Looking Back At The 1990s

Evolution Of Mountain Sleds

April 2020 Feature Steve Janes Web Exclusive

            Today’s snowmobiles are by far the best over-the-snow machines ever created. They go practically anywhere and do practically anything. And today’s snowmobilers have developed a riding style that magnifies the capabilities of these modern marvels.

            However, perhaps the reason snowmobiles have evolved so far in such a short time is due to the subtle changes that occurred during the 1990s when western snowmobiles began to impact the market in a significant way.

            If the 1970s can be described as the era of go-fast-across-ice-and-packed-snow and the 1980s the era of suspension-and-handling, then the 1990s could best be described as the era of lightweight-horsepower.

            Since I was fortunate to have a first-hand, front-row seat during these early decades in the evolution of snowmobiles, looking back now it’s easy to see what developments actually shaped the future of snowmobiles. I was one of the few who were blessed to be able to ride literally every brand and model created during the 80s and 90s (and from that time to today).

Hindsight Is 20/20

            There is an advantage of looking back at the models which shaped the future … mainly because we’re now living the future and it’s easy to see the path we took to get here.

            The early 1990s seemed to focus on horsepower. Then in 1993 the industry started looking at to power-to-weight. The challenge for the OEMs engineering teams was whether to focus on power/performance or to look at weight reduction. During this time, adding a little weight if it added more power was deemed acceptable. By the end of the 1990s there were basically two types of performance sleds—the big horsepower muscle sleds and the lightweight oriented performance sleds. Although most of the attention seemed to be placed on horsepower, it was still the performance sleds that led the way in sales.

            Back in the 1990s, it wasn’t quite as easy to predict which snowmobiles would actually have an impact in future designs. After all, the best indicator for that would be based on sales and longevity. If the model didn’t sell, and there is little patience in the marketplace, then the manufacturers would quickly move on to something new. And even if a model had great sales numbers … but had an unacceptable level of issues (based on how many and how big of issues the consumer would tolerate), the manufacturer would also quickly move on to something new.

            There were several models that were introduced with a bang and went out with a fizzle.

            So here is my list of the top 10 snowmobiles of the 1990s based on my impressions then and my impressions of how they impacted the designs going forward. I seemed to prefer the changes in the early 1900s more than the late 1990s. Perhaps this is when I see the most actual change in snowmobile design philosophy. I have also compared my picks to those picks from several snowmobile forums (Snowmobile Fanatics, Arctic Cat Forums and SnoWest Forums) which have looked back at the 1990s with mostly fond memories of past snowmobiles.

            How do these selections add up in your memories of past snowmobiles?

Steve’s Picks

1990 Arctic Cat Prowler—With an all-new Suzuki lightweight 440cc engine that sat lower in the chassis, the Prowler was a forerunner for the new generation Arctic Cats. Both hood and A-arm were revised to make the Prowler more efficient in production and on the snow. It borrowed the Yamaha Phazer look of a handlebar-mounted fairing for wind protection, although the headlight stayed attached to the hood. It was lightweight for its time (435 pounds dry). SnoWest Magazine noted after riding the 1990 Arctic Cat Prowler for the first time: “It’s new. It’s refreshing. It’s exciting. Although there are many characteristics on the Prowler which can be compared to other snowmobiles, don’t be fooled. This is an all-new sled which promises to leave its mark in snowmobile history.”

1991 Yamaha Exciter II—Although Yamaha tried to provide a sequel to the Phazer by introducing the Phazer II in 1990 in an effort to rejuvenate excitement for a sled that had been around for six years, the excitement just didn’t catch on. Then in 1991 Yamaha introduced the Exciter II and this time there was enough improvements to actually allow their loyal riding base to become engaged. The Exciter II featured significant improvements to the engine, carburetion, cooling, clutching suspension and design. It had the YXR (extra ratio) primary clutch. Unlike most sequels, this was truly one that worked.

1991 Arctic Cat EXT Special—Keeping up with the power/performance and weight reduction effort, Arctic Cat introduced the 1991 EXT Special with its lightweight new 550 cc liquid-cooled engine. It got the double-wishbone suspension from the Prowler which improved the EXT in handling. Cat took the success from the Prowler and added it to a stronger engine and proven platform. The EXT was built for the trails. The EXT Special was built for the race track with a better shock package. It cost a little more money … but it was worth it.

1993 Ski-Doo MXZ 470—The 1980s showed a decline in Ski-Doo’s domination of the snowmobile industry. The 1990s wasn’t going much better. Polaris and Arctic Cat were taking all the headlines on the race track. Ski-Doo wanted to get back into the game and become more relevant. So the company went out and found a new face—Toni Haikonen from Finland—who had been dominating the Scandinavian snowmobile racing scene, and put him on a new model designed to compete in terrain racing—the Ski-Doo MXZ 470. Along with Haikonen, Todd Wolff of Annandale, MN, also found success on the MXZ 470. Soon others were jumping back on the Ski-Doo bandwagon and finding success in snocross and cross country racing.

1993 Polaris XLT—The moment this snowmobile was introduced, western riders realized that even though horsepower was great, a lightweight snowmobile in deep snow was much easier and more enjoyable to ride. The XLT was quickly named Snowest All-Around Sled of the year. It featured an Xtra Light Triple—about 50 pounds lighter than anything with relative power. More specifically, the XLT had a 579cc powerplant with three cylinders that weighs in at 470 pounds dry. And the aftermarket performance companies quickly found ways to crank out much more power without adding any more weight.

1993 Arctic Cat Thundercat—Although the emphasis in 1993 was lightweight power, Arctic Cat still realized that power tends to solve a lot of the weight issues. And the Thundercat had the power. It was named the SnoWest All Star Muscle Sled and featured a three cylinder 900cc all-new Suzuki engine. And yes, there is no replacement for displacement.

1993 Arctic Cat EXT 580Z—Although Cat had the power, the company was also smart enough to realize that the muscle sled market was limited. The industry was evolving to quick acceleration and smooth riding. The EXT 580Z became the SnoWest All Star Performance Sled for 1993. It wasn’t the most powerful, but likely the most fun to ride.

1994 Summit 583—After the big push in 1993 for power and performance, there began to be a subtle change in the snowmobile industry. Up to this point, all product development was driven by the Midwest (flatland) market. But the western market—elevation and terrain riding—was beginning to catch hold. Ski-Doo realized this and set out to provide a snowmobile for the mountains. The 1994 Summit 583 was a mean green machine that provided plenty of firsts—first to be specific-built for the mountains; first to come with stock composite skis; and first to introduce high altitude compensation (working on barometric pressure to monitor air intake) for the carburetor. It came with an aluminum chassis and bulkhead. It wasn’t a perfect snowmobile. But it did change the industry’s perception as to what a perfect snowmobile should look like.

1995 Arctic Cat EXT Powder Special—Just as Ski-Doo led the way in 1994, Cat followed suit with a specific-built mountain sled, the EXT Powder Special. It was Cat’s way of showing the snowmobile community that it was addressing these three specific needs—deep-snow mobility, high elevation calibrations and intense terrain handling. It featured a new ski design, “making metal skis obsolete.” Plastic is slicker than metal, lighter then metal and more forgiving than metal. The skis featured a contoured bottom with a carbide runner. Then Cat bucked the wider front end trend by going narrow on the ski stance—to 37 inches. Cat also eliminated the stabilizer bar (sway bar) to allow each ski/spindle to work independently. Cat also went to a higher profile track (136-inch length) to create better grab and thrust.

1996 Ski-Doo Summit 670—Although the early 1990s established the difference between muscle sleds and mountains sleds, the 1996 Summit 670 found a way to mix “muscle” with “mountain” when it came to deep snow. This is where just plain horsepower evolved to power-to-weight with a degree of handling and floatability. Although the 1995 Summit 670 had been released, there had been a lot of changes and refinements to actually make it perform as intended. In 1996 Ski-Doo started connecting these dots that made the Summit 670 work right out of the box. They also realized that skis had a bigger part in handling and performance. Thus began Ski-Doo’s long journey to improve their skis. Although the Summit 670 didn’t have the power of the Vmax 4, Wildcat or Ultra … it also didn’t have the front end weight issues of those sleds.

What Others Thought

            Although three of my picks (1991 Arctic Cat EXT Special, 1993 Polaris XLT and 1993 Arctic Cat Thundercat) seemed to stand out on the lists of the three snowmobile forums examined, it seemed the trend for forum members was to pick snowmobiles of the late 1990s as their favorite models of the decade. I suspect a lot of this was due to the fact that perhaps those where the sleds most familiar with forum members who may have a more limited exposure to the sleds of the 1990s. You tend to pick the sleds you know the most about.

            Here are the sleds that stood out to them and the comments they made.

1997 Yamaha SRX 700—“The SRX is the sled Yamaha guys will never forget from the 90's. Those sleds still have a big following. They don't have much for suspension stock but they were always meant to be a lake racer/smooth trail sled and they are very good at that. It's insane how hard those things pull on the top end for a 700cc sled.”

            “The Yamaha SRX was one of the fastest and most reliable sleds of that era.”

1997 Arctic Cat Powder Extreme—“I’m riding a '97 Powder Extreme that seems to be a pretty competent on/off trail sled. You can't beat the sound of that 600 triple either. I'm also running a Camoplast 2-inch Challenger track that's been cut down to 1.5 inches which made a vast improvement over the stock 1.6-inch track.

1998 Polaris Indy XLT—“I always thought the Indys were good—no wonder they made them for 13 years.”

            “I have a ‘98 XLT with 6,000 miles on it. Runs perfect and compression is still excellent.”

            “As far as sales, XLTs rocked the sledding world more than any other sled in the ‘90s. Polaris sold a bazillion of them and everyone else scurried to catch up. The best were the 93-94 models for reliability IMO.”

            “It's amazing how many of those old XLT's you still see out there.”

            “Overall, you cannot go wrong with the XLT. Dead reliable, plenty of power and the sleds all handled and rode very well. I wish they would come out with a newer XLT.”

1998 Polaris XC 700—“I would say the XC 700 for Polaris ran and sold very well and from all I have heard they had every bit as much motor as the 670 Rotax. Although I never rode one, I have heard very good things.”

            “The XC 700 had a big hand in starting the big block twin era.”

            “Polaris knew what was up when it built that sled. And for the 700 vs 670 debate, I know my ‘98 would smoke a 670 Summit.”

1998 Polaris RMK 700—“My reasoning would be that they were the best pull and go sled of the ‘90s, and they could also run forever. I’ve heard multiple cases of these sleds rolling the odometer over (more than 10,000 miles) without anything done to them but routine maintenance.”

“That 700 engine was strong and went forever too.”

1998  Polaris XCR 440—“I would choose the 1998 XCR 440. That is a highly sought after sled.”

1999 Ski-Doo MXZ 670 HO—“I’ve never owned a Ski-Doo but it seems like the ’99 MXZ 670 HO would be a contender.”

           “I believe they were like 127 hp stock with a nice suspension and very reliable.”

            “I remember reading about them in the magazines, they were very desirable.”

1999 Arctic Cat ZR 580—“I’m going with the ’99 ZR.”

            “I would suggest for Cat the ZR 580. When it was introduced it was the benchmark that the other manufacturers were aiming for. AWS front suspension and a strong motor made Cat the target for 600 twins for a long time.”

             “For Arctic Cat I would say the 1997 ZR 580 EFI. It was the first year of batteryless EFI and the Extended Tunnel Travel. It had the solid 580 motor plus the updated chassis.

1999 Yamaha Vmax 600—“The Yamaha Vmax 600 is smooth, comfortable and Yamaha reliable. It is possibly the most reliable sled I've ever laid my hands on.”

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