When you’re in the market for a new ATV, there are many factors to consider, one of them being what drive system you should choose. You may have heard people talk about belt drive, shaft drive, and chain drive. You will learn that these terms are often used interchangeably, causing unnecessary confusion.

That’s why I decided to make this post to help clarify some of the terminologies and provide an overview of which shaft-driven ATVs are on the market.

Most utility and recreational ATVs on the market are shaft-drive; they use metal drive shafts to transfer power from the transmission to the wheels. This includes both ATVs with a belt-driven CVT transmission and beltless alternatives offered by Honda. The exception is most sport quads and some youth ATVs that are chain drive.

What do we mean by shaft-drive, belt drive, and chain drive in an ATV?

To understand why most ATVs are considered shaft driven, we need to clarify what we mean when we talk about an ATV being shaft drive, belt drive, or chain drive. 

These three different terms are referring to what style of drivetrain a vehicle has. But the terms are not always used in the same way with all types of vehicles. Also, They do not always refer to the same specific component of the drivetrain.

The drivetrain includes every component that transfers the engine’s power out to the wheels, including the transmission. Different setups have different groups of components.

The driveline includes every component that transfers the power from the engine out to the wheels, except the transmission.

The ATVs in the market today come with one of two main styles of transmission systems:

  • CVT, continuously variable transmission. A CVT can be belt-driven, but this does not make the ATV belt drive. A CVT can also be chain driven (not so common on ATVs), but this does not make the ATV chain drive. 
  • Geared transmission. A geared transmission is a gearbox is made from a group of metal gears and shafts, but this does not make the ATV shaft drive. Mechanical gearbox transmissions on ATVs are either manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic. 

Here is an overview over ATVs that have automatic transmissions.

Honda used to offer a hydrostatic transmission with their Hondamatic models, but none of their current models offer this transmission style. They do, however, use hydraulic torque converters. 

What is shaft-drive on an ATV?

Shaft drive on an ATV usually refers to the driveline style and not the inner workings of the transmission. Regardless of what transmission type an ATV has, it may still be shaft-drive. 

The shafts in a shaft drive refer to the metal driveshafts and axles that transfer power from the transmission to the wheels via the front and rear differentials.

The image at the top of the post show the rear drive shaft, while this image displays the fromt driveshaft on my Polaris Sportsman XP1000.

Some people refer to ATVs with beltless transmissions, typically the ones with a gearbox and clutch configuration, as being shaft-drive. They might be correct, but not because the ATV has a gearbox. It’s still the driveshafts and axles that would make the bike a shaft drive. 

If a beltless ATV with a gearbox and clutch uses a chain to drive the wheels, it is chain drive, not shaft-drive. 

While a gearbox is made from a group of metal gears and shafts, it is not considered a shaft drive. With gearbox transmissions on ATVs, it’s still the driveshafts and axles that make it a shaft drive. 

So referring to beltless ATVs as a shaft drive may confuse since ATVs with CVT belt transmissions are shaft drives as well.

Let’s compare a few examples:

Can-Am Outlander has a CVT transmission and uses metal driveshafts and axles to transfer the power to the wheels. It is a shaft-drive ATV with a belt-drive transmission. 

Honda Fourtrax Foreman ES has a five-speed + reverse automatic transmission and direct front and rear driveshafts. It’s a shaft-drive ATV with an automatic gearbox.

Yamaha Raptor 700 has a five-speed + reverse transmission with a chain final-drive. It’s a chain-drive ATV with a manual gearbox. 

What is belt-drive on an ATV?

Belt-drive on an ATV is usually referring to a belt-driven CVT style of transmission. 

atv belt drive
CVT belt drive transmission on a Polaris Sporsman.

Most belt-driven ATVs are shaft drive as-well since they use metal shafts and axles to transfer the power from the CVT transmission and out to the wheels. 

atv cv axle
Here are the rear CV-axles on my Polaris Sportsman XP1000.

The confusion occurs when comparing with belt-drive on a motorcycle. Belt drive in an ATV and belt drive in a motorcycle is not the same thing.

Some motorcycle manufacturers, such as Harley Davidson, offer a few models where the metal chain final drive is replaced with a rubber belt. This would make their driveline belt-drive. ATVs, however, do not use belts in their driveline, only in the CVT transmission.

What is chain-drive on an ATV?

Chain drive on an ATV usually refers to the metal chain that transfers power from the transmission and to the rear axle. One sprocket on the gearbox is connected to another sprocket on the rear axle, using a metal chain. 

atv chain drive
Chain drive on a cheap youth ATV.

This setup is available on most sports quads and some youth ATVs.

Technically, a gearbox contains a metal chain, but most people don’t consider them chain drive regardless. 

What ATVs are shaft-driven?

All ATVs that use metal driveshafts and axles to transfer the power from the transmission and out to the wheels are shaft drives. This includes ATVs with belt-driven, CVT transmissions, as well as ATVs with a gearbox and clutch transmission setup. 

Here is a list of ATVs that are shaft-drive:

Brand and modelTransmission typeDriveline
Can-Am Outlander seriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Can-Am Renegade seriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Polaris Sporsman Series*CVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Polaris Scrambler SeriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Polaris ACE series*CVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Yamaha Kodiak seriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Yamaha Grizzly seriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
Honda Fourtrax RinconGeared transmissionShaft and axle drive
Honda Fourtrax Foreman seriesGeared transmissionShaft and axle drive
Honda Fourtrax RancherGeared transmissionShaft and axle drive
Kawasaki Brute Force seriesCVT belt-driveShaft and axle drive
*Non-youth models only

What ATVs are not shaft-driven?

ATVs that use a metal chain instead of metal shafts to transfer power from the gearbox to the wheels are chain drive and not shaft drive. 

Here is a list of ATVs that are not shaft-drive:

Brand and modelTransmission typeDriveline
Can-Am DS series (youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive
Polaris Outlaw series (youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive
Polaris Sportsman 110 (youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive
Polaris ACE 150 EFI (youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive
Yamaha YFZ 50 (Youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive
Yamaha YFX 450Geared transmissionChain-drive
Yamaha Raptor seriesGeared transmissionChain-drive
Kawasaki KFX series (youth)CVT belt-driveChain-drive

Why are some ATVs shaft-drive and others chain-drive?

All drive systems come with their share of pros and cons. 

Effectivity and weight

Chain-drive systems weigh significantly less than shaft-drive systems. This makes them the preferred alternative in most racing applications, where weight saving is crucial. 

Also, you get more engine power to the wheels with chain-drive over shaft drive. Depending on its design, a shaft drive system can bleed as much as 10-20% engine power due to all joints and moving gears. Chain and sprocket based systems have a transmission power loss of only 1-4%.

Racing quads need every horsepower to the wheels to win the race, which leaves chain and sprocket the preferred alternative. 

Cost

The main advantage of a chain-drive system is a significantly lower initial cost due to its simple design. This, in addition to weight savings, is the main reason why many youth models come with chain-drive.

Reliability and Maintenance

Shaft-drive is considered more reliable in the long run than chain-drive. This is mostly due to a more straightforward maintenance schedule. 

The chain and sprockets in a chain-dive system wear down over time and eventually need to be replaced. Replacing the sprockets and chain is something most home mechanics can perform on their own, but the parts’ cost adds up over time. 

Regular maintenance with cleaning and relubricating is required to ensure longevity. 

The replacement interval depends on how hard and in what condition the quad is ridden. Racers need to replace the chain and sprockets far more often than the casual recreational rider.

Driveshaft systems are not maintenance-free but require far less maintenance than a chain drive. 

Some ATVs have u-joints that needs to be greased now and then, and you need to replace the oil in the diffs on given intervals. 

Driveshafts do not wear as a chain does. You may need to replace parts such as u-joints or CV axles every other year, but that’s about it. A shaft

Off-road capabilities

The chain and sprocket are exposed underneath the bike, leaving them vulnerable to impact damage or jammed debris when taking a chain-drive ATV off-road. 

Shaft-drive offers better ground clearance and can take more of a beating without causing issues. 

Why do some ATVs use belt-driven transmissions while others use geared transmissions?

Reliability

Geared transmissions with an auto or manual clutch are generally considered more reliable than a belt-driven CVT transmission. 

If a CVT belt overheats or is pushed too hard, it may shatter into a million small pieces, leaving you stranded on the trail. Big mud wheels or tracks are notorious for destroying belts. A CVT transmission can be upgraded using a clutch kit to make it more likely to handle big wheels, but it still has it’s limitations.

If a CVT belt gets wet for some reason, it will not be able to drive the ATV forward. If you push too hard before the belt has dried up, it may start slipping, which may ruin the belt. 

While you could replace a broken CVT belt on the trail, it usually requires more work than replacing the belt on a snowmobile. You would also need to bring a spare belt at all times.

Cost

CVT belt transmissions are considered more straightforward and cheaper to manufacture than geared transmissions.

This is likely the main reason why most ATVs in today’s market come with this style of transmission.

Maintenance

A geared transmission requires the occasional oil change. Other than that, it’s mainly considered maintenance free.

CVT transmissions require slightly more maintenance to operate reliably. 

The rubber drive-belt wears out over time and needs to be replaced. The replacement interval varies depending on factors such as how much power the ATV has, if you pull heavy loads or if you run oversized wheels. 

A CVT belt replacement cost about $50 to $100 plus labor if you don’t want to do the job yourself. 

The CVT clutches may get dirty over time, causing belt slipping and other issues. Expect having to clean the clutches every other year.

During the lifespan of an ATV, you may also run into issues such as belt deflection needing adjustment and clutches coming you of alignment. A mechanic usually performs these types of adjustments.     

Related questions         

Are all ATVs belt driven?

The majority of ATVs in today’s market uses a belt-driven CVT transmission but does not use a belt to transfer the power from the gearbox out to the wheels. To achieve this they either use a chain or a shaft and axel driveline. The ATVs that don’t use a belt-driven CVT transmission uses a manual, semi-automatic, or manual gearbox with gears and clutches.