Most years at Rode Reports, our test team has compared the available entry-level snowmobiles for the coming season. Traditionally, that meant grabbing everybody’s two-stroke, fan-cooled 440, 500 or 550-class snowmobiles, holding the throttle to the bars for four hours and driving them like we didn’t have a dime in them. We knew that not every buyer of an entry-level sled was going to run them like this, but we wanted to push them to their limits to see what they were capable of, particularly when testing the fan-cooled performance sleds typically called “boy racers.”
Frankly, it always ended up being one of our most fun tests at Rode Reports.
Over the past five years, however, the class typically considered “entry level” has changed notably, and when we gathered the available sleds from the major manufacturers this past spring, we found snowmobiles that were each very different from one another.
From Yamaha, we gathered the Phazer GT, a playful and truly unique machine that seems to have its own way of attacking a snowmobile trail.
From Polaris, we grabbed the stripped down 550 IQ Shift, a stable go-getter that has that certain “whip-me, beat-me” attitude of the traditional boy racer sleds.
From Ski-Doo, we tested the brand new MX Z ACE 600 in TNT clothing. It sets new standards for smooth, easy and efficient travel in the snowmobile market.
Arctic Cat’s Sno Pro 500 was also on our ride, but it was so different than the other machines in this test that it was covered in its own separate story in the January issue of Snow Goer.
Each of the machines on our ride was rather low on displacement, but had other features that made it stand out from the crowd.
2011 Yamaha Phazer GT
People use terms like “unique” and utter phrases like “there’s really nothing like it” far too easily when talking about readily available products. I mean, is a Pepsi really that much different than a Coke? Is Bud Light really that big of a departure from a Coors Light? Does a Pizza Hut pie really stand out from Dominos? We all have our favorite tastes, but at the end of the day we’re not really comparing apples and oranges here.
The same can be said about much of the modern snowmobile world. Everybody has their favorites, of course, but it’s not like a person who just climbed off a Polaris would feel completely out of sorts on a Ski-Doo — they are functionally pretty darn similar.
The Yamaha Phazer GT, however, truly is different. If it were a soft drink, it would be Dr. Pepper — or, maybe even Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper — to everybody else’s colas; if it were a teenager, it would have a mohawk and facial piercings. The Phazer looks different, rides different, sounds different, corners different and, if you haven’t caught on to where we’re going here, it truly is different.
Introduced in its current iteration for 2007 as part four-stroke alternative entry-level sled, part playful goof-off sled and part enticer to non-snowmobiling motorheads, the modern Phazer has undergone tweaks in its four seasons, but it’s essentially the same machine as in 2007 — tall, twitchy and with a totally independent attitude.
The Phazer Philes
The Phazer GT’s look is somewhere between a hawk and a wasp from the front. A sharp nose juts forward, while wide cheeks are created by the tub that hangs behind the skis. The A-arms and shocks are completely exposed up front, looking as much ornamental as functional. The GT model is blessed with a broad windshield that protects the raised handlebars.
The driver sits tall in the perch on a narrow and tall seat. On Deltabox chassis Yamahas, the driver seems to sit in the chassis; you definitely sit on the Phazer. The FX chassis feels small and minimalist, but not cheap. Legs tuck behind the front tub, with knees and the top of thighs generally exposed to breezes. The running boards are wide, with a large bar up front allowing driver lock-in. A tall, rectangular gauge up front is modern and quirky at the same time — it looks somewhat like a GPS that was mounted there as an afterthought, yet you know Yamaha put a lot of thought into it.
The controls are all easy to reach and understand — we like the hooked handlebars, the adjustable brake lever, the light throttle pull, the flip-over parking brake and the easy-to-use hand and thumb warmers. Reverse is controlled by a push-button on the gauge — it electronically kicks in a mechanical system.
The Phazer sound and powerband are unique. To the ear, the inline engine doesn’t have the noise of a V-twin as much as it sounds like two low-compression motorcycle engines running side-by-side, and with the rear exhaust it sounds like those engines are located beneath the seat.
There’s a reason for the sound — Yamaha essentially mated two YZ250F dirt bike powerplants to create this unique offspring. The 498cc, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected twin generates about 80 hp.
The power from the Phazer is calm and muted — there’s no accelation rush or burst of power, though a hard stab at the throttle will pick up the light front end over snow piles or bumps.
Buzzing down a trail, the Phazer is fun and entertaining, yet it requires the driver to change his or her riding style to match its weight transfer. On sweepers and faster straights the front end tracks fine as long as you’re on the gas. Get into the tighter stuff, and carrying speed becomes more difficult. Lots of engine braking loosens the rear when letting off the throttle, which makes the rear lose its grip and wiggle. If the front end is planted, the rear steps around. If the rear is stuck to the terrain, then the front is sloppy. Finding the right combination isn’t always easy.
“It can be accomplished, but searching for that alignment of variables keeps drivers busy,” one test rider noted. “When it is all combined, it corners comfortable, stable and confident. But as simple as it sounds, the combo is elusive.”
The suspensions generally work well in straightline bumps, as long as the driver appropriately times the bumps and uses the throttle to keep the nose up. If the nose falls into a hole, however, the rear wants to pass the front in a hurry. With practice, it’s a lot of fun to bound around on this — one of the sport’s lightest-feeling four-strokes — but charging toward a minefield without a plan can leave the rider on his or her ear.
The GT version of the Phazer features dual-clicker shocks up front (12 clicks worth of compression adjustability, 20 on rebound), with a dual shock skid with high-pressure gas shocks. That suspension is surrounded by a 14- by 121- by 1-inch Hacksaw track. The narrow track adds to the lightweight feel, but we wonder if a 15-inch footprint wouldn’t add stability.
The steering is generally light, and the attitude is playful, but the driver of a Phazer should be ready for some ski lift and other handling anomalies.
Overall, the Phazer is phun and phunky, though phinicky in its handling.
2011 Polaris 550 IQ Shift
The Polaris 550 IQ Shift is snowmobiling’s version of a pair of Wrangler jeans. There’s nothing terribly fancy or fashionable about them, neither costs a whole lot of money, and both are generally comfortable and predictable.
There’s nothing showy about a Shift, and that’s what makes it cool. From the lack of graphics on the black hood to the ’90s-style gauge sans a tachometer, from the carbureted engine to the floater fuel gauge, there’s no pretention. It’s interesting because it doesn’t wear makeup or earrings.
No, it doesn’t have the high-tech engine and great fuel mileage of the Ski-Doo in this test, nor the funky look and unique appeal of the Yamaha. Instead, it’s just a snowmobile in the fully traditional sense, and it happens to have about the best trail manners imaginable.
For 2011, Polaris didn’t make any notable changes to its 550 IQ Shift other than bumping up the pricetag $200 — it’s the same lovable sled with a slightly less lovable yet still appealing price, and a one-year older feel thanks to the expansion of the Pro-Ride elsewhere in Polaris’ lineup. But we’d still welcome a Shift to our garage.
Nothing Shifty About It
Polaris introduced the Shift line for model year 2008, and moved its fan-cooled 550 into the setup in 2009 as a leading price point, minimalist sled — with a special shout out to the muted styles of snowboarders and other newcomers to the sport. Yeah, this sport may have deep roots in loud graphics and checkered flag designs, but that’s the very thing that turns off some outsiders.
Upon first glance, the Shift looks like a sled right out of the body shop — as if the previous owner tumbled it down a tall hill and resold the sled before they installed the graphics kit. If it were a car, it would be a cool, mostly restored ’72 Dodge Challenger, still wearing primer gray.
The base, though, is the lovable IQ chassis. It provides a roomy layout, despite a short-in-length, tall-in-height seat that ends far before the taillight and is held up by rear posts. The handlebars are high enough for seated leverage, and not great for standing by taller riders, but they could really use hooked ends for this rider. Flat running boards allow easy lock in, while the smooth seat is easy to move around on.
The gauge is an old analog speedo with no tachometer, and the fuel gauge is a traditional floater — both backing up the minimalist appeal of the Shift. It transitions to a downright cheap feel elsewhere on the chassis, as the fit and finish is behind just about every non-utility sled on the market, with less than stellar body panel fitment, odd foam air intake filters in the dash and a general lack of attention to details.
Where the IQ doesn’t show its age is in the ride. Well suspended despite entry-level shocks, the sled corners as flat as anything on the market, allowing the rider to front steer or rear steer through the twisties by either leaning forward into the bars or hanging back and driving it like a sprint car on a dirt track.
Throw in some bumps and ruts and the IQ dual A-arm front suspension and traditional two-arm rear suspension further impress and surprise. Those are Ryde FX MPV gas cell shocks on all four corners, yet when matched with this stable chassis and this engine, which limits how hard you can really charge through the bumps, they handle the job admirably. In fact, in squared-off chop, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better setup anywhere. The skis stay planted, and the sled just goes through whatever you place in front of it.
The engine is a fan-cooled, 544cc twin fed by 34mm Mikunis that provide a surprisingly light pull for base round slides. Most dyno reports we’ve seen post the engine around 60 hp off the crank, but that was good enough for an indicated top speed approaching 75 on a very l-o-n-g stretch at altitude in West Yellowstone. On the flatlands, it’ll top 80 if held long enough.
Its shoe is a 15- by 121- by .91-inch Camoplast Shockwave. The small lugs help the sled reach its top speed, but they don’t do the machine any favors on slick trails — we’d prefer 1-inch lugs with more sidegrip for stability. Electric push-button reverse is an extra add-on one wouldn’t otherwise expect on a stripped-down sled.
Comments from test riders’ notebooks included:
*“Buyers won’t be disappointed in the ride, but there are some aesthetic and cosmetic compromises;”
*“Every year the Shift family continues to impress for the pricetag;” and
*•“Definitely a sled I’d consider for my wife, my son or even myself. It’s safe, stable, affordable fun.”
Our loudest complaint would be that, while this is one of the least expensive sleds on the market, the price has crept up from $5,499 in 2009 to $5,999 last year to $6,199 this year. Maybe we’re just living in the past, but we really liked seeing fan-cooled sleds stay under the $6k threshold. Therefore, the 550 IQ Shift’s strongest competition likely won’t come from the other sleds in this test but rather from the used sled market.
The most popular machine of this group, with the fun factor of the Yamaha but the stability of the Ski-Doo.
2011 Ski-Doo MX Z ACE 600 TNT
As the current marketshare leader in the snowmobile industry, it seems like Ski-Doo engineers don’t really need to do a whole lot. They’ve got a great chassis, the cleanest-burning engines that easily meet emissions standards and they have a pretty good buzz going about their product. Oh sure, the competition isn’t slacking off, but Ski-Doo truly could rest on its laurels and count its money for a little while.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that’s what the company plans to do.
Instead, Ski-Doo provided perhaps the biggest surprise for model year 2011 when it unveiled a high-tech, ultra-efficient compact little four-stroke and mated it with new drive components to set yet another high standard.
It’s not surprising when you look at the company’s recent history. It didn’t settle, for instance, for having the cleanest burning two-stroke engines with its semi-direct injected (SDI) powerplants; instead, it brought direct-injected E-TEC engines to the market. And now, Ski-Doo tops that accomplishment with the Rotax ACE 600 twin. It’s incredibly quiet and civilized, and it provides a claimed 29 miles per gallon and fuel range of up to 310 miles per tank.
In MX Z clothing, the ACE also becomes the first four-stroke to be able to fit into Ski-Doo’s REV-XP chassis instead of the wider-tubbed REV-XR that is required for Ski-Doo’s other four-stroke option, the Rotax 4-TEC 1200 triple.
This chassis and engine package combine to make a snowmobile that is sneaky silent and easy to drive, but without an outstanding fun factor and at a price that may be too steep for its intended target market. Only time will tell…
It’s Just Like Butta´
Other sleds have been described as being smooth or quiet or efficient in the past, but nothing has ever rolled down a trail like this new limo from Ski-Doo.
That impression starts with the first push on the throttle. The clutch engagement comes in at about 2500 rpm, hardly before the engine starts to make any noise, and the engine gently pulls the sled up to speed. The throttle pull is so light that the lever feels like it’s connected to nothing, and the chassis moves down the trail as if it has zero rolling resistance — like it would roll across an open parking lot if somebody so much as sneezed on the rear bumper.
The center of attention is the new fuel-injected, four-stroke, 600cc, inline twin that features four valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams. With ultimate fuel efficiency in mind, the engineers at Rotax designed the powerplant with a near-vertical intake tract with shallow intake and exhaust valve angles. They combined that with a high 12:1 compression ratio with an eye on a full and efficient burn inside the combustion chamber. The power is sent through Ski-Doo’s new light and efficient eDRIVE primary clutch.
Thanks to the use of lightweight components and a compact design, the engine weighs just 13 more pounds than the 550-class, fan-cooled Rotax it is scheduled to replace — incredible for a four-stroke vs. a two-stroke. All snowmobiles with this engine come with a radiator and fan; utility models also get an oil cooler.
On the trail, the MX Z with the ACE 600 powerplant comes across as the ultimate stealth sled — incredibly quiet, easy to drive and unbelievably efficient. It sounds and feels electric. It does everything except pick up litter and plant seedlings — if environmentalists Daryl Hannah, George Clooney and Prince Charles wanted to pile on some miles in the Northwoods, this is the machine they would take. It’s slow to build RPM but it provides steady momentum and the speedometer will claw its way up into the 70s with a long enough straightaway. It peaks at 7200 rpm on the tach.
The chassis, as noted, is Ski-Doo’s roomy, light and comfortable REV-XP. Rebuildable HPG Plus shocks are found on the dual A-arm front suspension and SC-5M rear, with 9 and 15 inches of claimed travel, respectively. The suspensions do their job well, though the front end does exhibit an occasional fit of nervousness that has been a part of all REV and REV X chassis machines.
We liked the aggressive running boards, hooked bars, standard tachometer and nice shocks, but we also pondered whether the eventual buyer of this sled will want all of that — and we wondered if maybe some of this bling could be stripped off so the price would be lowered to better match the entry-level nature of the powerplant.
Comments from the test riders’ notebooks included:
*•“Very easy to drive…how many geriatrics would still be riding if this thing were around sooner;”
*•“This is not only an entry-level model, but would work great for older riders/retired age group who want to get out and enjoy the sport;” and
*•“Very reminiscent of a Singer sewing machine. If the ACE could be had with much more top end, this degree of smoothness would be one of the most compelling engines in the market.”
Some, though, mentioned the lack of a real fun factor with the machine. It is tremendously smooth transportation, but it doesn’t have the zip and pick-up-the-skis feel appreciated on other models in this test.
Ski-Doo has built a wonderful entry-level sled here, with a price about $2,000 higher than many entry-level buyers have expected to pay.