Can one snowmobile save an entire class?
Some will argue to the contrary, but that's exactly what we think the Arctic Cat M7 did last season for the 700cc class.
The 700cc class has been limping along on life support for a couple of years now, especially after Ski-Doo dropped the Summit 700 from the class in 2002. Cat had been a no-show in the 700 class since the days of the Powder Special, which was last seen in 2000. That left the Polaris 700 RMK and Yamaha Mtn. Viper to carry the class.
It's important to make a distinction here-it's the class we're saying needed an infusion of life, not the sleds. Especially when you're talking about the 700 RMK in the Edge chassis, which was a great machine. No, not the individual sleds, but the class, because the skilled snowmobile surgeons/engineers of our time were devoting most of their time and attention to the 800 and 900 classes.
The 700cc class gets some welcome help from Polaris for 2006 as the Roseau, MN, sled maker has some new hardware of its own-a 700 RMK in the IQ chassis. The new 700 RMK has some serious ground to make up though, if it wants to overtake the M7, which was the No. 1 selling snowmobile in the West last season, its first year on the snow.
A Class Of Three
So the 700 class still has three members: the M7, the new 700 RMK and the Mtn. Viper, which is still hanging around and is now the senior member of the 700 class as it enters its fourth season of production.
Three sleds but 15 versions of those sleds. Hang on for this one. Here are all the ways you can buy an M7:
Carb version with a 153-inch Attack 20 track
Carb version with a 153-inch Challenger track
EFI with a 153-inch Attack 20 track
EFI with a 162-inch Attack 20 track
EFI with a 141-inch Challenger track
EFI with a 153-inch Challenger track
EFI with a 162-inch Challenger track
EFI Limited with a 153-inch Attack 20 track
EFI Limited with a 162-inch Attack 20 track
EFI Limited with a 153-inch Challenger track
EFI Limited with a 162-inch Challenger track
Now for the 700 RMK:
There is just one version of the Mtn. Viper (144x2). Whew.
Now the 700 class is healthy once again and that's good news for those of us who have a special place in our heart (and pocketbook) for the 700s. These machines are such a great bridge between the smaller classes and bigger displacement sleds-especially now that there is only one 800cc mountain sled left. In fact, we're not sure why some riders make the jump from or even past the 700s, especially now that Cat has proven a tough and gritty 7 can be built and can compete, even with the 800s. And there's no arguing that the 700s, with an average cost of about $8,500, are a little easier on the wallet than the bigger iron (the 900s are an average of $2,000 more per sled). That's a pretty good savings, especially when you consider you're only giving up about 20 horses when comparing the 700s to the 900s.
Dialing Long Distance
We dialed up hundreds of miles on our M7 last winter and had a chance to ride the new 700 RMK in January, but it wasn't until March that we were able to run those two machines head-to-head in the mountains around Utah's Strawberry Reservoir.
We didn't ride the Mtn. Viper last winter but we rode it a year ago and nothing (not even the graphics) has changed on this sled from a season ago. Face it-Yamaha is focused on its four-strokes (and rightfully so) and the Mtn. Viper has essentially got lost in the shuffle. It's just one of four two-stroke sleds left in the Yamaha stable. One other little bit of trivia that shows the gap between the M7 and 700 RMK and the Mtn. Viper is that the Yamaha gives up about 20 hp in this class. It's one thing to give up 20 hp to a 900, but it's another to give it up to sleds in the same class. We'd be surprised if the three-cylinder, two-stroke Mtn. Viper hangs around much longer in Yamaha's lineup.
While the Mtn. Viper has its merits, the competition in this class is between Arctic Cat and Polaris.
Now comes the most obvious question. Is it fair to compare the M7's Suzuki 698cc with the 700 RMK's Liberty 755cc powerplant? That's a difference of 57cc-which is hardly fair.
Yes, it's a fair comparison, but maybe not in the way you're thinking. The Suzuki twin actually pumps out more horsepower-140 to 138-than the Liberty twin. That may seem like a minuscule number but it's more noticeable in the seat of the pants and the throttle thumb. There are aspects of each engine that members of the SnoWest SnowTest staff liked and disliked, but when all the tallying was done, the Suzuki was the favorite of the two.
And Liberty To All
The Liberty 700's design is based on the Liberty 900 powerplant with forward intake and exhaust, which allows it to be set low in the chassis, and a long stroke (77.5mm bore x 80mm stroke), for better torque. It also features Polaris' CleanFire injection with four injectors-two in the cylinders and two in the crankcase. That last little part means it's EPA-compliant to 2010. The 700 also includes all of Polaris' other trademark engine qualities such as Detonation Elimination Technology (DET), Variable Exhaust System and electronic reverse.
The Liberty twin got mixed comments from the SnowTest staff with some saying things like, "A soft 7," "A little soft on top," "Low grunt," and "For a 750cc motor, I expected much more. Powerband is smooth but weight is holding its potential back." On the upside, there were comments about how good the midrange and bottom end were. "Leaves fairly hard," one said. Polaris officials did tell us earlier this season the Liberty 755cc wasn't built for peak horsepower but for broad, useable power. So know that going into the purchase.
Because of the size of the engine in the 700 RMK, the sled will have to compete in the 800cc class on the hillclimb circuit and that will be a tough battle, although when comparing horsepower numbers, at least on paper, it shows this machine should be competitive. Time will tell on that one.
Cat's 7 is offered in a carb version-for those who just can't resist tinkering with the engine-and its heralded batteryless EFI version. We are sold on the EFI. In one week last winter we rode our M7 between 3,000 feet (Washington state) and 11,000 feet (Stanley). The EFI worked flawlessly. We were out playing while others were fiddling with the carbed sleds (different brand).
"Jumps to life," is how one SnowTester talked about the Suzuki 700. Referring to the engine's torque, another said, "It's there but it's not pull-your-arms-off torquey."
The Bottom Line
However, almost all of the SnowTesters bounced the soft bottom end on the M7. One said, "The top end is strong, but the bottom is still the weakest part of the powerband. It's not a big problem but the M7 doesn't have the snap to lift the skis over a creek like it should."
Now is about the time we should hit the topic of weight. Year after year we continue to play the same tune-mountain sleds are usually all about weight and horsepower. Weight can be such a drag, especially in deep powder where you're hoping to be on top of the powder, not plowing through it. Official dry weights have the M7 at 475-485 lbs., depending on which track you choose; the 700 RMK at 529-539 lbs., again depending on the track length; and the Mtn. Viper at 530 lbs. Even comparing the heaviest M7 with the lightest 700 RMK, you're talking about nearly 45 lbs. That is weight you can feel (or can't feel, depending on your point of view) while riding. And that's one reason the M floats across the powder better than the RMK. And stays on top of the snow through the trees.
Having said that, we will admit that some sleds are good at masking their weight. The Yamaha Apex Mtn. is a good example of that. Yamaha engineers have got the riding geometry working so well on that machine that you don't notice the weight like you did on the RX-1. The Apex Mtn. is nearly 50 lbs. heavier than the next heaviest 900cc sled. But because of the ride of the Apex Mtn., you just don't notice it.
The weight penalty on the 700 RMK is just about all in the nose and specifically the engine. Remember the comment from the one SnowTester about how the "weight is holding its potential back?" Lose 25 or 30 lbs. and the 700 RMK would almost be a new snowmachine. Look at it this way. If you're riding hard all day, ridge running, working through the trees, hitting a few mountains, playing in the powder, at the end of the day, which sled is going to make you less tired? This isn't Einstein thinking here-it's the lightest one.
A Lighter RMK
We would be most anxious to ride a lighter 700 RMK because the sled has lots of good qualities that make it fun to ride. One of those outstanding qualities is the suspension. The rougher things get, the better the RMK does. "The RMK suspension rocks in rough terrain," one SnowTester said. "The IQ IFS is flat and the rear end soaks up square-edged holes." Another said, "This is the Cadillac of suspensions. It works so well you hardly notice it's working. No bottoming out. It really soaks up the bumps and doesn't bite you in the butt." One more: "The suspension package works very well, regardless of whether you ride the moguls easy or aggressive."
Up front Polaris has designed the Independent Front Suspension with an A-arm geometry that absorbs the nasties regardless of whether they are on or off trail. If you focus just on the suspension, you'll notice it works just as well off the groomed trail as on. Last winter, in many places in the West, the unofficial trails that lead to the backcountry got pretty pounded out between storms and those kinds of trails can be much tougher to negotiate than any shelled-out groomed trail. So while we claim to not be too interested in groomed trails, we do want a suspension that works away from the smoothies. Polaris delivers big time in that area. The front suspension and rear track shocks are all Ryde AFX while the front track shock is a Ryde FX.
Some out there in sledding land might not think this next thing has much to do with how well the suspensions work, but an important part of handling of a sled is how easy it is to control. In our book the handling package is a mix of chassis design, weight and distribution of that weight and the suspension. One of the unsung things Polaris has done to help the handling of the IQ chassis is to lower the drivetrain about three inches. What that has done is put 11 lbs. three inches lower in the chassis, which lowers the center of gravity, greatly reducing the top-heavy feel.
We still have some issues with the IQ chassis' body roll, which can cause some surprises in handling.
By The Side
Of The Trail
In lavishing praise on the RMK's suspension, we don't want folks to think the M7's AWS-VI double wishbone front suspension and FasTrack Long Travel with torque sensing link rear suspension will leave you on the side of the trail somewhere. The Cat suspension just didn't do as good a job as the RMK's. Where we couldn't get the RMK to bottom out, we could the M7-not every single bump, but it did happen. Here's how one SnowTester put it, "If it weren't designed as a specific powder sled, it would do better in big bumps. But it's not and it doesn't matter." Another's comments, "This lightweight sled gets in the air easy but the suspension performance keeps the sled true and square through launch and landing."
When riding the M7, that is one of the shining traits of the Cat's abilities on- and off-trail-how well it lands after you hit a jump, deep mogul, a hidden log or get a little sideways. "This sled lands flat, even in off-camber deep moguls," one rider said.
One part of the Cat front suspension that helps them as much as anything is Cat's selection of shocks. It's tough-almost impossible-to beat Cat's selection of Fox Floats on the M7 Limited. The Fox shocks flat out work. As demand increases we're hoping costs of the Fox Floats comes down so that more manufacturers will use them on their sleds.
The M7 did have some rookie bugs that had to be worked out and we suspect the same will hold true for the newbie 700 RMK, but then again, maybe it will sail right through. That's not something you can usually predict before the sled has a snow season under its belt, though.
There were two issues (besides the track) about the M sleds that we heard most about last season. The first was the speedometer would quit working. We had two Ms and two Firecats and we experienced this problem on one of each of our sleds. The problem revolved around the speedometer drive adaptor or sensor. As one dealer explained it to us, it looked like the cord feeding the information to the speedo had been pinched near the Diamond Drive unit (this probably happened somewhere along the manufacturing process) and the cord eventually wore through and grounded out. It was a warranty issue and dealers were sent a new speedometer sensor. The problem has been fixed for the 2006 models.
The second issue had to do with the through bolt that goes from the brake disc into the Diamond Drive box. This bolt actually goes through the entire drive system, from one side of the tunnel to the other. Due to harmonic vibration it was sheering off at the threads where it screwed in to the Diamond Drive. Cat issued a service bulletin on this problem and provided a replacement kit to repair the broken bolt. The kit includes a replacement bolt, a dampener system to minimize the vibration and an oil seal for where the bolt threads into the Diamond Drive. That issue, too, has been resolved for 2006.
Perhaps the most vocal issue on the M7 had to do with the Attack 20 track. If last winter would have been powder from November to April, these complaints likely would never have surfaced. But it wasn't, so they did. The Attack 20 is one of-if not the-best powder tracks we've have ever ridden. But get it on hard pack and it spins like the wheels on a dragster. Cat has addressed the issue by giving sledders the option of an Attack 20 or Challenger track-at no extra charge-when purchasing an M7. The Challenger isn't quite the powder track the Attack 20 is but it gets the job done and won't spin on hard pack like the Attack does.
We don't just look at power and weight and the ride of a mountain sled when we test them each season, we try to look at all aspects of the machine. Here's a scorecard of the other areas of each sled we rated.
After a few bleak years, the 700 class is once again competitive, thanks to the M7 and 700 RMK. And competition is healthy for everyone. The 700s may not get the glory. They may not get the hype or all the attention. They may not even get that much appreciation from a snowmobile crowd looking for the biggest sleds on the planet.
That's okay, we'll ride and have a blast with the 7s for as long as they're around.