"The Assault has been redesigned for 2011, which includes a big weight loss and new chassis.
"Of all the freeride sleds, the Arctic Cat HCR probably most resembles its mountain counterpart, the M8 SnoPro, when it comes to the ride and handling.
"The Summit Freeride brings a lot of features to the freeride segment, including the silky-smooth E-Tec 800R powerplant.
"One of the reasons you can wail on the Polaris Assault is its shock package, which uses a combination of two different kinds of Walker Evans shocks.
"The design and pattern of the track on the HCR is the same as Cat’s M8 but it is stiffer, which means it will hook up a little better in certain conditions.
"The Summit Freeride gets Ski-Doo’s newest ski, the Pilot DS.
"The Polaris Assault was one of the first sleds to appeal to the freeride segment and experienced wild success with the younger crowd.
"Cat’s HCR has made a name for itself on the hillclimb circuit and in the backcountry as a sled that is easy to handle and great power.
"Ski-Doo is definitely going after the freeride/backcountry crowd with its own Freeride, a segment that is one of the few still growing in snowmobiling.
There are trail sleds for trail riders. There are mountain sleds for mountain riders. There are even in-between sleds for trail riders who want to be able to ride off-trail. But what about those snowmobilers who ride mountain terrain with the same aggressiveness as those who attack the trails?
Welcome to the “freeride” class.
Here you have a snowmobile that has been designed to be light and nimble to handle deep western powder, yet packing plenty of suspension capable of launching off cornices and soaking up the landing.
This has become a class of sled that is capable of highmarking the steep mountain slope at one moment, then pounding through the hardpack tracks on mogul-ridden mountain trails the next. This sled has to perform at the highest level, regardless of the terrain and snow depth, due to the rider expectation. And the battle for class supremacy has become competitive, with Polaris, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo taking great interest in their respective 800cc lineups.
We’re talking about the Polaris Assault, Arctic Cat HCR and Ski-Doo Freeride—the same three sleds you see fighting it out in the 800 class on the hillclimb circuit.
Officially, these sleds are not “race” sleds, even though they dominate in hillclimb and hillcross events. But unofficially, the suspension packages tucked into the mountain chassis of these 800s are the best in the business.
So, since these sleds represent the best of the best in the mountains, which one is the best of the best?
The measure used to be simple—whatever handled best on the trails and through the powder was definitely the leader of the class. If that were still the case, Ski-Doo’s Freeride would reign supreme.
However, things change. Riding styles have changed. And the measure of supremacy has also changed. There are two other factors that have emerged with extreme riders—trees and terrain.
You just can’t go through the powder. You have to go through the powder on ever-changing slopes littered with trees. You have to be able to turn up and down against any degree of camber without losing momentum. This is where counter-steering has been perfected and if you’re not hanging off your sled with a foot dangling in the air, you’re not going to be able to make the turn. And of the three models, the Freeride falls from the top of the list to the bottom.
So who is on the top?
For the SnoWest SnowTest crew, it’s either the Assault followed by the HCR or the HCR followed by the Assault, depending on who you ask.
The Assault has shown the most significant changes for 2011. By shedding more than 40 lbs. from 2010, it has become more nimble and much more responsive. Crack the throttle and the sled reacts … perhaps maybe too responsive for some riders. And the Assault’s suspension package makes it a close second on the trails.
However, with all the changes made from 2010 to 2011, the Assault is virtually an all-new sled and will still need to prove itself to the masses.
The HCR, however, is in its second year with this present design and has already won the hearts of its owners. Although it didn’t feel as quick as the Assault in the turns, and it definitely falls behind the competition in the bumps, it still handles the flat turns better than anything on the snow.
Of the three, the HCR is probably the most predictable in terrain riding. The Assault is so quick to respond, it has a tendency to over-react to the rider. The Freeride’s chassis is designed to not trust the rider’s intentions and it wants to correct itself—pushing the sled parallel to the terrain.
All three feature the best suspensions and shock packages in their respective model lines. Ski-Doo has the narrowest ski stance of the three, which doesn’t seem to affect it in either a positive or negative way.
To best understand the nuances of each of these three models, it’s important to see how they evolved from their respective mountain line.
Freeride vs Summit X
According to Ski-Doo specs, the Freeride is 30 lbs. heavier than the comparable Summit X 800 with a 154-inch track. This weight likely comes from the beefed-up suspension to improve the ride and the wider stance.
The Freeride has an overall width of 50.7 inches (compared to 44.3 inches). Both the front and rear suspension packages features KYB Pro 40 shocks (compared to HPG Plus shocks).
When you hop from the Summit to the Freeride, the first thing you notice is the rear suspension. The Freeride tames the big bumps. With a little wider front, the Freeride feels much more stable. Featuring reservoir shocks with clickers, the Freeride allows its rider to fine-tune the ride with a twist of a knob.
Assault vs RMK
Polaris lists its Assault 15 lbs. heavier that the comparable Pro RMK. Again, most of the weight can be traced to improving the ride in the suspension.
The Assault uses Walker Evans Needle shocks up front and Walker Evans rebuildable/Needle shocks in the rear suspension. The Pro RMK uses the basic Walker Evans shocks. The Assault has a 48-inch (compared to 46.5 of the RMK) overall width. The track is also a little different, featuring a 2.125-inch profile (compared to 2.4-inch). It is designed thicker and stiffer for competition.
The bigger the moguls, the bigger the jumps, the more impressive the Assault. With a stiffer track, the Assault will have better hookup in packed snow conditions. But that will require the rider to show a little throttle constraint in deep dry powder.
Since the Assault is so responsive to the throttle, it will be a much better fit for a younger aggressive rider.
HCR vs M8 SnoPro
For Arctic Cat, the HCR’s front suspension uses lightweight aluminum Fox Zero Pro gas shocks with titanium springs, while the SnoPro uses Fox Float AirShocks. The only difference in the rear suspension is in the shock valving.
The HCR has an overall width of 48 inches (compared to 46 inches). The HCR track, although the same pattern and design as the SnoPro track, is stiffer. The HCR also uses a more aggressive ski that features a deeper keel.
The HCR is probably one freeride sled that rides as well if not better than its mountain counterpart in any kind of terrain.
So where do these three machines fit into the industry? Well, aside from being the unofficial hillclimb machines for each OEM, you really only need to look at the latest freeriding DVD films. That type of rider—younger, aggressive and teetering on the edge of control—has flocked to these three models over the past few years. We have to think Ski-Doo had this segment in mind when it dropped the Summit X-RS name last year for the 2011 Freeride moniker.
Each of these three models has something to prove for 2011—that they are the most aggressive, durable and versatile weapons for backcountry freeriding rebels.
The Ski-Doo Freeride and Polaris Assault just have more to prove than the Arctic Cat HCR.