The Evolving State of Powersports Design

For me, suspension performance, acceleration, engine character (sound, vibration, harshness) and driver comfort are the most important qualities in a new off-road vehicle, but I’ve got to admit: I’m a sucker for good design. Sometimes it’s the little things like the type of headlight bulb used, a textured material in just the right place or a pleasing selection of color choices that accentuates a machine’s lines.

I think the latest Can-Am Outlander is the best looking ATV on the market. What do you think?

How much stock do you place in looks? While I bet few would readily admit design is high on their list of considerations, numerous consumer studies prove good design can be the difference between a sales flop and a product that changes the world. And it goes so much deeper than looks.

I think of design that encompasses nearly every aspect of a machine — the exhaust note, the way the controls operate and enabling ideal function that obeys aesthetic rules, as well. When I think of great design, a laundry list of successful products come to mind. Bear with me here: design is subjective, and some designs have aged better than others.

Although I have a vendetta against Apple’s Macintosh computers, I have worked on them since my days in journalism school in the early 2000s and cannot argue with their pleasing physical design. Macs may look nice, but I find them frustrating to use. The company’s consumer products, on the other hand, may be some of the best designed products in history. Blah, blah, blah – we’ve all heard it before.

Look at these sexy, wagonesque lines. I am in love with the design of the CTS-V Wagon, and I hope enough people agree so Cadillac keeps it in production.

I am a total, obsessive car nut. In this realm, a few notable automobiles stand out within my lifetime: the fourth generation Honda Accord (1989-1993), the Oldsmobile Intrigue, the damn-near perfect fourth generation (1998-2005) BMW 3 Series and today’s Cadillac CTS-V Wagon. With all of the money and effort put into automotive design, it’s no surprise that what happens here trickles down into many other markets, including ATVs, motorcycles, side-by-sides and snowmobiles.

There are many stand-out design stars in the ATV and side-by-side market, going right back to the very beginning. Call me crazy, but Honda’s ATC 250R still looks sporty and aggressive 30-odd years later. I also happen to think three-wheelers, in general, are pretty awesome.

"I know you have fun with me," the RZR asked dripping with mud, "but do you think I'm pretty?"

More recently, the original Can-Am Outlander 800 was my favorite ATV design. The gauge pod looked high-tech, it sounded like a muscle car, the lines were pleasing, it had the best looking front-end in the biz and everything all seemed to work together in perfect harmony. It remains a beautiful machine that’s a ton of fun on the trail.

Today, I think the new-for-2012 Can-Am Outlander has reclaimed the title of best ATV design. Its angular, muscular lines look high-tech and should age well. Bombardier designer Matt Tandrup, who also designed the current-generation Polaris Sportsman, culled many qualities from the automotive market to bring a higher level of design to the off-road industry. Kudos to the whole team!

Really, Kawasaki? The original Teryx was so much better looking than the current model.

In side-by-sides, the Yamaha Rhino is an indisputable icon that will be fondly remembered 30 years from now. Instead of a utilitarian design like the Kawasaki Mule or early John Deere Gator models, the original Rhino looked tough, fancy (with its automotive-style tail lights and machined rims) and designed for one purpose: fun. The Polaris RZR and Can-Am Commander, to my eyes, are the best-looking side-by-sides now. The current Kawasaki Teryx is so much less attractive than its original version: the perfect example of change for change’s sake, which often results in lackluster or outright weird designs.

It looks a bit dated now, but the '03 Ski-Doo MX Z was a revolution in sled design that endures today.

As an editor/tester at Snow Goer, snowmobiles are another of my core passions, and the market is a hotbed of innovative technology and leading-edge design. I recognize the 2003 debut of the REV-chassis Ski-Doo sleds like the MX Z as a watershed moment for snowmobile design, in both its looks and rider ergonomics. Its rider-forward geometry, which has the rider in a more aggressive, upright position, has changed everything in snowmobiles – more suspension travel, more athletic handling and a much more comfortable ride.

In today’s snowmobile market, I love the looks of the REV-XP chassis Ski-Doo models. While I’m not biased for or against any brands, I have often said I’d like a jet black MX Z 800 parked in my garage. I would wax its hood every Sunday, and we’d share intimate feelings and read the paper together.

Here are three of the best looking sleds on the market. Gotta love the retro Polaris and the avant-garde Arctic Cat, but I prefer the clean, edgy lines of the Ski-Doo MX Z.

I’m also really digging where Polaris has gone with its latest Pro-Ride machines like the Rush and new Switchback Adventure. These models definitely share some angular qualities with the Doo’s REV machines, and I like the controversial looks of its external rear suspension design. They’ve improved it significantly since its first iteration.

I like talking about design, and I am pleased how far these industries have come in the last five years. It’s only getting better from here and, if any other industry is our guide, the subjective and finicky quality of design will continue to gain in importance. This is good for the customer and industry alike.

Wear a helmet, respect the trails and ride safely!

Tom Kaiser

One thought on “The Evolving State of Powersports Design

  • Avatar for Brandon

    I have to disagree with you on some of your points. first of all the new can ams are hideous in my opinion. i feel the best looking are the current cats and the older canams. as for side by sides i don’t have a educated opinion. but i love the rzr especially when in the orange, black and white decaling scheme. i defiantly agree with how hideous the kawi is. as for sleds. i feel the best looking are the 03 to 07 doos,fire cats, and the pre 2012 crossfire style. the new sleds and the new canams have to much going on and are trying to hard to look high tec. I guess im just partial to simpler designs. but everyone is entitled to their opinions important just stating mine. and sorry for the bad grammar its kinda hard typing on a phone. 🙂


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