Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Snow Goer magazine.
It was my favorite ride of last spring’s weeklong Rode Reports testing event. After a few excellent days of riding the yet-unreleased 2012 models, I had the most fun on the day’s five-man ride on the twisting Two Top loop and then going over the steep mountain ridge onto the all-out-fast plateau near the vacation town of Island Park, Idaho.
The trails presented dramatic mountain scenery skirting the border between Montana and Idaho, and they’re some of the most adventurous in Greater West Yellowstone’s trail system.
Motoring past all the rental outfits on the outskirts of town and then beyond the city limits, I pushed my sled’s potential by building speed on straight stretches heading west and leaning my body far off the side in anticipation of the next curve. Hard on the gas and brakes, I kept my eyes trained as far ahead of the unfolding terrain as possible.
My co-workers and familiar riding buddies led the way of our tight pack, all aboard impressive equipment: 600 Rush Pro-R, MX Z 600 ETEC, FX Nytro and the mighty F 1100 Turbo. Some might say being assigned the entry-level, fan-cooled Polaris 550 IQ Shift would’ve meant grabbing the shortest straw in this draw, but not I.
At an Average Joe-friendly price of $6,399, this simply styled, old school, IQ-based trail cruiser delivers a pure and exciting ride with only a few small compromises as evidence of its bargain price. Put simply, the 550 IQ Shift is probably the best value in snowmobiling, quite possibly the most important sled for making the sport affordable to the masses, and it also happens to be a blast on winding trails.
Built upon a chassis that hearkens back to 2005 with upgrades along the way, the 550 IQ doesn’t look modern from any angle. But go ahead and sit down. There’s plenty of room for butts and boots, the gauge is simple but straightforward and the sled’s proportions feel comfortably familiar. This is what a snowmobile would look and feel like in a dream, pieced together by memory. Things get even better on the trail.
Pulling the cord and firing it up, the fan-cooled engine strikes a similar key: This is the textbook sound of a snowmobile — not nearly as refined as today’s best direct injected two strokes or smooth running four-strokes, but nobody will be offended by its exhaust note.
Following in the last position behind my four cohorts, we high-tailed it out of town on the aggressive Two Top loop. At a not-obese dry weight of 470 pounds, the 550 IQ dives into corners carrying minimal baggage and it’s even possible to swing out its tail around corners, which adds to the fun factor. The spacious ergonomics encourage the rider to lean far and maintain speed while cornering, rather than shave speed with the brakes. No fan-cooled 550-class two-stroke is going to feel like a rocket at elevation, but I had no trouble keeping up with faster equipment.
RydeFX shocks may help keep the sled’s price in check, yet all testers agreed it’s a comfortable suspension system that doesn’t transmit to the rider, but was never described as plush — a perfect match for this machine’s positioning.
We encountered another group of Snow Goer test riders and stopped to chat while they completed a photo shoot on a pair of performance specials. Editor John Prusak asked if I wanted to switch off the Polaris before we turned onto a new trail that was allegedly more challenging. I decided to stay put, confident in my ability to keep up and have fun.
He wasn’t kidding. Soon the trail became tighter and slower, with very steep hills and decreasing-radius turns — a rollercoaster trail that’s ideal for evaluating a snowmobile. After winding through the woods, we began climbing a series of switchbacks that took us high up to a trail that overlooked the whole region. The elevation taxed this battle-tested 544cc twin-cylinder engine, but it never bogged down enough to sap the fun.
After we stopped to enjoy the overlook, Prusak took a turn behind the bars and shared the enthusiasm.
“While other IQs sometimes tweak and lift a ski, the power of the fanner doesn’t overpower the chassis to that extent, so it lays flat and can be a real slot car through the turns,” he said later. “The throttle response feels a bit mushy here at altitude, and even at sea level it isn’t going to blow you away, but it rolls out nicely — nothing abrupt or startling, yet it will get you cooking into the 70s and beyond.”
Beyond the overlook, the trail pointed downward, carrying us into the flat valley near Island Park. From here, our windy trail became wide open, giving our group the chance to pin the throttles. It wasn’t surprising that the Shift and its pilot at the time, contributing writer Jeff Oberg, were left in the white dust by the faster sleds. Even so, his notebook also echoed positivity.
“This is a great overall sled for entry-level riders,” he said. “Stable, predictable, capable, comfortable, but it looks like it escaped from 10 years ago.”
Aside from its looks, a few other nits were picked. Most mentioned the sculpted seat feeling too firm, and nobody liked the handlebar bend that can cause wrist strain. Wind protection is average, at best, and everybody agreed the 2011 model looked much better and meaner with its unadorned matte black hood, compared to the shiny white of the 2012.
Look closer and you’ll find a few other flies in the ointment: ugly analog gauges, the same clunky hand warmer switches Polaris has used for ages and a floater-style fuel gauge. None of this is consequential. Focus solely on these minor hang-ups, however, and you’ll miss the forest for the trees.
The Polaris 550 IQ Shift is unique for what it lacks: unnecessary features, excessive horsepower and an inflated price. If you’re looking for the least intimidating sled for a beginner that’s still a lot of fun, this is your sled. Or maybe you’re an experienced rider like us who just appreciates a brand new snowmobile that won’t require a second mortgage.