Deere & Company started in the early 1800s when blacksmith John Deere became successful building and selling steel plows — prior to that, choice was limited to either wood or iron. The smooth steel surface allowed the dense soil to slide off the plow cleanly, saving time and energy for midwest farmers and arguably aiding in the settling of the West. Obviously, more than 200 years later, John Deere is still known for highly productive agricultural and lawn equipment. Thankfully, however, the balls-to-the-wall highly capable off-road John Deere Gator RSX 850i ($13,000) proves with an exclamation point that the company isn’t all work and no play.
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John Deere’s first-ever use of a 839cc V-twin motorcycle engine in a Recreational Utility Vehicle (RUV), a beast that delivers the kind of fun typically reserved for all-out-war paintball melees, says a lot about their intentions. With a top speed of 53 mph (feels more like 100), 4WD, fully independent multi-link suspension, nine inches of wheel travel, 10 inches of ground clearance, Fox racing shocks, and a 400-pound capacity cargo box, John Deere’s vehicle seems eager to go anywhere and do anything. Sounds like a challenge we were born for.
Led by racing driver Scott Martinez, who competes in a desert race league featuring massively beefed-up versions of the RSX 850i , we headed to the wide open 19,000 acre Hungry Valley Recreation Center about an hour outside Los Angeles with the Sport and Trail version and spent the whole day flinging this thing around (and, just as much, being flung).
The interior is spartan: a few switches, a seatbelt and a steering wheel. You’ll be too busy laughing with stupid joy to care. The 61 horsepower engine sends power through a CVT, so there is no shifting or gearing, just forward and reverse. The motorcycle engine truly is the heartbeat of this machine, giving it a rowdy soul and bringing a finesse to what would normally be simply a “good ole boy” toy. Acceleration to 30 mph in three seconds feels like warp speed when you’re flying through alleys of dirt and trenches that would stop even the most prepared Jeeps. The engine is surprisingly powerful for its size, pushing the Gator up hills that seemed ready to tip us over after stalling us out.
Exploring both peaceful, open terrain and dusty, rooster-tailed corners in the John Deere Gator RSX 850i could replace therapy.
There was a little play in the steering wheel but the ratio was low, which meant quick turns in and out of corners and produced a surprisingly car-like feel. Having the option to lock both the front and rear axles made a huge difference in some rocky, dry riverbed instances; climbing out of a tight spot just meant turning a knob. The frame is made to protect not only the driver but also important engine components, and the side rails even act as rock sliders to guard against bottoming out. We weren’t even completely exhausted by a full day of exploring thanks to nine inches of wheel travel and Fox shocks, both of which made the Gator ride like a ’78 Cadillac over whoops and rough terrain.
After a few hours, the Gator became predictable and the quick steering meant confidently drifting corners and ripping donuts. Toward the end of the day, that confidence turned to pride, which always comes before the…flying off of a cliff. Yes, on one particular corner a little understeer and late turn-in had us careening uncomfortably towards a ledge — but the cross-drilled hydraulic disc brakes (and a fence) saved our skin as we stopped inches before a first-hand testing of the roll cage.
No injuries and plenty of smiling beneath helmets and goggles were proof enough of a successful day. This was not a vehicle we ever imagined actually buying, but after eight hours of exploring both peaceful, open terrain and dusty, rooster-tailed corners, we decided the John Deere Gator RSX 850i could replace therapy. Sure, we’d need to get a trailer and a second Gator (who wants to go it alone?). But who cares. There’s no self-help group for this kind of vice.