Extreme Machines: Four Backcountry Snowmobiles To Conquer The Terrain

There is a growing segment of snowmobilers who could care less about two things: trail conditions and your opinion. They are an independent breed, seeking to go not just where nobody else is, but where nobody else has ever been. They need tough, they need flickable and they need power.

What does matter is their equipment. Just a few years ago, the riders who define their best riding experience as doing what has never been done rode ergonomically modified mountain sleds with taller bars, reinforced components and tricked suspension. The mission was simple: drop bigger, fly farther, climb higher and boondock a sicker line.

The manufacturers paid little attention to freeriders until recently when sales became too significant to ignore. Now all four manufacturers offer an extreme sled for off-trail specialty. The Polaris Assault got the extreme off-trail class started in the spring of 2008, and we knew a niche was born. It took only months for other factories to return fire.

That fall, Arctic Cat released its 2009 M8 HCR, a race homologation that stood for “Hill Climb Racer.” While Yamaha didn’t set out to build a specific extreme sled, its Nytro XTX with its accessory Backcountry track gets to remote GPS coordinates nicely. Ski-Doo packaged a Renegade Backcountry X as a 2010 model, too.

If “bluebird” is in your vocabulary when you describe a morning scene, chances are one of these machines could be your ride. Though all of these sleds have specialized equipment to make them more capable, each still has its own unique customer in mind and, therefore, unique behavior. Because of the equipment list they are also some of the best, most extreme machines for the backcountry.

For this backcountry snowmobile test, we ignored the trails and paid little attention to how each acted on a groomed surface. We didn’t care. We awoke to bluebird, so we saddled up to conquer the backcountry. We rode – parked, even – in some gnarly places. It’s how and where we drove these sleds that caused the unique personalities and accompanying characteristics to emerge.

Despite its presence in the brand literature and the acronym on the sled, the Arctic Cat M8 HCR is almost forgotten as a race-ready sled. It is.

Though the M-Series chassis has been in play since the 2005 model year, the chassis has been freshened up each subsequent model year and the latest M8 models hardly feel dated. The HCR is the trickest – and lightest – one yet.

It first appeared in September 2008 where it took the stage at the Haydays Grass Drags in Columbus, Minnesota. Only a limited number were produced; just enough to be competition legal. Its creation was relatively simple because it started with Cat’s stellar, stock-class-dominating M-Series platform but added more active ergonomics, a different track and removed weight from the already light M8 Sno Pro.

We missed out on riding a 2009 model. Our only experience with the sled was with the updated 2010 version with Arctic Cat’s new H.O. 800 engine with claims of 160 hp. There is a healthy buzz that dynos in various performance shops across the Snowbelt confirm the spec.

Fox Zero Pro shocks dampen bumps in front.
In addition to the new engine, the M8 HCR has a new seat that is 3.5 pounds lighter and 3 inches taller. The new shape is designed to ease rider movement when sitting or standing, the latter being the preference. Cat seems to be the only factory that still puts value on a place to stash a few things. Racers love it to store ski brakes for use during their descents; we like it to carry jerky.

Setting The Fast Time Of The Day
Now with more power added to the lighter, competition-aimed chassis, the M8 HCR should be quicker than ever to slalom steep ascents. The same equipment that makes it race-friendly also makes it a capable extreme backcountry machine.

The new engine is the key ingredient that makes the M8 HCR one of the most potent off-trail weapons yet. The crank is more than 4 pounds lighter, which translates to quicker revs and a more immediate response. Cat’s EFI is responsive as well, though we felt a small off-idle flat spot in the fuel map on our pre-production tester. We assume production machines will be better calibrated. This engine rips in the power range.

If powder is the normal arena, we recommend one of the softer track options. The M8 HCR comes with a PowerClaw track like the other Ms, but it’s a harder, 90-durometer rubber that has excellent traction and speed in wet, heavy snow but didn’t lift as well as other, 80-durometer-equipped Ms in powder. Inside the track is the weight-saving Fox FLOAT rear skid.

The 153-inch track – a typical (and our favorite) mountain length – may not react as quickly to driver inputs as a shorter length, but the M chassis can get away with it. The longer footprint is still lithe and the HCR is our boondocking extreme sled of choice.

Moving around on the HCR is easy. It has a clean console and sculpted seat conducive to standing. One driver thought the seat was too narrow at the front for his driving preference because he likes to use the material as leverage for some maneuvers, but most off-trail regulars will like the minimalist design.

The telescoping bars get high marks for the adjustability and we love them, but a small amount of play takes away from the quality perception. The mountain bars have a nice shape with a rigid center grab strap. Running boards are the benchmark for grip and the large holes evacuate snow and ice more effectively than other stock backcountry machinery.

The M8 HCR is nimble, compact and it rides wicked light (it’s now in the same company as Ski-Doo’s XP-based mountain sleds), revealed in flickability. On hard, high-energy hits the front end calms the blow effectively but it can be harsh with lots of feedback on smaller hits.


The front end, wider than a traditional mountain setup, is adjustable with a 42- or 44-inch ski stance to prioritize navigation or stability. Instead of Fox FLOATs as used in the Sno Pro package, the HCR uses coil over shocks with titanium springs for less weight.

Ski-Doo’s extreme sled is the Renegade Backcountry X, a new 2010 spring-only offering with a key feature for improved off-trail performance: more track. It’s billed as a race-inspired sled built for deep powder.

To aid in that mission statement, the Backcountry X wears a 16- by 137- by 1.75-inch PowderMax track as opposed to the 15- by 137- by 1.25-inch RipSaw on the other Renegade models. It also has the Pilot 6.9 skis from the Summit line and an adjustable ski stance.

The Backcountry X has other, less-visible differences. Because of its deep snow intentions, it has the lower Summit gearing and the mountain-spec drive belt for more durability due to the taxing loads of powder play.

Many of the premium components are shared with the X package. The front suspension is held up with HPG Plus R aluminum body shocks with a rebound adjustment. The SC-5 rear skid features a Pro 36 aluminum piggyback rear track shock with dual dial adjustments, one each for low- and high-speed compression damping.

Ski-Doo has the best gauge in the business, bar none.
The X-package gauge is full of useful information. In addition to the standard driver info such as tach, speedo, fuel level and temp is an altimeter useful for back-home brags about heights reached. It also has a record feature, useful for diagnostics or boasting.

Happy Medium
Ski-Doo has a broad model portfolio. The Renegade Backcountry X is one of a whopping 49 models so there is a configuration for just about any consumer desire.

As an extreme sled, the Backcountry is a happy medium, splitting the difference between two X packages: the versatility of a Renegade plus the deep snow flotation of the Summit. But don’t get us wrong: this is not an everyman’s sled. As mentioned, it comes with the expert-grade suspension hardware with a calibration more aggressive than most trail cruisers want.

It also has an expert-grade engine. Powering the Renegade Backcountry X is the hard-hitting 800R PowerTek. It’s smooth and has ample torque, especially with the Summit gearing. Though improved from its original debut, the 800R has more vibration than the other newer, two-stroke twins in this class. The Backcountry Renegade X has a claimed 446-pound dry weight.

The XP chassis is comfortable regardless of the wrapper. In its Renegade Backcountry X skin, the racer seat has the shape and support to court active riding. When standing, the 5-inch bar riser fits most rider heights and boots have adequate grip with the stock running board traction. The black, painted tunnel is a nice complement to the black cab and pan. The only color on the sled are the accents and decals.

A center grab strap resides atop the aluminum bars to assist in the most radical of maneuvers, and because of the sidehilling and boondocking degree of difficulty with the REV XP, it was appreciated on the Renegade more than the other two machines that sport them.

We’ve stated previously that the REV-XP chassis is not our favorite for boondocking despite its lightweight status. In Renegade form the added flotation of the wider track makes up for the shorter length. Compared to the 146-inch track length of the shorter Summit models, the Renegade Backcountry X is easier to carve and sidehill but the chassis resists aggressive leans with counter steer.

For what it’s worth, the Renegade Backcountry steers heavy on the trail but not off trail where the performance attributes matter. The Brembo racing brake and stainless steel braided line are adequate, but offer less feel than other systems in play.

Though a 49-model lineup is excessive, our vote is to keep the Renegade Backcountry X. Like it is on paper, the machine is a great blend of Summit deep-snow capability and Renegade ease. With its “jump me” suspension calibrations it’s an extreme sled success.

The Assault was the first factory machine with an equipment list for extreme backcountry expeditions. It was aimed square at tattooed, scarred, flat-brimmed hat wearers who ride with one mission: go big.

The Assault was the first and remains the most extreme. It returns with its ProTaper handlebars, chosen for the leverage they offer for overall control as well as because they were the most popular accessory bar choice for backcountry riders. This year, riders will be manipulating a sled dressed in a stealthy, matte black finish.
After a year in circulation, our relationship has matured beyond lust. In addition to the obvious color change there are a few things we noticed about the machine we’d love to see as updates.

On the ProTaper bars is a control block we’ve been looking at for more than a decade. Yes, it’s still functional, but the IQ chassis is getting on in years and still using parts carried over from the GEN II. The buttons are small by today’s standards and we’re used to controls that interface more with the instrumentation.

We like the slimmer nose of the IQ cab revises last year, but it’s the operator’s side of the console that deserves more attention. There are still some unfinished edges where a driver’s knee meeting the junction between the hinged-hood and belly pan. From the cockpit, the machine feels broad shouldered in the middle, giving it a heavy appearance and perception.

Mission Control:, We Are A Go
The good news is that for all the faults we’re finding in cosmetics and rider comfort, the sled works well in the field.

The best update to the Assault is the engine. To riders in the know, a big drawback to the Polaris Assault was the engine; not in performance, but in longevity. It was well-established that the Polaris CleanFire 800 two-stroke twin was a time bomb with an appetite for pistons. After nearly two years of waiting, Polaris released a fix for the engines in the field and an update for the engines in production that included remapping and new spec dual-ring pistons, among other changes.

We have not yet tested the revised top end to know if there is a performance increase to go with the durability boost, but Polaris engineers would be stoned in the town square if they didn’t deliver this engine with its hearty mid-range thrust. The torque, accompanied with nice throttle response, is always in favor in the backcountry.

Handling on the Assault is predictable and stable. Though it feels heavy in the nose, the chassis responds willingly to driver commands in combination with throttle and bar manipulation.

The Assault’s track is hard for attacking wet snow. You’ll want to swap it for one with softer rubber and better performance in fluffy snow.
Driving the sled is a Competition 146-inch track with 2.125-inch lugs. The tunnel that straddles the meaty snow slinger could use better boot traction. It was easy to compare the larger ports on Cat’s M-Series as evidence of less snow buildup when conquering deep snow.

The extreme backcountry is where the Assault exploits an advantage: suspension. Walker Evans piggyback air adjustable front shocks were on the machine we tested last spring, but Polaris switched to Walker Evans Needle shocks for production because they offer better big-bump performance. The Assault’s front end acts more independently than its other trail systems because it lacks an anti-sway bar that borrows spring rate from the other side. That makes it superior in bumps but it cannot corner as flat. In the rear are Walker Evans shocks with compression adjustability on the rear damper.

Another of the Assault’s strong features is its brake. It offers excellent feel and response for scrubbing to an appropriate speed for the condition or for controlling flight. The Assault comes with the premium hydraulic Phantom brake and Cyclone master cylinder combo squeezing the lightweight Sawtooth rotor. Polaris claims the rotor has 56 percent less rotating inertia so it is lighter, runs cooler and provides better braking. We love it.

Because of the overall control feel of the ergonomics, handling, power and braking, the Assault yields tremendous confidence. Knowing it has reinforced suspension rails for purposeful abuse is a bonus.

The Yamaha Nytro XTX, the lone four-stroker, is not a purpose-built extreme sled. Rather, it’s a crossover sled with an extreme attitude. A minor upgrade to the XTX changes its off-trail capability for the better: the Backcountry track.

Last season the 2009 Yamaha Nytro updates brought a lot to the table. The revised FXG2 front end was more stable, it tracked better, it was more predictable and it improved driver confidence over the 2008 Nytro models. Also new in 2009 was the XTX package that took the stability and handling improvements a step further with more track on the ground. The 144-inch track gave the sled a better balance. It was the best-handling Nytro package.

As a completely stock sled the Nytro XTX has less off-trail ability than its closest competitors. When we tested the 2009 model against other crossover sleds last year, it was capable, certainly, but outperformed by its counterparts. Many riders on various forums cried foul when we tested it last year, wanting an apples-to-apples comparison with other long-tracked four-strokes. In a big-bore, two-stroke test, we get the closest thing we can from the Yamaha four-stroke stable.

In our latest roundup of extreme backcountry machines, we tested the 2010 Nytro XTX with the accessory Backcountry track and found the upgrade a dramatic increase in off-trail capability. The machine’s other features and options offer extreme backcountry capability, too.

Lugging A Little More
With its taller 1.75-inch lugs, the Backcountry-shod Nytro XTX adds more off-trail capability. Yamaha knows it compromises off-trail performance sending its XTX stock with the RipSaw and its 1.25-inch tall lugs, but the majority of the units spend more time on trails than off. For those who reverse the ratio or who choose the Nytro XTX as their extreme backcountry sled of choice, they need to consider the accessory track.

Inside the Backcountry track is the 144-inch rear suspension with tipped rails for a shorter wheelbase on hardpack but the flotation benefits of the larger footprint. The track length fits in with the others, a length that stays on top of snow while remaining easy to navigate.

Would even more track help improve its powder prowess more? We tested the Nytro MTX 153 SE and the answer is yes, but the 144-inch Backcountry track on the Nytro XTX is better for boondocking. The shorter track is easier to maneuver than the mountain version, but it’s still resistant to cutting into a hillside.

In stock form this engine has the least horsepower of the machines in adjoining pages, but many a Genesis 130FI has a turbo installed waiting for the snow to pile up. It turns the tables on the power-to-weight disadvantage. There are many buyers who select four-stroke for the inherent benefits and there are others who choose this specific engine for a turbo application.

Though disadvantaged on the dyno report, the Nytro’s four-stroke engine has the low-end torque advantage and it’s surprisingly competitive on thrust at peak. Power delivery is smooth, linear and accessed quickly. The low-end grunt can pull the clutches effectively at engagement for a creeping effect.

We’ve complimented the Nytro’s ergonomics, paying special tribute to the seat that is well contoured for aggressive riding. Though it’s large with enough support and comfort for long days while seated, the seat doesn’t interfere with standing positions and rapid footwork when navigating more challenging terrain.

Wider skis on the Yamaha spindles would greatly improve this sled’s off-trail performance.
Suspension on the Nytro is suited for taking hard hits. It shares components with the other Nytro models with documented racing pedigree. The dual-shock skid has a conventional arrangement that performs well across the landscape.

To many extreme riders, they may not care what you think but image is important. Alongside the other sleds featured, the Nytro has the most radical styling.

While on the gas, the weight transfer keeps the front of the sled aloft in soft snow but the narrow, stock skis can’t support the front in steep descents or slower deep snow maneuvers. Yamaha’s mountain skis off the Nytro MTX, an easy bolt-on accessory, are better suited for powder and would further increase the off-trail capability.

We criticized the off-trail performance of the Yamaha Nytro XTX last season for its lack of flotation, off-trail traction and missing center grab strap. The available Backcountry track is a significant improvement. Add mountain skis to improve front flotation and handlebar updates from the accessory catalog as well to make the Nytro XTX a more capable extreme backcountry sled.

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