2011 mountain Snowmobile ShootoutIn conventional product marketing, there are the 4 P’s: Product, Price, Place and Promotion.

Product: Assembled for a Western romp last March in West Yellowstone, Montana, at the annual Rode Reports testing event were four premium, high-performance mountain sleds. We had Arctic Cat’s race-special M8 HCR, Polaris’ new-chassis RMK Assault, the new-for-2011 Ski-Doo Summit Freeride and the Yamaha Nytro MTX SE.

Price: The combined retail value of these four machines tops $50,000. From low to high, the retail prices range from $11,949 to $13,349.

Place: In this instance we’ll put a twist on things. Instead of “place” in terms of where these items are bought and sold, we’re turning it toward the benefit end where they are used. All of these machines are clearly aimed at the Western market, though customers are sprinkled throughout the Midwest. In some cases, these machines are the most capable of the host company’s mountain offering with specialty equipment, the pinnacle of technology and examples of weight savings.

Promotion: Manufacturers use conventional advertising and trade shows to raise awareness of their product offerings, but they also rely on sources in the field. There’s the whole word-of-mouth deal, which has spread like a petroleum-fueled wildfire on a windy day. And there is a role, certainly, for four experienced riders without bias to drop these machines into their element to further scrutinize two of the four P’s — Product and Place — and how it wraps up into the P-word that matters most to sledheads the world over: Performance.

2011 Arctic Cat M8 HCR

20111 Arctic Cat M8 HCR – $12,299

The M-Series chassis started winning awards at its debut — earning SnowGoer’s coveted Snowmobile of the Year award in 2005. When it hit the slopes, it started winning trophies.

That same chassis is the foundation for the M8 HCR, an acronym for “Hill Climb Racer.” After years of stock class domination with its M-Series, Arctic Cat introduced the race-ready M8 HCR as a 2009 model. This includes a wider front end, weight-saving parts and calibrations for speed and handling.

Coil-over shocks, with titanium springs for less weight, are used on the front suspension, which is set wider than the traditional M-Series. Drivers can choose a 42- or 44-inch ski stance to prioritize navigation or stability.

The Fox FLOAT skidframe gets its name from the shock of the same name supervising the rear arm. It’s used to decrease unsprung weight and the skid is designed to reduce track tensioning and speed-stealing friction. Two rear axle wheels, mounted interior to the rails, help improve track flexibility.

We’ve been writing about the M-Series for years with few complaints about the cockpit, and the things the M’s target market didn’t like were fixed long ago. The biggest prior complaint was a low seat, addressed last year with the taller, lighter design with a tapered front to improve mobility. Not everyone finds it handsome, but the emphasis is on function, not appearance.

In its brief history, 2010 was a big year for the HCR with a long list of upgrades, including a more powerful engine. With a 794cc displacement, the H.O. 800 is the quickest-revving 800-class engine. It features long-used Arctic Cat technology, including Arctic Power Valves and batteryless EFI.

The 2011 changes are more subtle. The longer, 162-inch rear tunnel extension creates more space for traction mods popular on the race course. There is also improved protection for the rear coolant hoses and, as if needing one more competition touch as a finale, the key ignition was replaced with a tether.

2011 Arctic Cat M8 HCR profile.
Place: RMSHA Race Events and Wicked Backcountry

While there are HCRs in the Midwest and throughout the West, most of them are found conquering racetracks.

“Just about all of them are sold through the race program,” said Arctic Cat’s media frontman Kale Wainer. “But those who buy them for the backcountry love them.”

The list of features to make it better equipped for competition make it a hearty machine for extreme riders. This isn’t a poser sled.

Thanks to the responsive and powerful engine, track speed builds quickly to enable aggressive launches and a feeling of speed when pointed at an ascent. This engine does battle with the Rotax E-TEC 800 for the title of the 800 two-stroke class powerhouse. Engine vibration at idle is significant — the handlebars, ski loops, recoil handle all shake vigorously. But once moving the mighty twin smooths out and revs happily.

Directional changes are simple thanks to ease of driver input and the machine’s lightweight design, in that order. Drivers can adjust the steering post height with the telescoping column, while running boards have large holes that evacuate snow and ice effectively and also provide excellent traction — bonus features on a well-equipped machine.

The wide front end is stable when attacking a rough course. Skis that are farther outboard from the chassis midline, in combination with the race-ready calibrations, could pick up Braille text. Said one test driver, “I love knowing what’s going on, but I noticed there isn’t much that the skis run over that I don’t feel. The front end isolates little from the driver — at times welcome, at times a nuisance.” By today’s standards the steering linkage is primitive in design, but it’s lightweight and functional even if it further transmits too much feedback in the rough.

Is 2011 the last model year for the M-Series as we know it? While the HCR is the top M-Series performer and remains a lightweight, flickable machine, now that Polaris has updated its RMK — from its IQ-based platform that debuted the same year — the Cat platform is the most dated. We’re curious what the factory will offer next year in response.

2011 Ski-Doo Summit Freeride

2011 Ski-Doo Summit Freeride – $13,349

A new model for 2011, the Ski-Doo Summit Freeride 154 E-TEC 800R is a mouthful of model name, but there is a features list that helps to justify its more-to-swallow pricetag.

It’s the most expensive machine in the test by more than $850, and that is even compared to the four-stroke Nytro. Compared to another two-stroke eight, the margin increases to more than $1,000.

Presumably, most of the premium is related to the high-tech engine. The E-TEC 800 H.O. is also new for this model year, featuring the award-winning, direct-injection two-stroke technology we’ve enjoyed for the past few seasons on the company’s 600cc engine. The engine uses the same base as the 800R carbureted engine, but the head, injectors, pistons, rings and electronics are new. Compression is 12.2:1 that, once ignited, creates a claim of 155+ hp and efficiency approaching 20 mpg.

Built on the REV-XP RS race chassis, the Summit Freeride has the necessary reinforcements for its intended abuse. To calm hits in the rear is a Pro 40R shock in the new SC-5MR skid — the “R” code for “Radical.” The rear arm is moved 4.5 inches rearward to allow a longer shock length for greater progression in the travel. Other benefits include better transfer, added stability and improved bump capacity.

Up front, the Freeride features a model lineup exclusive: a quick-disconnect sway bar, an ideal solution where other machines compromise with all or nothing. Summit X and Summit Everest models were updated with a new front handling and width S-36 package, indicative of the revised width, which is 2 inches narrower than the former. The Freeride retains the older geometry, which is adjustable from 38 to 40 inches.

As a spring-order machine, there were 10 graphics packages for the Freeride. According to Steve Cowing, Ski-Doo’s media manager, the best-seller was the TAG black — a graffiti appearance package.

“This new generation of opinion leaders is pushing their niche now, and the crossover between extreme sports enthusiasts is strong,” Cowing said.

2011 Ski-Doo Summit Freeride - profile
Place: Cornices, Flyaways and Backcountry­ Film Locations

The Summit Freeride, as its name implies, is home in the open spaces with windswept cornices and fast fly-aways. You can learn who chose this machine as their ride by watching YouTube — we’re betting they all record their backcountry action on video.

Cowing also said the majority of its buyers were in Alaska and in pockets of the hilly, mountainous West where soft powder is found — also known as a drop zone for the gravity defying aspect of this segment, with riders aged 25 to 35 years as the primary purchasing group.

The Freeride remains cumbersome for boondocking and sidehilling. It’s easy to pull it over, but the front geometry insists on staying flat and the machine flops back onto both legs. It’s a definite compromise compared to the dramatic improvements made to the other Summit models, but the Freeride’s core customer base is less interested in tree riding.

Ergonomically speaking, the only things out of favor are both related to the footwells. It’s a wide stance if standing far forward, which is less comfortable to some drivers when standing. Also, one driver was surprised at how much snow accumulated in the deep foot wells. There looked to be adequate porting for it to clear, but it housed more snow and ice than the other machines riding in the same conditions.

One driver appreciated Ski Doo’s mountain bar that is a little more flexible than other brands, therefore acting more forgiving if driven into the rider’s chest. But it’s still rigid enough to use and maintains its position. The aluminum tapered handlebars offer great leverage atop a 5-inch riser and the controls are reminiscent of the race-sled, too.

For its go-big attitude, the premium shocks make the suspension work well for soaking big impacts and give the machine a tough feel — reminding us how we felt the first time we drove the Polaris Assault as a 2009 model. We were patrolling for terrain to hit and drop.

As expected, run quality is superb with a quick-revving response with light clutching on the bottom and mid-range. It wasn’t disrupted with purposeful abuse to the chassis from longer-than-average flight times. But unlike the Freerider’s demographic,we didn’t record our ride.

2011 Polaris 800 RMK Assault

2011 Polaris 800 RMK Assault – $11,949

While returning in name, the 2011 Polaris RMK Assault shares little with the 2009 and 2010 versions. The Polaris RMK Assault has only a few select components, and the updated Liberty 800 engine, carried over to the new Pro-Ride platform.

The outgoing IQ RMK registered numerous complaints about its weight. Polaris says its Pro RMK chassis is lighter and more durable with an intense weight-saving effort, not too unlike Ski-Doo’s approach when it built the XP chassis: ounces add up to pounds. The end result is impressive: this 446-pound machine is said to be 41 pounds lighter and 300 percent stronger than what it replaces, and that weight savings comes despite a longer track.

All the steel that could be eliminated was, replaced by such things as aluminum rear suspension mounts, seat posts and front bumper. Lots of parts had excess material punched out, including the bumper and running boards. According to Lyle Dahlgren, an engineer on the RMK platform, the new Pro RMK is “strong where it needs to be” (A-arms, rails and running boards, for example) and “light where it can be” (silencer, flap, brake disc, bumpers).

The cab shares ergonomics with the Rush models other than the Pro Taper bars, which have become an Assault trademark. New to the Pro RMK mountain chassis are running boards that, in addition to saving weight as mentioned previously, have large evacuation holes and ample traction for footwork.

There were updates to the 800 CFI Liberty engine. Changes to the fuel rail, engine management system, port design and exhaust system were made for lower emissions and improved throttle response without losing the company’s hallmark mid-range punch, Polaris said.

Like the Assault models before it, the suspension is tricked out with premium Walker Evans shocks, valved and sprung aggressively. The front has an adjustable width ranging from 41.5 inches to 43.5 inches and, as in previous years, arrives without a swaybar.

2011 Polaris 800 RMK Assault - profile
Place: Hillclimb Race Courses and the Backcountry

The RMK Assault has a 155-inch track length, making it more deep-snow capable than the Assault model in replaces that had a 146-inch track. According to Polaris’ Mark Nevils, it was launched at mountain customer targets as well as hillclimb racers and backcountry freeriders. Past models had a 40 percent stake with “flatlander” buyers.

Though called RMK, the previous generation of Assaults had more in common to the Switchback. Now with a track length more fitting to the model name it wears, the longer track is more capable in the deep. Nevils said buyers of this machine are more interested in big hits than big powder, they know what RMSHA stands for (FYI: RMSHA = Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Hillclimb Association) and the customer doesn’t know the definition of the terms “can’t” or “shouldn’t.”

“It is the sled that gets battered up and down Snow King out in Jackson Hole at the Hillclimb every year, and allows guys like Randy Sherman (Slednecks) and Keith Curtis (Hillclimb King of Kings) to do what they do,” Nevils said.

Knowing that the machine will either be asked to conquer mountain competition race courses or will be tortured in harsh backcountry surroundings, will be hucked off of cornices and will need to survive a 150-foot flight, the suspension calibrations are stiff. During our ride, we stiffened the rear spring 1.5 turns and it made a huge difference on weight transfer — the adjustment is even more sensitive than Rush short track. Especially on slow-speed valving, a driver noted, the sled skipped around on stutters and smaller bumps when on trail and when climbing hills that were tracked up. It could be a result of the lighter weight, because the diet is felt in other places, too.

When maneuvering off-trail, initial roll of the Assault is more challenging than the standard RMKs due to the front width and resistant suspension. Once sidehilling, the balance and ease of handling on an edge is so effortless it’s easy to oversteer — it brought back memories of our first encounter with the M-Series.

The engine performance lives up to the strong Polaris midrange punch, with impressive performance. It pulls hard in all ranges, but Polaris will need to win back customer confidence through reliability, as its 800 has fought gremlins the past few years.

2011 Yamaha FX Nytro MTX SE

2011 Yamaha FX Nytro MTX SE – $12,499

­­­­­Why compare a four-stroke machine to the top-performing 800-class two strokes? Why not? When a customer is gathering data to make an informed purchase decision, four-stroke engine choices cross the minds of many riders.

The machine that matches most closely to the others here is the Yamaha FX Nytro MTX SE. After a year on the snow, it changed little for 2011. The tapered tunnel from the trail-model FX Nytro is also on the MTX, with an 11-degree footrest angle for comfort and better driver positioning. Good driver positioning is further enhanced from the mountain handlebar design that is tall, wide and hooked. A bonus feature on Yamaha’s hooked bars is the grip material that extends through the hook.

Another update for 2011 is the new attack angle of the track, now 18 degrees, for improved flotation when the throttle is applied from a stop position in deep snow. The track is a Camoplast 153-inch with 2.25-inch lugs. It’s also a weight-saving single-ply design that cuts about 2.5 pounds over previous multi-ply tracks.

The High Performance 3-Cylinder Genesis engine is a 1049cc four-stroke triple that uses a rear exhaust exit that benefits mountain riders in particular. The plumbing under the seat puts more weight rearward for better overall balance of the machine for weight transfer and control in deep snow. Yamaha also says this engine maximizes power using a straight exhaust pipe design and it also reduces the amount of under hood heat.

The front suspension is 40.5 inches wide, with wide skis. The FXG2 (second-generation) front end has more trail and relaxed caster, which Yamaha said improves deep snow handling and sidehilling ability. Like other aggressive mountain sleds, the sway bar was also removed to enhance handling in steep, mountainous regions. Both front and rear suspensions are controlled by Fox FLOAT shocks — you’ll have to dig into the clutches to find a spring on this buggy.

Of its Nytro MTX SE, Yamaha claims, “A mountain sled designed for mountain riders by mountain riders, delivers awesome deep-snow performance, confidence through technical rides, and improved snowmobility.”

2011 Yamaha FX Nytro MTX Se - profile
Place: Long, Steep Hillclimbs and Mountain Elevations

Many buyers are willing to accept the inherent compromises for the four stroke advantages of durability and longevity. The good news is that now in the mountains with the FX Nytro MTX SE, the compromises are less glaring. The latest Nytro MTX SE is a vast improvement of the former, standard MTX. We rode the MTX SE every place we piloted the other machines in our test.

The engine provides smooth acceleration and power that doesn’t build as quickly in terms of track speed, but the torque pulls through tough situations without a loss of track speed. It’s felt during climbs. One driver compared it to a tractor pulling up the hill. “Hook on a plow and we are still going up the hill,” he said. In terms of reliability, the Genesis triple has a stout track record of durability.

For all its four-stroke heft, the Nytro is agile. It sidehills well and thanks to a cockpit friendly to aggressive play, it’s a capable machine. The wide ski has a lot of blade edge that helps rudder the snow. If the lean gets too aggressive and the weight shifts fully, it’s often the point of no return and the driver can be easily overwhelmed. In overturned situations where you need to right the machine, especially in an extreme off-camber situation, the electric start is worth its weight in gold (OK, silver maybe, as we’re cheap and gold is about $1,350 an ounce at the time of this printing).

Like the short track version, the cockpit of the Nytro MTX is well appointed for fluid movement but the same FX-chassis handlebar rotation that most of our riders don’t like for aggressive trail riding isn’t admired for mountain riding, either. With its over-engine post, the bar rotates on a more odd plane than vertical post geometries, which can complicate body movement on a chassis configuration that is otherwise welcoming. With that preference aside, the machine is comfortable to ride with a narrow seat that is supportive when seated and easy to miss when standing and moving around.

While we don’t expect to see power steering on a mountain sled, we are curious to see what is next for the FX Nytro Series, the MTX included. New to the Yamaha catalog is a turbo and super charger accessory, meaning a dealer near you has a turn-key 45 hp Nytro addition available. That might be the final trigger for some debating the four-stroke question.

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