their fuel bills.

This is a pretty modest claim and one that overlooks the key diesel strength; the ability to run on ‘red’.

But this is not the only diesel quad currently on offer, the Scottish-built Ecorider Ecoquad has just entered the arena (see page 6).

Powered by a 440cc diesel unit, this 2WD machine mixes lightness and simplicity with a claimed 90mpg potential. Those used to the 10 to 25mpg of a petrol ATV will no doubt covet this level of frugality. Of equal importance, the Ecoquad has an affordable sub-£4,000 price tag.

So, if you want a diesel ATV you can now buy one. For some, the lack of out and out pep and general refinement of a petrol-powered machine will still see them live with the ever rising cost of running a petrol ATV or consider an LPG conversion, but at least you now have some choices.

As it stands, those favouring diesel can now take another option – the side-by-side. A diesel-powered utility machine, such as a Kawasaki Mule 3000D, Massey MF 20MD, Kubota RTV or a John Deere Gator HPX can make a viable alternative to an ATV.

These machines are no longer as pricey as they used to be either.

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