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Taming trails, testing hills . on one sled

STEVE?JANES

Published online: Oct 06, 2004 Feature

Today's world is very specialized. In business, to be competitive you have to be specialized. People don't want to take their allergies, intestinal problems or migraine headaches to a general practitioner. If they need their chest cracked open, you can bet it's not going to be from some family doctor.
In all walks of society, we look for experts or specialized products. We have dress socks, gym socks, hiking socks, insulated socks, anklets, knee socks and inner socks. So it was only natural to have an evolution of snowmobiles to specialty sleds.
But unlike socks, where you can afford to have a variety of styles, the price of a new snowmobile forces most of us to declare where our special interests lie. For those so committed to winterized recreation, they may have a trail sled, a powder sled and a muscle sled for either racing or highmarking. Depending on the day and the ride, we decide what piece of hardware is best for the occasion.
For those in the Midwest who are confined to mostly trail riding and ditch banging, a short-track trail sled with a good suspension is the ride of choice. For those in the West who find their snow stacked deep in the mountains, a long-track with good horsepower makes the most sense.
But what about those who live in the Midwest but still love to ride the deep stuff? Or those in the West who prefer to spend their time on the mountain trails? Do you have to commit to either a short track or a long track? Do you have to sacrifice one style of riding to accommodate the other?
Well . basically yes. Unless you're wealthy enough to be able to take several sleds with you every time you ride (with your own army of valets who will ride right behind you on the trail and exchange your sled when the terrain changes), you are probably going to find that the sled you have at that moment really isn't the best for all the variety of riding opportunities you encounter.
So you need to make a decision. Are you a trail rider or a powder rider? Do you want flotation or suspension? Do you want to be able to turn or climb?

`Tweeners
For those who struggle with indecisiveness and commitment, the snowmobile manufacturers have designed a class of sleds for the vacillators. A sled that combines some the critical features that make up a trail sled with some critical features that make up a mountains sled; a sled that's not the best on the trails, but better than any long-track . and not the best in the powder, but better than any short track. You can call it a hybrid . but it is basically an "in-betweener."
All four major snowmobile manufacturers have created a sled to fit this niche. Some have started with a mountain sled platform and built it back to the trail. Others have started with a trail sled platform and built it back to the mountains. And although the growing popularity of these sleds has been led by Midwest sales, more and more westerners are discovering the advantages of trail-friendly snowmobiles.
Most of these `tweeners offer power options from the 600 class sleds to the 800 class sleds. But for our hands-on comparisons, we opted to stick with the 600 class sleds to maintain a consistency in our evaluations. Our focus was to compare each manufacturer's hybrid with its short and long track brothers. Naturally, our mountain bias will probably show that we prefer the `tweener that can handle western terrain.
But our main interest is to review the advantages each sled brings to the trail. The sleds we evaluated are: Arctic Cat-M6, F6 EXT and F6; Ski-Doo-Summit 600, MX Z Renegade 600 and MX Z 600; Polaris-RMK 600, Switchback 600 and XC Special 600; and Yamaha-Vector Mountain, Rage and Vector.

Arctic Cat
For Arctic Cat, the M6 is definitely for the mountain and the F6 is definitely for the trails. Taking either out of its element can make for a long day's ride. However, perhaps one of the best `tweeners in the industry is the F6 EXT. It's nimble. It's light. And it has almost enough track (too narrow) to make mountain riding second nature.
For western Cat riders who spend more time on the trail than off, the F6 EXT is by far the most pleasant ride of the bunch. It doesn't have the ease in cornering as found on the F6 . but it takes the bumps with just a little bit more bridging. And since we tend to have more bumps than tight corners out West, the F6 EXT would definitely be my sled of choice for western trails.
Although each of the three has a different tunnel, the F6 EXT and F6 are built on the same frame. The M6 is built on a different frame to accommodate the Attack 20 track. 
The M6 is designed with an all-new seat that accommodates the tunnel and fuel tank. It features underseat storage and is removable. But it's not nearly as comfortable as the F6 seat.
Although the powerplants and drivetrains are basically the same, the M6 has a different hood that accommodates an air intake that is located higher. The exhaust is also located in the suspension well where it is protected from snow buildup. This could affect the F6 EXT in powdery conditions. But when the snow is extreme powder, it's probably best to keep the F6 EXT close to the trail until the sun can set and settle the fluff. But that's the price you must pay to run a trail-friendly (13.5-inch wide) track.
The M6 also has different handlebars, accommodating a more stand-up style of riding. It also features the removable side panels. These features give the M-series sled the advantage over the F-series in mountain riding.

Polaris
Rather than starting with a short-track, Polaris opted to build its hybrid from a trail platform. The Switchback and RMK 600 share the RMK chassis. The Switchback trailing arms are adjustable to extend a ski stance from 41 to 42.5-inches. The RMK's trailing arms are not adjustable and provide a 41-inch ski stance.
Both feature the same type Dual Purpose Rails, running boards, seats and bars-different from the XC. This gives the Switchback and RMK a very similar feel for the rider, and its handling characteristics in the deep with the exception of track hookup, are very similar to the RMK. For the powder, the Switchback could probably use another quarter-inch on the track profile.
Other notable differences between the Switchback, RMK and XC are found in the ski stance, shock package and tracks. The XC also features a more aggressive ski for trail riding. It allows the XC to be extremely aggressive going into the corners. However, the longer track on the Switchback provides a better braking system on the trails, helping you to carry more speed further into the bends.
The XC features a coupled rear suspension with a Fox position-sensitive rear shock. The handlebars on the XC are lower and pulled back for a more relaxed trail riding position. The XC seat is lower, providing better wind protection behind the windshield and keeping the center of gravity lower for better cornering. The XC running boards are wider with a "fishbone" brace for strength. Rider ergonomics for long trail rides definitely favor the XC over the Switchback.
When it comes to comparing the three in western conditions, again, it's the better track on the RMK that makes it a far better off trail sled. And the XC is the far better trail sled. However, the Switchback is probably the best `tweener  of any of the four manufacturers in deep snow conditions. It seems to just get on top of the snow better.

Ski-Doo
If there's one thing to say about the Ski-Doo line, it's very "pick-able." Pick a model, pick a suspension package, pick a track length, pick a color. When you add all these choices with the choice of three Rev models-Summit 600, MXZ Renegade 600, MXZ 600-you can pretty much create your own sled to match your specific style of riding.
All three Revs are built upon the same chassis with the tail-ends of the Renegade and Summit getting longer to accommodate track length. Naturally, the track lengths will determine each one's deep snow prowess.
The Rev Summit, with the longer, wider track, is definitely a powder sled. It's designed to float through the fluff, not pound through the tuff. And although the other two Rev models won't hold a candle to the Summit for boondocking . the Summit does not offer the same trail luxuries as the other two Revs.
When comparing the Renegade with the MX Z in the bumps, the Renegade tends to stay flatter while the MX Z tends to have a front-end lift. The Renegade is also superb in the chatter bumps, floating over the tops. But when it comes to aggressive trail riding, it's hard to beat the MX Z. This Rev is quick going in and out of the corners and handles much better in the big bumps. But if you're not trying to beat your buddy, the Renegade offers a great trail ride.
The Renegade will get you off the trail and into the backcountry fairly well. Some of our test riders felt the Renegade did remarkably well in the deep stuff thanks to the 16-inch track width . and with the proper setup, you probably would think you're riding a Summit in most conditions.
One major difference between the Summit and the other two is that the Summit has shorter A-arms and a narrower ski stance, although adjustable. This provides a little less front end travel on the Summit, hindering its performance on the trail. The Summit also features mountain-specific skis designed to improve its handling in deep snow.
The MX Z and Renegade feature a mobile windshield that follows the steering. This provides more driver protection from the wind and elements, making for a more comfortable experience on long trail rides.

Yamaha
First, we have to distinguish between 600cc snowmobiles and the 600 class of snowmobiles. Yamaha's 4-stroke entries of the Vector Mountain, Rage and Vector are positioned in the 600 class. But it's like comparing apples to oranges. There are few similarities between the 4-strokes and 2-strokes.
But when it comes to comparing these three 4-strokes to each other, the similarities abound.
Although there are significant differences in the chassis, these sleds share the same bulk head, although the Vector uses different A arms with shorter spindles. The skis are also different on each of the three sleds. The Rage has a high keel, the Vector features a medium keel and the Vector Mountain has a deep keel with concaved sides. The Vector Mountain skis come with adjustable bushings to provide flexibility in the ski stance.
Basically, the Vector Mountain features the bigger track with two-inch paddles that provide propulsion through deep snow. A narrower ski stance allows the Vector Mountain to carve its way through terrain with a lot more ease than its siblings.
The Rage, with its 136-inch track, offers a lot more flotation than the trail-blasting Vector . but comes way short of the flotation provided by the Vector Mountain. Perhaps the greatest asset the 136-inch track offers the Rage is improved braking and the ability to bridge the bumps.
The Rage also has a gripped tunnel roll and wider running boards than the Vector Mountain to make it a good western trail sled. The Vector Mountain has taller handlebars, more suited to the upright riding position needed in high elevation terrain.
The Vector Mountain has a lighter rear suspension that features a torsion spring and tipped rails. Basically, this reduces some of the weight while still keeping this sled trail-friendly.
The Rage makes for a solid trail sled. It may not corner as tight as the Vector, but it is equally fun to ride. The Vector Mountain also features a good trail ride-perhaps the best of any mountain-specific sled. If you split your time between the bumps and the fluff, it might be the best choice. But if you're heavy into hardpack and trails, do yourself a favor and look closely at the Rage. You might have some shortcomings in the fluff, but you would certainly reap the rewards getting to it.