The utility vehicle has become an indispensible tool for many groundsmen and greenkeepers, whether simply used as a run around for men and machines or fitted with a growing selection of implements. In 2009 - acknowledged as a poor year for machinery sales - 2600 units passed through the wholesale trade, and the selection continues to widen as manufacturers seek to gain a slice of this lucrative market.
But, specifications vary considerably, and pinpointing the right machine for your needs can be tricky. So, Pitchcare lined up a range of machines from different manufacturers for groundcare professionals to view and try in one location.
Our venue was Rugby School, a typical example of the demands placed on these machines.
With extensive sports grounds, both on and off the main campus, and top quality playing surfaces for sports, ranging from rugby and cricket to polo and hockey, Head Groundsman, James Mead, requires a machine that can operate on and off road, carry substantial loads and still be gentle on delicate turf.
The machines were delivered at the start of the week, and after a product training by the suppliers, Rugby's grounds team used the vehicles for a range of tasks, from maintaining synthetic pitches to working with a trailed vacuum and a sweeper, plus general lugging and transport duties.
Each machine was assessed and rated for the same range of criteria, and individual pros and cons were reported back.
At the end of the week, the manufacturers were invited back to the school to receive feedback from James's team and invited groundsmen, and to add their own comments and views.
The first impression of the machines delivered to Rugby School was the range of shapes and sizes. The high ground clearance needed for rougher terrain inevitably makes for a taller machine, but this can also make loading materials into and out of the cargo box and getting in and out of the driver's seat more difficult. Ruggedly built machines are likely to stand the knocks of a busy workload, but may be over-engineered - and thus more costly to buy and maintain - for many groundcare tasks.
Given that the cargo or load box is an essential element of the vehicle, its design and specification for your needs is a major factor. James Mead pointed out: "With many materials delivered on pallets these days, it's a great advantage to simply load a pallet on to the back of the vehicle with a forklift, and only some of the boxes are big enough for this."
There seems to be a shift from metal cargo/load boxes to moulded plastic designs - John Deere for example is using these on its latest Gators - and these could reduce noise and vibration as well as being more durable; most manufacturers include lashing or attachment points. Opening of the tailgate also varies in simplicity and practicality - a single, chunky catch could make life much easier.
Applications where loose materials are carried are aided by a tipping cargo box, and most manufacturers offer a hydraulic or electric tip as standard, or as an option.
"I would always choose a hydraulic or electric tip, as I feel there is a risk of trapping fingers when returning the box to its mounting," said James.
In most applications, the driver is likely to be behind the wheel for several hours, so comfort and usability are vital. Different layouts suit different drivers, and it is also worth test driving a vehicle with a passenger, if you are likely to carry one regularly, as the level of comfort and security offered varies.
One major issue is noise. In general terms, a diesel is likely to be noisier than a petrol engine machine, with an electric vehicle being, effectively, silent. But, this too can have its pros and cons.
"In a school or golf course environment, a quieter machine will cause less disturbance," said James. "But, you do have to be careful with electric vehicles, especially when moving off or reversing, as bystanders often do not realise that you are there."
The choice of fuel type is influenced by practicality and economy - diesel is easier to store and still marginally cheaper to run. Electric vehicles generally need a dedicated charging point, and Rugby School chief mechanic Graham Lloyd pointed out that, when a battery needs replacing, the whole lot may need to be changed, leading to an unwelcome bill.
James Mead also commented that, where an electric vehicle is used for heavy duty work, such as maintaining a complex of synthetic surfaces, the battery charge may not last a full day.
Most vehicles can be specified for on road use, and a reasonable top speed avoids creating too many traffic queues. A roll bar (which should be used in combination with a seatbelt) is provided on the majority of machines and is a sensible choice if travelling on uneven ground. A cab is another option but, James suggests, this can be a hindrance in certain situations.
"A front screen and roof is enough to offer protection in most sportsfield applications," he said. "Cabs can get very hot in summer and actually trap engine noise, making for an uncomfortable drive."
One feature of the machines delivered to Rugby School that was immediately obvious was the variety of tyres fitted. The more rugged designs were fitted with chunky off road units, with a scattering of all purpose tyres and some specialist turf models. Their limitations were shown immediately when looking at the turning circle of the machines, with the chunky tyres scuffing, even in two wheel drive or turf drive modes. Fortunately, most manufacturers can offer a choice of tyres or will liaise with a specialist supplier to provide the right solution.
"Most sportsfield applications would need smooth turf tyres," commented James. "We are on a flat site here but, wherever groundsmen need to turn quickly or tightly on fine turf, the tyre choice must accommodate this without scuffing."
The Cushman Turf Truckster is the most car-like to drive, having a clutch and dash mounted gearstick - the stick is a bit of a stretch from the seat. But, most operators liked this transmission, and the ability to set forward speeds for tasks such as spraying.
The E-Z-GO's engine idles when at a standstill, and restarts when the accelerator is pressed; this cuts noise and saves fuel, and would be useful in applications such as schools and hotels.
Load box height could be an issue when loading heavy items; the E-Z-GO has plenty of ground clearance, but this means a stretch to load the box. However, marks were scored for the extendable drawbar, which makes for easier trailer hitching. Drawbar positioning on some vehicles made hitching awkward.
Load box size is an important issue; the Toro Workman MDX is one that will accommodate a standard pallet. Manufacturers warn that operators need to be careful not to exceed the safe weight limit with palletised materials.
Many applications require tipping of the load box; all machines can be specified with hydraulic tip which makes for easier use than manual tipping. James suggests that it is also safer for the operator.
Load box latching systems vary in their simplicity and user friendliness. A single point latch, similar to a car boot, is easy to use and safe.
Uitlity vehicles, in general, offer good service access - it's an important point for electric vehicles, which have a lot of batteries to check!
An enclosed cab can trap engine noise, heat and fumes. There is a wide range of cabs on the market, including a simple windscreen and roof, which would be Rugby School's choice, particularly when doing roadwork; on those with full cabs, the doors can often be removed for summer.
Equipment levels vary widely; as the market has matured, so designs have become more automotive in appearance. If the vehicle is working long hours, it is useful to have information such as fuel levels clearly displayed on the dash.
It is horses for courses with utility vehicles; the Kubota RTV scored highly for its rugged appearance and build quality, and would be very much at home in forestry and open space applications.
Tyre choice is crucial; on wide turf tyres, even the rugged Kubota RTV gave a gentle tread on fine turf.
Seats vary from moulded bucket to bench designs, and the choice depends on whether ease of access or comfort is the priority; some jobs, such as divoting on a racecourse, may be easier with three people where a bench seat comes in handy. Polaris's Ranger seats three, with a seatbelt for each.
Charging electric vehicles often requires a dedicated charging point and separate transformer. The exception is the Polaris EV, which is charged via a 13amp plug contained within the glove box.
Check out the positioning of the pedals to ensure there is enough room for your feet in work boots; if you are carrying a passenger, there should also be enough room for their feet without encroaching into your space.
Tea and biscuits to hand, utility vehicle operators sat down with the manufacturers to ask questions and thrash out relevant points. Probably the first meeting of its kind - this was universally agreed to be a helpful experience.
The purpose of the UV was discussed, with James Mead commenting that, in Rugby School's situation, the vehicle offers dedicated transport to jobs such as line marking and setting out of pitches, with safe carriage of tools and equipment. But, he also values its low ground pressure qualities, which allow a cricket square to be topdressed more efficiently than with a pedestrian spreader.
Manufacturers commented that, whilst applications vary widely, the vast majority of their vehicles are sold with attachments or implements.
Load carrying capacity was a major point for discussion. James Mead said: "We want to avoid using a trailer, where possible, so decent load capacity is crucial - we need to get a Euro pallet on the back. Some of the machines tested were limited in space and payload, and also rather tall to put equipment in."
Manufacturers responded that the layout and centre of balance of some machines does not allow a larger load box, and that it may encourage overloading.
Ben Murray, of Polaris, explained: "If there is enough space for, say, a bag of cement weighing around a tonne in the back, some customers may try to put it in, leading to a machine breakdown."
Operator platform layout and equipment was addressed, with James commenting that it was helpful to have machine information, such as fuel levels, up front where they were in the driver's eye line.
There was also much debate about cabs, with James explaining his preference for a screen and roof.
However, the grounds team from Warwick University commented that for jobs like gritting roadways, a full cab and heater was essential.
Simon Morley from JCB added: "In most cases, cabs can be specified with removable doors and the option to open the front windscreen. Purchasers should discuss their requirements with the manufacturer to find the ideal cab for them."
On vehicles with just a roll bar, Rugby discovered another hazard - water pooling in bucket seats after rain. A simple drain hole would resolve this, James suggested.
Road use was of interest to all the attendees, with JCB reporting that some 70 percent of its Groundhog models are sold fully road homologated.
Manufacturers pointed out that it can be an expensive process to get vehicles road legal, which has to be passed on to the customer.
Kubota's Kevin Leese commented: "Customers ask us about how to licence vehicles for the road. It is a very grey area, depending on how far they have to travel and what the application is, but it is, undoubtedly, an important role for the utility vehicle."
James responded: "We have polo fields that are off campus and, without the UVs, groundstaff would have to use their own cars to get there, which is unacceptable. We could invest in pick-up trucks, but the additional cost, storage space and limited access to gardens are downsides."
Even when the vehicle is not used on the road, James suggested that good work lights were important and, whilst manufacturers replied that all machines can be specified with these, he believes that they should be standard. "For the minimal cost of a light fitting, it would make a big difference to operators."
Cost was also stated as a factor in the fitting of assisted tip systems for the cargo box, with James asserting that it was an essential, both to minimise the risk of crush injuries, but also the health and safety impact of operators manually tipping loads.
Ben Murray responded: "The problem is that many customers want a base model which may not even need to tip; if we put the starting price of our machines up, we are narrowing the market."
Whilst the role of electric vehicles was acknowledged, James commented that they can be too quiet in some public environments, and need some sort of warning, even if it is only a flashing beacon.
At Warwick University, artificial warning sounds have been fitted to one vehicle to get round this problem, Chris Parry reported.
In general, tyres can be specified for whatever purpose the purchaser requires. James pointed out that he is finding increasing use for the vehicles on synthetic surfaces, and manufacturers should consider specifications for this growing market.
The test provided a fascinating opportunity to study a wide range of utility vehicles side by side, and Pitchcare is very grateful to the participating manufacturers for their time and commitment.
"You can sometimes get a couple of machines at the same time, or on consecutive days, but it is excellent to compare like for like all in one go," said James Mead.
That said, they were a very diverse groups of vehicles, all with different strengths and qualities and, although the team at Rugby School have rated the machines side by side, there is universal agreement that they all have a place.
"The Kubota and Polaris Ranger diesel, for example, are excellent machines, really well built and good to drive, but would be more than we would require for our groundcare operation," explained James. "They would really come into their own in an estate, forestry or farming application."
Some of the newer machines on the market, such as the JCB Groundhog showed considerable advances in equipment levels and layout, while more traditional designs, such as the Cushman and E-Z-GO, have qualities that would be invaluable in their specialist fields.
"You can imagine the taller load height and easy driver access of the E-Z-GO coming into its own if you were moving plants from a nursery, for example," said James.
A number of machines were aimed directly at the pitch maintenance market and, of these, the John Deere and the Toro Workman both offered the good levels of visibility, simple specification and ease of use needed by the Rugby School team.
"But, you'd want to specify hydraulic assist or electric tip for our job," commented James.
The Kawasaki Mule provided a cross over between the more rugged machines and the groundcare specification, and was regarded as overall a nice package.
Whilst there were several machines that the Rugby grounds team would compete to drive during the test, none disappointed completely.
"They were all good in their own way, and there are one or two that we would look at very seriously next time we come to purchase," said James. "I would advise anyone who is looking at these vehicles to consider carefully the range of tasks that they are likely to perform, and in what conditions. This will help you decide the specification, narrow down the suitable machines and get exactly the utility vehicle that you are looking for."
The manufacturers have their say...
Sales Demonstration Instructor, James Cullimore, explains: "John Deere offers a wide range of utility vehicles, but the TS and TE (electric) tested are best suited to fine turf applications due to their light footprint, but are still able to carry heavy loads."
"The main features of the T series Gators are the one piece unibody frame, which provides exceptional strength and their ease of operation."
"Their design offers a low centre of gravity and very low loading height, and we offer a high specification cargo box which can be fitted with holders for strimmers etc, and removable sides to act as a flatbed."
"With front disc brakes and a 32kph top speed, all T Series Gators can be road homologated, including electric models. Various cabs can be specified."
"The running costs of an electric gator over a petrol or diesel would be marginally cheaper, but would have a higher initial price because of the cost of the batteries. The main advantages of an electric Gator are the lack of noise and quick start/stop operation."
JCB Groundhog 4x4 and 6x4.
Steve Belcher says: "The Groundhog has a progressive spring system which adjusts to the load in the cargo box, maintaining the ground clearance, while trailing arm suspension soaks up lateral movement on rough tracks."
"The cargo box takes a Euro pallet, but the sides also come off to make a flatbed, and the metal construction means that a range of accessories, such as a mesh cage, can easily be fitted. We work closely with Logic Equipment for attachments, and the most popular are a snow blade and a brush to fit on the front of the vehicle."
"The Groundhog is designed for easy maintenance - the checkerplate floor can be hosed out, and the cab design allows the bonnet to be opened without removing the windscreen. These machines are also security marked and registered to deter thieves."
Polaris Ranger EV
Service manager Ben Murray says: "This is a true four wheel drive, off road, electric vehicle, and it is extremely quick across the ground. We have built this first electric vehicle on a mid-size chassis to suit a wider market and make it more affordable. We expect it to be popular in the equestrian and gamekeeping markets where a quiet machine is needed."
"The Ranger EV has all round independent suspension, and features three drive modes - four wheel drive, two wheel drive and a 'turf' setting to minimise scuffing. We fit a general purpose tyre to this model, which suits a wide range of turf and off road applications."
Polaris Ranger diesel.
"This is a new addition to the range, powered by a 24hp Yanmar diesel engine. It is aimed at tough conditions, but remains lightweight, and we expect it to be popular for local authority and utilities work in upland areas, where a straightforward means of transport that can travel over soft ground is essential."
"The Ranger has a full size chassis and is a true three seater, with individual seat belts and a ROPS frame, and fully independent suspension to cope with rough terrain."
Cushman Turf Truckster
Rob Hayward from Ransomes Jacobsen says: "The Cushman Turf Truckster is a real workhorse primarily aimed at golf courses, and can be fitted with a range of attachments from sprayers to spreaders. It can be specified with a three point linkage, external hydraulics and a pto."
"The diesel engine offers more power when working with an implement, and the Turf Truckster is only available in two-wheel drive for work on fine turf. A cab is an option for winter work."
"The Turf Truckster is a long established solution tried and tested on the golf course."
Rob continues: "The ST480 is derived from a golf buggy design, and is lightweight and a real go-anywhere machine. It offers easy access for operators who have to get on and off frequently, and bigger and smaller models are available with two, four and six seats."
"Electric versions of these vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, due to the increased economy offered, not just in terms of fuel but also lower service costs."
Kawasaki Mule 4010 Diesel
Product Manager Simon Riches says: "This model is available as a two seater or the Trans, which can convert to a four seater but still have load space behind."
"A useful feature is progressive electric power steering, which gives a quick response when manoeuvring, but holds the vehicle steady when on the road."
"The roll bar acts as an air intake for both the engine and drive system, ensuring a supply of clean air even in a dusty or dirty environment."
"The diesel is our most popular model and is widely sold to estates, local authorities and the MOD, but can also be built to a golf specification."
Toro Workman MDX
Area manager Andrew Humble explains: "This is a simple, basic utility vehicle. We use plastic for the load bay because it does not dent or vibrate, and it is fitted with an electric lift for convenience."
"The petrol engine offers quiet running, is simple to maintain and increasingly economical now that red diesel is out of the picture. The Workman design incorporates a flexible chassis to keep all wheels in contact with the ground on undulating terrain. There's plenty of storage space and it is a user friendly design."
"Toro offers a wider range of vehicles, including models designed to work with groundcare implements and attachments."
Kubota RTV 900
Kubota's Kevin Leese says: "The RTV is manufactured throughout by Kubota. It has a three range hydrostatic transmission which offers a top speed of 40kph, and we have 27 percent of the UK market for UTVs."
The machine on test has full hydraulic tip and and a hydraulic power take off, to allow powered implements to be fitted. It also has a bull bar for more rugged applications - a lot of the machines are purchased by estates; it can also be supplied in a camouflage livery."
How did they do?
Whilst not comparing like-for-like models, the table does give an indication of how each model fared in the test criteria.
In general, the higher the cost, the higher the points scored, although the John Deere Gator TE and JCB Groundhog 4x4 bucked that trend.
The outright 'winner' was the Kubota RTV 900, closely followed by the Polaris Diesel and Toro Workman MDX.
Pitchcare would like to thank James Mead and his staff for their considerable time, effort, and hospitality. We are also grateful to the manufacturers for embracing the concept and supplying their machines for testing and their representatives for 'grilling'.
Make, Model and Points
|Make / Model||Points|
|Kubotal RTV 900||99|
|Polaris Ranger Diesel||95|
|Toro Workman MDX||92|
|Cushman Turf Truckster||90|
|Kawasaki Mule 4010D||87|
|John Deere Gator TE||87|
|JCB Groundhog 4x4||86|
|Polaris Ranger EV||85|
|JCB Groundhog 6x4||84|
|John Deere Gator TS||82|
View or download the PDF of the points table here