Not a Bad Sled in the Bunch
There are no bad sleds, just ones we prefer over others.
The first time I attended a snowmobile ‘test’ session, there was actual testing done. We mounted sleds on a table to measure ‘tilt angles’—the degree at which a sled might actually tip-over. We ran the sleds through a 100-yard acceleration run. We did panic braking stops from 30 miles per hour. And we recorded sound levels with a decibel meter.
Our staff gave subjective ratings to each sled in five categories: throttle response, straight-line stability, ease of handling, comfort and ride, and overall styling.
That was in the spring of 1973 and we evaluated sleds from as many as 27 snowmobile manufacturers. At that time, we tested and rode sleds from Arctic Cat (Panther, Cheetah, El Tigre), Polaris (Colt, Custom, Electra), Ski-Doo (Elan, Olympique, T’NT, Nordic), and Yamaha (SM 292F, TL 433, GP). Of course, that doesn’t count sleds with names like Alouette, ARGO (which still makes a multi-wheeled all-terrain vehicle), Columbia (yes, the bicycle people of the time), John Deere, Evinrude, Harley-Davidson, Mercury, Rupp, Scorpion, Sno-Jet and Suzuki.
This spring of 2007, we photographed and rode nearly 100 sleds from just five different manufacturers—Arctic Cat, Boivin, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha. There were no tests of acceleration, sound or horsepower. In the 34 years since my first sled evaluation in Houghton-Hancock, Mich. to the most recent in Grand Lake, Colo., sleds have improved, but media ‘testing’ hasn’t. With the snowmobile manufacturers in control of the evaluations, radar guns, decibel meters and scales are outlawed. The reasoning is that sled makers do not want to read about their sleds being slower, heavier and noisier than the competition. The sled makers claim that, since the majority of ‘test’ models are prototypes or pre-production versions of what the consumer will get in the autumn, it would be unfair to actually test them at this point.
Well, yes. But in 1973, Alouette allowed a prototype of its Super Brute to be tested. It was a sled with essentially an engine, track and throttle. The brake was for show—not slow—purposes. The taillight was a block of wood painted red and pasted to the rear of the sled for photo purposes. Now that was a prototype! We didn’t see any such rough versions of the sleds from Arctic, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha.
In fact, Yamaha might well have benefited from some actual radar gunning and scale tipping as its new Nytro had undergone some marvelous transitions from its preview to Colorado’s on-snow evaluations. Ski-Doo’s incredible weight reductions might have benefited from being showcased via third party endorsements.
But, that was not the case. Snowmobile buyers have to take the word of the journalists and the word of the sled makers that what you can buy in 2008 is better, faster, lighter and quieter than ever before. In the ‘old’ days, publications didn’t ask you to take their word for things, they could back up their claims with facts. Cold, hard, incontrovertible facts. Facts that could sway your purchasing decision. And that is exactly why today’s snowmobile evaluations are totally seat of the pants subjective evaluations and not objective acquired data evaluations.
Still, let’s provide you with a maker-by-maker evaluation of the most significant sleds for 2008. Take my word for it. I have no hard data on which to base my observations, but three decades of riding the newest of the new must be worth a little something. Trust me!
The French-Canadians offer the most impressive new line of snowmobiles in many, many years. Ski-Doo was faced with an ‘Indy’ problem: how to follow up on the success of a sled model that made you number one in the marketplace and still stay number one with subsequent new models. Ski-Doo’s solution? Make the REV better. Make the REV lighter. Make the REV more exciting. Simply reinvent the REV. Easier said than done. But for 2008, Ski-Doo certainly appears to have reinvented the number one seller with a sled that could actually outsell the original.
The XP is a better REV in all ways. Because it retains the best engines—Rotax 600 SDI and 800 PowerTek—and drops significant weight, the all-new Ski-Doo automatically gains better all-around performance merely on the power-to-weight basis.
What the new lighter Ski-Doo models also gain is an adrenaline rush of on-trail handling and a major boost on the fun-o-meter.
In our view, the best new Ski-Doo is the XP with a 600 SDI twin. The most intriguing is the all-new T’NT version that is powered by the base 600cc twin sans RAVE and direct injection. It will be the price leader and a tempting choice for budget-conscious riders. If the US$7,500 price tag is your limit, we feel that the T’NT is the best value in that price range. Plenty of motor—probably 100 horses or so—and not much weight (Ski-Doo is expected to claim just less than 400 pounds!). If your budget can be stretched upwards a bit, we’d opt for the 600 SDI version because you get much better overall engine drive-ability from the semi-direct injection system and because the shock package is far superior to the base model.
For you trail cruisers, the GSX Limited on the new platform is a very solid consideration. It will be a smoother, less aggressive ride with better wind protection and more overall bells and whistles. The 600 SDI version is again our choice.
We were really impressed with what Ski-Doo has done for 2008. The new ‘look’ is hip and happening. The fact that Ski-Doo recognized what it did well and kept those features (can we say great Rotax engines?) and improved on the strengths of the REV (can we say rider position, handling, style?) leads us to believe that Ski-Doo knows how to lead via technology and insights into what is truly important to snowmobilers.
Like Ski-Doo, Yamaha dropped weight faster than a bulimic on the South Beach Diet. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Yamaha’s planners what Ski-Doo was up to.
The all-new Nytro is significantly lighter than any rough trail, 4stroke Yamaha has created to date. Even with the advantage of its 1050cc, 130-hp powerplant, the Nytro will not have the best power-to-weight ratio in the 120 class for 2008. But it does get a major overhaul in the ride and handling department since the versions we test rode at Yamaha’s sneak peek for the various magazines.
After our first outing on the sled, we were disappointed. The power delivery was wonderful, but it overpowered the Nytro’s suspension setups. The rear suspension rocked back under torque and lifted the skis at just the most inopportune times—like coming off an apex as you were trying to stay out of the trees off the turn! While this was great for straight-line shots, it was unnerving for switchbacks and twisties.
At Grand Lake, the Nytro was a totally different machine in the ride and handling departments. We were told that the Nytro suspension packages were only about 30% completed during the sneak peek introductions.
Part of the major upgrade came in the form of a totally new and repositioned coupling block that united the rear suspension’s front action with the rear action. From skis in the air to skis on the ground. Amen! Yamaha suspension gurus also got much closer to the final shock and spring calibrations by the Colorado evaluations. What Yamaha likes to do is to establish the suspension’s attack angle to the snow, locate the limiter strap position and work the front and rear shock and spring action to fine-tune the unit. The coupling block plays a major role in this action and you could definitely tell that Yamaha engineering made a gigantic stride forward in establishing a very rider-friendly setup.
The Nytro has power and very good performance-oriented ergonomics. Now it has the ride and handling to match. We can recommend the Nytro as a top choice—the top choice for performance riders wanting a 4stroke.
Now let’s get back to the Phazer. We test rode the latest spec RTX in Colorado and were content with it. There is a definite upgrade from Year One to now.
After our ride on the RTX, we immediately switched to the Phazer GT, which uses clicker shocks and is intended for sporty groomed trail riding. We pushed into a few corners after we switched from RTX to GT and were not happy. The rider I had been attacking while on the RTX was readily able to get away from me. Because the Phazer is limited to 80 horsepower, you need to hold the throttle on and dance around the turns, slide slipping the chassis to scrub off speed instead of hitting the brakes. Well, let’s just say this wasn’t going well at all. If I had Herculean strength, I would have stopped the GT, lifted it off the trail and hurled it off the mountain! We were not in our happy place.
Every time we closed on the sled ahead and came up on a turn, the GT pushed and popped, pushed and popped, leaving me cussing under my helmet. This hadn’t been the case with the RTX and its air shocks. It would push a bit, but then grab and hold. After a few corners, I pulled off the trail and summoned the Yamaha technician who was riding with us. We chatted a bit and agreed to go all the way stiff on the compression setting.
Another mile or so and we made another change. I was really ticked off now. We chatted again. The GT was like a pogo stick under the stiff compression setting. We backed off the compression and this time softened the rebound to slow the action a bit to see if that could mitigate the sled’s tendency to ‘pogo.’ Voila! Rebound was the key. The front end was significantly better and would prove even better a day later as Yamaha’s tech fiddled with the setting again and let me try it. It was the best setup of any Phazer I had ridden to date.
My point is simple. Read the setup manual. Make adjustments. Note your adjustment. Fine-tune your adjustments until you are totally satisfied. Make notes. You may find that the key to cornering is going to be in the rebound setting, but you will need to play with the compression stroke as well.
Now, we know that the Phazer GT can be made to be acceptable and great fun on the tight trails, but we are still convinced that Yamaha needs to do more. Perhaps a new ski design with either dual runners to get good grip or more of a rocker keel will prove to be the answer. Of course, at an entry-level price, we can’t expect Nytro features can we?
Our other fave in the Yamaha line is the new Vector series—the best 4stroke drive train in Yamaha’s most rideable chassis setup derived from the Apex line.
Polaris answers the Phazer question of what can you get for US$7500 or so with its loss-leader Shift, which should come in under seven grand and should be a really good buy.
Looks like Polaris is getting back to its basics of offering good quality sleds at the lowest prices per category. It—and the Indy—was what made Polaris number one in the market for a dozen seasons. To get consumers’ interest, Polaris marketers are attacking the value market with a 600cc-powered sled in the popular IQ chassis. Called the Shift, the down-and-dirty sled comes without makeup and a base handlebar setup. So, right away, Polaris figures that the Shift buyer will want to upgrade the plain black hood with a dealer-available and optional graphics package and maybe even a riser bar to get the handlebars up where they can be comfortable. This so-called ‘stripper’ sled is intended for cost-conscious buyers who might want to personalize their ride.
We get the concept. At less than US$7,000, the base sled is actually a pretty good buy. But what you really want is the Dragon 600. It and the all-new Ski-Doo MXZ are the two best rides on the market and worth the price of admission.
The Cleanfire 600 is the equal of the Rotax 600 SDI. The Polaris IQ and the REV XP are not apples and apples. In fact we came away confused as to which of the sleds we liked better. We liked the traditional power sled feel of the Dragon, which reminded us of the best traits of the older Indy in that it seemed no matter what stupid thing you might do the sled covered for you. The Ski-Doo is noticeably lighter and you can readily toss it around and have great fun with it. The heavier feeling Dragon goes where you point it, but doesn’t like to redirect itself if you change a line. It feels a bit sluggish in cornering, but that is most likely a result of the Ski-Doo being so light and giving such a feeling of lightning quick response, especially when cornering.
The Dragon is an exceptionally good sled with very nice quality in its build, respectful of the rider, consistent in power, able to ride out rough trails with ease, and a very strong 600cc driveline. Firecat riders disappointed with the new more luxurious Cats may be quite content to change over to the Roseau fleet of sports sleds. The Dragon has very good ergonomics and a large dealer network to support it.
Another model we have to mention is the limited build RR (race replica). This sled will sell for a premium, so don’t be surprised. Based on the snocross-winning racer, the RR is a 600cc version that has been calibrated for exciting ditch line running. We were impressed. Expecting a rock-hard ride with race-like handling, we found the RR to our liking. It is more trail-calibrated than racer. Its standup ride position works great on mogulled trails and its pinpoint steering is superb. Like the lightweight Ski-Doo Xps, the RR is designed to be tossed around and ridden as hard as you can. If you like it rough, the RR is perfect. Polaris engineers did an outstanding job on this specialty model. There won’t be many around and they will be pricey, but the RR is a keeper!
The new Cat lineup for 2008 is an expansion of what you saw last year. More base model engines have been moved to the new chassis giving you such flavors as the 570 fan-cooled twin in the one-chassis-fits-all mode.
Let me preface what I am about to say with this: the new Cats are very nice snowmobiles. The new chassis and rider ergonomics are first rate. But, it isn’t enough for true Cat fanatics who loved their Firecats. The new sleds are not the old Firecat. By and large the new sleds are heavier and slower than the models they replaced—especially the ones that replaced the Firecats. Those riders demanded speed, handling and lightness on the trail. The new versions supply little of that.
Overall the new breed of Cat is actually among our favorites as everyday rides. The steering is smooth. The adjustability is incredible as you can fit virtually anyone to these Cats. We like the styling, though not all do. The fit and finish is very good and the overall ergonomics are pleasing.
Oh, my… I just described a Buick!
And, that may be the problem. Cat owners forgave Arctic Cat for the teething problems of the first Firecats because they knew that those sleds were fast and furious rides on the trails. The Firecat 700 earned a performance reputation against competitors with more horsepower and greater displacement. That’s not the case with the new breed of performance Cats. But they are nice. They ride nice. They look nice. But they tend to purr instead of growl and scratch!
And that’s a problem. Cat owners have attitude! The new Cats are nice. Cat owners don’t want nice, they want scratch and claw attitude.
One of the nicest Cats is the new touring version, the TZ1, which combines the best of the Z1 four-stroke with the Cat penchant for Catillac luxury. Smooth, nicely appointed and incredibly cush for a snow car, this top line Cat is at the top for best in show of luxury-oriented trail cruisers.
Fun to ride Cats include the new 570 fan-cooled sports versions and the various SnoPro performance rides. Nice but little growl compared to the fire breathers in the Dragon line and the lightweight Ski-Doo models.
So, if you are looking to Cat, think less Firecat and more Buick. Less growl, more purr.