October 10, 2009

Dream Machines



Mountain 800 class delivers sledders fantasies

Dream along with us here for a minute.

Imagine this scene: a mountaintop somewhere in the West. From this mountaintop you can see nothing but mountains in every direction and nary a track in sight. There are two and a half to three feet of fresh, untracked powder covering a decent base with bluebird skies overhead. The conditions are absolutely perfect for a day of sledding.

Sitting on that mountaintop are three of the best 2010 model year mountain sleds—the Arctic Cat M8 Sno Pro, Polaris Dragon 800 RMK and Ski-Doo Summit X 800. A helicopter lands softly nearby; you jump out, ready to ride. Which snowmobile do you hop on first? Tough choice, isn’t it?

Pose that question to each of the SnoWest SnowTest riders and the majority of riders said they would fire up the …

You didn’t think we’d spill our guts in the first half-dozen paragraphs of this story did you?

Not That Easy

We’re not that easy.

Nor is it that easy to decide which mountain snowmobile we would hop on and tear off through the powder with. We did make a decision, but it came after a lot of snowmobiling, testing and debate.

There’s always a fair amount of debate when it comes to the SnoWest SnowTest staff. And when we’re debating the 800 class, there’s a whole lot of debate. We are, after all, talking about the marquee class in the mountains—the 800s. This class has and continues to receive a lot of attention from the major snowmobile manufacturers. That’s because the 800s are hot sellers in the West. They represent the bulk of what is bought and ridden in the mountains and valleys of the western United States and Canada.

The SnowTest staff tested the 2010 sleds for several days last winter. One day it was in the mountains of Utah, another in Island Park, ID. There were also several days of riding in the nosebleed altitudes of Grand Lake, CO. There was even a day or two in Wyoming mixed in there somewhere.

While each test rider has his own personal riding style, it’s safe to say we generally agree that we like the same riding conditions. Those conditions aren’t very different from most mountain riders. They are: only enough trail riding to get us to the backcountry; a wee bit of shelled-out backcountry trail to help remind us of why a good suspension setup is so important; a blanket of freshly fallen snow on a good base; trees that are far enough apart that we can pick our way through them; lots of terrain variation from wide open meadows to rolling hills to gnarly drainages to test our sidehilling skills to challenging hillclimbs; and, of course, sun. 

Looking For The Big Iron

When we get those conditions, most of the time we’re looking for an 8. Granted, there are days when you don’t need an 800 because a smaller cc sled will do, but there are usually enough winter days where those ideal conditions will test the sled’s metal and our mettle. Those are the riding days we live for.   

It’s in those conditions that we test the mountain sleds—regardless of engine size. They all get the same shakedown. But when it comes to the 800s, we expect more so we ride them harder. We hit the bumps a little faster. We smash the throttle a little more up the hill. We climb higher. In short, we wring the sled out and see how it holds up.

Once again, as has been the case for the past handful of years, the mountain 800 class is the most competitive on snow. We find ourselves splitting hairs to come up with what we think is the best mountain sled on the mountain.

The water can get a little muddy when you start talking about the 800 class, however, as there are lots of different models. Are we talking about the spring-only models or the sleds you can buy in-season? Or both? Generally speaking, mountain snowmobiles you can buy as part of a spring-only program have a better shock package than in-season models, along with a few other perks, like premium gauges, upgraded handlebars, lightweight parts, stuff like that. Rather than rehash all the differences between each manufacturer’s spring-only and in-season models here, we refer you to the September issue of SnoWest, where we went over those distinctions by sled.

For this report, the Ski-Doo 8 we talk about is the Summit X 800R model, which is the spring-only model. The Everest brand is Ski-Doo’s in-season 800 and is a base model. As for Polaris, we focused on the Dragon 800 RMK in-season model. There is a spring-only Dragon 800 RMK but the only physical difference is color, while the 800 RMK is the base model. When it comes to Arctic Cat, we refer mostly to the M8 Sno Pro. One of the biggest reasons we prefer the M8 Sno Pro over the M8—of which both are in-season sleds—is the telescopic steering. You can’t get it on the 2010 M8 and it is one Cat feature you really want in the mountains. The Sno Pro also has the Fox Float shocks on the front suspension.

Now if we were asked to name the one single distinguishing trait about each of the brands, here’s how we would sum it up:

Arctic Cat is the most nimble mountain sled in the powder.

Polaris is the best all-around sled for mountain conditions on- and off-trail.

Ski-Doo has the lightest mountain sled on the snow and thus the best power-to-weight ratio.

When it comes to mountain sleds, there are three areas sleds are usually judged in: weight, horsepower and handling. Weight and horsepower are easy. You just look at the numbers. Handling is a little tougher to get a handle on because it can be all-encompassing. Handling can include everything from the chassis itself to suspensions, seat, skis, track, handlebars, running boards and all that is connected to any of those parts.

The argument in snowmobiling circles really gets heated when you ask which one of those three is the most important and makes the biggest difference when riding in the mountains. Point and shoot hillclimbers want horsepower. Boondockers tend to favor lighter weight. We all want good handling.

How about the SnowTest riders? We don’t have an answer for that yet … we’re still arguing about it. So we’ll just talk about all three for the 800 class—in no particular order.

Anyone who follows SnoWest Magazine on a regular basis read Steve Janes’ report in the March, 2009, issue on the Deep Powder Challenge (“Battle Of The 8s,” page 22) where the Ski-Doo Summit X 800R was declared the winner after several days and hundreds of miles of various competitions.

So doesn’t it stand to reason that, since there was only a short list of changes to any of the mountain sleds for 2010, the Summit X would be the clear-cut sled to buy for the upcoming season?

Not so fast.

On that short list of changes, Cat made two that really turn up the heat in this class. Those couple of changes helped push Cat to the front when it comes to deep powder riding. First the new 800 H.O. powerplant now puts Cat back in the fight, whereas before, it was second or even third out of the three 800s when it came to engine output. Second, the new seat is a mountain rider’s dream. How can a seat make any difference? The only way we can explain that is it’s a seat-of-the-pants impression. As for the storage compartment, well, anything you can carry in the trunk means you don’t have to carry it on your back.

Numbers being thrown around about Cat’s new 800 H.O. include eight more horsepower, 10 percent more power than Cat’s previous 800, power in the neighborhood of 160 hp (some even claim closer to 165) and 4.5 lbs. lighter than the engine it replaces.

Adding It All Up

We may not be very good at math but we know it all adds up to being neck-and-neck with the Summit X 800R, if not a bumper or two ahead. The Polaris 800 has now been relegated to the third spot in the power output department.

Nearly every SnowTest rider said his favorite new feature on the Cat was the 800 H.O. engine. What’s not to like—more power to get you through those tight spots on the hill or to the top of the hill, coupled with an already nimble chassis. It’s not just raw horsepower that has made Cat a contender with this H.O. That power is delivered in a smooth, manageable and broad powerband, now with a little more oomph on the top end. You can feather it when you need to while working the trees on a sidehill or you can hit the throttle for that burst of speed you need to get through the deep powder or up a hill.

Ski-Doo has plenty of power, too, in its Rotax, but it comes on as what one SnowTester called, “brute force,” adding that it takes a little more effort to work the Summit throttle compared to the Cat or Polaris RMK. You can attribute that hard throttle pull to the Summit’s carb engine versus the fuel-injected motors Cat and Polaris use. If your Summit is equipped with Ski-Doo’s sweet 600 E-Tec, well, then you’ve got a smooth-as-butter throttle pull (and start), but for 2010 the 800 still uses carbs. It does show, however, that Ski-Doo has fuel injection technology which could eventually expand to the 800 line.

One of the reasons Ski-Doo did so well in the radar runs and time trials in last year’s Deep Powder Shootout was because it was the engine that ruled the mountain (and it packed fewer pounds). Straight up a hill, the Summit is a hillclimbing fool and hard to beat. The Rotax comes on strong and stays strong all the way through the powerband and probably has the best grunt of the three 8s on the top end. What will be interesting to see is how the Cat 800 H.O. fares in the 2010 SnoWest Deep Powder Challenge.

And only time will tell if Cat’s new engine will be problem-free its first year on the snow. That’s always a bit of an unknown for any manufacturer.

We are still big fans of the 800 Cleanfire on the RMK, which continues to offer a smooth and manageable throttle as well. In comparing the 2010 class, the Cleanfire 8 is down a few ponies compared to the other two 8s in the class. Polaris will not be publishing horsepower numbers for its 2010 models so we can only go by last year’s rating—154—which should be good for this season since there were no changes to the engine.

Weighty Matters

Ski-Doo made a big push to shave every possible pound and ounce from its Summits so they would be the lightest stock sleds in the mountains. Plain and simple, it worked. Summits are the lightest stock mountain sleds on the snow and Ski-Doo owns the 800 class when it comes down to weight.

Weight affects a lot of aspects of riding, most notably how tired you are at the end of a day of pounding the powder. Ski-Doo’s push for lighter sleds has obliged the other manufacturers to follow suit.

Unfortunately, we can only quote the dry weights for the Summit X and Dragon 800 RMK. Cat won’t publish its dry weights until the sleds are in production, which, at the time we went to the printer with this issue, was still about a month away.

Summit X 146-inch track                    442 lbs.

Summit X 154-inch track                    446 lbs.

Summit X 163-inch track                    452 lbs.

Dragon 800 RMK 155-inch track       472 lbs.

Dragon 800 RMK 163-inch track       477 lbs.

 

Based on what we learned at the new model previews last January and what we saw at the photo shoots in Grand Lake, CO, in March, the new M8 with the lighter 800 H.O. engine will come in about 8 lbs. lighter than the 2009 model. Using that information we suspect the M8 will come in somewhere between the Summit and RMK. We’ll publish Cat’s weights as soon as we get them.

We weigh each of the mountain sleds we get in the fall before we head out to ride. We fill them with gas and oil and then weigh them. Of course, the following numbers come from the 2009 models we weighed, so keep that in mind. Here are the weights:

Ski-Doo Summit X 800 154 – 530 lbs.

Arctic Cat M8 Sno Pro 153 – 546 lbs.

Polaris Dragon 800 RMK 155 – 570 lbs.

Those numbers pretty much reflect what the dry weights show—Ski-Doo is lightest, followed by Cat and then Polaris. However, we should point out, Ski-Doo has the smallest gas tank of the 800s, so its wet weights would be lighter when compared to the Polaris RMK, which holds nearly a gallon more fuel than a Summit. That is roughly 7 more pounds of weight the RMK is packing in fuel.

Handling

We could spend a lot of ink talking about the finer points of a sled’s handling in the mountains. The truth of it is that part of it comes down to the rider and how well he or she learns a respective sled’s handling characteristics and then uses those to the rider’s advantage. Of course, that’s easier on some sleds than others.

Because it’s different things on different snowmobiles that make them easier—or not— to handle on- or off-trail, we forced the SnowTest crew to pick two features from each of the 800s we’re covering.

Time and again, the rave reviews about the RMK revolve around its overall handling both on and off-trail. The sled is absolutely predictable in the bumps and in the powder. It responds well to rider input and you can “steer” the sled with your feet, an important feature when you’re standup riding and the only contact you have on the sled is your legs (from about the knees down) and your hands on the handlebars.

When you’re riding off-trail, you need a responsive sled because snow conditions can change in just a few feet. You want a sled that works with you when going around a tree well or sidehilling on a tree-littered mountainside. That describes the RMK. We attribute its excellent handling characteristics mostly to the IQ chassis, but also give credit to the front and rear suspensions—which complement each other and work together—equipped with Walker Evans shocks. Throw a little love to the Sidehiller 2 skis, too, which the SnowTest crew still thinks are the best on any mountain sled. The handlebar setup is ideal for most riders, too, being the right height for sit down or standup riding. There is some disagreement among the SnowTest riders about the width of the bars, however, as some think they’re too wide and others think they’re just fine. Put all those RMK qualities together and you have the kind of machine that is a solid performer in most any condition the mountain can throw at you.

While some snowmobilers might not think this has to do with handling, we think it’s high time for Polaris to redesign the running boards on the RMK. How do running boards affect handling? If they’re full of snow because the snow can’t fall through and you’re trying to sidehill while standing on a patch of ice, well, that has everything to do with whether you end up slipping off and doing chin-ups on the handlebars or have a firm grip on the machine as you ascend a hill. To fix the problem, Polaris needs to redesign and/or make bigger the snow evacuation holes on the boards and maybe put a little more bite on the edge roll.

Cat’s Turn

It was a toss-up for us on choosing between Telescopic handlebars or the new seat for Arctic Cat. You really need the Telescopic Steering system to fully enjoy the M Series sleds. However, we’re not going with either. Instead we decided to go with the Power Claw track.

When you add the Power Claw track, now back for its second year on the snow, to the new 800 H.O. engine, you have a powerful combo for the mountains. Because the Power Claw was also on the ’09 models, we spent a lot of time in various snow conditions and that track flat-out works. Deep powder? Its specialty. Hard pack? It digs in like two junior high girls in a cat fight clawing each other with their nails. Spring snow? Not a problem. With the Power Claw you get the best of both the finger track and paddle track world. It’s single-ply and comes in 153- and 162-inch lengths with 2.25-inch deep lugs.

Now back to the mountaintop dream at the beginning of this story. Remember those ideal conditions? Scrap the helicopter; make us ride up to that same mountain through a mogul-infested backwoods trail and the RMK or Summit would be our first choice—not the Cat. Comments from SnowTest riders echo those from a year ago—Cat’s rear suspension ride is better but the rider pays the price in deep moguls and stutter bumps. The RMK and Summit definitely outshine the Cat in this area. During last year’s photo shoots in Colorado, to get to one of our favorite riding spots, we had to endure a shelled out section of trail that stretches any suspension to its limits. And to get the pain over with sooner, we blitzed that section as fast as we could. Several riders commented how they could sit down on the Summit X and ride over that section of trail and the suspension soaked it up like a dream. Not so on the Cat. You felt like a whipped puppy by the time you got across that section of trail. We think upgrading to a Fox Float R Evol rear shock might solve that problem.

Now that we’ve mentioned the Ski-Doo rear suspension and how it performed in that section of trail, we point to the Summit X and its rough trail handling as its shining star. The rougher the better when it comes to performance from the SC 5M rear suspension working in perfect concert with the dual A-arm front suspension. In fact, you might just find yourself looking for the nasty stuff when you’re riding the Summit because the sled blows through that kind of junk and has fun doing it. Ski-Doo has made huge strides in rough trail handling on its Summits. And Ski-Doo put to rest that old theory that a lighter sled has to sacrifice some things and ride is one of them. Squash that. Ski-Doo has it pegged.

Here comes the splitting hairs part—and the part where all the SnowTest crew isn’t singing from the same page. Call it the Summit’s maneuverability or sidehilling abilities or laying down in the powder capabilities. Most SnowTest riders think this maneuverability in certain deep snow conditions is the Summit’s one flaw. If you caught the September issue of SnoWest, you read all the changes Ski-Doo has made (like a softer sway bar, longer center shock and the like) to help its Summits react similar to what you’d find in the M Series or RMKs in specific mountain conditions like sidehilling or laying the sled down in powder (the Ski-Doo tends to want to stay flat). This series of changes is very promising as we found out last March in Grand Lake, CO, and again in April in Island Park, ID, when we got to try out the 2010 models. The Summits do roll up easier—maybe still not quite as easy as the M or RMK, but better than before. And we probably didn’t even get to ride the final product as we know Ski-Doo engineers were working to refine all those changes up until the snow melted. So, it may even be better than when we last rode. It’s obvious Ski-Doo is working hard to keep its No. 1 spot in the West.

Now back to the question we asked at the beginning—which sled to jump on? Well, actually the entire premise of the initial question was flawed.

Why would anyone take a helicopter up to the top of a mountain on a beautiful winter day when they could ride a snowmobile up through the deep and steep?







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