After a couple of weak winters across the Snowbelt, the tide has turned this winter as there is widespread snow cover across most of snowmobile-land – including Snow Goer’s home state of Minnesota. This has enabled staffers to ride in areas that were shut out last winter and the season before that.
On Wednesday I ventured to a place in central Minnesota where, in the winter of 1996-97, I rode nearly every weekend from December through March. My trip to Aitkin County this week was a quick day-trip, and it gave me the opportunity to run the first tank of fuel through our 2017 Polaris 800 Switchback Assault 144 demo snowmobile.
We met a diverse range of conditions, and the all-new, Axys-based extreme crossover snowmobile handled them exceptionally well. Most of the trail miles we covered went through swamps and peat bogs, and the area had received 6-8 inches of snow before our arrival. Sled traffic earlier this month and last month through the swamps had defined the trails to nearly their full widths, but we were fortunate to be the first riders to lay tracks through the fresh snow in some of those areas.
Conversely, other trail sections were groomed hard and flat, and they were in nearly mid-season condition. And yet another section wasn’t adequately signed, which caused us to make a couple wrong turns and had us breaking trail along a tree line until we saw orange trail markers that led us back into a swamp. It was in this field where the powerful extreme crossover sled was able to show off some of its deep-snow capabilities.
Conditions overall on Wednesday were relatively soft and smooth, so that didn’t provide a good test bed for the new IGX 144 rear suspension or the suspension calibrations. But last spring when Polaris set us up with a pre-production version of the machine, I noted that suspension calibrations were too firm. More rides this season will shed light on whether suspension calibrations changed between that early set-up and the final production version.
I really like the Switchback Assault 144’s new handlebar because it provides much-improved ergonomics for the trail than previous (model years 2012-16) Switchback Assault models. The handgrips feel like they’re closer together and the inner handlebar end no longer knocks into my upper chest and chin when leaning into corners. Also related to ergonomics, the PowderTrac Hybrid running boards are set at an angle that makes it comfortable to stand while riding, and foot traction is exceptional.
As expected, the 800 H.O. engine is powerful and fun to operate. Run quality is smooth, consistent and precise, though not as spot-on as the new Rotax 850 E-TEC engine has proven to be so far. I put 115 miles on the Switchback Assault 144 on Wednesday and it felt really strong and responsive after about the 10-mile mark. Once it has burned all of the pre-mixed fuel and the engine and machine is completely broken in, it will be fun to line up against our Ski-Doo Renegade Adrenaline 850 demo to see how they compare.
First impressions of the all-new Axys-based extreme crossover are good, but more rides on the sled this season will help other Snow Goer staffers and myself form well-rounded impressions about our Switchback Assault 144. We look forward to logging more miles on it and finding out if the front and rear suspensions provide a comfortable ride for long days on groomed trails or if this sled is best suited for pounding through drifts, swamps and giant moguls.