For years, the snowmobile manufacturers have been producing what they often referred to as “solo touring” machines by adding electric start, reverse, mirrors and a taller windshield to an existing chassis and engine platform originally designed for trail bashing. They typically slapped on cheaper shocks and called their new rig by a special name — a Classic, Deluxe, LE or XT. They were nice snowmobiles, just like older Cadillacs were nice cars, but they missed the mark for the rider who wanted a luxury look, feel, sound and aura to go with the luxury features.
Now, manufacturers have taken a step beyond the solo touring machines to what we like to call “power cruisers.” Much like a BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 or Jaguar XF soothes the wants and needs of car buyers who want performance and luxury, the modern power cruisers offer a high-end appeal to the rider who wants it all. They combine top-flight, clean-burning, smooth-running, high-performance four-stroke engines with modern chassis design, high-end suspension and surprisingly capable handling to create something more than a solo-touring machine.
So who makes the best power cruiser for the snowmobile market? It was our task to find out, so we assembled one from each brand and pushed them hard at our annual Rode Reports testing event, held last spring in West Yellowstone, Montana.
2011 PolarisTurbo IQ LX – 4th Place
friend of mine got married about the same time as the rest of our group of friends. Unlike the rest of us, though, he didn’t seem to be in love or didn’t have the “I can’t imagine living without her” mentality. He seemed to be getting married because, well, everybody else was doing it. Not surprisingly, his marriage didn’t last.
Oddly, I’m reminded of that friend whenever I’ve ridden Polaris’ Turbo IQ LX in the past. Talk to Polaris officials, and there doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm for this particular snowmobile, and it shows in the results. A few years ago it seemed like Polaris married a 750cc four-stroke twin to its IQ chassis because, well, everybody else had a four-stroke trail sled, and the company felt it needed one, too.
For 2011, that Turbo IQ returns with minor engine and chassis refinement. The waste gate sound from the turbocharger has been minimized, and the machine is more composed and balanced than before.
But the question still hung out there before our test — was Polaris serious competition in the four-stroke market, or just going through the motions?
Familiar Parts, Remixed
The Turbo IQ LX is found in the IQ chassis from which it pulls its name. Now that the Pro-Ride chassis has been introduced, it’s easy to forget about the IQ’s many good qualities, but they were exhibited on this model.
The IQ layout is comfortable, with a tall, firm seat that enables a rather traditional seating position — not so far forward that it causes discomfort for traditional riders, but forward enough to help the balance and handling of the machine. The driver sits behind a taller-for-2011 window that provides excellent protection, with driver lock-in enabled by large footwells.
While the chassis seems roomy to the legs, it feels tight to the shoulders. Some of the sport’s narrowest handlebars are found on the IQ sleds with the multi-position Rider Select setup. Some may like the rather slender stance of those bars, but our testers all found them too narrow.
The Rider Select system certainly has its benefits. In standard form, it allows the rider to pick between seven handlebar setting with the push of a lever and a firm tug or shove on the bars. The problem is that it requires a narrow handlebar to accommodate the fully-forward position, or else the driver’s hands are forced into the windshield during sharp turns. In fact, on the 2011 Turbo IQ LX, Rider Select is limited to just five positions due to the tall windshield.
Decent ride quality and impressive handling are provided by the IQ dual A-arm front suspension with coil-over Ryde FX Pro high-performance gas shocks. From IQs to Dragons to Switchbacks, one of the best features of this chassis has always been the excellent handling of the front end, and that’s still readily apparent with this model. Our test team used terms like “smooth and easy” and “spot-on” in their notes to describe the front-end handling. Dual-carbide runners helped us stick to a line in corners, with less darting than some competition. The steering felt heavy at slower speeds, but better at higher speeds. The heavy four-stroke engine in the sled’s nose both helps and hurts the handing — it keeps the front end planted, but the driver can definitely feel the weight.
Our test was held in somewhat icey, hardpacked conditions, so the 15- by 136- by 1-inch HackSaw track found itself searching for traction. That track wraps around the IQ 136 rear suspension, which features a Ryde FX high-pressure gas shock on the front arm and a position-sensitive Fox IFP on the rear.
The skid ate up everything the trail offered, but admittedly the trails were almost too smooth for suspension testing. Therefore, we ventured off-trail and found some rugged, froze-in whoops and charged through them at various speeds. The IQ rear was never harsh through this minefield in stock settings, but it was rather springy, offering somewhat of a pogo-stick feel that jostled but never jolted the rider.
The sled’s most glaring weakness is definitely the powerplant, a 750cc, turbocharged, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected twin. The engine was developed by Swissauto — a company Polaris recently acquired after years as a vendor — and its official name is the Weber 750 MPE, meaning Multi-Purpose Engine. As the name implies, it was designed for various uses, not as a snowmobile engine, and it has been used in marine, personal watercraft and small car applications.
From the driver’s seat, the power delivery is smooth — it spools slowly at first, but picks up steam once the turbocharger starts adding boost as RPM climbs. Once boosted, the engine will take the driver toward 100 mph in efficient form.
The engine’s most irritating attribute has been a loud waste gate sound it has always exhibited when the driver lets go of the throttle and pressure is released from the turbo, and that’s historically been matched with far too much engine braking. Good news for 2011 — the waste gate whoosh seems to now be a third of its former sound, and engine braking has also been pulled under control, allowing the rider to coast more and feel the backshift of the clutches heading into turns. Both are appreciated, but the re-engagement of the throttle coming out of the turn is less than thrilling.
The machine is finished with an assortment of hits and misses. It’s got the now-expected 12-volt outlet, electric visor plug, decent mirrors, electric start and push-button reverse, all of which add to the machine’s easygoing nature. Yet there are some rough spots and gaps on the dash panels, in front of the knees and where the seat meets the fuel tank. It seems a sled with a pricetag over $11k ought to be void of such obvious quality flaws.
The Final Grade
Our test crew complimented this year’s IQ Turbo LX with terms like “the setup and weight transfer are better than ever,” and “nice sled that handles decently,” but when the scores were added up, nobody seemed terribly enthused with the model, especially when compared to its competition in this class.
One test driver wrote, “The sled feels more like transportation than recreation — it goes down the trail and gets you from point A to point B, but it’s just not that fun. It’s a mid-’90s Ford Taurus.”
If you’re looking for Taurus-like transportation, with general comfort and adequate if less than thrilling power, the Turbo IQ LX is a decent consideration. If you’re looking for an exciting, interesting ride, you may want to look elsewhere in this class.
2011 Ski-Doo GSX 1200 SE – 3rd Place
couple of years ago, the leader in snowmobile marketshare and the maker of the most popular and fuel/oil efficient two-stroke sleds on the snow proudly thumped its bright yellow chest and announced it was getting more serious about the four-stroke market.
Rather than dominate the two-stroke field and cede the smaller four-stroke market to its competitors, Ski-Doo unveiled a new engine and adapted chassis as proof that its dealers were going after every single customer in the snowmobile market — and thus the 1200-class MX Z, GSX, Renegade, Expedition and Grand Touring models were born.
In its first year, the 2009 Ski-Doos snowmobiles with the 130 hp four-stroke triple gained some fans due to the lightweight REV-XR chassis and the generally nimble feeling of the machine. The powerplant itself, however, provided an inordinate amount of engine braking, causing an uncomfortable, see-saw sort of trail ride.
For 2010, Ski-Doo engineers faced some of those concerns by addressing the engine braking. In the GSX line in particular, Ski-Doo upped the ante with a high-quality SE package that included with an adjust-on-the-fly air shock in the rear suspension, a heated seat, tilt steering and other touring features.
For 2011, the GSX SE adds better cooling with an underhood radiator and electric fan, plus some new coloration — a new all-black model was added, and the carryover red SE is a brighter hue for the new year.
So how’s Ski-Doo’s attempt at snowmobile world domination going on the four-stroke side of its business? It was time for us to find out.
A Winning Formula
Ski-Doo’s takeover of snowmobile marketshare lead started when it introduced a lightweight, high-tech, well-designed chassis with the original REV in 2003. Its run at the four-stroke end of the market starts with the same premise.
The REV-XR is a derivative of the winning chassis that has moved so many two strokes in this market, except with a wider front tub to mount larger powerplants. While the four-stroke buyer seems less weight-conscious with his or her snowmobile than the lightweight performance-special buyer, it is worth noting that the GSX SE is at least 40 pounds lighter than any other machine in our test, according to spec weights and our own experience weighing other versions of these machines.
Weight is important, but a comfortable layout is paramount. Luckily for Ski-Doo customers, the GSX SE delivers. The chassis is modern and roomy, despite looking rather small and minimalist. Tilting handlebars allow the driver to select one of four positions for that particular ride, which is nice, but we’re big fans of hooked bar ends, and they aren’t stock equipment on this model.
There’s plenty of space to stretch out if need be, but the machine seems to handle best when the driver is hugging the fuel tank and leaning in turns.
That leads to the primary complaint from our test riders related to the ergos: the seat is too tacky, making side-to-side and front-to-rear transitions more difficult than on other machines in this test. But alas, there is a trade-off — that tacky seat has a hidden heating element that allows a rider to select from two different settings to keep their tookus toasty during cold-day rides. Other quality features in the cockpit include a high-tech gauge, a 12-volt power outlet, a heated visor outlet and a push button that controls a mechanical reverse.
Oh, and there are also controls by the driver’s left thumb that calibrate the rear suspension. We’re talking about the Air Control Suspension (ACS) system. Using the control block levers, a driver can engage an on-board air compressor to add air to the rear shock’s air spring or let air out by selecting between one of five preload settings. In our testing we’ve spent most of our time between a No. 2 and No. 3 setting, and can’t imagine many situations where we’d crank it up to a No. 5, but it’s cool technology that could come in handy if you pick up a hefty one of the opposite sex at a trailside pitstop. (“Hey Sugar, wanna try out my air shock?”)
Steel bodied, non-rebuildable high-pressure gas shocks are found on the A-arm front suspension as well as the front arm of the skid. Together, they provide a good ride. The energy absorption is decent, but the sled seems imbalanced. One test rider said, “It truly feels like what it is — a really light chassis with a really heavy engine dropped in the nose.” The steering effort required feels overly heavy — at least 50 percent heavier than any of the other machines in this class. That said, it does hold a line well in bumpy or smooth turns, though occasionally the driver has to reset the skis with a tug on the bars.
That unbalanced feel is compounded by the engine braking. True, this newer version of the 1200 has far less engine braking than the initial Ski-Doos with this engine, but it’s still more than other machines in this test. Let off the throttle going into a turn, and the nose dives, providing more whoa-down effect than the backshifting of the clutches.
The liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, 1170cc triple with dual overhead cams provides decent if somewhat underwhelming power. Ski-Doo’s claim of 130 ponies is certainly believable, but the throttle pull from the driver’s seat is less exhilarating than a well-tuned 600-class two-stroke, and its zoom factor is well behind both the Apex and the Z1 Turbo in this test. It actually matches its GSX platform well, providing smooth and steady acceleration rather than a herky-jerky takeoff.
What Ski-Doo has here is a very good but not great snowmobile. With some work on the machine’s front-to-rear balance, improved shock settings, the removal of more engine braking and more horsepower, it could eek into the “great” category. But, for now, we view the 2011 GSX SE as a capable, quality, high-tech and comfortable trail sled that doesn’t win its class, but could win the hearts of many customers.
2011 Yamaha Apex SE – 2nd Place
n the 1960s, power steering was made available on more and more cars and was slowly gaining acceptance. Some welcomed the technology, while others considered themselves too manly to need artificial help in handling their car. Eventually everybody saw the benefit, however, and now all cars have power steering.
In 2006 Yamaha and Honda each brought power steering to the ATV market. Some consumers liked the concept right away, while others insisted the steering assistance system was just for sissies. Now, however, six brands offer power steering as an option on their ATVs, and those machines far outsell their sister machines without the technology.
So what about snowmobiles? When Yamaha announced the addition of electric power steering to its Apex line last spring, we know people who rushed to their local Yamaha dealership to put their name on a sled, and we know a lot more consumers who have loudly voiced that the technology is a heavy, expensive and unnecessary piece of equipment that only a real wimp of a rider would need. Will snowmobiling follow the example of the automobile and ATV, or will it carve its own path?
Only time will tell. But the story of the 2011 Yamaha Apex SE runs much deeper than a bolt-on steering assistance motor. The descendent of the first legitimate modern performance four-stroke (the 2003 RX-1) offers a new variable exhaust pressure system, new shock technology, a longer track, a taller seat, different skis, altered front suspension geometry and other changes for 2011 that make a major impact on the machine.
What’s back is the Deltabox II chassis and a modified version of the popular high-winding, cool-sounding, 998cc four-cylinder engine. Would the aforementioned changes be enough to renew the once-proud Apex brand? It was our job to find out.
Something Old, Something New
The Apex SE truly doesn’t look that much different than previous models — it still has the Deltabox II chassis, rear-facing exhaust and stylish bodywork. In fact, the black model is reminiscent of the 2006 Apex GT, sans the chrome windshield, and we mean that as a compliment. That was, in our opinion, the best looking Apex to date, until now.
You know you’re not on a 2006 when you throw a leg over the seat. On this new model, the driver sits notably taller on a stiffer seat, with higher and wider hooked handlebars. With a turn of the key, the Apex comes to life and sings a familiar, sweet tune with a low, authoritative sound at idle.
It doesn’t take long for the 998cc, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected Genesis powerplant to come to life. It winds up fast, creating a sport bike sound at higher RPM. Its sound reminds you that this was the king of the snowmobile performance world before Cat’s Z1 Turbo came along.
For 2011, Yamaha gave the sport’s only four-cylinder a major upgrade. Most notably, engineers brought the company’s EXUP technology over from its motorcycle line, creating the equivalent of a two-stroke’s variable exhaust valve system for a four-stroke. It allows the engine to build pressure like it has a short exhaust system at low RPM, but then breathe freely at higher RPM like it has a longer exhaust.
This was matched by several changes inside the block, including new pistons, valve timing, knock sensor, stator and upgraded fuel injectors. The airbox and intake tracks were also lengthened.
Add that all together, and you’ve got a more crisp powerplant, with fewer deadspots at middle RPM. Performance shops tell us the new Apex engine is spinning a legitimate 162 ponies off the crank, as opposed to about 150 last year, and the spike in midrange horsepower is particularly notable.
From the driver’s seat, you can feel those ponies pulling, taking an engine that was already smooth and making it even more linear, without the air gushing sound of the pre-EXUP Apex. It just builds, without the odd transition it used to have at the mid-point of hard acceleration.
Power has never been the Apex’s shortcoming, however. Knowing that, Yamaha engineers also attacked the chassis. The biggest change, of course, was the addition of power steering. The jury is still out, even among our staff of technofiles, as to how deep power steering will reach into the snowmobile market. Cruisers? Sure. Performance specials? Maybe not.
Yamaha’s first crack at it with the Apex definitely lightened up the steering, something our testers truly appreciated for low-speed maneuvers but liked less as speeds increased — there were complaints about feeling disconnected from the trail in some circumstances, as testers wanted the power steering effect to ramp down sooner.
The addition of power steering allowed Yamaha to make some setup changes, including adding more trail to the front geometry and incorporating a new ski. We felt an improvement in both handling and eliminating ski lift. The more aggressive front settings were allowed by the power steering, Yamaha said, and that’s great. But the sled exhibited more darting than its competition on the grooved trails where we tested.
As with previous Yamaha models, the dual A-arm front suspension (with Fox FLOAT 2s on this model) did its job well in straight line bumps, but the machine was taxed in bumpy turns. In back is an extended version (128-inch) of the Mono Shock II. Gone is the Ohlins setup from the Apex GT — it’s been replaced by the huge Fox Mega FLOAT air shock. The shock is monstrous, with more than twice the air volume of a normal Fox FLOAT. We ran it at the stock setting of 165 psi and found it offered a good ride — generally a bit plusher than previous Apex models but not as cushiony as the Z1 Turbo’s setup.
With its power steering, variable exhaust system, Mega FLOAT shock and other upgrades, Yamaha had enough innovation in its 2011 Apex SE to earn our Snowmobile of the Year award. But the sum of the parts still doesn’t add up to being the best snowmobile in its class, and its pricetag is downright scary.
2011 Arctic Cat Z1 Turbo LXR – 1st Place
one of the four-strokes are diminutive in our cruiser test — these are all big machines focused a lot more on high-mile comfort rather than sporty handling. Yet going from any of the other machines in this test to the Arctic Cat Z1 Turbo LXR, one got the sense he was getting off a quarterhorse and climbing onto a Clydesdale.
The hood looks wider; the windshield is wider; handlebars are significantly wider — it makes the machine seem like it won’t make it between the trees. It’s an optical illusion, of course — the spec chart proves that the Z1 Turbo is roughly the same width and length as the other sleds in this test. But, from the cockpit, this machine seems massive.
The illusion is most prominent when you drive the machine down the trail and into the first couple of turns. It just feels huge, and the driver has to use his or her full wingspan to move the handlebars through their range of motion. “This thing’s a boat,” is the first reaction.
That’s what makes the handling of the Z1 Turbo LXR such a pleasant surprise. While it seems bulbous at first, it goes down a twisting trail with ease, with the front end planted and the sled going exactly where you want it to go, without much backtalk.
Better still, when the trail opens up to a straightaway or a laketop, the amazing power of the sport’s most powerful stock engine (roughly 180 hp out of the box) propels the sled forward in an adrenaline- and smile-inducing, yet controlled manner.
So how does a sled that feels like a tank when you climb on it win the handling and suspension wars in its class?
All The Right Moves
Nothing really changed on the Z1 Turbo LXR for 2011, except for some new splashes of white on the green-and-black dominated exterior. And we’re OK with that, because what’s here works very well.
Let’s start with the scene-stealing engine – it’s a 1056cc liquid-cooled twin fed by a single 46mm throttle body. At low RPM, the engine sounds industrial, almost like an ATV motor, making it the ultimate sleeper. When the engine spools up and the turbo kicks in, it’s Wow! time.
“The engine never fails to excite,” one tester noted, and we all agreed. There’s no turbo lag, no notable flat spots in the acceleration curve, just a smooth-as-butter, exhilarating pull that seems to have no end. It really is a thrilling snowmobile to ride, but not a “Oh my God am I going to die today?” sort of daredevil thrill; if it were a roller coaster, it would be one of the new, smooth ones. The Z1 Turbo feels long, low and planted, especially up front. However, every tester in our crew also noted that it’s almost impossible to make use of all of the power without a heavy dose of studding — the power breaks the 15- by 128- by 1.25-inch track loose far too easily.
This ultimate powerplant rests in the Twin Spar chassis. We’ve had an ongoing love/hate with this particular chassis, and in the more weight-conscious two-stroke performance special classes we usually condemn it to a certain extent, but it’s a good match for this big four stroke. The heavy motor keeps the AWS VII dual A-arm front suspension stuck to the ground, allowing this big dog to groove through corners with amazing ease. This chassis carries speed very well, having the sneaky fast feel of some of its competitors without as many heart-stopping moments when going hot into a turn.
Fox Zero Pro shocks adorn the front suspension and the rear arm of the coupled Slide-Action rear suspension. It isn’t as easy to adjust the spring rate on these coil-over front shock as it is with the Fox FLOAT shocks, but Cat engineers have these shocks and springs expertly matched on this model, providing truly the best ride quality in this class.
Give Cat huge kudos for its Infinite Rider Positioning system, which includes handlebars that can easily be adjusted to various configurations with the flip of a switch and an adjustable seat, which happens to also be heated on the LXR. The digital/analog gauge is easy to read and offers a lot of information, including an altimeter.
So the Z1 Turbo LXR has the best engine, best handling, best ride quality and the most adaptable ergos — it must be the perfect snowmobile, right? Not so fast.
Cat’s fit and finish certainly has improved over the years, but it was still lacking on the Z1 Turbo LXR compared to its competition from Ski-Doo and Yamaha. Gaps around the base of the windshield, odd bracing posts for the windshield that look like an afterthought, less-than-ideal side panel fitments and old-school hand- and thumb-warmer switches were all noted by our test crew. One test rider quipped during a trailside stop, “Yeah, it’s excellent, but it still is an Arctic Cat — it’s gonna’ have some rough edges.”
Since we’re being picky, it’s also worth noting that the wide windshield that protects the driver’s upper body and hands fairly well does nothing to slow the wind to the driver’s head, and the seat is too darned slippery.
The Z1 Turbo LXR is not without flaw — no snowmobile is. Yet this snowmobile stole the show in three key areas in this class. It has by far the best engine, it has the best handling and it has the most comfortable suspensions.
The result is the ultimate power cruiser — and the winner of our 2011 Four-Stroke Luxury Touring competition.