A drive through the rutted, hilly back roads of Carolina Adventure World on John Deere's new 825i Gator is quick proof the engineers at Deere have been hard at work striving to enter the "crossover" part of the side-by-side utility vehicle market.
In their effort to attract outdoor enthusiasts -- who want speed in anything they spend upwards of $11,000 to thrash around in the mud and dust -- Deere's designers turned to Chery Automobile, China's largest domestic automaker, for a new powerplant for the 825i. The three-cylinder, in-line, fuel-injected engine cranks out 50 horsepower from an 812 cc displacement, and will propel the 1,600 lb. Gator up to 44 miles per hour in short order before the governor starts interrupting the ignition system. The "Miata-like" growl is gratifying as the dual-overhead cam engine does its job in the 3,000 to 4,000 rpm range, with occasional blips into the 5K era.
Once you fully appreciate the sound of the powerful little automotive engine, you realize "This isn't the 2007 Gator. The ride is smooth -- smooth enough to tangle with that other off-road manufacturer that advertises the 'smoothest ride' in the industry." All this comes from a totally redesigned independent front and rear suspension -- a change made throughout the XUV lineup, including the 625i and the 855D (diesel) gators that share the spotlight this year Sizeable improvements in suspension travel front and rear and adjustable spring tension make the ride over axle-deep ruts and rocks quite civil.
The new suspension also translates into very pleasant steering with both standard and power steering options. Deere's electronic power assist steering (EPAS) is speed sensitive and gives you maximum assist at slow speeds, and returns the "feel of the road" to you as the machine accelerates. Again, EPAS is about $700 extra, but if you're going to spend a lot of time in the boondocks hauling heavy loads, it's probably well worth it over the life of the Gator.
A 70-amp automotive alternator comes standard on the 825i to power the many lights and accessories available for the new "enthusiast" machine.
Another improvement over the after-thought inch-and-a-quarter receiver on the first XUVs is the 825i's standard front and rear 2-inch receivers. The machine is rated to tow 1,500 pounds and Deere included what most folks use to attach hitches on this Gator -- along with standard tow hooks.
The 825i comes with a standard digital display that keeps track of time, engine hours, rpm, speed, and fuel levels. The CVT transmission (used in the original XUVs) remains easy to use with its high-low selections and reverse and neutral console mounted at the driver's right hand. A toggle switch gives you on-the-fly access to 4WD, a mode that cues the front differential to pull when needed -- through an overrunning clutch that senses when extra traction is appropriate. A rear differential lock is there for when things get really serious.
Deere's designers also fixed a problem with the new 855D diesel powered Gator that plagued the first XUV models -- even from the 2007 launch -- with a sealed clutch housing that keeps the CVT transmission belt from slipping when it gets wet. The new set up allows reliable use in up to 20-inches of water. The new diesel Gators we drove were solid performers, although rated at 25 horsepower and far less peppy than the 50 hp. high-reving three-cylinder gasoline 825i
Engine braking is still not what other manufacturers provide in any of the new Gator models, but the 825i come standard with four-wheel disc brakes and two-piston calipers on the front for much improved stopping power for the machine's 1,400 lb. payload rating.
When the curtain fell off the 825i at the product launch in Charlotte June 9, Deere's tactical marketing manager for the new Gators, David Gigandet told his audience "performance is definitely part of the equation for where the Gator line is going."
We think he and his engineers have made an excellent start.
For a look at the unveiling and the original product launch story, click on: http://www.farmprogress.com/story.aspx/new/gator/raises/the/level/of/the/swamp/13/39020