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Kicking Up Sand

Side-by-side, UTV, MUV . . . whatever the name, they're fun.


CORRY WELLER is idling at the base of Oldsmobile Hill. The 36-year-old Arizonan and her white-and-red four-wheeler are getting ready to floor it over the washboard of whoops that mark the start of the most popular dune in Glamis.

She straps on her helmet, snaps her goggles into place and presses pedal to metal, adding the snort of her modified 720 cc engine to the motoring mayhem. To her right are the rocket-like sand rails, popping wheelies as they tackle the steepest section of the hill. Next are the quads, buzzing up a slightly less graded section.

Then there's Weller, moving toward the crest at 30 mph on what looks like a tricked-out golf cart. Sounds thrilling, right? But don't be fooled. Weller's vehicle -- a side-by-side, a.k.a. Utility Terrain Vehicle (UTV), a.k.a. Multi-Use Vehicle (MUV) -- is the hot new trend consuming the off-road recreational market.

Deception is part of the side-by-side package: While it shares the same styling cues as an on-the-green putt putt, these babies are a lot more exciting to ride. Without modifications, a 700 cc side-by-side is capable of about 40 mph, which might not sound very fast -- unless you're wheeling over lumpy, bumpy terrain, in which case you're having one hell of a good time. Add a jacked-up suspension, some fat paddle tires and a learning curve that's practically flat, and you've got those aforementioned thrills.

But here's the biggest draw: The side-by-side, as you might have guessed, seats the rider and passenger next to each other, which makes it perfect for couples, friends and families. It has four wheels and operates similarly to a car, with a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals. The big difference is this vehicle can wheel through sand, rocks and mud, over steep hills, dunes and brush, and can catch a few feet of air while it's doing it -- all without busting the suspension or breaking a sweat.

Side-by-sides were developed for farmers so they could haul hay bales and horse feed. The year was 1987, and John Deere was the manufacturer. But over time, more companies came out with variations, and their use expanded -- to hunters, the military and, over the last few years, duners.

Now you can't visit any of California's off-road recreational areas on a weekend and not see a side-by-side with a pirate flag flying. Most are Yamaha Rhinos, a sporty model that has become the iPod of the recreational side-by-side set. Few are unmodified from the showroom floor: flaming paint jobs, glaring light assemblies, blaring stereos and cooler racks are among the many mods riders make to their wheels.

Joel Terriquez dropped a couple grand to pinstripe his 2006 Yamaha Rhino and add custom seats so he and his wife, Annette, could cart around their 2- 1/2 -year-old daughter, who's "always yelling 'faster, faster, faster,' " says Terriquez, 32. "It's something we can all do together." He and his family travel to the dunes from their Corona home at least once a month.

Manufacturers weren't prepared for the scope of its appeal. "We originally targeted the Rhino toward utility and hunting," says Travis Hollins, product planning manager for Yamaha. "We didn't expect it to be as big on the West Coast. But a lot of customers were going toward a more social thing."

Another big draw, says Mike Lasher, managing editor of "Side x Side Action" magazine, is "Fun per dollar. You come out here [to Glamis] and it's relatively inexpensive [$11,000 is the cost of a Rhino] to put two people in the dunes. Plus, you can ride them anywhere. They've got decent horsepower, and the hills are especially fun. Everybody's laughing and giggling even when they're upside down."

Upside down isn't the goal, of course, and while they aren't immune to accidents, side-by-sides, with their seat belts and roll bars, are generally perceived as less dangerous than ATVs, or quads, which often make headlines for accidents involving children. "It's safer," says Stephan Morgan, the 16-year-old driver of an Polaris Ranger. "I broke my neck on the quad."

Just two weeks earlier, the Phoenix teen was in a neck brace, recovering from a 35-foot jump that resulted in his helmet hitting terra firma and his quad cracking its A arm. His quad was in the shop, but even if he'd brought it to Glamis, Morgan says he'd stick with the side-by-side because "it's just fun."

In response to the phenomenon, Yamaha recently held its first Rhino Rally in mid-December -- a group ride, barbecue and custom contest, during which proud Rhino owners could show off their gleaming paint, custom metal grills and other aftermarket upgrades. And since, unlike a dirt bike or ATV, the side-by-side comes with a flatbed in back, there's room to stow firewood, a cooler, whatever. In other words, a movable party: Drive to the middle of nowhere, cook out -- and perhaps unwisely -- toss a few back with friends, which is exactly what Randy Kirkpatrick and his buddies are doing this evening.

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