Just like people, snowmobiles are basically descendants of past generations. And from generation to generation, although there are significant differences, there are also more significant similarities. For Arctic Cat, the 2007 M8 is the latest generation of evolved snowmobile technology that can be traced back to the mid 1950s in northern Minnesota.
But that traces only the roots of the snowmobile, not the mountain sled.
The big difference, explains Joel Hallstrom, snowmobile product manager for Arctic Cat, is that while Cat had been producing snowmobiles to ride in the mountains for the past half century, it wasn't until the turn of the century before Cat really understood what it took to make a mountain sled.
Hallstrom said that although Cat was building sleds with what at the time he thought had big tracks and big engines, they weren't building mountain sleds. "I can almost tell you the day when we got together with a group of western dealers while at a dealer show on a cruise in 2000," Hallstrom recalled. "We had a breakfast for our western dealers, so we were all around a big table. And we asked them exactly what they wanted us to be building for their market."
Hallstrom said at the time the dealers had the impression that they were "the fat kids on the hill." He said some were almost embarrassed by their mountain line.
"Right then we realized that our approach to the western market was all wrong," he explained.
Arctic Cat had been using a bunch of Midwest engineers to build a western sled. "We really didn't have the vision," he said. "But we knew then what we needed-a western boy, someone born and bred on snowmobiles. And we needed to be doing the design work in the mountains, not is some factory in the Midwest."
Arctic Cat brought in Jason Howell, a West Yellowstone native whose father, Bill, had earned a great reputation in the snowmobile community as a leader and businessman. For what Cat needed, Jason Howell was the perfect fit. He understood snowmobiles. He'd been riding them longer than he'd been walking. Working in his dad's dealership and rental facility, he had thorough knowledge of their operations and performance. He had raced them, climbed them, boondocked, everything you could imagine. All Cat needed to do was surround him with the facility and support he needed, and turn him loose.
"Jason is a lot like his father," Hallstrom explained. "He's bullheaded and set in his ways. That's exactly what this project needed . someone who wouldn't back down."
The challenge Arctic Cat was faced with was the dealers needed something immediately . but it would be disastrous to rush to production with something unproven and untested. The Mountain Cat 800 was on line for 2001. The Firecat seemed to be heading in the right direction, weight-wise. So Howell was asked to do two things-find a quick fix to get them through the next two or three years and then find the right fix to get them through the next 10 years.
"Jason did a remarkable job," Hallstrom explained. "He figured out what we needed to do with the Mountain Cat to be somewhat competitive with the 1M sleds, all the while he was trying to design an all-new M-series sled. He recognized that the 1M sleds didn't work well in certain snow conditions. Our ZR chassis was a good temporary fix. And it gave Jason time to do the development on the chassis that was where we actually needed to go. We didn't want to rush a product into the field, but we needed to make a significant change. We needed to make sure that when we made it, we made it right."
Over the next couple of years, Howell assembled a good team of engineers, working out of an Island Park, ID, facility. When it came time to release the M-Series, Arctic Cat had a product that was truly built for the mountains by someone from the mountains: a sled that Joe Average could ride with the confidence of a mountain rider.
"The reason we're so proud of our Ms and why we think they are superior mountain sleds is because we listened to the western customer and have developed a product that meets the western expectations," Hallstrom said. "We have full-time test riders on the mountain at that western facility. We have people like Bret Rasmussen, Chris Burandt-people giving us a lot of good feedback.
Although the 800 M is the latest in the new line of M-Series sleds, parts of the technology can still be credited to past descendents. Yet the differences in this technology can be pretty significant. For example, one would assume that since the 800 M has an 800cc engine, it evolved from the previous 800s in Cat's line.
In reality, the 800 M engine is actually closer to last year's 700 M engine than the 2004 800 1M engine. The 800 M is a lay-down engine.
Arctic engineers started thinking outside the box. They recognized how great a factor the engine weight played into center of gravity and location of mass. So they started looking at ways to get the weight shifted farther off the front and lower to the snow. The tilt-down engine came to mind . when someone said "the carbs are in the way" . another replied, "carbs can be moved." This went down the line with parts being moved or redesigned to fit the need.
End result-a sled that has such a perfect balance to it that it makes Joe Average feel like he can control this sled better than anything he's ever ridden.
And as the engine design changed, it led to better exhaust systems-pipes, exhaust valves, mufflers, etc. It also led to better cooling systems, better fuel delivery systems and better electronics. The end result: power has grown from the 56 hp days of the `80s to around 150 hp range of today.
In 1989 Arctic Cat introduced EFI on the 650 Wildcat. Since that time Cat engineers have continued to fine-tune the fuel delivery systems to enhance performance while providing a cleaner, more efficient snowmobile engine.
"The improvements have been tremendous especially with mountain sleds and the changing elevations, temperatures and conditions," Hallstrom said. He pointed out that the industry will continue to see improvements, similar to what's seen in the automotive industry.
Between EPA regulations and customer demands, the days of carbureted engines are nearly gone. "We have a team of guys that are part of the engine department but are strictly emission engineers," Hallstrom explained. He said with sound and emissions restrictions engines have become much more sophisticated than what they were during the `90s-basically pumping in gas and blowing it out the exhaust.
This has also spilled over into the exhaust systems. Although the basic function of the pipe hasn't changed, engine designers have developed the maximum performance out of the exhaust systems while keeping the sound level to the SSCC specs. Things like pipe sensors tell the ignition systems what the pipe is doing and then the timing can be altered for maximum performance.
If you look at the drive clutch on the 2007 800 M, you'll see a clutch that has looked the same for the past decade. Cat's Arctic (rpm sensing) Drive Clutch dates back to 1996 when it evolved from the Comet (rpm sensing) Drive Clutch. And the Comet clutch goes back nearly another decade.
With the exception of some refinements in the bushings, bearings and materials, you basically have the same clutch.
As for the driven clutch, the most significant change in the past two decades came in 1990 when Cat created the Arctic roller cam design. Since that change, like the drive clutch, there have been improvements in bearings, bushings and materials. But the basic design is the same.
"Just a few years back, everybody's driven (clutch) slid across a plastic button," Hallstrom explained. "But when the roller driven came around, then things just got better and better. The driven became more efficient."
However, as part of the drive system, Arctic Cat introduced ACT Diamond Drive in 2005 that allowed for the snowmobile to have a wider ratio than a typical chain/sprocket design and less rotating mass. The result is better bottom end especially crawling around in deep snow at slow speeds without burning the belt, yet still offering good top speed.
Although things seemed to stay the same during this time, huge advancements were made in the drive belts. For the most part, the compounds improved, along with the cord materials. Belts increased in width and durability.
Over the past two decades, the front chassis has also evolved from steel to aluminum extrusion to aluminum stamping. Each change has helped improve the design while reducing the weight.
As for the rear chassis, it evolved from aluminum to aluminum with taper (ETT). This has allowed for improved foot rests/running board design for the driver while allowing better snow clearance for the track.
When it comes to suspension, give Arctic Cat engineers an A . or better yet, an A-frame.
When Arctic Cat first came back into business after the two-year hiatus between 1982 and 1984, the company knew it needed to do something special to put itself back into the competitive mix. The competition had moved on from leaf/spring suspensions to independent front suspensions. Cat had put itself into a catch-up position.
It had an unproved A-frame design that was scheduled to come out on the 1985 model line. But Cat desperately needed something to happen to legitimize the new design.
It just so happened that a young Arctic Cat racer named Joey Hallstrom, riding a proto-type sled at the races in Thief River Falls in March 1984, put Cat on the top pedestal and elevated the "return of the Cat" marketing to a competitive level. AFS was accepted by trail riding enthusiasts across the country. AFS eventually evolved to AWS. And AWS has evolved to AWS-VI (its seventh generation in the past 15 years).
Even though the concept is still the same, the A-arms have become wider, more open and constructed from a higher quality steel. The geometric advancements offer more travel and a better ride.
As far as the rear suspension, the basic two-arm design dates back nearly two decades to the first Arctic Long Travel rear suspension. (Since 1994 it has been called the FasTrack Long Travel rear suspension.) Although the concept is the same, there have been several changes in geometry designs, rail profiles, lightweight designs and materials and wheel placement.
"Most important is track design and how rear skid frames have been designed to handle two-inch tracks of 150- to160-plus-inch lengths," Hallstrom explained. "We went from half-inch lugs profiles to now 2.5-inch profiles."
Not only have the tracks gotten longer and deeper, but they have also seen improvements in cord materials and design. Tracks are lighter, stronger and more efficient.
Hallstrom said he has seen a lot of changes in the Arctic Cat line over the years. But he's most proud of the changes in recent years because he believes they have resulted in a superior mountain sled.
"We have listened to the customers and have developed a product that meets the western expectations," Hallstrom said. "We have full-time riders out West, working out of a western facility. We have people like Bret Rasmussen and Chris Burandt who are giving us a lot of good feedback. We are focused on building the best mountain sled."
Although the 800 M hits the snow for the first time this fall as a production sled, its prototypes have been ridden extensively by Cat engineers, dealers and even racers. Its expectations are high, but then again, they should be.
This Cat comes from an impressive line of pedigree.