Back in the early 1970’s there were more than 100 snowmobile brands sold at the same time. While some were re-badged jobs like Arctic Cat’s J.C. Penney-branded sleds, or the Polaris models sold by Sears, that’s still a lot of choice in the snowmobile market. Can you imagine how crazy that would be today? Obviously that’s not happening with annual sled sales well off their peak, and we’re all grateful to have our four brands: Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha. If we could dream for a moment, what are some other companies that should build snowmobiles?
It’s a tempting question, and there are a lot of cool motorsports companies that aren’t in the sled business. Let’s start with the obvious:
Back in the late 1980’s and throughout the 90’s, Honda was the cool car and powersports company that went its own direction and focused on simple, lightweight performance. The CRX, Civic, Prelude and S2000 cars all created massive cult followings that persist even though their cars have lost much of their performance-biased edge. In powersports, everybody knows the old ATC and Big Red three-wheelers ran forever. Mine is still going strong, resting quietly in the barn as we speak. Honda’s current four-wheelers are incredibly bulletproof, if dated and lacking features compared to the competition — but they still handle great and aren’t nearly as heavy as other quads.
Many enthusiasts hoped Honda would do something special when rumors circulated about its impending side-by-side five years back, but the resulting Big Red is a disappointment to anybody hoping for lightweight speed, handling and athletic performance. It is certainly handy for working, but nobody can say the Big Red is sporty — and it sure is ugly. Even so, we remain optimistic that Honda will turn its ship around and start building unique vehicles that make enthusiast hearts pound. After all, if they can divert money to building a robot, why not a snowmobile? It’s the Power of Dreams in action.
I’d like to see Honda take Ski-Doo’s MX Z head-on with clean, turbine-smooth, direct-injected two-strokes that can go toe-to-toe in terms of efficiency, performance and smoothness at high RPM. Let’s go ahead and call it the Honda SRX — to complement its TRX sport quad models, S for snow.
This one’s a no-brainer, as any company with “Ready to Race” as its tagline should be in the snowmobile business. The Austrian-based motorcycle, bicycle and (onetime) sport quad maker builds durable, beautifully simple, high-performance machines that are usually a step above the competition in terms of price and performance. Instead of just choosing from hopped-up Pro-R, RR and X-RS models from the current players, it would be great to have a nearly race-ready snowmobile more aggressive than anything else on the market.
In fact, I’d recommend the company builds three snow models: the 800 SX (snocross), 800 XC (cross country) and 800 MX (mountain). KTM could shake up the snowmobile industry in a hurry! And, from the company that likes to take risks — like the fantastic X-Bow race car — it seems like developing some high-performance, clean-burning two-strokes could be a valuable corporate exercise anyway. Whattayasay, KTM? Anybody listening?
3. John Deere
How can you argue with this one? John Deere built sleds back in the day — Managing Editor Andy Swanson happens to own two 1980 Trailfire models — a 340 and 440. With silver panels and green accents, they look great and would make excellent modern-day snowmobiles. For design inspiration, look to Deere’s Gator XUV side-by-side models, which can don the traditional John Deere yellow and green, outdoorsman-friendly dark greens or sporty looking camouflage like the all-new, four-seat XUV 550. Slowly but surely its side-by-sides have gotten sportier, but still retain their utilitarian credentials as some of the hardest workers in the category.
Let’s face it, the current snowmobile utility market isn’t all that strong, aside from a few exceptions like the Arctic Cat Bearcat and Ski-Doo Skandic models. John Deere could shake things up and create a wave of highly capable snowmobiles that were still fun to ride for pleasure. Let’s name it the SUV, which is similar to its other off-road products and conveys a sense of rugged utility and snowy outdoor fun.
I’ll take mine in John Deere green, with a matte-finish silver helmet.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Who needs a high-priced sled nobody can afford? BMW tries to dominate in every area it plays — from high-end road bikes to its legendary sports cars — and it develops a lot of technology along the way. Stealing the high-tech mantle right out of Ski-Doo’s Québécois hands, BMW would enter the market with a bang, likely producing snowmobiles that look and feel different than any other, with incredible performance that still coddles its driver.
For inspiration, take a look at the BMW i8 concept car, formerly known as the EfficientDynamics. Part of BMW’s Project i, the i8 concept combines a tiny 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbodiesel engine with a pair of electric motors generating a combined 129 hp to provide an electric range of 22 miles. This is no plug-in Prius, though, as the i8 is claimed to accelerate to 62 in 4.8 seconds, with a top speed of 160 mph — while delivering an ambitious 75 mpg.
On the snow, BMW would be wise to develop an ultra-performance halo model — something like a 1200 triple two-stroke with electric assistance, not all-out electric drive, which remains a pipe dream. Power could be captured and stored while decelerating or braking, and that energy could be applied in high-acceleration situations or while cruising at 100 mph across your favorite lake top, delivering unheard of performance and efficiency at the same time. Unaffordable as it may be, this technology would eventually come down in price and trickle its way down to the mainstream … eventually.
No offense Harley riders, but this one is purely for my own amusement. Harley-Davidson’s entry into the snowmobile market could also herald the return of leathers on sledders. H-D built snowmobiles, along with everybody and their brother, back in the 70’s, but it’s got the scale and funds to make a push into the snowmobile market. Massive, offensive chrome pipes may close a trail or two (or all of them?), but can you imagine how cool you’d look behind the bars? Bandana instead of helmet, just enough butt crack peeking out to make a point, flag-waving bald eagles and legs fully splayed out to cool down that leather-clad body. Ha!
Getting kind of serious, the Harley’s matte-black Nightster is a pretty slick looking bike. On snow, I propose they build the Super Slide Custom — leather saddle bags, lots of chrome up front, old-school lights, tall handlebars and one big, loud engine. This is for the high-speed, straight line, lake racer guy.
I’m probably going to get knifed for this one…
What am I forgetting, other than common sense or financial realities? Are there any companies you’d like to see enter the market? We had a few other honorable mentions, but I’d rather see what you have to say. Comment away!