In 1984, Yamaha released a sled that would become the benchmark for snowmobiles in the western market. The PZ 480—later named the Phazer—was a completely fresh approach to snowmobile chassis design. And it was light—less than 400 lbs. That’s the important aspect. And that’s why, even though the lugs on the track were no higher than a pencil lying on a desk, the 1984 PZ 480 is widely recognized as one of the first western sleds (we can’t really say mountain sled at this point).
From that model year, Yamaha updated and refined the Phazer, bumping the fan-cooled twin to 485ccs and working out the reliability issues. There’s a collective voice in the industry that claims Yamaha never built a better Phazer than that silver ’84 model. Some say it was de-tuned after that year—or at least felt de-tuned as the factory began adding weight to reinforce the tunnel in the ensuing years.
The 1987 Exciter was a bigger (36.2-inch ski stance), faster (with a 569cc liquid-cooled two-stroke) and heavier (450 lbs.—not heavy by modern standards) version of the Phazer. It featured the same handlebar-mounted fairing design and TSS strut front suspension.
The Phazer received its first real major update in 1990, when its ski stance was widened from 33.7 inches to 36.2 inches (in comparison, the 2007 Phazer Mountain Lite four-stroke has a ski stance of 39.6 inches) and lengthened the track from 116 inches to 121 inches. The updated Phazer also received an updated name—Phazer II.
The following year, a long-track version was added to the lineup. The Phazer II ST was one of the first attempts at a legitimate long-tracked western snowmobile. There were other long tracks around at the same time, but they were either designed for utility purposes or carried too much weight to be taken too far into the steep and deep. The Phazer II ST, with its 136-inch track (still with the pencil ribs, though), had the power-to-weight ratio that allowed it to play off-trail. Its claimed 420-pound dry weight and large footprint was the birth of Yamaha’s mountain sled.
The Exciter/Phazer duo rode the popularity train through the early 90s. The wave of change started when Yamaha released the 1992 Vmax-4, a four-cylinder two-stroke monster of an 800. The new chassis opened the door for the Exciter to step out of. And, when Yamaha released the 1994 Vmax 600 and 500 STs, the new pair of liquid-cooled machines signaled the end of the Exciter. Yamaha’s mountain lineup consisted of four models: the Vmax-4 ST, Vmax 600 ST, Vmax 500 ST and Phazer II ST.
A year later, Yamaha fitted the Vmax 600 ST and Vmax-4 ST with a new Mountain Master 15x136 track with lugs that were 1-1/8-inch tall. Believe it or not, that was a phenomenal track design.
At this point, the mountain sled movement was progressing so quickly that new technology became old technology in a single year. The Vmax lineup, which received praise and won a few SnoWest All-Star awards early on, fell behind the competition by 1996.
Change was in order, and a drastic change was what Yamaha released in 1997. The Mountain Max, based on the all-new ProAction chassis, was a huge step for Yamaha’s mountain aspirations. Gone were the telescoping struts and low-travel rear suspension. In place was an independent front trailing arm suspension that was on the leading edge of suspension technology. An all-new rear suspension offered mountain riders a decent approach angle and weight transfer with an increase in travel.
The Mountain Max 700 featured the new 700cc triple that offered broad, smooth power and a new YSX clutching system for linear power delivery. The 600 carried over the twin-cylinder engine from the Vmax 600 ST. It also brought Yamaha’s Smart Carb system, which automatically adjusted fuel flow for changes in elevation and temperature—a concept that each of the big four were trying to perfect. The Smart Carb was one of the better systems in the mountain market.
The 1997 Mountain Max featured new tracks—a 15x136 Mountain Master track with 1-1/2-inch lugs, the new standard of the current era.
In 1998, Yamaha made an attempt at the high-performance mountain market with the Mountain SRX 700. It featured the new triple-piped Power Valve 700 triple. But it never panned out. A handful of production units made it to the snow, but reliability issues caused the quality-control department at the factory to pull the plug mid-season.
But the Mountain Max 700 and 600 duo was proving itself, and Yamaha wasn’t about to leave it alone like previous prodigy sleds (read: Phazer). The Mountain Max 700 got plastic skis in 1998 and a 2-inch deep lug track. But the big news came in 1999.
Extra Man Hours
Yamaha’s engineers spent extra man hours studying the mountain market, snowmobile design, deep snow-mobility and approach angles. The result: the revised 2000 Mountain Max 700 and new Mountain Max 600 triple.
The Mountain Max chassis received an all-new tapered tunnel, new long-travel rear suspension and longer 141-inch track with 2-inch lugs. The 2000 Mountain Max also mark the first time Yamaha used a grab strap (that’s sidehill bar, if you’re not an attorney). The sled also maintained a 38.6-inch ski stance, which helped the sled gain a reputation for being maneuverable. The updated 141 ProAction Plus rear suspension sported 11-1/2 inches of travel—a big step from the original Phazer’s 5-1/2 inches.
Speaking of the Phazer, 2000 marked the end of a 16-year run for the Phazer’s unique look and lightweight styling. The new Phazer Mountain Lite came in the ProAction chassis but, because of its 136-inch track, didn’t get the tapered tunnel. The Phazer’s dry weight increased substantially, which eventually led to its demise in 2002.
The Mountain Max 700 was Yamaha’s pride and joy for the mountain market. It sold well, performed better and drew more interest from western riders than any previous Yamaha, save the Phazer.
At this point, Yamaha’s approach to mountain sled design began to morph. Mountain snowmobiles have always been long-tracked versions of trail sleds. It wasn’t until the 2000 Mountain Max that the differences between the short track and long track version of the base sled began to increase substantially. And not just for Yamaha—it was an industry-wide trend. However, two things happened in 2003 that interrupted things for Yamaha.
Don’t Assume …
First, the 2002 SXViper was such a huge success with the short-track crowd that Yamaha naturally assumed slapping the Mountain Max 700’s tunnel, suspension and track under it and calling it the 2003 Mountain Viper would have similar response with the mountain crowd. The problem was, that the SXViper was too good of a trail sled to simply throw a long track under it. What made it rail on the trails hindered it in deep snow. While it was a fun machine for boondocking, it wasn’t following the aggressive morphing that other mountain sleds were undergoing.
Second, Yamaha released the four-stroke RX-1 Mountain. It was a shocking release in a two-stroke dominated market. It featured an inline four-cylinder 998cc four-stroke—not your typical mountain sled powerplant. It was a great machine considering it used motor oil, sounded like a road bike and actually went through deep snow and up hills in spite of its weight. Yamaha’s engineers had done their job. But Yamaha admittedly over-hyped the deep-snow potential of the 140-horsepower thumper mountain sled. The 2003 model sold like crazy, but sales fell in ’04. Yamaha updated the RX-1 Mountain in ’04 and again in ’05, improving handling with new aggressive powder skis, reducing weight and making it more mountain-friendly. The big news for 2005 was the addition of a lighter, three-cylinder Vector Mountain that targeted the popular 600 class. It shared the RX-1’s double-wishbone chassis (with new front suspension geometry), tunnel, rear suspension and track, but featured an all-new three-cylinder, 120 hp four-stroke engine.
Where the RX-1 Mountain ushered in the four-stroke era, proved a few points, but left people still waning, what Yamaha had in store for 2006 left nothing in question. The 2006 Apex Mountain represented the biggest departure from the trail sled/long track relationship in Yamaha’s history. Its tunnel was a one-piece design specifically engineered for mountain applications—not just the trail version with an extension. The Apex Mountain’s seat, handlebars, riser, sidehill strap and footbeds were each independent parts from the shorty Apex GT. Even the revised engine, which went from carburetion to fuel-injection, showed greater improvements to mountain riding than other applications. The four-stroke mountain sled went from a wannabe to the real deal. The Apex Mountain could play on the same level of the mountain as any other production mountain snowmobile. It was still heavy, but Yamaha’s engineers hid that with near-perfect riding geometry, engine placement and ergonomics. It floated, thanks to a new 16-inch-wide-by 162 powder track with 2-1/4-inch lugs, an all-new, lighter rear suspension, powder skis and all the right angles (like approach angle, chaincase geometry, clutch placement). Sales of the 2006 Apex Mountain surpassed the original numbers of the 2003 RX-1 Mountain—a signal that the four-stroke concept was still accepted by consumers (it just needed the right design).
The Vector Mountain split into two models in 2006—the Vector Mountain (virtually unchanged from ’05) and the Vector Mountain SE. The SE got the Apex Mountain’s all-new tunnel with new rear suspension, 16x162x2.25 track and new handlebars/riser system.
Now we come full-circle. For 2007, Yamaha has re-introduced the Phazer Mountain Lite. And yes, it’s a four-stroke (Yamaha’s full line is four-strokes). And no, it doesn’t weight 420 lbs. But it’s a blast to ride. It features a twin-cylinder 498cc liquid-cooled four-stroke that churns about 80 hp. Everything on it is new, from the ground up. It has a 14-inch-wide track that’s 144 inches long with 2-inch lugs. The double-wishbone front suspension is a far cry from the original Phazer’s TSS setup. With a targeted weight of less than 500 lbs., this sled is all about boondocking—a term the original Phazer helped create.
The rest of the lineup remains similar to 2006. There’s an SE version of the Apex Mountain, with an even higher bar riser. Western sales are climbing for Yamaha, and more importantly, it’s building a reputation for offering one of the best mountain sleds on the market.