Most ATVs have front tires that are visibly smaller than the rear ones. That’s just how ATVs are supposed to look, right? Well, I set to find out more about why most ATVs on the market are sold with this specific looking wheel configuration.

So why do ATVs have smaller front tires? ATVs have smaller front tires mainly to achieve easier turning and better handling when riding off-road. They are also needed to 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 the context of this article.

I’m referring to a front tire that is not as wide as the rear tire. Most ATVs come stock with front tires that are typically about two inches narrower or skinnier than the rear ones. Typical rear tire width is 10-11 inches, where 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. The majority of stock ATVs come with about the same diameter front tires as rear tires.

Sometimes it may seem as the skinnier front tires are smaller in diameter as well, but usually, that is not the case.

Smaller tires are easier to steer

Try putting your hand flat on a table, try rotating it both ways. Then put just the tip of your finger on the table, try rotating it again. It required much less effort to rotate when just your finger was in contact with the table, right?

Smaller tires to avoid tire rub

ATVs are relatively compact machines that have a lot of suspension travel. A lot of vertical tire movement makes them particularly prone to tire rub against body panels and various suspension components.

The front tires turn and therefore need much more space than the rear tires. To be able to keep the ATV compact, the designers have opted for using narrower front tires instead of widening the bike.

On my Polaris Sportsman, a narrow front tire is not enough. When I’m installing tire chains, I need to add a set of wheels spacers as well to gain more clearance.

Smaller tires give you better handling and cornering

A narrower tire is easier to maneuver in between rocks or other obstacles on and off the trail.

Whenever you are riding in some technically challenging terrain, it is crucial to hitting that ideal line for optimal traction and maintaining the forward momentum. This is much easier to achieve when you run a narrower front tire.

Also, a skinnier front tire enables you to corner faster when riding on dirt or gravel trails.

When you’re cornering at high speeds, it’s essential that the front tires maintain their traction throughout the bend. Otherwise, you would just slide straight forward and into the brush.

The narrow front tire will dig a bit 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 angle of the bike while maintaining optimal speed throughout the curve.

Smaller tires give you a more responsive steering

Narrower tires weigh less and therefore feels more responsive. There is simply less weight that has to be moved each time you turn the handlebars.

This is a significant benefit in ATV riding where you are required to make fast steering adjustments all the time.

A narrower tire also helps to keep the front end of the ATV light. A lighter front end shifts faster and easier from side to side as you turn.

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 of the major benefits of having power steering in your ATV is how it helps to reduce this tiresome and potentially dangerous jerky handlebar movement.

atv power steering handlebar whip
Power steering helps a lot against handlebar whip.

A narrower and therefore, lighter front tire helps even further in keeping this phenomenon at bay.

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 that gets thrown up in the air and onto you and the bike.

When you turn the front tires, they require more fender coverage than the rear tires to shield the rider properly. 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 overall width of the ATV within the desired range.

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 overall traction of the bike.

We’ve already talked about cornering at high speeds on gravel trails, where it is essential to maintain proper front tire grip.

But, even when riding in deep mud, narrower front tires may be preferred.

What happens is 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 doing some experimenting using various tire widths to see what offers the better traction overall.
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.

Wider rear tires for better stability, traction, and flotation

Let’s put a twist on the main question of this post. Maybe it’s not the front tires that are smaller, rather the rear tires that are bigger?

Wider rear tires give the bike overall better stability. Those few extra inches are nice to have any time you are riding in rough terrain or doing some high-speed cornering.

The wider rear tire will give you better flotation and overall better traction as well. Even acceleration on harder surfaces benefit from having a wider rear tire, just look at how drag racers are set up.

What happens if you put same size tires on all four wheels?

It’s nothing stopping 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 a pair of wheel spacers if you run into any clearance issues with the bigger front tires. I talk about how to choose the best wheel spacers in this post.

Keep in mind 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 at least they may 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 replace both the front and rear tires at the same time.

But if you install bigger diameter tires just at the front (or at the rear), you mess with the gearing ratio, with a high chance of damaging your transmission as a result.

Do all ATVs always have smaller front tires?

Most if not all ATVs use narrower front tires than rear tires.

Some ATVs, such as the Honda Rancher, actually has 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. Just like with 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.