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How ATV Transmissions Work: Types and Operation

How ATV Transmissions Work: Types and Operation

There are many ways to propel ATVs and all similar off-road vehicles in the market today. The transmission type deployed by the manufacturer often points to the target audience they’ve got in mind with the product. What are the different types of ATV transmission, and how do they work?

ATV transmissions are mostly manual, semi-automatic, or automatic. Each of the transmission options can also have further variations. For example, some transmissions will shift from two-wheel to four-wheel drive or go from high to low gear, depending on the situation.

The rest of the article will look at the different types of ATV transmissions and how they work. Watch out for tips on how to choose an ATV with the best transmission for you.

Manual ATV Transmission

In ATVs with a manual transmission, you have to choose the best gear for the situation. The lower gears are best selected for low traction scenarios, hauling heavy stuff, uphill climbs, and takeoff. The higher gears are best used when you’re cruising.

In a manual transmission setup, you have to disengage the engine from the transmission using the clutch stick before shifting between gears. Once the gear is locked in, you have to re-engage the engine by releasing the clutch.

So, in manual transmission, you have to control the clutch, the gear lever, and the throttle. If you’re on a hill, you may have to engage the brakes as well. The brakes here work like those on a motorcycle. The rear brake is operated by the right foot, while the front brake is controlled by your right hand.

  • Many ATVs are fitted with a manual transmission, especially the sport and utility models.
  • The manual operation is similar to what you’ll get in a car or a motorcycle.
  • A manual transmission gives you more control over the power generated.
  • Your engine will always remain in the best range possible to generate maximum or reduced power depending on whether you have traction or not.

This type of transmission also makes getting into or out of turns easier. Transmission shifting as you’re about taking a sharp turn can upset the balance of the ATV.

Some people shy away from ATVs with manual transmissions based on the knowledge of how difficult it is to manage manual transmission on motorcycles.

However, ATVs are different because the four wheels of the ATV means you don’t have to worry about keeping it standing while managing the clutch and gear at the same time.

If you already have lots of experience with manual motorcycles and cars, operating an ATV with a manual transmission should be straight forward.

Here’s a video showing how a small engine manual transmission works:

Semi-Auto ATV Transmission

ATVs with semi-auto transmissions are similar to those with a manual transmission, but the main difference is in the operation of the clutch.

You still have to choose the optimum gear for the scenario, but the clutch doesn’t have a separate lever. The act of shifting gears automatically controls the clutch as well.

With this setup, you’ll have one less thing to worry about while staying in control of the power generated by the engine. This type of transmission is also popular with sport ATVs.

It’s also deployed in vehicles made for inexperienced operators that are not yet experienced enough in gear selection but have a decent grasp of riding an ATV.

Automatic ATV Transmission

ATVs with automatic transmission are designed to handle gear selection for you, with the right gear chosen at the right time. This type of transmission is popular in utility ATVs, where the focus is more on the reason for riding the ATV, such as hauling, towing, or plowing.

Automatic transmissions in ATVs also work like what you get in cars, with some of them featuring levers that allow riders to shift between “hi” and “lo” gearing.

The system is based on centrifugal force. The foundation of the operation is based on the fact that the force moving away from the center of any spinning object will increase if the speed of rotation increases.

If the ATV is in “hi” gear, it will travel at speed much faster than normal, but it won’t generate enough power as it slows down. In “lo” gear, the max speed of the ATV reduces, but the amount of power generated at a lower speed increases greatly. In this scenario, you can haul or tow a lot more weight.

When discussing automatic ATV transmission, there are two main distinctions you’ll come across: CVT and wet clutch technologies.

CVT Technology

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is a transmission mode you’ll find in many adult ATVs. The design’s focus is to keep the engine within the best possible rpm range at all times. Once the engine is within this range, it will work more efficiently and produce the maximum power necessary for a given scenario.

ATVs with the CVT technology allow you to focus on maintaining stability and traction when on treacherous terrains or engaging in heavy-duty hauling or towing. You don’t have to worry about selecting the right gear for the situation.

The CVT mechanism contains two pulleys held together by a V belt. The two pulleys act as built-in clutches that control and vary the drive ratio between the output and input shaft in a controlled, smooth and continuous manner. 

  • The main clutch is linked to the engine through the input shaft.
  • It is also disengaged totally from the belt when idle.
  • When the engine is in increased motion, the main clutch will override the spring force holding the clutch sheaves apart.

With further increase in speed, the belt will ride higher inside the main clutch, leading to an increased gear ratio between the output and input shaft.

The secondary clutch in the system works similarly to the main clutch, but its main role is to ensure there is no slack within the V belt, especially while the main clutch opens and closes.

The secondary clutch’s other role is to connect to the output shaft and the rear wheels, usually through a drive shaft or a chain.

Here’s a cool video showing how a CVT transmission works:

Wet Clutch Technology

The wet clutch approach to automatic transmission is less convoluted than the CVT technology. It is mostly deployed in four-wheelers made for new riders of teenagers.

The system incorporates one wet clutch, which is linked to the engine via a range of gears. The transmission is only engaged at specific preset RPMs.

Models with this technology only have a single speed and the option of reverse. There’s only one forward gear. This design means you can’t rely on ATV models with this transmission for heavy-duty use or navigating rough terrains.

They are best for new riders that are still learning how to control and handle an ATV without worrying about shifting gears.

Which Transmission Is Best for You?

We’ve seen how each of the transmissions you’ll find in an ATV work. To choose the right option for you, pay attention to how you intend to use the machine.

If you’re getting an ATV for leisurely adventure on the beach and some mild competitive sport, one with automatic transmission will work just fine for you. 

However, if your ATV will double as a recreational and utility vehicle, you should seriously consider going for one with a manual transmission. If you must go with automatic transmission, it should be a powerful CVT variant that can handle everything you intend to throw at it.

If you’re in the market for an ATV that can help your teenagers learn how to ride, a model with a wet clutch is a good idea.


The various models of ATVs in the market come with transmission technologies tailored with specific audience segments in mind. With what you’ve learned thus far, you should be able to instinctively determine what type of transmission to go with any time you need a new ATV.

Experienced riders with the need for an ATV that can serve different (and often demanding purposes) will almost always choose a manual transmission. In contrast, casual or leisurely riders can get by with some types of automatic transmission.

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