Purpose-Built Mountain Sleds: Which is the one for you?

2009 Polaris 800 RMK Assault

Rider Profile: The Extremist

“The Assault is positioned as a purpose-built, all-around backcountry buggy. Polaris engineers took the bulletproof Raw RMK chassis and added the features and calibrations most free riders are accustomed to bolting on after they put the sled in the garage. Right out of the box, the Assault is packed with the powerplant, shocks, track and style aggressive backcountry riders demand.

“Take the standard RMK rider and inject the desire to push limits and dominate daunting terrain. Although comfortable in well-trafficked riding venues, the Assault is at home piloted by deep powder riders who live to seek out big climbs, hits and cornices and live to create their own adventure. There isn’t a target age or demographic required, just a desire to go bigger, higher and harder.”

— Mark Nevils, marketing communications manager, Polaris snowmobiles

When Polaris targeted that buyer segment, it was brave. It’s a group that was accustomed to stripping many stock parts from the sled and putting on the necessary things that made it tougher, lighter and better suited to extreme backcountry riding. As an added bonus, most of the riders installed some attitude to go with it. Polaris set out to combine those traits into a factory offering and send it to the showrooms.

The Raw RMK platform strives to make the sled as light as possible. Still, Polaris isn’t the lightest in the hills by quite a margin. Lighter sleds might float better, but like other RMKs, the Polaris Assault is maneuvered easily and its handling is predictable.

The Assault is armed with Polaris’ Liberty 800 twin. It’s the same engine we had on the dyno that’s featured on page 46. This engine won our favor the first time we experienced it. It’s smooth, linear and has little vibration compared to other 800 twins with clutching that’s well calibrated.

Off-trail, the 146-inch track with its stiff, 2.25-inch lugs is aggressive. It trenched more than the other mountain sleds we rode in the same conditions, but it clawed itself on top of the snow. A longer track would reduce maneuverability, which in stock form is excellent.

Knowing the Assault’s buyers were going to go for big-air, Polaris did more than reinforce the chassis. The suspension package on the sled encourages “go bigger” behavior. The suspension is stiff, but when throwing a purposeful beating on the sled, the suspension amazed us. During a thrashing in the largest, tallest ungroomed moguls we could find, the Assault ate them up better than its short-track Dragon SP brothers.

On most trails, the suspension would be harsh, but that’s not the model’s intent. Polaris told us that, without a sway bar and with a 70 mph speed limit on its track, the Assault would be undesirable on trails. We think it’s been undersold, because trail behavior wasn’t bad, even though it pushed and had body roll in corners. But we’ll agree that the Assault’s true home is in the rugged backcountry, seeking the extreme.

Even though the sled comes in a matte red finish with flashier graphics than the North Star folks ever cut from its vinyl stock, we’re betting its hardcore buyers won’t leave it alone. Balled-up wad of stickers, anyone?

Handlebars: The Assault has Pro Taper bars for its backcountry riders. Regular mountain riders will miss a center grab strap. The single button on the left handlebar is the PERC reverse control.

Front end: The Walker Evans air shocks are impressive in the bumps, making the industry’s best front end handle rough terrain even better.

Track/skid: Beefy! The Polaris Assault includes reinforced suspension rails and Walker Evans shocks that beg the rider to jump farther and take on bigger drops. Traction comes from a 15- by 146-inch track with 2.25-inch lugs.

2009 Ski-Doo Summit Everest 600 E-TEC

Rider Profile: The Tech Head

“The Summit 600 E-TEC is positioned at the top-end of middleweight performance machines; high-tech, 600-class power with excellent fuel economy, oil economy and cleaner emissions. It’s targeted at a buyer who values great, hassle-free mountain performance with the ability to go farther on a gallon of gas than the rest of the pack. This buyer wants a great boondocker with excellent throttle response and driveability more than raw high-marking power.”


– Steve Cowing, Ski-Doo race and media relations manager

If Ski-Doo aimed first to have “high-tech” cornered with its 2009 Summit Everest 600 E-TEC, it scored a direct hit. The fanfare isn’t yet over for the E-TEC engine; we think it’s just beginning. Once the Web forums start buzzing this season with mileage figures, raves about oil consumption and accolades for run quality and ease of starting, people who haven’t experienced it first-hand might get tired of the hype. Make no mistake — consumer expectations will increase.

We’ve written plenty about the E-TEC and there’s little left unsaid. Starting is a short, quick yank on the rope and the engine putters into its idle drone. It revs quickly and it delivers competitive middleweight power. It isn’t the strongest 600 engine in the field, but what is gained in mileage and run quality makes any horsepower deficit easy to forgive. We still get scared we’re starving the engine of its lubrication because the engine uses so little oil.

It’s the same technology that delivers on the hassle-free promise, too. Engine starting doesn’t get easier and the engine fogs itself for long-term storage with the push of a button.

In addition to its better mileage that allows riders to stay on the mountain longer, the lightweight REV-XP chassis is less fatiguing. The claimed weight of 435 pounds is the same as last year, but it scales heavier due to the E-TEC components.

The REV-XP in its mountain trim is a good boondocker, but its weight on paper would suggest easier handling in tight spaces. It’s still easy to manage with its 146-inch track, but it’s not the best-in-class for off-trail maneuverability. Flotation is good and turning and carving is predictable as long as the driver puts in the effort. The chassis resists rolling onto its side for sidehilling or carving more than we’d expect. Turning radius, however, is remarkable for a long-tracker.

Like its trail sleds, BRP got high marks from us for rider comfort. Bar height satisfied riders from 5 feet, 9 inches to 6 feet tall. Running board traction was good and the big holes in the running boards allowed snow to evacuate easily. The seat was comfortable when on the trails between play areas. If trails are a concern to mountain riders, handling is excellent on the Summit. Steering is light and precise, and the rear pushes little with its 146-inch track.

Handlebars: The Everest’s ergonomic arrangement left no complaints.

Front end: Is it in the geometry? The Summit isn’t as easy to boondock as we’d expect a sled this light to be. It’s more cumbersome to sidehill and carve than the REV chassis that preceded it.

Track/skid: The REV-XP’s chassis and SC-5M mountain skid work amazingly well on the trail, too. The track is a 16- by 146- by 2.25-inch PowderMax.

2009 Arctic Cat M8 Sno Pro LE

Rider Profile: The Terrain Expert

“The M8 Sno Pro is for the rider who expects an expert-grade mountain machine that is the ultimate lightweight package, has a strong-performing engine, best-performing suspensions and best ergonomics. These mountain riders have the skill and experience to utilize the true potential of the M8 Sno Pro capability.”

— John Tranby, marketing communications manager, Arctic Cat Inc.

Having been in the M business since the 2005 model year, the M-Series mountain chassis has matured. It was our favorite mountain sled chassis when it debuted, and it’s improved each year.

This year’s changes are an innovative new mountain bar and a boss seat that dramatically improve the ergonomics. While we didn’t test the Boss seat on the machine we rode, we know it’s taller and it dismisses our chief ergonomic complaint: The stock seat is too low for modern standards, and where we’d disagree with Tranby’s claim the M8 has the best ergos. Still, when in the heat of backcountry, for quick reactions or in technical hillclimb footwork, the low seat is easy to step over.

The adjustable, telescoping steering column is brilliant. It’s strong, it works and there’s no reason to ever complain about an incorrect bar height. There’s some play in the system, but the small wiggles aren’t a handling detriment.

Already a lightweight, the M-Series got lighter in 2009 with a radical new skid. Like it’s coil-spring-less front end, five pounds worth of torsion springs were tossed aside with the Fox FLOAT shock on the rear torque arm. Arctic Cat claims its dry weight is 456 pounds.

We’ve been fans of the boondocking ability of the M sleds since inception and the new suspension in the M8 Sno Pro makes it even better. The outboard rear axle wheels on the skid are gone, replaced with a two-wheel setup between the rails. It allows the new, well-performing Power Claw track to flex. In the snow conditions in which we tested the 153-inch version, we couldn’t tell a definite advantage or improvement with improved track flex but throwing an M8 around to make it go where we want is easy enough. We didn’t ask for an improvement, but we’ll take one.

Despite an aging platform, and an 800cc engine that is class competitive but not a class winner, current M-Series riders have many reasons to upgrade. The M8 has aged remarkably well. Running board traction is great. The machine is confident and flickable. It floats and handles well. It’s got a great track record of reliability and it hits its customer target square in the teeth.

We can safely say we’re OK if Cat doesn’t change a thing. Well, a little more power wouldn’t hurt.

Handlebars: The new M8 Sno Pro telescoping steering post is one of the year’s best sled innovations. The M8 also comes with push-button reverse.

Front end: Fox FLOAT shocks handle the suspension up front. The M8 is light with great manners for climbing and boondocking and remains one of our favorite mountain sleds.

Track/skid: Arctic Cat’s new Sno Pro mountain skid uses a Fox FLOAT rear arm shock that saves 5 pounds. The new track is a co-developed hybrid design that combines the best features from the Attack 20 and Challenger tracks. The new Camoplast Power Claw is 15- by 153- by 2.25 inches.

2009 Yamaha Apex MTX

Rider Profile: The Power Climber

“The Apex is positioned for the high horsepower mountain rider who is looking for a dependable and reliable sled. We see a lot of these customers take this machine to the next level with superchargers and turbos. At that point, it can’t be touched!

“Our target customer for the Apex MTX is typically a former two-stroke rider looking for high horsepower with excellent hillclimbing ability with a reliable motor that will take him to the top.”

– Andrew Fulkerson, snowmobile product planning manager, Yamaha Motor Corp.

There’s a truth about the Yamaha Apex MTX: put a turbo on it and it climbs higher and faster than anything on the hill. Dressed in black or blue for 2009, it looks (and sounds) tough while doing it, too.

There’s no mistaking the Apex for a light sled, but there are features that help it overcome its weight handicap. The first is the powerful Genesis 150 FI engine. Always pleased with its tough, superbike sound, we’ve been impressed with its power delivery. It has smooth, linear muscle.

The engine spins Yamaha’s massive 16- by 162-inch long Maverick track with deep, 2.25-inch lugs. It’s a great track for point-n-shoot climbing that offers good flotation and traction. This sled is for people who build lots of speed on the bottom of a mountain to make a fast, high climb for King of the Hill honors. Because so many of the Apex targets are also high-horsepower, mountain muscle enthusiasts, the Apex MTX is the platform for many 200, 300 and 400 hp (or more) turbo applications in case the stock power isn’t enough.

The Apex MTX is surprisingly agile to initiate a turn. It’s much easier to sidehill and carve a line through powder than the spec sheet would have you believe. Changing direction — carving a right turn around a tree hole then carving abruptly left to swerve back into the intended path, for instance — is where the weight is noticed most.

Ergos, with a tapered tunnel that’s easy to navigate, didn’t generate complaints from our test drivers other than the running board edges. Some of our testers slipped off what is solid footing on other machines.

In addition to the longevity and durability of the four-stroke engine, there is another benefit. Because of the massive low-end torque, it’s easier to creep the Apex MTX out of a hole. Other mountain sleds — especially big-bore twin two-strokes — engage strongly, which can often mean a burst of track spin when finesse is required.

Experienced mountain riders who can manipulate the weight and throttle in combination with all the traction-coated stepping points on the chassis have an easier time with the Apex MTX than smaller or less-qualified drivers in technical situations. But anyone can use the successful Apex mountain sled for power climbing.

Handlebars: On board the Apex MTX, drivers are in an attack mode with easy stand-up ergonomics and a fabulous information cluster.

Front end: Wide skis offer flotation and the Apex has an easy turn-in despite is size and weight.

Track/skid: Traction comes from the massive 16- by 162- by 2.25-inch Camoplast Maverick track that enables the Apex MTX to be a capable climber. The powerful Genesis 150FI has no trouble turning it.

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