Signs of the Times
Will current fuel concerns lead to changes in habits and future models?
Story by Jerry Bassett, Created Aug 07, 2008
It’s full on into summer as I write this. After a chilly and wet springtime, the pontoon sits in the bay. Fly tackle is askew. Nary a nibble. Nary a concern. Soaking up sun — and thinking about snowmobiling. Reflecting, actually. Wondering what affect the current economic outlook will have on our sport.
Our sport has always been a release from reality, at least for me. As a little kid playing in the snow, I always wanted an easier way to get my double runner back up the hill. Why couldn’t there be a rope tow for us sledders? Why couldn’t someone invent a way to ride through the snow that didn’t involve slogging uphill in those ungainly winter parkas and mukluks we had to wear?
Finally, when I was a teenager, some one did invent a way to ride over and through the snow. And I’ve never looked back. It was my freedom machine. It took me to places around home that I’d never seen before. Years later, that sled concept would take me to places like Rovaniemi in Finland, White Horse in the Yukon, Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, Point Barrow in Alaska, and historic places like the hometowns of Polaris (Roseau, Minn.), Arctic Cat (Thief River Falls, Minn.) and Ski-Doo (Valcourt, Que.). Snowmobiles have served as freedom machines for many of us smitten by this winter passion.
Now, as I soak up sun and reflect like the lakeside trees on the still water, what happens ahead? With companies like General Motors looking to survive by creating the next great personal vehicle, what will snowmobile companies do?
Unlike that period of gasoline deprivation back in the 1970s, we can get gas. It may cost many dollars per gallon, but we can get it. Does that mean we’ll be giving up our snowmobiles? Hah! Not very likely. We may cut back on a trip or two, but you’ll have to pry my frozen fingers off the throttle before I give up my freedom machine. In fact, I might just ride more. I won’t trailer as far to ride, perhaps, but I’ll use my sled more. It doesn’t hurt so much to fill up a 10-gallon snowmobile fuel tank as it does to reload my truck with 30-gallons of gas. Ouch!
As the ‘toon floats along with the wind, it strikes me that many of us snowmobilers may ride closer to home this season. Maybe we’ll take one big trip instead of a few. But we’ll ride nearer home. That may be good. It may make us appreciate what we have close by all the more.
We’ll have to wait to see what impact this economy has on the sport. But pulling out the crystal ball suggests that we may see some changes ahead for the machines that give us our freedom.
What will Arctic Cat do? Here’s a company that has been semi- excoriated for creating a very nice line of sleds. The F-series with its ride-forward ergonomics is not the Firecat. It wasn’t intended as such. Heading into 2009 Arctic Cat engineering had heard enough about how the Firecat was so great and how well it handled and how quick it had been.
The engineers screamed, “Enough!” To get some old Firecat fans off their backs, the engineers created an ‘R’ version of the Crossfire, which ironically was an evolution of the Firecat. Having had the opportunity to ride both the latest F-series and the R-series, we favor the F-series. No comparison. The ‘R’ is fine, but Arctic Cat engineering really managed to give the ‘F’ line some serious claws. They grip corners tighter than a scared kitty on a ball of wool yarn. They might not be as fast as an ‘R’, but at the end of the day and 100 miles, we’ll take the ‘F.’
What will Arctic Cat engineering have for 2010 and beyond? Knowing the head engineer and development people, we expect to see some advancement in suspension performance. Remember, this is the company that gave the sport sleds with the first mass production slide rail suspension; lightweight aluminum chassis with rivet construction; and forward-mount engines. Some of those same people still punch timecards in Thief River Falls.
A number of years ago we heard a rumor that Yamaha was at work on new suspensions. They were said to be very long travel and unlike anything we’d seen to date. It was stated that a new kind of slide rail with minimal hyfax was being looked at. To date we’ve seen little that even hints of unorthodox from those guys.
In fact, when you want to look for what might be all new, you really have to search out the niches of the snowmobile aftermarket. AD Boivin messes around with some low volume suspension ideas that center around lightweight non-metal components.
The snowmobile aftermarket set the stage for turbo-enhanced engines. Now Polaris has a 4-stroke blowing out 140-hp from a 750cc industrial-oriented twin. Arctic Cat rushes enough air and gas through its Suzuki-built engine to make almost obscene power. But it’s all manageable and both manufacturers’ turbo sleds are extremely trail ride-able.
Yamaha doesn’t have a turbo in production, but we aren’t sure we’ll see one from them. It would only make its 4-stroke models heavier and that’s not a direction they’ve been going. With the only all 4-stroke model line up and a wide selection of 4-stroke power levels from which to choose, why go with a blower? Maybe for the mountain guys looking for a big boost?
Ski-Doo doesn’t have a turbo either, but we could see one bolted to that new 4-stroke of theirs. Check out the innards on the Rotax 4-stroker. They’re substantial. Could they take a boost? That might be an actual option. Ski-Doo is savvy enough to pull it off as the company might build a pilot group to see what demand there might be. We’d expect a power boost would sell and then they might be able to market the benefits of 4-stroke economy as well. Checked out the engines in some current four-cylinder econo-cars lately? A few have turbos for that freeway entry ramp boost.
Overall, as we relax in the sun, we figure the main changes heading our way will revolve around sleds that are more efficient due to continued weight reduction and maybe the appearance of more 4-stroke models sold around the idea of being more gentle with a gallon of gasoline. We expect to see some attention paid to more efficient and improved overall ride quality. And for us freedom riders, we expect that we’ll be riding those more efficient sleds a lot closer to home, choosing to refuel our freedom machines ahead of our trucks and SUVs. Time will tell… Hey, I think I had a bite!
Future choices for powersports drive systems