The 900 segment is a tough one. Arctic Cat re-invented the class in 2003 and held a monopoly on it for two years. Cat's fiercest rival, and closest neighbor, Polaris, is the only manufacturer to try to break into the segment. For 2005, Polaris dumped $33 million into developing the new IQ chassis, which became the foundation for the company's only two new models this year-the Fusion and 900 RMK.
Though it will likely become the base chassis for the entire Polaris line over the next few years, the IQ has a lot at stake going into this season. It never made it to the race track, where factories generally test new things like this before releasing them to the public.
Besides that, it's going head-to-head with a solid chassis and a proven engine package from Arctic Cat. Are the RMK's new tricks enough to sway 900 buyers to the other side of the fence?
King of the Jungle
About the most obvious thing in snowmobiling right now is that the biggest business in Thief River Falls, MN, spent most of the previous planning season working on the M-series mountain sleds. Everything else in its lineup remained mostly unchanged. And that includes the King Cat.
But Arctic Cat owned the 900 class last year. The King Cat was arguably the dominant western sled of 2004. It and the 1M 900 (discontinued from Arctic Cat's 2005 line) nearly cleaned up at the SnoWest Deep Powder Challenge. The King's awesome torque and ripping powerband made it a rocket straight out of the crate.
And the elements that usually stop stock sleds from getting any higher were exactly what the King Cat was designed to conquer. Its unprecedented long track, tall, canted lugs and light, open rear suspension pawed up on top of bottomless powder. That track laid claim to the largest footprint of 2004, with over 1,000 square inches touching the snow at all times.
The King Cat is also the first production sled to roll onto showrooms with titanium springs in both clutches and shocks.
Rocky Mountain King-Part II
Polaris spent the majority of its time, efforts and budget on developing an all-new chassis and an all-new engine (they've been busy). The new chassis and engine come in only two flavors-large and long.
The new engine just happens to be a 900. The two models Polaris introduced are a Fusion 900 trail sled and the new 900 RMK.
The new RMK shares only a handful of parts from the Edge-style RMKs of last year. And those parts are pretty much limited to the tracks, rear suspension and skis.
Speaking of tracks, Polaris pulled no punches in its anniversary year, releasing the longest track to date, not to mention the deepest lug, too.
The new engine is a big departure from the Liberty twins we're used to. The chassis is designed for more aggressive mountain riding, although a unique adjustable handlebar system allows ergonomical riding while sitting and standing.
For 2005, the King Cat received a few key improvements, although the sled is pretty much the same as the `04 model.
Topping the list of new features is the availability of Arctic Cat's batteryless EFI. The system ensures that the King will fire up easily (usually on the second pull). EFI systems virtually eliminate the tuning adjustments necessary when altitude or temperature changes. This new EFI King Cat can be ridden anywhere you want without having to worry about getting the optimum performance. If you're into pulling a rope and riding until the tank's empty, this is your version.
Cat still offers the twin TM40mm carbureted King Cat, so if the 150 hp this sled's motor churns out isn't enough, you can modify it to your liking.
King vs. King
The real test of a 900 mountain sled's strength is on the snow. And in our evaluations in McCall, ID, we had plenty of it. When we arrived in McCall, there were several feet of snow in the mountains. It snowed for the next four days straight, with the exception of half a day of sunshine in the middle. We had so much snow on one day of our testing that we were limited to the lower elevations-and we were on the big stuff. We were in the deepest snow of the season on a fleet of new 2005 sleds. It was the perfect place to ride the 2005 King Cat and 2005 900 RMK.
Both of these sleds target deep snow mobility. Polaris boasts about the IQ chassis' wide, flat nose pan approach, low track angle, narrow tunnel and smooth power delivery as key characteristics of a true powder hound.
Arctic Cat relies heavily on the proven performance of its Attack 20 track and smooth clutching to back its rep as an incredible powder machine. The Attack 20 features 2.25-inch lugs that are angled back 20 degrees. The tip of the lug lays onto the snow, packing it beneath the track rather than clawing and throwing it out. The fact that it's a 162-inch track doesn't hurt its snow-mobility, either.
But, like we said earlier, Polaris is throwing a lot of rubber at the snow this year, too. One hundred and sixty-six inches of it. Polaris has always been a challenger in the track length race, one-upping the rest of the industry three times now since 2000. (Ski-Doo's 151 shocker in 2000 was followed by a Polaris 156 in 2002, then upped to 159 in '03. Cat pushed it to 162 in '04, and now in 2005 Polaris has the record by four inches.)
The 166-by-2.4-inch track is primarily part of Polaris' 50th Anniversary RMK edition, but will be available off the showroom this fall and out of the Polaris parts department.
The new RMK's skis are one of the few carry-over parts from the previous RMK. The Sidehiller 2 skis feature double runners that run down the center keel. The ski's offset design puts the spindle on the outer edge of the ski, making sidehilling easier.
The King Cat still runs the debatable "parabolic" ski, which floats decent, but doesn't turn all that well.
Arctic Cat is still holding fast with its wide running boards. The firm, stable platforms make for confident places to put your feet. But some may argue (Polaris engineers) that wider running boards increase drag and resistance and prevent the track from digging deeper into the snow. The RMK 900's running boards are relatively narrow and taper sharply back. The benefits of the two different styles make for interesting shop talk among backyard engineers, but we've never heard someone watching a King Cat annihilate a powder-filled chute say "look at how those running boards are holding it back."
Straight Up Climbing
When it comes to highmarking, horsepower is the only king that matters. The King Cat has 150-153 hp, depending on which day of the week it went on the dyno. The Suzuki-made twin is a durable, powerful engine with a power band perfectly mated to steep western mountains. It has gobs of low-end torque, and peak horsepower that holds steady for long hauls. As one SnoWest tester put it, the King Cat EFI has the "best power and response in class."
The Liberty 900 seemed to pull hard on the top end, but lacked the brute low-end grunt of the Suzuki. However, it should be noted that the 900 RMKs we rode in McCall back in early March were about three months behind the finalized factory specs. Polaris engineers tested the sleds well into the early summer months, riding in Cooke City, MT, until the last patch of snow was gone. And, while the final horsepower numbers released from Polaris weren't any different from the initial numbers in McCall (150-153 peak hp), we were told they did come away with a consistent power delivery that likely improved low-end response.
While one test rider noted that the RMK had "darn good power and throttle response," another pointed out that the new Liberty 900/RMK package "doesn't feel as strong as the King Cat."
When we hit the trees, the only thing that mattered in the conditions we were in was flotation. Not wide-open, planed-out floatation you feel in open meadows. We needed the ability to creep slowly through the trees, picking lines as we went, being able to shoot up a steep knob or squirt though a tight spot without trenching down and getting buried between a rock and a hard spot-or a tree.
Both sleds had adequate (understatement of the month) track surface area on the snow, and the deep lugs and lug patterns on both sleds held the rear end up and prevented any trouble.
How much weight the track is supporting is a factor. The King Cat, with 162-inch track and Fox Float shocks, weighs 500 lbs. The RMK 900, with 166-inch track, weighs 516 lbs.
Turning through tight lines in the trees can be a burden if the sled has a mind of its own. We found that with the Rider Select system and the Sidehiller 2 skis, the RMK was the more nimble of the two through the trees. The King Cat has a large turning radius and somewhat poor skis for tree riding. Couple that with the fact that it's a lot harder for the rider to get his weight forward to make the front end bite because of the steering post position. The rider is limited to riding the center of the sled, where the RMK allows the rider to get more weight over the spindles when needed.
Getting from the truck to the mountain always means one thing: you will inevitably ride some rough terrain. It doesn't matter if you're a powder purist or a highmarker; if you ride mountain sleds, you ride bumps.
For the last few years, the King Cat's AWS-V A-arm setup was tough to beat. It stays relatively flat through uneven rhythm sections and soaks up large holes. Add to that the new Fox Float shocks, which use a chamber of compressed air to dampen the shock rather than a steel or titanium coil spring, and the front suspension can take almost anything. It was the best control-arm type mountain sled suspension we had ridden . until the IQ-based RMK came around. From our rough-trail experience in McCall-and believe us, Jack Struthers made sure we hit them all-nothing stayed as flat, nothing stayed as straight, nothing stayed as even as the IQ RMK did through the deep holes.
Tester comments included "the best in the big bumps," "defiantly eats up the big moguls better than anything else" and "even better than the '03 Escape" to describe the new Polaris suspension. It's that good.
In fact, the 900 class is that good. If you want to unload a stock sled and make a mark on the mountain that many mod sleds have a hard time touching, then throw a leg over one of these 900s.