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Riding Style Reigns

Published in the March 2011 Issue Published online: Mar 26, 2011 Feature, Snow Tests Steve Janes
"Group 1:Riding Conditions: Some trail going in and out of area. Then climbing up ridges into open bowls and trees. Snow started out dry with sleds sinking about six inches to base. By midday the snow turned sticky as temperatures rose. In the trees the sleds sank 2-3 feet with a weak base layer.
"Group 2:Riding Conditions: Powder. Started across the flats in Island Park, worked through the trees up the ridge to White Elephant, then over into Mt. Jefferson. The weather was overcast with flat light and somewhat limited visibility. The snow was powder with the sleds sinking in about 12 inches to a decent base.
"When it came to sidehill handling in powder, no snowmobile scored consistently better than the Arctic Cat. Riders noted how easily the Cat held its line.
"Group 3:Riding Conditions: About 10 miles of groomed trail into Cabin Creek. Once back into the area, it was mostly on and off of mountain trails with fresh snow. Visibility was limited due to falling snow. The sleds were sinking about 18 inches down into powder. Lots of hillclimbing and sidehilling.
"If you're looking at extreme riding situations, the Polaris Pro RMK is designed to keep the rider in control. The track works well, even when the sled is laid on its side, to get you in and out of the tightest terrain.
"When the snow gets deep and the slope gets steep the Ski-Doo Summit gets to work. And it works well, powering you through the toughest terrain.
"Group 4:Riding Conditions: Mostly cross country riding with rolling hills, trees and ridge running. Down low the snow was crusty with about six inches of dry powder on top. Up high there was about 18 inches of dry snow on a very firm base. The weather was overcast with flat light most of the day.
" Group 5:Riding Conditions: Mostly tree riding with steep sidehills in a very tight and terrain-restrictive (vertical walls) area. There was about 18 inches of heavy powder on a very firm base. The weather was clear most of the day.

Objectivity is an interesting word. In the world of journalism, we like to think we keep our biases out of ink. We claim with total self-righteousness that nothing influences our opinions. We place ourselves as the poster boy of objectivity.

So when we rank the three mountain 800 class snowmobiles, we do so with no prejudices, no biases and no pre-determined attitudes. And if you believe that, we have a silver mine in Montana you can buy.

Objectivity and preference are two words with colliding meanings. What we like or dislike about any given snowmobile is based on preference, not objectivity. So for our Deep Powder Shootout, we tried to offer the collective preferences from 15 test riders (nine who earned the right via the SnoWest "Can You Ride" contest) and the other six from our SnoWest SnowTest pool of riders.

However, what we found in the end was that, for the most part, whatever brand of sled the test rider was most comfortable on tended to score the best for that particular rider, with a few exceptions.

If there is one over-riding observation found with our results, it's that each snowmobile has its unique design for a specific and somewhat varied riding style. And depending on one's comfort factor within that riding style, there was a natural migration to that particular sled.

For those who prefer conventional, the Arctic Cat had its strengths; for those who prefer deliberate, Ski-Doo had its strengths; and for those who prefer aggressive, Polaris had its strengths.

So as we sort out our overall impressions, it's up to you to decide how much importance to give to any one group of findings.

Over a two-week period we logged more than 750 miles (averaging more than 250 per sled) in a variety of snow conditions, utilizing five distinct riding groups of three to assess the benefits and shortfalls of each of the three 800 class snowmobiles-Ski-Doo Summit X 800, Polaris 800 Pro RMK and Arctic Cat M8 SnoPro. The sleds all had the 150ish track lengths and were bone stock.

Each sled started the tests with about 200 miles on the odometer. The only changes made to the sleds during the ride were belt replacements (both the Ski-Doo and the Polaris had strings coming off the original belt).

Riders ranked the snowmobiles 1-2-3 in 15 categories. (The total figures are included in our Scoring Chart. We also included a breakout on how brand loyalty voted.)

For the most part, rankings were somewhat balanced with each sled receiving first, second and third place votes in practically every category. Translation-some liked more and some liked less. And a very common comment after each ride was "You sure can't go wrong with any of those three snowmobiles."

Also, since each snowmobile has its unique tendencies and each riding style plays into those tendencies, the strengths and weaknesses could definitely be accentuated depending on the terrain and snow conditions. Since most rides featured technical terrain, deep snow and limited visibility, the tendency was for riders to prefer the sled that best suited their comfort level (the one they were most acquainted with).

 

Consensus Of Opinions

As we analyzed the scores and comments on each of the three snowmobilers, we have noted some common threads with each snowmobile.

These threads offer a glimpse at the tendencies in preferences, particularly with those who don't have a loyalty attachment with a particular brand.

Polaris Likes: In technical riding or in tight places like trees, riders noted how easily the Pro RMK turns. It also cuts through trenched up powder snow better than anything on the market. It opens up one-line approaches and allows you to cut a line through a trench that would normally wash you off your line.

Polaris Dislikes: It may seem petty, but simple things like the brake lock (you better have a vice-like grip to set it), hood latches (obnoxious), handwarmer switch (one rider never did find it), handlebar hooks (have you ever caught your coat sleeve while leaning out making a hard turn?) and lack of storage keep riders frustrated.

Ski-Doo Likes: Everyone seemed to notice how user-friendly Ski-Doo is with the left-hand controls for the handwarmers as well as instrumentation mode. Riders were also comfortable with the handlebar design and how the Summit X felt the lightest on the snow and easiest to turn, even at slow speeds.

Ski-Doo Dislikes: A floppy mountain bar . really? When we need to grab something there, we expect it to be there . not just flopping around somewhere. And what's with the no storage? Or how about the lack of wind protection when cruising down the trail? Finally, in dry powder covering a hard base, the skis just fight with the rider for control of the sled.

Arctic Cat Likes: You can't beat the adjustable bar for being rider-friendly. Actually, everything about the handlebars is good. And the M8 SnoPro can hold a sidehill better than anything on the snow. It also handles like a dream when following a track through powder.

Arctic Cat Dislikes: You can mix paint with that idle vibration. And for an old-style hood, you would think it could shut right at least some of the time. Here's a thought: put the hood straps somewhere where they're not always getting closed inside the hood. Also, the scores for the ride down the trail ranked the absolute worst for any sled in any category.

 

Rider Impressions

We asked each group which snowmobile seemed the lightest on the snow. The consensus from every group was the Ski-Doo. But when you look at the actual weights, the Summit X was actually the heaviest of the three. This is a situation where Ski-Doo engineers must have done something right in the process of doing something wrong. In one short year they went from being the lightest of the group to being the heaviest . even though they still feel the lightest.

We also noticed the skis on the Summit a little more that we would like-particularly when trying to sidehill. During the effort to countersteer, the back of the skis would cut through the powder and hit the base layer of snow, causing the sled to lurch downhill. In the same conditions, the other two sleds would maintain their sidehill cut across the slope.

However, in deep powder with no distinguishable base layer, the Ski-Doo handled like a dream. It also showed plenty of power and would just keep climbing.

Another apparent observation from the groups was each time riders went from the Ski-Doo and Polaris to the Cat, they made comments on the antiquated design. You thought you were going from new technology to old technology.

However, saying that, the groups also commented on how effortlessly the M8 would hold a line across a sidehill. This is where traditional design shines. So even though much of Cat's criticism was focused on its traditional design, much of its praise came because of the traditional design.

Polaris offered a solid ride and really didn't get a lot of negative feedback on anything major. However, Pro RMK did seem to disappoint our test riders mainly due to its pre-ride hype.

Basically, people climbed on the Pro RMK with high expectations yet with the limited seat time couldn't get past the learning curve on what it takes to get the most out of it.

Perhaps the best way to explain the difference in ride of the new Pro RMK is to go back a few years where the first Rev chassis came along. Everyone either loved it or hated it. It was so different that many just couldn't get used to the ride. The same holds with Polaris. This is a new ride. Even the Polaris riders are admitting that they're still learning what they can do and can't do on the sled. It's just that they're finding there are far more things they can do now than they've ever thought they could.

 

SnoWest Impressions

Since we're part of the mix, we also established a few impressions on each of the three sleds.

First for comfort, the feel of the Ski-Doo bars seem natural, but the design of the steering system makes the bars sweep at an awkward angle. Perhaps that's why we struggle to find the balance point of the sled in a sidehill situation. Because of the geometry of the bar swing, we go from being behind the bars to being on top of the bars.

As for the windshields, the M8 offered the most protection, but the big windshield blocks your vision of what the skis are doing. Here a smaller windshield like the Summit or Pro RMK offers the best visibility. You just need to wear warmer gloves when needed.

When it comes to the running boards, the traction and foot positioning is best on the Pro RMK when the boards are clean. The problem is the boards on the Polaris tend to hold more snow than the other two. The Ski-Doo boards have a tendency to fill up from the bottom with snow coming up through the large front holes.

Handling can be divided into two parts: First, turning (both in powder and on packed snow) and second the balance. For mountain maneuvers, the Summit turns great when the nose is flat on the ground. But when the nose is up in the air due to deep powder or elevation, all bets are off. The Pro and M8 will turn where you want when you want in powder conditions.

The balance of the Summit feels tippy on flat ground due to the narrowness of the front end, yet is hard to roll over on a sidehill. The M8 rolls over easily and holds a slope. The Pro RMK takes a little more input to get rolled, but stays there the best. It likes being rolled way into the mountain beyond the tipping point.

Once we're in trees, we lean solidly toward the Pro RMK. The M8 carves nice but is still somewhat bulky in tight off-camber spots. The Ski-Doo is a little unpredictable in sharp corners.

Finally, for sidehilling the Summit has a few more issues than the M8 or Pro RMK. Although it will sidehill, you have to keep the handelbars locked in a full countersteer. If the bars straighten out, the nose of the sled will try to climb up the hill immediately. If the back tips of the skis get into the base layer, it will tip the sled down the slope.

 

Group 1

If you go north from Fairfield, ID, about 30 miles as the crow flies, you find a small lake in the shadows between Ross Peak and Two Point Mountain. Goat Lake is at about 8,500 feet in elevation. Two Point climbs over 10,000 feet in elevation. Everything in between is extreme snowmobiling with trees, rocks and a great amount of vertical.

This is Camas County at its finest-no better place to test the versatility and performance of the 2011 800 class snowmobiles.

Our first group of guest test riders were led by Kenny Wartluft, who was selected from those who attended one of our two snowmobile shows this past fall. Wartluft invited his two riding buddies Matt Braun and Adam Cope.

We left from a snowmobile parking area about 10 miles north of Fairfield near the Soldier Mountain Ski Area. The first 10-15 miles were on a restricted trail (by permit only) until we could access the backcountry just past the Big Smoky Guard Station.

Once off the trail, it was all up and down ridges all the way back to Goat Lake.

Of our three riders, two would be considered Arctic Cat riders and the third a Ski-Doo rider. Going into the ride, the three admitted that the Polaris was the sled they were least acquainted with. Throughout the ride the three rotated their time on the three sleds. The two Cat riders tried to spend more time on the Polaris and Ski-Doo, while the Ski-Doo rider focused on the Polaris and Cat. Often one would ride a sled through a certain portion of terrain and then hop on another sled to assess the differences.

Prior to the ride, the consensus of Group 1 was that Arctic Cat would offer the best overall performance, especially in sidehilling and deep powder. However, after the ride, handling, power and comfort all went hands-down to Ski-Doo. Cat did win the battle of amenities-instruments, handwarmers and storage.

 

Positives/Negatives

For Ski-Doo, they were most impressed with the power. It also seemed to be the lightest feeling snowmobile. However, they were least impressed with the protection from the wind.

The Polaris impressed them on how well it handled. At first that seemed to be a negative . but the more time they spent on it, the more confidence they had in throwing it around. However, the Polaris was also a cold-riding sled down the trail.

For Arctic Cat, predictability was its No. 1 strength. But the ride in the bumps highlighted its dislikes.

The consensus of the group was that although all three sleds were impressive, Ski-Doo seemed to do the most things best, although the more they rode the Polaris and became accustomed to its handling, the more they liked it.

Although all three machines worked well, we did have to change a belt on the Ski-Doo. It started to come apart while holding a long sidehill climb.

 

Group 2

What do you get when you cross three SnoWest Forum members with the Deep Snow Challenge? Answer: Constant complaining about snow conditions and how slow the sleds are running, questions about what is the best two-stroke oil and an intriguing discussion on the benefits of a ported chaincase.

Well, actually it wasn't quite like that . but there was a lot of deep powder, leg-dangling turns and an occasional face-plant. And at the end of the day, the consensus was the 2011 Ski-Doo Summit X 800 was the best sled that day.

Our second group of guest test riders were Jacob Birchall (who was selected from the SnoWest Forums) and his two riding buddies Tim Patten and Brandon Cox.

We started our ride at Sawtelle Resort in Island Park and headed straight west across the flats and into the trees. Although we were in fresh snow, we were still following a route up White Elephant that gets hammered during the winter, so there were plenty of bumps to test suspension and handling.

As we climbed in elevation, the fresh snow depths increased to the point that all past tracks in were pretty much erased.

Our riding day featured a series of snow flurries so visibility was somewhat challenged throughout the day. And with flat light, borrowed snowmobiles and unfamiliar terrain, our test riders were forced to be a little reserved in their riding approach.

The group consisted of two Ski-Doo riders and a Cat rider . so again the Polaris was the sled of interest. As the three rotated through the snowmobiles, each was anxious to spend time on the Pro RMK in an effort to get a feel for the handling.

With the Summit, they liked the power and handling through the bumps. But they felt it was somewhat unpredictable in rugged terrain.

The Polaris also had great power and it mastered the sidehills. But the overall handling and ride was just too unfamiliar to build rider confidence.

As for the Cat, it offered good power and a sturdy platform and could hold a sidehill with the best, but its handling in the bumps and overall ride made it feel like an out-dated sled.

"Every sled has its day," explained Birchall. On any given day in certain conditions any one of these three sleds could be the best on the slope-that's just how close they are. However, Birchall, Patten and Cox voted that for this particular day the Summit was overall the best sled out there.

"I was amazed by the difference in power the E-Tec has from the regular XP 800," Cox explained. "This sled seemed impossible to get stuck . it just kept creeping through the steep and deep and in the trees. It looks like this ride may have just cost me $10,000."

 

Group 3

On the northern most region of West Yellowstone's trail system is the Big Sky Trail where the grooming ends and the playing begins. This area which takes in Cabin Creek offers a variety of terrain, matched with an abundance of snow that attracts snowmobilers of all skill levels.

Our third group of guest test riders consisted of Travis Barton (who was selected from SnoWest subscribers and those who sent in the "Can You Ride" cards) and his two riding buddies Casey Holling and Keith Johnson.

The common theme on this ride was pounding the powder. And none in the group had any reservations about taking the three 800s up any slope or across any sidehill. And although the visibility was poor and the snow was steadily falling, nothing seemed to deter their ambition to find their likes and dislikes about each snowmobile.

Entering the ride the three had a slightly more favorable opinion of the Ski-Doo, mainly because that was the sled they were most familiar with. However, their rides were all a couple years older so this was their first real experience on the newer technology.

The feel of the chassis on the Ski-Doo impressed this group the most-more specifically, the running boards. "I was able to control the Ski-Doo with the least effort in all conditions," explained Barton. But the simple things like a floppy mountain bar and hard to see gauges were some of the negatives.

For the Polaris, the smooth power and ease in handling made in an impressive sled to ride in the deep powder. "Lay on the throttle and it'll pull all the way to the top," Barton explained. But on the downside, the narrower running boards make it a constant issue in fighting for a foot grip.

The strengths in the Cat centered around its more conventional design where the windshield offered protection and the seat allowed the rider to lock into a riding position. But some of these conventional traits also translated into weaknesses-an out-of-date feel to the sled that made it bulky and harder to turn.

Although this group went into the ride favoring Ski-Doo, the consensus coming out of the ride was that Polaris was probably just a little bit better sled on the slope that day.

 

Group 4

After three consecutive rides into extreme country, we felt it was time to head east of Idaho Falls where the hills are a little shorter and the terrain a little more open. We were also looking to catch a break in the weather and ride in some sun.

Well, the sun thing lasted about as long as the open terrain thing. We weren't 30 minutes into our rider before we found ourselves weaving through trees and jumping creeks. And the option for leaving the drainages for the ridges meant battling a 30 mph wind and sub-zero temperatures.

So our ride went like this: Perspiring in the tight areas and freezing in the open ones. If you wore layers, you were uncomfortable when working the sled hard on tight sidehills. If you shed a layer, you froze each time you went over the top of the ridge to the next drainage.

There was about six inches of extremely dry snow resting on a concrete base. The only way you could get stuck was if for some reason you trenched through the base and got your track in a hole.

We put on about 70 miles by the end of the day with the last 20 coming out on the trail. Other than that, most of the miles were cross country. Midway through the ride we got back into some high elevation near Commissary Ridge (there's got to be about a dozen Commissary Ridges in each western state) where the powder was close to two feet deep.

This group of test riders had previous experience on all three brands so going from one sled to the next didn't seem to be much of an issue. And although the consensus was the Ski-Doo worked best in most conditions, the M8 received considerable praise on how well it handled sidehills throughout the day.

Group 5

Just north of Palisades Reservoir is a tight little canyon called Little Elk Creek, which is lined with willows, boulders and an occasional cross country skier. There's not a lot of room, even during the summer when a horse slipped off the trail, tumbled to the bottom of the ravine and died.

So when you take three 800 class sleds up the canyon, you can only imagine that there are not too many lines available and even less margin of error.

This is a ride that covered just more than 22 miles in a five-hour span where much of the time someone needed a pull on the ski just to make it to the next flat spot . which were few and far in between.

Although a map of the area shows a trail to the top of the ridge, with all the fresh snow stacked in the canyon, nobody in the group really had a good idea of where it was. So it was one gigantic free-for-all trying to find the best line through the trees and up the slope. Eventually, the group crested the ridge which put us looking into the Sheep Creek riding area looking straight down the canyon to the Upper Palisades Lake.

This was a ride where you had to have confidence in both your riding ability and the snowmobile's predictability. Being so highly technical and since this test group consisted of three Polaris riders, it was only natural for them to feel the most confident when they were riding the Pro RMK.

The terrain didn't allow the riders to "point and shoot" their way up the canyon. They had to hold a tight sidehill while maneuvering around trees and rocks . and perhaps a dead horse.

And at the end of the day, there were three test riders who were pretty beat. But this group definitely preferred the Polaris over the other two.