Whether your all-terrain vehicle (ATV) is a tool or a toy, it's frustrating when you're ready to go and it isn't. It's a frustration that Tom McGraw can't afford.

As a crop consultant, he and his crew have a narrow window of time to get their work done. "We use our ATVs hard from sunrise to sundown," he says.

"I have the newest, biggest ATVs in my fleet. We've run Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Polaris and Arctic Cat. And, we run them hard."

While he hasn't found the perfect machine, McGraw has developed a list of features that he believes should have high priority when you buy a new ATV.

Your most important decision may be the dealer you buy your unit from. "Downtime kills you. Repair costs aren't as important as how long it takes to get the repairs done," he says."You need a dealer who will work with you and fix your machine quickly. One company told us if we'd drive our machine differently, we wouldn't have the problems. Even with a good dealer, you really hope you won't need to see him at all."

Simple features add a lot of efficiency to a machine, according to McGraw. Start with tires. "The front and back tires need to be the same size so you can interchange them. Otherwise you need to carry two spares with you when you're going to be away from your farm. Also, get heavy-duty tires. They last a lot longer when you're working in crop residue."

Mud flaps should be standard equipment on ATVs, says McGraw. But only one company offered them when he bought his units in 1998 and 1999. On the others he added his own.

Does your new ATV require special oil? That's an extra item you need to keep with you, points out McGraw. And the need for it can be an aggravation when your acres are spread out.

Daily maintenance, or its absence, can create a love-hate relationship with your machine as well, according to McGraw. "Some machines only need the air cleaner serviced once a season. Others need it once or twice a day. Some air cleaners are easy to service; it takes just a matter of seconds to get to them. On others it takes a long time just to pull the filter." ATVs equipped with sealed bearings reduce maintenance time as well, points out McGraw.

Bigger engines with more horsepower make cooling fan and engine shrouding a priority, says McGraw.

"More horsepower means more heat. We only had a problem with one machine. But it got so hot you couldn't wear shorts during the summer. We actually worried about setting a field on fire."

Automatic shifting is a no-brainer for McGraw. It just makes a day's work on an ATV more enjoyable. Take a hard look at the action it takes to run through the gears, however, he warns.

"Some machines require some real contortions to shift from forward to reverse," he says. "It can get frustrating by the end of the day."