January 10, 2009

Picking The Right snowmobile For The Rider



Mountain fan class is just right for some

In most everything we do we start out small and go big—it seems like the natural thing to do.

Yet, in the snowmobile biz, sometimes beginning sledders or those looking at the sport for the first time think they need to go right for the big hardware. We’ve seen it time and again and some dealers will even tell you that there are those who go right for the 800 class of mountain sleds.

There are probably lots of reasons for this. One might be that those new sledders first got introduced to the sport during a vacation to the West and rented a sled that was a 600, 700 or even 800 and everything turned out fine so they think that’s what they need to get for their own machine.

Another reason might be a snowmobile dealer “overselling” a customer, trying to get him or her to buy a sled that is simply too much for the person. That person might be happier starting out small, riding a year and then trading up the next season.

Regardless of the reason, of which there could be more than we’re thinking of, those newcomers are starting out too big.

Perhaps some of those reasons are the explanation why mountain fan sleds are such a small piece of the pie when it comes to snowmobile sales in the West.

We’ll admit there are some people out there who can jump right on a big mountain machine and handle it just fine. But most would be better off starting out small, getting used to the machine and snow and then trading up.

Even starting out small can be an intimidating prospect to some who are trying to figure out this whole snowmobile thing.

Intimidated

For many of us who have been around snowmobiles for any amount of time, it’s hard to imagine being intimidated by a 60-horsepower sled.

But some folks are. If not intimidated, at the very least, they don’t want any more than what’s sitting under them

Here’s a perfect case in point. Last winter we were invited on a three-day ride with a mix of experienced riders and ones who have never been on a snowmobile. We took our Ski-Doo Summit Rev XP 800. There were four-strokes, touring sleds and a mix of other mountain machines, including a Polaris Trail RMK and Ski-Doo Summit Fan. Two of the people who had never been snowmobiling before were given the two fan machines (the Trail RMK and Summit Fan are fan-cooled compared to all other snowmobiles which are liquid-cooled) to ride for the three days. The Trail RMK and Summit Fan were all they wanted and could handle. Numerous times they were offered a spin on a bigger machine but they declined. After getting used to riding a snowmobile, the couple was quite content with the fanners. Had they been given a bigger machine, maybe even just a 600, we’re pretty sure the couple would not have had near as much fun as they did. We’re certain they would have gotten into more trouble and been stuck a lot more had they had something bigger.

Because of the snow conditions, they didn’t even need to venture off-trail to experience deep snow. For much of the three days we busted new trail through several inches of new snow on the groomed trail. While a couple of us with bigger machines played on the edges or rode next to the trail in even deeper snow, the two fan riders were very content staying on trail and riding.

So there are people for whom the fan sleds are ideal. That three-day ride reaffirmed that to us.


A Two-Sled Class

The Polaris Trail RMK and Ski-Doo Summit Fan are the two models that make up the beginner class (although some will argue the 600 mountain class is the real beginner’s class) of snowmobiling. We tag the Trail RMK and Summit Fan as beginners, not just because of their size, but also because of their price. The two fans—the Trail RMK retails for $5,999 and the Summit Fan for $6,299—have an average price of $6,149, which is $2,700 less than the average price of a 600 mountain sled. That’s fairly significant. Then throw in the fact that a mountain fan is darn near half the cost of an 800cc mountain machine, well you start to see that the fans are a value machine.

Granted, these two fans really haven’t changed much over the years but why should the manufacturers dump money into a sled segment that hasn’t grown like the more popular 800 class has over the years? We sure wouldn’t.

The sleds serve their purpose, especially when they’re included in a rental fleet or purchased by a first-timer. They do have a place in the snowmobile segment. How long this segment will last we don’t know.

Simply looking at the price of the fan sleds should suggest that these are no frills machines. You’re not going to get the fancy air shocks you find on bigger liquid-cooled machines or the suspensions that are meant to hammer the moguls that you find on your way deep into the backcountry. Certainly there are no high testosterone levels of horsepower or the svelte looks you find on snowmobiles today. There are no fancy gauges nor are the tracks the kind that will propel you up to mountain goat heights.

The Trail RMK and Summit Fan are basic models that get the job done in moderately deep snows. Period.

60 Horsepower

As previously mentioned, these machines hover around 60 hp, which is about half of what a 600 liquid-cooled sled offers. This is not arm-stretching, stump pulling power, but soft, manageable power that allows the beginner to ease into the sport without worrying about having to lay off the throttle too much. Whereas liquid-cooled snowmobiles have engines designed to be cooled by an antifreeze/water mix circulating through the engine, the Trail RMK and Summit Fan each have a blower or fan that cools the engine. That alone inherently makes a fan sled louder than a liquid-cooled snowmobile. It’s not a lot louder but it is noticeable.

Both are carbureted models as well, meaning there are no fancy fuel injection systems here. There are two VM 34 mm carbs in each model.

Fan sleds won’t win any holeshot competitions, unless it’s against other fan machines, but everything is relative when you’re looking at different lineups of mountain machines. It’s almost unfair to compare a fan sled with any liquid-cooled machine but it’s hard to resist the temptation, simply because most sledders are used to liquid-cooled snowmobiles and that’s their reference point.

During that three-day ride, we took the opportunity to jump on the Trail RMK and Summit Fan one day to play on a hillside. The snow was at least two feet deep, which didn’t pose any kind of problem for our Ski-Doo Summit 800 but did pose a challenge to the two fanners. Still, we wanted to compare them against each other, not against the liquid-cooled sleds.

Testing Grounds

The slope of the hillside started out fairly gradual from the edge of the trail and got steeper, then flattened out a bit after about 100 yards and then got much steeper. On a straight uphill climb, both sleds were about the same and climbed to about the same spot, which was just about to the place where the hill flattened out.

What you have working for you here on both sleds, in addition to the 60 hp, are tracks measuring 15x136x1.25 on the Trail RMK and 16x136x1.75 on the Summit Fan. Although the Summit Fan has a bigger track, which in most cases would be an advantage, the engine isn’t quite as powerful as the Trail RMK so they were pretty even in the climbing department.

When it came to sidehilling across that same hillside, the Trail RMK was easier to sidehill even though it feels “fatter” on the front end. The Summit Fan was a little harder to pull up into a sidehill than was the Trail RMK.

It seems like such a simple thing, but one piece of equipment that really helps when learning how to ride in the mountains and how to gain leverage on a machine is a mountain bar or mountain strap. It’s a standard feature on the Summit Fan but not on the Trail RMK.

Fortunately, the Trail RMK we played on that day had a mountain bar as an add-on. That made a lot of difference, especially for the Trail RMK, because the handlebars are so low compared (here comes that dreaded liquid-cooled sled comparison) to bigger sleds with taller handlebar setups. Shorter bars force the rider to bend over more when riding standing up. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you really start to ride more off-trail when riders usually stand up more while riding. It’s certainly not as big a deal when you’re sitting down while riding.

Speaking of sitting down, the Summit Fan has a taller seat, which makes the transition from sitting to standing much easier. Once again, that comes into play when you ride more off-trail than on.

Rating The Running Boards

One thing we noticed on both sleds while playing on that hillside was that the snow really piled up on the running boards. That’s because the snow evacuation holes—the spots where snow is supposed to fall through—on the running boards were very small and didn’t allow much snow to fall through. In the case of the Trail RMK, there are no holes for the snow to fall through so it just builds up as the day goes on. Again, not too big of a deal on the trail but a real big deal off-trail. We were constantly trying to kick snow off the running boards to have some semblance of traction while on the hillside.

If you’re into styling and looks, it’s easy to notice the differences (here we go again) between the fan sleds and the bigger liquid-cooled models in each of the Polaris and Ski-Doo lineup. With the Trail RMK, there is still the reliable (and a favorite among some Polaris diehards) Edge chassis, while the rest of the Polaris mountain lineup is now the IQ chassis. With the Summit Fan it’s the Rev chassis whereas the rest of the lineup has gone to the very popular Rev XP chassis. Therein lies many of the differences between not only the two fans compared to each other but also compared to the rest of the respective lineups, both in terms of weight and rideability. Some will argue that the more modern IQ and Rev XP chassis are easier to ride.

That argument is most likely only valid, though, if you jump back and forth between a fan model and a liquid-cooled model.

Again, going back to our example of the couple riding the Trail RMK and Summit Fan; they had no desire—yet—to make the bump up. To them, the sleds rode just fine.

Sledders will notice that Polaris has changed the color and graphics on the Trail RMK for 2009.

Chalk One Up For The Fanners

There is one feature on both the Trail RMK and Summit Fan compared to the liquid-cooled mountain machines that we really did appreciate and is a big welcome—the taller windshield. On the 600, 700 and 800 mountain models of today, the windshields are pretty much non-existent and that’s an issue when it’s cold outside and/or the snow is deep and coming over the hood. The Trail RMK and Summit Fan have decent-sized windshields that offer protection against the wind and snow. Chalk one up for the fanners.

We won’t pretend that we’d rather have a fan sled compared to a liquid-cooled machine. But that’s because we’ve been riding for years and our riding style dictates we ride sleds that have the horsepower and track to take us to the places we like to ride.

But we also wouldn’t say we avoid fan sleds at all costs. It was fun to play on that hillside last winter on the Trail RMK and Summit Fan. We had fun on them because they are fun to ride.

If you already own a bigger liquid-cooled sled and are “struggling” with it, are we suggesting that you trade it in for a fan-cooled machine? Not hardly. That would probably be a bigger disappointment than trying to learn how to handle your present machine. However, if you’re looking for a model that won’t intimidate in any way, then the Trail RMK and Summit Fan would be worth looking at.

Then, once you’ve gained some confidence and want something with a few more creature comforts and more power, trade up for something bigger.







Tracks USA
Beaver Creek Lodge


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