ATV vs. Dune Buggy: The 7 Essential Differences

ATVs and dune buggies are both off-road vehicles that can be used on similar terrains and for the same purposes. However, there are a few notable differences between them that are worth pointing out if you are deciding which one is right for you.

There are many differences between ATVs and Dune Buggies, including their functionalities, engines, size, road legality, build, tires, available performance enhancements, and costs.

Although some of these differences might seem quite obvious, there are many details under each one that is important to explore and consider when deciding which one is best suited for your off-roading needs. So let’s dig in and explore these now.

Here are the 7 essential differences between ATV’s and Dune Buggies:


There are a few essential differences between an ATV and dune buggy, each of which affects where they can go and what they are capable of doing.

Each vehicle function drastically changes the environments in which they are used and for which things they are favored. ATVs are used for shorter distances, while dune buggies can be used to cross larger distances for several days of travel.

ATVs are generally used by one person at a time only, rarely allowing for passengers to travel along easily. Dune buggies are more comfortable to share experiences with and allow for several passengers at times. Overall ATVs are more widely used for the following reasons:

  • Flexibility. ATVs can be used almost anywhere, in deserts, forests, wet areas, and dry tundra’s, where most other vehicles would be damaged too easily or need substantial modifications.
  • Modifications. ATVs can easily be modified to be more versatile and to overcome greater challenges. With simple tire changes, engine modifications, fitment of tow-bars, they can be used for anything from launching boats into a lake to hauling farm equipment.
  • Engine Placement. Similar to bikes, ATVs have their engines placed underneath you, which means that access to it is simple and allows you to fix problems on the go, and giving you the chance to have more use out of the ATV.
  • Drivetrains. ATVs have two main types of drivetrains, either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, this means that you can choose what you want and what you need. For speed and lighthearted fun, people prefer rear-wheel drivers, whereas workhorse ATVs are usually all-wheel drive.
  • Gearboxes. Because dune buggies are made from old vehicles, they are limited in the types of gearboxes they can have, whereas ATVs are available in a large variety of gearbox options. Some are simple automatic gearboxes, while others are complex systems with low range gears that allow for pulling of heavy equipment and drives up still hills.

ATVs are used on every continent on earth for something. Farmhands like to use them when hauling trailers across the farm, in any country. Australian farmers use ATVs to help cross large parts of their farms to control and count populations of animals, while in the US market, ATVs are used for things such as rallies, easy transportation on farms, or even on vacation resorts to go on rides through forests.

Dune buggies are used in stricter ways since they are built to have fun with and focus on how to do this most effectively. Their chassis allows for more versatile body types, meaning you can build a dune buggy that supports four or five passengers to go dune racing, or you can build two-seater versions that have large amounts of storage space.

This leads to the one thing that both of these vehicles can experience to a worrying degree. Dune buggies can be made entirely road legal while ATVs can be fitted with extra gas tanks in order to travel for several days.

Modifications to these vehicles are limited by their owner’s imagination. However, ATVs are usually easier to modify because they can be purchased in a default state, while dune buggies are already modified vehicles.

Dune buggies usually come in one engine type as well, which means that modifying them can be hard. ATVs allow for their engines to be slightly upgraded, even when they have to be in one specific spot, the engine placement of both vehicles can be a burden and a boon. Accessing the engine can be easy on a dune buggy, but the wires for it are close to the elements and will mean that they can be damaged without you knowing.

ATV engines are much simpler. With few wires that can be damaged, finding an electrical or mechanical problem becomes a lot easier. However, this means that when things get more complicated, ATVs can be a drag to fix. All-wheel drive ATVs are easily some of the most useful types out there. However, because they are small, the parts to fix them may be hard to find.

Dune buggy spares are always easy to find, even when they have been converted to all-wheel drive vehicles. This is because dune buggies are built on VW beetles, a vehicle that has appeared in every single country on earth and is still being used every day. This does mean that the types of gearboxes that most dune buggies have are ineffective, as they are limited to what the engine output is.

ATV gearboxes are, at times, more complex but also a lot simpler, coming in automatic systems that allow even beginners to enjoy them or full manual powerhouses. This means that an ATV with the right amount of power can do a lot more and be more versatile than a dune buggy can be. It all depends on what types of engines have been placed in them.


Dune buggies, the ones that you picture when you hear that name, are almost always fitted with 1600cc engines that have been made slightly more powerful. These dune buggies are lightweight, small powerhouses that have been upgraded with turbos and other features that make them perfect for their environments. However, this limits them in ways that ATVs are not.

While ATVs with 1600cc engines are unheard of, and would not be at all practical, larger ATVs are used for large tasks in remote areas where almost nothing else can be used safely. ATV engines start as low as 50cc but go up to 1000cc, which means they are either too fast or strong enough to pull a tree out by its roots.

The differences in the engines of these vehicles are what decide what is best. If you’re looking to have fun with friends, you can do so faster with a dune buggy, whereas going through rough terrain and overcoming impossible obstacles is much easier when you are a group of people that all have 450cc powerhouse ATVs.


ATVs come in every shape and size out there. The more expensive models have their rooftops, have tow-bars for camping trailers, and can be the same size as some small cars. This means that handling them can either be easy or a nightmare when you’re trying to desperately overcome the bulk and weight of the machine under you while taking a turn.

The challenge with ATVs may not be how to use them, but using them correctly does make it a challenge as there is a skill level that is required. This is because of their odd size, with a small wheelbase and lightweight frame can cause them to roll over when misused. This is one of the few parts where the size and shape of dune buggies make them a better option.

Owing to their chassis being made from a VW beetle and their wheel system being modified to handle sharp turns, their center of gravity is quite low, which makes dune buggies hard to roll. Along with this, they are exceptionally good at handling a wide variety of circumstances. This is why they are used for so many rally tournaments and dune bashing. They allow the rider to enjoy things without having the specific skill from the start to handle turns at high speeds.

Of course, there is a limit to what the size advantages of a dune buggy can deliver when it comes to where you can drive. They require open areas or roads that already exist. ATVs can be used to cross large areas filled with trees, bush, or anything in between, this is thanks to their relatively small size. However, because ATVs are usually not fitted with lights, number plates, or need to be fully registered, they are limited in other ways.

Road legal

ATVs are usually not road legal; this means that you cannot take them out on public roads. This is why you see ATVs being driven on the side of roads or being hauled somewhere, even when they can drive long distances. In most countries and states, it is not possible to make an ATV road legal. This is because of their inherent danger when used on tarred roads.

One of the dangers comes from the tire types used on ATVs. These tires are perfect for driving on sand, mud, rocks, grass, and anything you may think of, but when used on tarred roads, these tires are incredibly grippy, creating the danger of being thrown off the ATV when making a turn. This is not the only reason; ATVs also offer little to no protection when in an accident, and unlike bikes, they are less likely to keep up with traffic.

Dune buggies are much simpler when it comes to making them road legal, owing to the VW beetles already being road legal. These are simply registered as modified vehicles, allowing you and your friends to easily drive to whichever location you have set out to go and play.

Some of the more performance-based dune buggies may not be street legal as the modifications made to them can cause them to travel at dangerous speeds for a vehicle with no roof or airbags.


Build quality of ATVs and dune buggies are entirely reliant on where you have purchased the vehicles and how much you are willing to spend on them. However, there are clear differences between the two that should be considered.

Because you can buy ATVs brand new from their manufacturers, you can easily choose high build quality vehicles that have extra parts and warranties with them. Coupled with the engine strength of the ATV that you are looking for, you can find ATVs that have build qualities that rival that of luxury cars.

However, you can find ATVs that easily fall into disrepair, that have parts that are hard to find and have engine failures long before the first year with them has ended.

This is the opposite of what happens when you have a dune buggy because they are all custom-built machines, and you need to choose who builds your dune buggy carefully. Getting a builder that you trust and know is the best way to do this, letting you follow along with the process means that you are aware of anything that may be wrong with the finished product.

However, these are custom-built machines and rarely have full warranties, which means that when something breaks, it is up to you or a mechanic you trust to fix it. However, the availability of VW beetle parts means that you can always get spare parts to fix your dune buggy, and the parts are usually relatively cheap.

For more on building a dune bugging and a complete guide of what you need to get started, check out my article on “How To Build A Dune Buggy: Everything You Will Need“.

Performance enhancements

Starting with ATVs, you can always add turbos, better exhaust systems, and stronger gearboxes to your ATV. However, this is rarely recommended as these can void warranties and make it harder to find the problem with your vehicle when it breaks in the middle of nowhere. ATVs are some of the vehicles that are delivered close to their best performance for their tasks straight from the manufacturer.

This means you can easily get an ATV and use it without having to increase the performance, which is actually one of the most fun things you can do to your dune buggy. It is believed that after one full year of ownership, no dune buggy is like any other out there.

Owners of dune buggies will always add new parts, increase the performance of the engine, or sometimes even put in entirely different engines. This is why these vehicles are so loved by people that like to work on their cars.

The performance enhancements for dune buggies with stock engines can be anything from adding turbos, changing the drivetrains, machining off parts of the engine to make it more powerful, or just using a fuel additive that makes it perform better.

For both vehicles, performance enhancements are things to consider before you buy them. For dune buggies, it is almost a requirement that you add some while ATVs are perfectly fine to have no changes made to them whatsoever.


ATVs are relatively cheap when you look at the market. You can get a secondhand ATV for a fraction of the cost of a new one. This means that you will only have to spend a small amount to fix anything that may be wrong, and then you’d have a perfectly working ATV. However, sometimes it might just be better to get a brand new one.

For more on buying a used ATV, check out my comprehensive guide on “How to Buy a Good Used ATV – 14 Things to Look Out For“.

New ATVs can be expensive, depending on the type that you are getting. Utility ATVs are bound to be slightly more costly as their engines and gearboxes are aimed towards one specific function. Racing ATVs are bound to be just as expensive, having larger engines and more performance parts that will be more expensive to fix.

This may make the option of dune buggies more pleasing. However, the prices are more fixed and over a long period can be much more than an ATV. Owing to the amount of initial work that is required, dune buggies have a large number of initial costs that need to go into them. These can range from finding the right VW beetle to buying a new engine, paying someone to make the modifications, and purchasing the new bodywork.

Once the initial costs of a dune buggy have been paid there can be costs that come in over a longer time. While spare parts can be easy to find they can be in a state of disrepair or overly expensive thanks to the market for them always being there. This makes dune buggies and option to choose only if you have a steady income that you can spend on the vehicle.

Because dune buggies can only ever use older parts, it may be a better option to get an ATV. Even if you are getting something that has been preowned but still relatively new means that you can contact the manufacturer to get new parts, giving you the chance to fix it at a reasonable price.

The true cost of either vehicle can only be determined if you’ve had it for a while, and you can see how much you have paid to keep it working.


With all of these factors, the conclusion is that you need to know what you want to do with your new vehicle before choosing either a dune buggy or an ATV. One is much more practical than the other, but both can be used for off-roading fun. Getting the right vehicle is up to you, having as much fun in either one is entirely within your hands.

Whether you’re going dune bashing or exploring a forest, just remember to be safe, have fun, and happy off-roading!

Louis Pretorius

As an amateur off-road enthusiast, I have always been drawn to outdoor adventure. I have decided to share all of my learning experiences with you as I dig a little deeper into my new-found passion and wonderful world of off-roading. My mission is to create the Ultimate Off-roading space on the internet in the process. Stay safe and happy Off-Roading!

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