What started out as a curiosity when the Polaris Assault was unleashed on the mountains just three model seasons ago has evolved into a full-blown mountain class that has quickly become one of the most popular, right behind the 800cc sleds.
Arctic Cat introduced the HCR the same model year-2009-as the Assault but the Assault seemed to get all the attention that first year. Ski-Doo came a little late to the party-model year 2011-with its Freeride sled but made a pretty big splash when it did arrive.
Now much more than a curiosity, the mountain freeride sleds are different things to different people. For professional hillclimbers, the freeride machines are their weapon of choice when competing in hillclimbs. For the serious backcountry rider, these sleds offer beefed-up suspensions (and chassis in some instances), stiffer tracks and different handlebar setups, all designed for all those riders to pound the bumps and jumps a little harder than your stock mountain 800.
We knew this segment was going somewhere after Polaris sold a bunch of Assaults when those machines first came out. Now with Cat and Ski-Doo in the mix, the mountain freerides are one more exciting option for western riders.
For 2012, the mountain freeride class offers a full complement of sleds to choose from, including (with available track sizes) the Arctic Cat HCR (153-85 durometer track), Arctic Cat M1100 Turbo HCR (162-85 durometer), Polaris 800 RMK Assault (155) and Ski-Doo Summit Freeride 800 (137, 146, 154).
We should mention at the outset of the following questions that Arctic Cat didn't bring a M800 HCR to the annual photo shoots so most of the answers will be between the Polaris Assault and the Ski-Doo Freeride. We did ride the HCR M1100 Turbo so that will be in the mix on some questions.
Which sled has the most significant changes for 2012?
Once again, Arctic Cat wins the prize in this area, as it has in the mountain 800 and four-stroke segments. The name is the same for the Cats in the freeride class but that's about it as the two HCRs are the newest in this segment. New from the bumper to the snowflap, not only does Arctic Cat come to the mountain with a new M800 HCR, but also an M 1100 Turbo HCR. We've detailed in previous issues this season all the new features on Cat's mountain sleds (ProClimb chassis, Arctic Drive System, ARS front suspension, new running boards, new skis and the list literally goes on and on), but we definitely should make a point to highlight the new M1100 Turbo HCR, which is a whole new animal for the freeride segment.
Ski-Doo thinks the freeride segment is a big enough deal that it decided to just create a new segment in its lineup for the Freeride. New for 2012 are three track lengths: 137, 146 and 154. The new Rev XP seat on the Freeride also features a small storage compartment and the shocks used for 2012 are KYB Pro 40 piggyback easy adjust racing shocks. The new easy adjust compression damping adjustment knob does not require tools, similar to the rebound adjustment knob on the front shocks.
The big news with the Assault is that there is now a model (not mentioned above) in the Switchback brand, the Assault 144. Whereas the Assault 155 sits in the Pro RMK chassis, the Assault 144 uses the Rush front end and Rush steering post and has lugs only 1.352 inches deep compared to the 155 which has 2.4-inch deep lugs.
Which sled feels the most powerful?
It's hard to argue against the M 1100 Turbo HCR with its 177 hp. Straight up, the turbo wipes the other three sleds in the class, including the M800 HCR. If we're just going with the 800s in this class, then the nod goes to Ski-Doo's Freeride.
Which sled makes the least power?
This year we didn't (at least yet) get any seat time on the M800 HCR, this decision boils down to the Polaris and Ski-Doo and the Assault just doesn't build as much horsepower as the Freeride.
Which sled's powerband is best for climbing?
Again, comparing just the naturally-aspirated sleds, if you're going straight up the hill, the Freeride has long legs and scampers up the hill. Throw some turns in there or trees on a hillside and the Polaris Assault is tough to beat because of its broad powerband and nimble chassis that allow for some maneuvering.
Which sled's powerband is best for boondocking?
Not to sound like a broken record, but having not had a chance to ride the naturally-aspirated HCR, this comes down to the Polaris Assault and Ski-Doo Freeride. It may not have the most power in the class but the Assault allows you to use every bit of power you need when you're working tight trees on an off-camber hill. It's smooth and useable power. For the record, the HCR Turbo is a bit much in tight trees. This is a hillclimber.
Which sled has the smoothest powerband for all conditions?
This question's not so easy to answer. Throwing all kinds of western riding into the mix from hillclimbing to boondocking to busting powder, it's a tossup between the Assault and Freeride.
Which sled has the best front suspension?
One of the best features about all the sleds in the freeride segment is that they use premium shocks and the suspensions are set up for pounding the moguls. You can ride these machines hard and they just come back for more. They all have pretty sweet setups but the sweetest just might be the Freeride with its KYB Pro 40 R easy adjust shocks although a couple of SnowTest staffers made a pretty strong argument for the Assault and its Walker Evans compression adjustable needle shocks. Cat uses Fox EVOL shocks on its Arctic Race Suspension front end but it was a little hard to get a good feel for the ride on the HCR Turbo because of the weight on the front end.
Which sled has the best rear suspension?
Again, Ski-Doo has the KYB Pro 40 easy adjust shocks in the SC-5M 2 rear suspension and got the nod from most of the SnowTest staff. The Assault's RMK coil-over rear suspension is no slouch with its Walker Evans compression adjustable needle shock (rear track shock) and coil-over shock (front track shock). The HCR/HCR Turbo have the M rear suspension with Fox Zero Pro (front arm) and Fox Float (rear arm) shocks. It does well but both the Ski-Doo and Polaris are better.
Which sled has the best track?
This is not as easy as the pick we made in the "8 Is Enough" story in the October issue because the tracks on 3 of the 4 sleds in this class are different than the 800s.
Tracks in the freeride segment tend to be stiffer (stiffer durometer) for hillclimb competition, which is usually on a hardpack course with nasty ol' ruts, not deep powder.
Arctic Cat uses an 85 durometer track, compared to an 80 durometer track on Cat's other mountain sleds. Polaris' tracks are also stiffer. Ski-Doo's track is the same as on the Summit but it also has the deepest lugs off the three brands in this class with its PowderMax II 2.5 inch.
Tracks chew up the snow. That means there is a little tradeoff with the mountain freeride sleds. Generally speaking you get a more premium shock package so you can hit the holes a little harder but if the powder is soft then the stiffer tracks trench more. Cat's Powerclaw works well in all conditions, even with the stiffer durometer which, interestingly, works better in deep powder than Polaris' stiffer track.
Which sled has the best seat?
The SnowTest crew couldn't agree on this one. Some like the narrow Assault seat, others the new Rev XP seat with storage and still others the Cat seat. This one boiled down to personal preference.
Which sled has the best running boards?
Cat's new running board design works really well in the deep snow with the other two playing catch up.
Which sled has the best skis?
Ditto on what we said in the mountain 800 class: Polaris . no contest.
What sled feels the lightest on snow?
At 446 lbs., the Polaris Assault rides lighter and is lighter than the Ski-Doo Freeride (489 lbs.). Again, we don't know about the Cat M800 HCR. The HCR Turbo definitely isn't the lightest on snow.
What sled feels the heaviest on snow?
The M 1100 Turbo HCR has the most power but it's also the heaviest.
Which sled sidehills on open hillsides the best?
Polaris gets the nod here. The Pro Ride chassis is one nimble piece of engineering.
Which sled handles the best on rough single-track trails?
Even though we think Ski-Doo has the edge in suspension both front and rear, the Assault handles better on those shelled-out backcountry trails and that's thanks once again to the chassis.
Which sled handles the best on groomed trails?
The Ski-Doo Freeride.
Which sled is our top pick for this class?
The edge-and it's the slightest of margins in this class-goes to the Polaris Assault over the Summit Freeride 800. In fact, it wasn't a unanimous pick on the SnoWest SnowTest staff. Ask us again later in the season after we've had some more seat time on the M800 HCR and that might change, but for now we're going with the Assault.