Line them up, drop the flag and see which one takes the checkered.
Sounds simple. Nice clean contest. No subjectivity. You have one winner and the rest are losers.
It would be nice to be able to pick the best mountain snowmobile by one defining event.
However, for the SnoWest 2010 Deep Powder 800 Challenge, you just can't line the sleds up. (Okay, you can . and we did several different times. But all that means is which sled was best set up for that one run.) You need to put the snowmobiles through every imaginable condition, with the limitation as to what the snow conditions are at the time of testing, to see which one is the best all-around mountain sled.
Then add to that the variables of each rider's riding style/ability and you really have a lot of factors to weigh in on your decision.
This year we matched up three stock 2010 800s-Polaris Dragon (155-inch track), Arctic Cat M8 SnoPro (162-inch track) and the Ski-Doo Summit X (154-inch track). Now some might be saying that the various track lengths would skew the results. But the bottom line is those were the sleds that we had available to use. Whatever advantage a longer track would offer would be balanced by a disadvantage. And the conditions we were riding in weren't what you would call deep mountain fluff.
Each snowmobile was tested during five days of riding which covered about 250 miles of varied terrain with 13 different riders rating its performance over 14 subcategories. In groups of three, the test riders would pound their way over rough trails, through trees, up slopes and across sidehills, rotating sleds throughout the day and then ranking them against each other. Each day saw different snow conditions, elevations and terrain.
The 13 riders offered a broad variety of riding abilities. Some were your hard-core riders who spent all winter on the snow. Most would consider themselves experts. A few were relatively new to the sport. Some rode Polaris. Some rode Cat. Some rode Ski-Doo. Some rode Yamaha. And some rode whatever sled they could beg, borrow or steal.
The three sleds were only altered during the ride as what a normal rider would do during the course of a ride-minor clutch adjustments, track adjustments, etc. But basically, these sleds were out-of-the-box what you would pick up from any dealership.
Day 1-42 miles
For the first day we went into some extreme riding conditions near Alpine, WY. It had snowed several inches the night before . which was very welcome since the early January drought had made snow conditions somewhat scarce.
The test riders were Troy Johnson and Chad Jorgensen of Alpine, WY, and Ryan Harris of Idaho Falls, ID. It was an overcast day with flat light and zero base to the snow. Although you were tempted to grab a fist-full of throttle to plow through the three feet of snow, you knew you were trenching right down to the dirt and every rock and stump out there was just waiting to tear into your suspension.
There were five miles of smooth trail down the Greys River Road and five miles of bumps up Squaw Creek to allow the test riders to get a feel for the sleds and the suspension. But once we got on top of Squaw Creek, it was trees and powder the rest of the day.
Alpine is at about 5,675 feet elevation. By the time you turn off at Squaw Creek you are over 5,800 feet. In a matter of a couple of miles you climb up to 6,800. Once you start working your way up into the higher areas, you start to climb up over 8,000 feet.
"The Cat was the most maneuverable in the trees," explained Jorgensen. "The Ski-Doo was the best in the big whoops on the trail. And Polaris was just a good all-around sled."
But for Jorgensen, the Cat was his sled of choice when it came to boondocking.
Johnson agreed on the Cat as being a solid sled for powder riding.
"All sleds have their pros and cons," Johnson said. "Just some of the cons are easier to deal with."
Johnson also picked Polaris as a solid sled for all-around riding conditions. He had some issues on handling with the Ski-Doo, but said some of those issues could be resolved if he just spent more time on it. "It's just doesn't seem predictable," he explained.
For Harris, both the Cat and Polaris offered more precision for tight, technical off-camber lines.
"I find the Ski-Doo to be the kind of sled that will get the dirty work done, but isn't necessarily my choice for play riding," he explained. "When battling tight canyons filled with powder, the Summit would claw through the garbage and maintain a rideable line. However, it was difficult to get the Summit to adjust course as easily as the Dragon and M8."
Although Harris thought the Polaris seemed a little down on power and traction in these snow conditions compared to the other two machines, it was easy to change directions with just a little foot pressure and a tweak of the handlebars.
"It's easy to understand why some riders say the Dragon is such an unpredictable machine," he said. "You really have to learn the ins and outs of the Dragon chassis to master its ability to turn on a dime."
Harris said the Summit is the least responsive to this type of riding. The M8 is somewhere in between. "The M8 will react to light rider input, but not so easily as to overreact like the Dragon can," he said. "But it reacts to much less rider input than the Summit."
At the end of the day, this group of riders had Cat on top.
Day 2-62 miles
We had a clear day, although there hadn't been any significant snow for several days and the snow depth was suspect. The group of test riders-Greg Larsen, Brad Anderson and Steve Sargent, all from Idaho Falls, started out on the northern end of Dan Creek Road, elevation 6,250, en route to Commissary Ridge.
The first 10 miles in was trail riding on a relatively smooth snow-covered road. This gave the riders a chance to assess the trail characteristics of the three 800s. Then the group turned off the main trail to deal with about 10 miles of bumps on mountain trails before eventually ending up on top of Skyline Ridge where the snow was deep enough for cross country riding, elevation 7,300 feet.
During the course of the ride, the group dropped into a deep canyon on the south end of Commissary and found the going rather tough trying to get back out, forcing them to put the snowmobiles through a pretty good workout.
Anderson found that the Ski-Doo handled the best on the trails while the Polaris made him work the throttle and brake a lot. "The Cat felt sluggish and heavy although it had a very smooth, stable ride," he added. "It handled the best in the whoops."
As for the Ski-Doo: "It was a dream on the trails although in the whoops the backend would kick from side to side at times," Anderson said. "For boondocking, it is hands down my choice."
Anderson said the Polaris did well in all categories, although there was a tendency for it to over-steer when carving through the snow.
For Larsen, the adjustable handlebars on the Cat were awesome but the Ski-Doo was best handling on the trail, despite its lack of wind protection from its windshield.
"The Cat seemed the most crisp on the throttle," Larsen said. "The Ski-Doo was a bit flat in the mid range while climbing. The Polaris was the smoothest and most predictable."
For Sargent, the riding was a little beyond what he had experienced in the past. "For a novice rider the Ski-Doo seemed the best choice for its excellent stability on trails," Sargent said. "The Cat seemed to climb a little better while the Polaris seemed easiest to turn."
At the end of the day, this group of riders had Ski-Doo on top.
Day 3-44 miles
The third group to ride the 800s consisted of three guys from Montana. We headed up to Seeley Lake, MT, to try a little different terrain. Our test riders were Kirk Baker and Tim Willis of Missoula, MT, and Scott Stiegler of Florence, MT.
After about 10 miles of groomed trails climbing up the mountain toward Elsina Lake, the group started encountering some pretty decent snow which allowed them to do some climbing and sidehilling. We rode back to the area referred as the "ledges" where all the big rocks are. The snow had a good base which allowed for some fun carving through the trees and cornice jumping.
"I really enjoyed the Ski-Doo," Baker explained. "It's just a great handling sled with good power and nice hookup."
Baker also liked the M8's power and how the track hooked up. However, he thought the power of the Dragon was a bit lacking.
Willis said the Polaris was likely his choice for the best ride, although he liked how the Ski-Doo climbed.
"The Polaris handled well at slow speeds and was predictable throughout," Willis said. "The Arctic Cat was the most comfortable to sit on and ride."
For Stiegler, it would come down to a coin flip between the Polaris and Cat.
"The Polaris and Cat were very even for me today," he said. "Cat's skis didn't bite as well as the Polaris and the Cat would push more in the corners."
Stiegler said the Polaris required the least amount of effort to sidehill and the least amount of throttle and pressure to hold the sidehill. "The Ski-Doo was not bad . but it still wanted to right itself too soon; or it wanted to turn and point uphill. It lacked the middle ground."
Stiegler noted that each sled had some issues to deal with to make them more rider friendly. He said Polaris needs to narrow the handlebars an inch on each side, Cat needs to make the instrumentation controls a little more user-friendly and Ski-Doo needs to be more predictable in handling and easier to counter-steer.
At the end of the day, there was no real clear cut sled on top.
Day 4-52 miles
Returning back to Idaho, the fourth group of test riders-Kim Ryan and Jeff Hart of Iona, ID, and Clayton Ward of Idaho Falls-picked a morning after a fresh snow fall to head up to the Madison County trail system and ride over to Red Butte.
The group hit a double lotto-fresh snow and a recently groomed trail-making the 16 miles into the Red Butte/Thousand Springs trailhead a smooth and delightful ride. However, the final three miles up to Red Butte were riddled with moguls, perfect for testing the suspensions on the three 800s.
Once at Red Butte, the snow offered some challenging climbs for the test riders. The snow still hadn't acquired a base so the sleds would carve through the top crust right down to the dirt. Yet the crust would still pinch against the side of the sled creating a wedge drag. Once you lost your momentum, this wedge drag could cause the sled to high center and spin out.
It's not the best snow to conduct tests in . but it does make a rider work his sled to keep from finding himself entrapped in a snowy pit.
"Each sled had some positive things about it," Hart explained. Hart said he was surprised that regardless of how different the sleds rode, in many situations it was difficult to see which sled actually had the advantage. "They were all good in their own ways."
Ryan also commented on each sled's strengths and weaknesses. He found it easy to sidehill on the Polaris and the Ski-Doo, yet he struggled with the Cat. For him, it came down to between the Polaris and Ski-Doo, depending on the types of riding conditions.
For Ward, the Ski-Doo was the easiest thing to ride hard down the trial while trying to keep up with the group. However, with its low windshield, it was also the coldest ride of the bunch. He said the Polaris seem to work well in all conditions.
"Cat's long track was sure noticeable when trying to climb through the deep snow," Ward said. "The Polaris was also the easiest to pull from side to side . maybe a little too easy."
At the end of the day, this group of riders had Polaris on top.
Day 5-50 miles
The final day allotted for testing was basically a catch-all day. Dave Hunting, SnoWest's go-to guy for tech, took the three sleds out to get some basic information such as clutch heat tests, turning radius and acceleration tests.
Again we went to Bone, 30 miles east of Idaho Falls, since it was convenient and there was some recent snowfall. It was actually a rather windy, snowy day (some people might even say it was blizzard-like conditions out on the flats with the drifting snows. It was definitely a day you wanted to do most of your testing in the trees, just to get out of the wind.)
"I really liked how the Polaris handled the bumps," Hunting explained. "It was just much more predictable than the other two sleds."
But Hunting also admitted the Ski-Doo was an easy sled to handle in the trees.
We also performed a turning radius test on hardpack, where the Cat easily cut the tightest circle despite its 162-length track. In the acceleration tests, although the Cat had the top speed and the Ski-Doo was the fastest out of the hole, it was the Polaris through the midrange that covered the 600-foot run the fastest. (We would have gone farther but with the snow and wind, the radar could only pick up the sleds for 600 yards.)
Now it was time to start wading through all of our notes and assessing the importance of each day's ride and each category.
Test Rider Scores
Our 13 test riders rated the snowmobiles on 14 sub-categories under comfort, handling, power and amenities. Polaris showed an advantage in handling, particularly in turning and sidehills. Cat was strong in power, especially in predictability. Ski-Doo was the best and worst in comfort-best in seat and running boards, worst in windshield and handlebars.
But for the most part, the scores tend to blend together. For every rider who thought something about a particular sled was outstanding, another rider felt that it was the worst. (We actually had a rider who preferred the Ski-Doo windshield . apparently he wasn't riding that sled first thing in the morning down a trail.)
If you were to add up total points awarded in all 14 sub-categories, less than 4 percentage points separate the top (Polaris) from the bottom (Ski-Doo) And given that more of the riders had a history of riding Polaris, it makes the results even that much tighter.
In a series of six questions "Which would you choose to ride" in a certain type of condition, the Ski-Doo faired the best. Cat seemed to slide into the middle, but always still very close to the top.
The highest share of votes in any one subcategory was 40 percent (Polaris and Cat each got 40 percent in windshield, Cat got 39 percent of the vote in handlebars and Ski-Doo got 38 percent of the vote in seat, running boards, bumps instrumentation and handwarmers). The lowest ratings were Ski-Doo in windshield (20 percent), Polaris in running boards (27 percent) and Cat in seat (27 percent).
We did have a 15th sub-category entitled storage . but Cat was the only sled to actually offer storage on the stock model. The other two sleds required you purchase accessory bags.
Advanced vs. Novice
As we categorized our test riders from those who ride almost daily to those who have just recently started riding, there is an interesting variety in the responses.
For the advanced rider, Cat scored well in all categories and averaged out as the best sled for mountain riders. However, for those who haven't honed their skills to the point of mastering the sled, Polaris constantly scored high. Ski-Doo was either ranked at the top or at the bottom of each sub-category-the novice either loved it or hated it.
The advanced riders recognized the advantage of Cat's handlebars while the novice liked the feel of the wider Polaris bars. Both agreed that the Ski-Doo running boards were the best and Polaris boards the worst.
Advanced riders liked how the Cat handled, while novice thought the Polaris was slightly better . although both picked the Ski-Doo in the bumps. The advanced riders liked the Cat's power while the novice was pretty much content with the power of all sleds.
We also broke it down by brand loyalty for our test riders (the snowmobiles they ride the most), to see if they stayed true to their brand or actually recognized some of the strengths of the other brands.
It was interesting to see that in the 12 sub-categories under comfort, handling and power, Ski-Doo and Cat riders picked their own brands eight times and Polaris riders picked Polaris in nine of 12 sub-categories. When they weren't choosing their own brand, Polaris riders chose Cat (mostly due to the comfort factor), Cat riders chose Ski-Doo (mostly due to the comfort factors) and Ski-Doo riders split with both Cat (comfort) and Polaris (sidehilling and acceleration).
Those who didn't have a dog in the fight (Yamaha riders or those who ride all brands) tended to split their votes fairly equal with Ski-Doo taking comfort, Polaris taking handling and Cat taking power.
Multiple Sled Riders
Unlike the brand loyalties, these riders are basically your snowmobile whores . their preference is whatever has gas in the tank and is loaded on the trailer at any particular moment. It's not saying they don't have some preferences, it's just saying they tend to ride what's available and have no reservations on what they ride.
Their scores tend to be fairly balanced across the board. They like the Cat's adjustable handlebars and they hate Ski-Doo's lack of windshield. They like Cat's power, yet prefer Polaris' handling. They would take the Ski-Doo seat and running boards.
Picking A Winner
So when you try to sum up this mixed bag of likes and dislikes to come to a conclusion as to which 800 mountains sled is the best for 2010, it's about as easy as deciding which is the best snowmobile oil to use (Google the SnoWest forums if you want to see some real fireworks).
In other words, we watched the sleds perform. We studied the ratings. And we still don't have an overwhelming preference. Let's face it, there's not a bad choice out there. All sleds had moments when they shined. All sleds had moments they didn't. And if you have any brand preference going into the test, you likely see your brand on top at the end of the day. And your riding style would also influence what sled worked the best.
If you like to carve through the snow and pull long sidehills, it would be Polaris first followed by Cat. If you liked to fly down the trails and through the bumps, it would be Ski-Doo followed by Polaris. For versatility and predictability, it's Cat.
But for the SnoWest 2010 Deep Powder 800 Challenge, the only winners are those 13 test riders who got to spend a day on borrowed sleds thrashing through the mountains.