Choosing a UTV is a big decision, there are so many factors at play. The size of the engine; the depth of the wheel wells; how many seats does it have; what do you intend to use the machine for, either for work or play?
Compared to all the other decisions you must make, the choice between a shaft driven UTV and a belt driven one could seem small.
So which is better, Shaft Drive or Belt drive?
They both do a fantastic job of driving your UTV fast and efficiently, but of course they each have their drawbacks that we must reckon with. No one should make their decision of what UTV to purchase based solely off of what kind of drive system it has.
That being said, knowing the difference between the two, and knowing how your particular machine works will help you understand how to take care of it, most likely leading to you making the right decisions for your vehicle, increasing the lifespan of the machine.
Are all UTVs belt driven?
First, let’s clear up some terminology, because that was the most confusing part of researching for this article. Almost every vehicle you drive is going to have a drive shaft, but not every vehicle you drive will be driven with a shaft drive.
Especially in four-wheel-drive vehicles, whatever drive system you have, belt driven or shaft driven, it is used to communicate energy from the engine, to the drive shaft which is used to communicate that energy to the wheels themselves. I hope that hasn’t confused matters even further.
Most modern UTVs operate using a belt driven CVT (Constant Variable Transmission) system, but there are companies and models out there that use a shaft driven system. It will be listed on either the UTV’s listing or its user manual which drive system it has.
What is Belt Drive
In order to understand what a belt drive system is, we must first lay the groundwork for further understanding later down the road.
It all starts with the engine. the inner workings on an internal combustion engine aren’t the focus of this article, so let’s just say that an engine spins a rod.
No matter what engine you’re dealing with, by and large, the output of all that energy will be to rotate a rod which will transfer energy to something, sometimes it will be a belt driven system like most UTVs, other times it might be a chain driven system like you’d find on a lot of motorbikes.
But at bottom you have an engine using energy to spin a rod.
What that rod connects to and runs, and how that rotational energy is transmitted to the wheels to propel you forward is the question at hand.
In many of today’s belt driven systems, you’ll find what’s called a CVT (Constant Variable Transmission). This system consists of two spinning drums, one coming from the engine, and one going through the axle to the wheels.
The belt driven CVT system allows for your vehicle to be automatic without the use of a computer processor. The system uses a centrifugal clutch, which engages a connection between the engine and the wheels only when the engine is revving, (spinning its rod) beyond a certain speed.
This is the reason why you cannot push start a UTV with a belt drive, in order to push start a vehicle, the transmission has to already be engaged, and in a CVT system, it cannot be engaged without the engine already running.
Whereas in a typical manual transmission you’d have to depress and release the clutch pedal to engage and disengage the engine, a CVT system allows you to simply push down on the gas and go.
What is a Shaft drive?
We’ll start again at the engine’s spinning rod. In a shaft driven system, the rotational energy coming from the engine goes into a completely different system with gears and rods called a shaft drive system.
The easiest way I can think of to describe to you how a shaft driven system works is to look at an unconventional application of it in a bicycle.
A normal bicycle would have a chain driven system, where your foot pushes a pedal attached to gears on which the chain is attached.
If however we replace the chain with a shaft driven system it would look more like this: Your foot pushes the pedal which turns a gear, that gear spins a shaft that runs down the distance between the pedals and the rear wheel, where it is turning another gear, which is attached to the wheel.
All of these parts are inside a well greased housing that protects the system from dirt and dust.
When applied to a vehicle with an engine, the shaft drives are of course going to be larger and stronger, but the same basic principles apply.
The engine spins a gear, or set of gears which in turn spin the system’s shaft. That shaft spins and travels the distance between the engine and where it needs to be to turn the wheels and connects to another set of gears.
All the delicate gears are held in place inside a housing that protects it from the elements.
Pros And Cons of a Belt Drive System
Neither belt driven systems, nor shaft driven systems are perfect. They both have their benefits and drawbacks when it comes to performance or maintenance.
Benefits of Belt Drives
It’s no coincidence that most UTVs are belt driven, there are many benefits to owning and operating a belt driven system. First and foremost, if something goes wrong, and for some reason your belt breaks, it’s not difficult to fix.
We’ll cover in greater detail the process of changing a UTV’s belt in the “Maintenance of Belt Drive UTV” section below, but a UTV’s belt can be changed in under an hour with nothing that could be considered a headache.
Continuous variable transmissions, the common choice for belt driven systems offer so much to the performance of the vehicle. Being an automatic system, the driver doesn’t have to worry about a clutch pedal or what gear they’re in, they just drive.
It would be fruitless to begin to wonder what gear you’re in, since a CVT doesn’t technically have gears. The belt sits between two disks, with mirrored angles, and when the engine is a full tilt the clutches open and the belt slides down between the two disks, but at a smaller radius than before.
The same process repeats on the other clutch, resulting in a system that balances power with energy efficiency.
When you’re driving a belt driven CVT system you’re practically guaranteed to be getting the best gas mileage you could possibly get.
This is because the CVT does all the hard work of balancing and adjusting the input and output of the raw horsepower of the engine.
Drawbacks of Belt Drives
No system is without its flaws though, and the belt drive is no exception. A belt driven CVT system makes some decisions for you that in other vehicles, say a manual transmission vehicle, you would make. Most obviously the gear choice.
Whereas in a normal transmission vehicle you’d be able to decide to put it in first gear to go slowly but strongly up a hill for instance, in a CVT system the output of the engine is decided by the CVT itself.
CVTs are meant to get the user the best gas mileage, and not necessarily to provide the best performance. This can, on rare occasion, lead to difficulty getting up hills.
One common complaint amongst belt drive drivers is that there is a second delay between when you push your foot on the gas, and when you move.
This is because it takes some time for the centrifugal clutch to engage; it has to spin for a little bit, (we’re talking fractions of a second here).
Some CVT drivers have described this as if you were pulling back a rubber band, the tension builds and then it lets go and you move forward.
Some view this as a minor complaint, a little bit of lag between the pedal and the movement, but some would rather die than have anything but direct control of their wheels.
The lifespan of a belt drive is another factor to consider. Not to say that they are flimsy or delicate by any stretch of the imagination, these puppies will do good work for as long as they can.
It’s just that being made of flexible rubber, the belt will of course need to be replaced. Especially in comparison with shaft driven systems, a belt drive will need to be replaced, or at the very least inspected, much more frequently; once every thousand miles, every 50 hours of driving or every six months; whichever comes first.
Pros and Cons of Shaft Drives
Shaft drives bring to the table different qualities, but they’re still imperfect. Though they last longer and offer more torque for the driver, they are not as easy to take care of and if something goes wrong out on an off roading adventure, they’re much harder to fix.
Benefits of Shaft Drives
Let’s begin by looking at the upsides of shaft driven UTVs. The first, and i think most obvious one is that they’ll last a long time.
Compared to belt drives which need to be replace every six months or so, a shaft drive can go thousands of miles without needing to be replaced, and save some catastrophic event, should even be able to last through the life of the vehicle.
A shaft driven system will also give a more direct connection between the driver’s foot and the rotation of the wheels.
Whereas a belt driven CVT system might lag for a second to engage the clutches, a shaft drive will transmit that energy directly to the drive shaft and wheels.
No horsepower is lost between the time you push your foot on the pedal and the moving force of the engine.
When it comes to maintenance, shaft drives are in some ways easier. The whole system is enclosed and protected from dirt and dust. While you’re blasting your way through mud puddles, the internal mechanism stays contained in nice clean oil.
Drawbacks of Shaft Drive Systems
The same things that make the shaft driven systems so valuable, is also what can make them the most detrimental. Their being enclosed systems contained in a metal sheathe, means that is something goes wrong inside you cannot get to it.
Granted, these are durable systems, resiliant to the trail’s pressures, but if something does go wrong, it is not an easy fix. If for some bizarre reason it fails you, you cannot fix it in an afternoon, or on the trail.
The maintenance also is a drawback. On a belt driven system, you can check and replace your belt in an hour, this is not so with shaft driven systems.
Very few people will feel comfortable disassembling the shaft drive system to inspect the rubber seals and contact points of all the gears.
Meaning that the owner’s ability to maintain their UTV, unless they are very mechanically savvy, is limited to an oil change every so often.
A unique, if small, factor to consider about shaft driven vehicles is the price of having one. They are more expensive to manufacture than belt driven systems, which might at least partially explain the popularity of belt drive systems.
The price, I’m sure will not affect the bottom line too drastically, but it will add a little bit to the price tag of your UTV.
Lastly, shaft driven systems are not as energy efficient as belt driven CVT systems. By putting the power directly in the hands of the driver’s foot, you can at times be operating the vehicle at less than optimum performance.
Meaning that you could be using more gas than you need to, which could make trips shorter, or refuels more frequent.
Maintenance of Belt Drive UTV
Taking care of your CVT belt drive system is remarkably simple, and completely replacing the belt can be done in less than an hour with a few simple tools.
You should change or at the very least check the belt every so often. Many manufacturers suggest every 50 hours of driving, every thousand miles or every six months, whichever comes first.
Changing the belt can be done in a few simple steps. The specifics of changing the belt on your UTV will of course differ from vehicle to vehicle, so please do consult your owner’s manual, but by and large, the process should be similar no matter what make and model, just so long as it’s a belt driven system.
First we must clear the way to belt drive. They will typically be found in the rear of the UTV to one side. You may have to temporarily remove an intake to get to the CVT’s housing, so be sure to remember to reattach it when finished. Remove the CVT housing to expose the inner mechanism.
You will have received when purchasing the vehicle, in the tool kit, a device called a sheaf spreader that will look like a metal handle with a hook on the end. Stick the sheaf spreader into the holes in the larger of the two clutches and press down.
This should force the belt out a little bit, enough for us to remove it. With a screwdriver move the belt out over the edge of the clutch. Once the belt is partially clear of the clutch you can remove the sheaf spreader, and rotate the clutch until the belt is completely free.
At this point you can inspect the belt’s health and decide whether or not to replace it with a new one. If you do decide to replace the belt, be sure that it is on the right way.
Some belts have printed on them little arrows that point in the direction the belt should be moving, and some do not. If there are no directional arrows, insert the belt so that the company logo on the belt can be read left to right and fish the belt back into place.
Begin by placing the belt over the smaller of the two clutches and feed one end of the belt over the head of the larger clutch. You can use the same technique as before, rotating the clutch head, to secure the belt into place.
To make sure that everything is in its proper place, rotate the large clutch head 5-7 times.
Replace the CVT housing and any other items you needed to remove to get to the CVT system, and you’re finished. It’s a simple yet effective system, no wonder it’s the most popular one.
Maintenance of Shaft Drive UTV
On average, the maintenance of a shaft driven system is very simple, and limited to changing the oil every year or so. When changing the oil, inspect the used oil for any metal shavings.
If you do find metal shavings in the system, that could be a sign that there is undue wear somewhere in the system that needs to be mended.
Taking apart a shaft drive system is not for the mechanically feint of heart. There are many moving parts that must be replaced just so otherwise the entire system would stop working.
But if you are mechanically confident and are up for the challenge, there are a few things you should look out for.
The first and probably weakest part of the system are the rubber gaskets. While disassembling your shaft drive system, if you find any worn or cracking gaskets, you should replace them immediately.
Worn or broken gaskets can lead to oil leaks, which can lead to the gears not getting enough lubrication, which can lead to the far more expensive worn out gears.
So be sure to replace rubber seals any time you’re in doubt of their health to be on the safe side.
Beyond that, you have the gears themselves and the ball bearings that aid in the rotation of the gears. To determine the health of the gears you need to check what’s called fitment.
This means the amount of give, or wiggle room one gear has in communicating with the next gear in the system. The less wiggle room there is the better the system will run, and these gears can be adjusted by shimming them one way or another at fixed points designed specifically for this purpose.
Like I said, most people would prefer to put such a large responsibility of disassembling and reassembling their shaft drives on a mechanic, and there’s no shame in that.
Far more basic maintenance should include making sure there is enough of the right kind of oil in the system by checking it regularly, and changing it once a year or so.