Most ATVs have front tires that are visibly smaller than the rear ones. That’s just how ATVs are supposed to look, right? I set out to find out why most ATVs are sold with this specific-looking wheel configuration.
So why do ATVs have smaller front tires? ATVs have smaller front tires mainly for easier turning and better handling when riding off-road but also help avoid tire rub.
What Do We Mean by a Smaller Tire?
Before we go into the details, let me clarify what I mean by a smaller tire in this article’s context.
I’m referring to a front tire that is not as wide as the rear tire. Most ATVs come stock with front tires typically about two inches narrower or skinnier than the rear ones. Typical rear tire width is 10-11 inches, whereas front tires are usually 8-9 inches wide. This is known as a staggered wheel setup.
I’m not, however, talking about a tire that is smaller in diameter. Most stock ATVs come with about the same diameter front tires as rear tires.
Sometimes it may seem as if the skinnier front tires are also smaller in diameter, but usually, that is not the case.
1. Smaller Tires Are Easier to Steer
Place your hand flat on a table; try rotating it both ways. Then put the tip of your finger on the table, and try turning it again. It required much less effort to rotate when just your finger was in contact with the table, right?
2. Smaller Tires to Avoid Tire Rub
ATVs are relatively compact machines that have a lot of suspension travel. Repeated vertical tire movements make them prone to tire rub against body panels and various suspension components.
Front tires require more space to turn compared to the rear ones. To maintain the ATV’s compact design, designers opted for narrower front tires instead of expanding the vehicle’s width.
3. Smaller Tires Improve Handling and Cornering
A narrower tire is easier to maneuver between rocks or other obstacles on and off the trail.
When riding in some technically challenging terrain, it is crucial to hit that ideal line for optimal traction and maintaining forward momentum. This is much easier to achieve when you run a narrower front tire.
Also, a skinnier front tire lets you corner faster when riding on dirt or gravel trails.
When cornering at high speeds, the front tires must maintain traction throughout the bend. Otherwise, you would slide straight forward and into the brush.
The narrow front tire will dig deeper into the ground than the rear tire due to having a smaller surface area in contact with the trail. This way, you know that the rear tires will lose their grip first, and the ride feels much more predictable.
The traction of the rear tires is not that crucial when cornering. As long as the front tires don’t slip, it is ok if the rear tires slide a little.
Experienced riders use this principle to their benefit. It allows them to use the throttle to adjust the bike’s angle while maintaining optimal speed throughout the curve.
4. Smaller Tires Give a More Responsive Steering
Narrower tires weigh less and therefore feel more responsive due to less weight that has to be moved each time you turn the handlebars.
This is a significant benefit in ATV riding, where you must always make fast steering adjustments.
A narrower tire also helps reduce front-end weight. A lighter front end shifts faster and easier from side to side as you turn.
5. Smaller Tires Mean Less Handlebar Whip
When you ride an ATV off-road, you regularly hit small bumps and other obstacles. Each bump is transferred up and into the handlebar, known as “handlebar whip.”
One significant benefit of power steering in your ATV is reducing this tiresome and potentially dangerous jerky handlebar movement.
A narrower and, therefore, lighter front tire further aids in keeping this phenomenon at bay.
6. Smaller Front Tires Are Cleaner
Do you think I’m making this up? Then try installing a set of wide rear tires to the front of your ATV, and take it for a ride somewhere it is really wet and muddy.
You’d be surprised how much the relatively small difference in tire width has to say for how much mud, rocks, debris, and water gets thrown up in the air and onto you and the bike.
When you steer the front tires, they require more fender coverage than the rear tires to protect the rider adequately. If you’d use the same width tires front and rear, the front fenders would have to be wider than the rear fenders.
Instead, they use narrower tires at the front to keep the ATV’s overall width within the desired range.
7. Better Overall Traction
Bigger tires equal better traction, at least in general. However, in some situations, a smaller front tire may actually be beneficial for the bike’s overall traction.
We’ve previously discussed the importance of maintaining proper front tire grip when cornering at high speeds on gravel trails.
However, narrower front tires might be preferable even when navigating through deep mud.
As you ride, the front tires push the mud out to the sides, leaving a deep rut. If the front tires were the same width as the rear tires, there would be no mud “left” for the rear tires to grab onto.
With a skinnier front tire, the rear tire will still have good ground to work with.
There is no exact science to this. But if you ride a lot in deep mud, it may be worth experimenting with various tire widths to see what offers better traction overall.
8. Smaller Front Tires Look Better
Now, this, of course, is all down to personal preference. But over the years, staggered tires on ATVs have become the norm. Many feel this is just how an ATV is supposed to look and that anything else would look weird.
9. Wider Rear Tires for Better Stability, Traction, and Flotation
How about we reframe the primary question of this post? Could it be that it’s not the front tires that are smaller but the rear tires that are larger?
Wider rear tires improve overall vehicle stability. Those few extra inches help a lot when riding in rough terrain or doing high-speed cornering.
A wider rear tire offers improved flotation and overall enhanced traction. Even acceleration on solid surfaces benefits from a wider rear tire, as evident in the setup of drag racers.
Putting the Same Size Tires on All Four Wheels
Nothing stops you from installing the same-width tires on all four wheels if you want to.
It will become noticeably harder to steer, so if you don’t have power steering, I would advise against it.
You may need to invest in wheel spacers if you encounter any clearance issues with the bigger front tires. I discuss how to choose the best wheel spacers in this post.
Remember that your front axles, driveshaft, and U-joints are likely built with a smaller front tire in mind. Therefore, they are not as strong and may break or wear prematurely if you stress them by installing a larger front tire.
I would, however, advise against installing a larger diameter front tire on a 4×4 ATV. The relative difference between how far the front and rear tires travel with each rotation must stay the same as when the bike was stock. Usually, this ratio is 1:1, same diameter tires both front and rear.
You can usually go up one size or two without running into any major issues as long as you simultaneously replace both the front and rear tires.
However, if you only install larger diameter tires at the front (or the rear), you disrupt the gearing ratio, which could likely damage your transmission.
Do All ATVs Have Smaller Front Tires?
Most, if not all, ATVs use narrower front tires than rear tires.
Some ATVs, like the Honda Rancher, have a slightly larger front rim. The tire diameter is, however, still the same, both front and rear.
But 2×4 racing quads is a different story. Like MX bikes, most quad racers prefer using front tires with a larger diameter than the rear. This is referred to as a “nose up” config.
They do this because it helps to prevent the nose from digging in when riding through moguls. If you hit one of the dips slightly wrong with a small tire, the suspension will bottom out, and the race may be over before you know it.
A nose-up setup with a larger front tire will enable the bike to handle these riding conditions much better and with less risk of flipping over if you don’t land perfectly.
In the world of ATVs, every aspect serves a unique purpose, including the smaller front tires. As we’ve discovered in this article, the characteristic design feature serves several vital purposes that help enhance your ATV riding experience.