2021 John Deere Gator 825M S4 Review: Everything You Love in a Farm Truck, Only More Expensive
It’s clear that the tractor company knows how to build a UTV. Question is, do you want to pay for it?
Performance side-by-sides like the Polaris RZR are no different than, say, a Subaru WRX. Every cool guy who played shortstop on their high school baseball team has one, and if you follow them on Facebook, that might be the only thing you know about them. Utility side-by-sides, on the other hand, are different in the sense that they're less of a status symbol and more of a real tool. The 2021 John Deere Gator 825M S4 I spent a few weeks with is a prime example.
But even after using it the way it was meant to be used, I still can't defend the eye-popping $20,213 asking price.
On the other hand, if I were a well-to-do rancher, it'd probably be super easy to justify to my accountant. Going into my test, I wondered what advantages the Gator would provide over a more traditional farm vehicle—y'know, like a $3,000 Chevy squarebody pickup. Of course it rides better and comes with a warranty, and you'll never have to adjust the Gator's carburetor since it doesn't have one, but is that worth paying the extra $17,000? I guess it depends on how many cheap farm trucks you've burned through already.
I've driven my fair share of UTVs before, but nothing this modern. The segment has transitioned from relatively affordable workhorses to highly optionable tools that do way more than what you really need—kinda like tractors, in that sense. You can buy a Gator with an enclosed cab and even amenities like air conditioning, but if that's on your must-have list, you're probably better off buying a midsize truck in the first place. It's for that reason I was glad my 825M S4 tester didn't have those luxuries, but it's intimidating to think you could spend factory-fresh Ford Ranger money on one if you really wanted to.
Still, with its 52-horsepower three-cylinder, four-wheel drive and locking rear differential, it has the chops—on paper and in the real world—to perform in harsh, rural environments. What's really important here are the Gator's work capabilities, especially if you hope to earn back the dough you dish out when signing on the dotted line.
2021 John Deere Gator 825M S4, By the Numbers
- Base Price (As Tested): $16,499 ($20,213)
- Powertrain: 812cc three-cylinder gas engine | 52 horsepower | continuously variable transmission | four-wheel drive
- Max Towing Capacity: 1,500 pounds
- Max Payload Capacity: 1,350 pounds
- Max Cargo Box Capacity: 1,000 pounds
- The Premise: Working hard so you don't have to, no matter the terrain.
- Quick Take: It'll do the job, no problem—just be prepared for sticker shock.
The Gator lives in a unique space that's contested by more international competitors than you might think. There are the established players at Honda, Polaris and Yamaha, as well as the buzzed-about Mahindra Roxor that's definitely not a Jeep. In a world where its direct rivals are powered by big-bore gasoline and even diesel engines, the Gator—at least in this four-seater, closed-top format—relies on an 812cc three-cylinder power plant built under contract to John Deere's specifications. It runs best on zero-ethanol fuel, which it injects electronically for a peak power output of 52 ponies.
Whether it sounds like it or not, that's plenty for a side-by-side. Output is sent to a rear transaxle and, in 4x4 models, a mechanically driven front axle with CV shafts. And while it's not really a knock against the John Deere seeing as virtually every UTV has one, the continuously variable transmission is the most frustrating link. When shifted from park into high-range, the Gator takes a decent amount of revving to actually start driving forward. So much so that it made me a bit worried that I'd messed up the zero-mile machine supplied for testing when I first tried to take off, because it...just didn't move
Luckily, you can work on the Gator yourself should the need ever arise, and you won't have to worry about bricking the computer. That might seem obvious, but some new-age products—like John Deere tractors—have to be serviced by a technician. It's a whole thing that we won't get into here, but feel free to read up on it and find out why some farmers are paying top-dollar for used equipment.
Anyway, I was able to call a friend of mine who works at the nearby John Deere dealer and he came out to give it a once-over. Everything checked out fine; turns out I wasn't prepared for the admittedly huge amount of throttle required to move from a stop, though I was no stranger to 5,000 rpm by the time I gave it back to John Deere two weeks later. You've really got to wring that unit out to get the most from it.
Loaded or Unloaded, It's All the Same
While the Gator sports a truck-like fully boxed frame, it makes use of independent suspension front and rear. In my eyes, this is for the better since it delivers a smoother ride (and slightly more ground clearance) when hauling across uneven ground—that's the whole purpose of this thing, after all.
Accordingly, I loaded the Gator down heavily with general junk as I completed a few chores around my property. While the handiwork itself was nevertheless miserable—I can't tell you how much I hate house renovations—it was fun to hop in the Gator and take a load to the burn pile. Maybe that's because I've got a known love for work trucks, but who am I to say?
I mentioned before that my particular Gator was free of any needless niceties like AC, but it did have a few dealer add-ons that were extremely helpful. It was fitted with an electronic dump bed, which is fantastic for hauling firewood and general stuff, and it still touted a cargo box capacity of 1,000 pounds. You could almost definitely carry more than that without issue, but I'm not going to void your warranty for you.
The bedsides can be folded down, effectively turning it into a flatbed for carrying wide cargo like tractor tires or fence panels. There's a plethora of tiedown hooks, too, so you don't have to get too inventive when moving items from Point A to Point B. These are key details that may seem minuscule, but it's assuring to know you'll be able to put it to good use. The same can be said for my tester's folding tailgate extender.
I was never wanting for more power so long as I kept my foot on the loud pedal. Dropping it down into low-range helped with this, and thanks to the Gator's handy variable-speed drive system, engine braking was a breeze when off the throttle. Electronic power steering made every trip easy, and I never felt like I exceeded the Gator's limits. I'm a little ashamed of myself there, to be honest.
Coincidentally, all these features meant to help it work also aid the Gator's off-road capabilities.
Over the River and Through the Wood—Hopefully Without Tight Corners
Unless you leave your common sense at home, you probably won't get the Gator stuck on loose surfaces. Our property is covered in creek gravel and, even in two-wheel-drive with the rear diff open, I had no problems near the water. If you lose your momentum, simply switch on 4WD and engage low-range; those 27-inch Maxxis Big Horn tires will get you out of it.
I never had an issue with traction, but I did run into a few problems owing to the 825M S4's outright size.
At 154 inches long, it's roughly a foot shorter than a two-door Jeep Wrangler. That seems fine, but the Gator's wheelbase is 114 inches on its own compared to the Wrangler's mark of 96.8 inches. That makes it hard to pull off tight turns between trees, and good luck getting over steep obstacles without getting high-centered. It'd be perfectly capable of going anywhere, so long as it wasn't in its own way.
This is the sacrifice you make with a four-seat variant, and it's certainly better on models with a single bench. It shouldn't be enough to stop you from buying what you need, but don't bet on following that high school shortstop everywhere at your local off-road park.
Verdict on the 2021 John Deere Gator 825M S4
When a friend stopped by my place to see the Gator, he told me how much he loved it. "You'll probably never over-work it," he told me. "And you sure as hell won't have to worry about it starting every morning." Fair enough, I suppose—I agree and can't imagine a situation where I'd hate having one around. Then, I quizzed him about the price.
"Oh, it's worth it," he scoffed before I gave him the real number. "For sure." He guessed $12,000 which, while not necessarily cheap, was way under the actual MSRP. I gave the real number of $20K and he almost choked on his gum. And really, that sums it up for me, too.
I know the Gator is a good, arguably great work vehicle. It scurries for traction and gets it with those chunky Maxxis tires, it never falters with a reasonable load in the bed and it does everything you'd hope a new UTV could do. But at that price, it's painful to imagine forking over so much when you could buy a 20-year-old truck for $5,000. Or hell, even a lightly used pickup like a Ranger or Nissan Frontier for the same dough.
I'm not likely to sway those who'd rather have the write-off come tax time, but for anyone else, it's a hard call to make. If only it weren't so good at what it does.
Caleb Jacobs is The Drive's News Editor. He buys weird things, like a '66 Ford dump truck, a '65 Chevy school bus and a '63 International Loadstar. We can't seem to stop him from writing about them. Send him a note: firstname.lastname@example.org
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