January 10, 2008

A New Direction For Snowmobile Design?



New one-up sled in the making

Snowmobile designs have evolved over the years and settled into the standard of today. If you take a step back and look, most all snowmobiles fall into the same basic design envelope, with only minor variations. They consist of two steering skis, one drive track of various lengths, weigh 400-550 lbs. or more, offer 50-150 hp in various forms and a price tag of $6,000-12,000 or more. The actual price of something you really want is probably closer to the latter than the former.

The exception to this design is the Snow Hawk with one ski and large motorcycle styling, but still fitting the other basic parameters of current thinking.

With declining sales in recent years, the major manufacturers have been asking themselves how to attract and keep new customers. The problem of attracting a new generation of snowmobiler has been there for a long time and was masked in good economic times by, well, good economic times. Recently Ski-Doo has responded with its Freestyle, which looks like a slightly smaller version of what’s already out there. And I’m sure the others are addressing this issue as they see it from their perspective.

It seems to me, as a typical snowmobile consumer (not really typical, but close enough), that there has been little to no connection from the “kiddy” snowmobiles to the full-size 450-pound, $6-12,000 sleds. Body styles change (finally), tracks change, suspensions get rearranged a little and there’s always more power to add. But where are the sleds for the 13-30 or older consumers that are just for fun in the snow and affordable for this group?

The motorcycle companies are very good at this, with models for the smallest 5-year-old rider progressively up thru the largest size and horsepower any adult could want or afford. I understand it’s difficult for large established companies to look too far outside “the way things have been done” for new ideas, but maybe it’s time to step back and take a completely fresh approach to snow vehicle design.

A Big Fun Factor Sled

The premise for my thinking is that there must be a way to have a lower horsepower, light weight, low cost big fun factor sled. Sure, we all love the big horsepower (and they have their place), but not always. Sometimes less is more … fun. And not just less horsepower on the same 3-4-500-pound chassis. We know that doesn’t really interest people. Maybe something completely new and different is needed—some “out of the box” thinking.

Motorcycles, go-karts, go-ped scooters and pocket bikes have been popular for a long time—their price/size-to-fun ratio is the answer. I’m not talking about the imported knock-off junk we all hate, but the nicely engineered and fabricated vehicles that are just plain fun with out over taxing the pocketbook. Even the racing versions of these remain popular and a good stepping stone for expensive fast toys if you want. I have raced karts from early on and those have lead to incredibly fast and expensive formula race cars and back to karts—just for the fun of it.

When I had the opportunity three years ago to look into snowmobiling for my family, it became clear that what we (I) wanted wasn’t out there. So what do you do when no one makes what you think is the perfect winter recreation vehicle? Of course you drop everything, use your 20 years of racing and aerospace engineering experience to design and build your own.

What I wanted was something that reminded me of the light weight, easy-to-operate and transport racing karts I enjoy. After several sketches on napkins, layout drawings on paper/computer, a few calculations and some sleepless nights, it seemed that I could have what I wanted. The goals were a vehicle around 100 lbs, with between 20-25 hp (more to come later, I’m sure), full suspension and the ability for great flotation—because “flying” in the powder is just plain fun. And while we’re at it, let’s make a sit down cycle version and a stand up scooter version (because we love those go-ped type scooters around the pits at the race track) on the same chassis.

Xtreme Snow Runner

Designs were drawn, mockups made, metal and carbon fiber fabricated into the XSR (Xtreme Snow Runner) vehicles we now have. What emerged was something I call the PSV (Personal Snow Vehicle)—a “mid-engine,” single ski, modular chassis design (patent pending) that is incredibly stiff in bending and torsion. This design allows us to build separate power and drive assemblies and have centralized mass, that is, low polar moment of inertia for fast responding vehicle dynamics. The XSR also enjoys a very low center of gravity and although only weighing 95 lbs. total, most of that is concentrated low in the chassis.

Testing of the XSR-85S (scooter version) began and was considered a success with only minor teething problems. We missed the gear ratios a bit (problem with that simple math) and were actually able to stand it on its tail with over use of the throttle—kind of fun and, on the right occasion, impressive but not what we really wanted. The fix was an easy adjustment and one day maybe put back the way it was for a unique photo opportunity. Next up was the handling and control. The vehicle was doing all the right things on trails but just wasn’t as stable and controllable as I wanted. After trying several off the shelf skis, nothing was going in the right direction. The XSR sat for several weeks while contemplating some solutions—most of which I didn’t like.

Then the FAST (Flexible Adjustable Ski Technology) ski design (patent pending) was born. This was truly one of those “spring out of bed in the morning moments.” I just woke up one Saturday morning knowing exactly what had to be done and it has worked out better than I could have imagined. The new ski turned the vehicle from “it’s OK to ride” into “I never want to get off.”

The FAST ski is based on snowboard technology with some surfboard and snowmobile ski design thrown in. The large wide snowboard area gives the XSR the stability and flotation I wanted and the adjustable carbide tipped fins give the control on trails that we need. The sharp metal edges and snowboard contour are the perfect solution for powder play. You couldn’t ask for more control and flotation. Because the total vehicle weight is low and the areas of the ski and track are proportioned, true 3D control is achievable by rider weight shifting—easy to master and just lots of fun. As one of our test riders said, “The XSR is good on the trails but comes to life in the powder.”

Sit Down Cycle

The XSR-85C (sit down cycle) was next up for testing and from the first minute it hit the snow, was a favorite with all. The lessons learned with the S model translated perfectly to the C model because they’re both built on the same chassis. The C rides like a cross between a jet-ski, a motorcycle and a snowmobile. It’s stable yet easy to throw around and in the powder you get the full 3D experience. Cornering is just a matter of leaning to the side with a little pressure on the handle bars and away you go. Sidehilling is easy thanks to the geometry of the vehicle and stability and bite of the FAST ski—lean into the hill a little and stability is all yours.

What would I change, if anything? The XSR-85 S and C are very close to “ready for public consumption” with only minor adjustment to make them producible in quantity. But my wants would be two things and these two things together probably make a new model intended for specific off-trail deep powder play. The two things are: a long track version with a more aggressive lug design and slightly more power to go with that. Our on board computer says that our (intentionally) de-tuned power plant is producing about 18 hp. Bringing that up to its normal 25 hp is just a minor change and adding five to ten more horsepower is just a matter of bolt on parts. Of course it’s certainly possible to scale up the whole vehicle—I could envision a 150-pound vehicle with 50 plus hp. That’s the next project. And certainly a 4-stroke version.

The XSR has turned out to be just the vehicle I was hoping for, a small PSV with all the attributes of a racing Kart—fast, responsive handling, intrinsic stability, easy transportation and storage (two fit inside of a mid-size SUV) and just lots of fun in the snow. The thing I find so likeable about the XSR is the feel of just knowing how to ride it. It seems very natural for all who have ridden to hop on and in a couple of minutes they’re at full throttle flying through the powder. On the more serious side, I don’t see any reason the XSR couldn’t be turned into a real working sled for resorts. And what about a racing version? Now you’re talking.

To try and make these vehicles a reality and so others can enjoy all the fun, I have started a company: XtremeSno (www.XtremeSno.com) to see if we can bring these vehicles to market. The snowmobile industry is a tight-knit group, hard to break into and in many ways resistant to change, but the XSR is just too much fun to leave sitting in the shop without trying to find a way for others to enjoy it. And maybe, with just a little luck, the XSR can bring some of those people watching on the sidelines out to play.

 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Wade has been a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry for 20 years and has been involved in racing vehicle design and manufacturing for more that 25 years. He holds four automotive-related patents, three snowmobile-related pending patents and holds several national and international aircraft speed records.)








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