Once again it is time to open snowmobiling’s Pandora’s Box. Each year the editors of Snow Goer pick one class of machines to evaluate head to head. Even though the results are simply our opinion, they give one manufacturer and their fans great joy while the other three manufacturers and their fans call, write and fax us their ideas on where we can put the results. The majority of those places being dark and painful.
So why do we subject ourselves to this torture? One, we feel it is our duty to infonn our readers. Second, we hope that the manufacturers will take this information and use it to build better machines. And third, you the readers, ask us to.
The 1995 fight to the finish, whiner take all, head to head battle extraordinaire featured four of the most-feared snowmobiles known to man the 800cc musclesleds.
We spent two days with the prototype Arctic Cat ZRT 800, Polaris Indy Storm, SkiDoo Mach Z and Yamaha Vmax-4 800. We pushed these machines to their limits on the trails, meadows, hills and any powder we could find in the Black Hills. And, yes, we raced them. And, yes, we will tell you which machine won. Later. No fair peeking.
After all, these machines didn’t earn the musclesled moniker because it takes a lot of muscle to lift them. (Although none of them are what you would call lightweight.) No, the musclesled badge comes from what lies under the hood. The No. 1 reason someone buys one of these machines is for pure, unadulterated horsepower.
Because of that power these four sleds are not for the faint of heart, nor are they for the inexperienced rider. Before throwing a leg over any one of these machines you should be darn sure you can handle it. If you fool yourself you could get in some ieal trouble. Fast.
Finally, we have to remind everyone that these machines were prototypes. Just about anything is subject to change between the time we rode them and when the machines get into the hands of the consumers. And what we say in this article is not gospel, it is simply our opinions. Now for the information you’ve been waiting to hear.
Engines: in A Word, Fast
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start. Each one of these sleds hauls ass. There is not a slow one in the bunch. They all blur the scenery, make your eyes water and give you a severe case of white knuckles. Each machine can look back at the century mark as they sail past it.
Enough afready, which machine won the drags? First we want to say that during our drag racing sessions each machine won more than once. To determine a winner we had to race several times over the two-day period. We didn’t race like professionals. There were no lights, no radar guns. We simply lined up four across on a packed, open meadow, and went after one of us nodded his head three times. We did not tell the manufacturers that we were racing so there were no special race setups. No tinkering, no traction. Just like the type of racing you do on Sunday with your buddies.
A point system was developed and the machine with the lowest score became the winner of the Great Black Hills Drag Race of 1995. That machine was the ZRT.
The fact that the ZRT was the overall drag winner may not surprise some (namely Cat fans), but it surprised us. Before the first race, but after some trail riding, we made some predictions as to which machine we thought would be fastest. No one picked the ZRT.
The Storm and the Mach Z were the prerace favorites. These two machines felt the strongest on the trails. But as everyone knows and we were reminded, seat-of-the-pants feel is not always accurate.
Our predictions turned out to be the complete opposite of what happened. The ZRT was the overall drag winner, followed by the Vmax, the Mach Z and then the Storm. Again, this order was determined with a point system that worked like this: After each race the finishing order was recorded. The machine that took first received one point, second received two points and so on through fourth place. The lowest score is the winner.
So the ZRT was the favorite engine of the four, right? Wrong again. Our favorite engine of the group was the all-new 800 under the hood of the Vmax-4.
The Vmax was the second fastest straight liner of the group. With a little tuning and tweaking the Vmax could have very easily been the fastest. The four-cylinder had other points going for it as well.
Smooth is the best way to describe the Yamaha powerplant. Don’t confuse smooth with slow because it wasn’t. When we pinned the throttle on all four Mikuni fiat-slides this engine really responded. The speedometer needle moved nearly as fast as the tach. The reason the speed is deceiving is because the engine is that good. It is always in the power- band and you never feel the engine “hit.” It just pulls hard from the bottom end all the way to the top.
The Yamaha also won points for being quiet yet having a very distinct sound. Just listening to this machine was pure pleasure.
Cat’s ZRT 800 gets a very close second in the powerplant category. This engine is also very smooth. Which is why it didn’t feel as fast as the others, but turned out to be the fleetest. That smoothness is largely due to the fact that the 800 bottom end is identical to the 900cc Thundercat. So the balance shaft that eliminates vibration on the T-Cat is also part of the ZRT.
The ZRT is smooth but not as smooth as the Vmax and it isn’t as quiet either, thus the second place.
Third place in the engine category goes to the Mach Z. This engine was deceptive in the opposite way of the Vmax and ZRT. It felt fast, but finished third in the drags. When you hit the gas a tremendous roar would come from the triple pipes and you would swear the machine was about to run out from under you. The bottom and midrange sections of the powerband were great, but the engine started falling off three-quarters through the RPM range.
The Storm has a strong engine, as all these machines do, but what hurt the Storm was its lack of trail-ability. The engine has an arm stretching midrange and feels just as fast as the Mach Z. However, the power is either on or off, there is no middle ground. If you were cruising at 50MPH and wanted to speed up to 60 it was very difficult to do on the Storm. Instead, the Storm would rocket up to 80, which is fine as long as there are no trees in the way. The on/off throttle took a lot of concentration to use effectively on the trails. Fourth place in drags and being difficult to trail ride lands the Indy fourth in the engine category.
Front Suspensions: Controlling All That Speed
Front suspensions have several functions besides handling the bumps. Front suspensions play a major role in how the machine corners, feels at speed and how much feedback reaches the rider. If a front suspension fails at any of its duties the rider could be in for a long ride. That is why a finely tuned front end is one of the most important ingredients in a good snowmobile.
For years the industry benchmark has been the IFS on the Polaris hidys. Not anymore. The new leader, without a doubt, is the AWS 1V found on many of the Arctic Cats including the ZRT.
The AWS IV is so good that it won the front suspension war unanimously. This was the only time that all four members of the Snow Goer Test Crew completely agreed.
What makes the AWS IV better than anything else? To start with it absorbs bumps. Several times we wouldn’t feel a bump until it contacted the rear suspension. Not only would the suspension absorb the bumps, but feedback to the rider was close to zero which explains our surprise when the rear suspension would react.
Stability and cornering were also the best on the ZRT. This sled carved through corners so effortlessly that turning the ZRT was as simple as turning the handlebars. In other words, you didn’t need arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn this musclesled.
Keeping the inside ski in contact with the snow is a must in order to have a stable ride. The ZRT once again reigns supreme. This is not to say the inside ski never lifted, but it did so considerably less than the other three machines. The AWS 1V gives the rider a confident, stable feel at any speed and through any corner. The same cannot be said about the others. Hands down, the ZRT has the best front suspension in the 800 class.
Has the trusted Polaris IFS lost its luster? Has it slipped in its ability to control the bumps and corners? Not at all. It just isn’t the best anymore.
The Storm’s most endearing factor is that it still uses the IFS. True to nature, the IFS made quick work of the corners. Though chassis roll was more noticeable on the Storm than the Cat, you wouldn’t notice it until switching from the Vmax or Mach Z onto the Storm.
All the traditional Indy characteristics shine through when riding the Storm and you soon realize why it was the No. 1 handling chassis for so long.
More than one test rider said the front shocks felt stiff, however, they still ranked the Indy’s front suspension high because of the IFS’s ability to dart through the woods.
Right on the heels of the Storm was the DSA front suspension of the Mach Z. This suspension seemed to absorb the bumps nearly as well as the ZRT and definitely better than the Storm. The calibration of the HPG shocks was on spot for the conditions we were encountering. In a straight line bump run the Mach Z did well. However, it suffered when it came time to turn.
Snaking through corners was not a favorite activity of the Mach Z. Though the DSA and F-2000 chassis are worlds ahead of the old Formula and PRS, there is still room for improvement. Ski-Doo is getting close. Ride any 1995 Ski-Doo and it handles much better than the previous year’s model.
Despite the improvements, the Z still felt front-end heavy compared to the others. It took more effort to turn the Z’s handlebars than the ZRT’s or Storm’s. Once the skis were turned the machine was slow to react. It pushed in the corners. One crew member noted the Mach Z is for someone who has experience handling big iron in corners.
Bumps are taken in stride by the Mach Z’s front, corners are not. Give the Z third the front suspension category.
Rumors about an IFS-equipped Yamaha have been buzzing around for some time now and we certainly hope they come true soon.
The TSS has gone through several calibration improvements and changes, but it still falls short when compared to other front suspensions… especially when riding hard on 800cc musclesleds.
Cornering and bump absorption, two things a front suspension must have to do well, need improvement on the Yamaha.
Nearly every corner that was attempted with a fair amount of speed produced the same result. The inside ski lifted considerably off the ground. Ski lift was not only noticeable, it was uncomfortable. If you could get the skis to stay on the ground then the machine would push much like the MachZ.
Absorbing the bumps was not a strong suit of the TSS either. Riders knew exactly when the front end hit a mogul because you would feel it in your hands and arms. Much of a mogul’s impact was transmitted right to the driver and that makes for a tiresome day in the saddle. Plant the Yamaha TSS fourth of four in the front suspension battle.
It is interesting to note that the two machines that were criticized for pushing in corners have plastic bottom skis. Yamaha has aluminum skis with plastic inserts on the bottoms while the Mach Z has an all-plastic blade. Does this contribute to the less precise handling?
To some degree yes. Plastic is more slippery than steel and won’t grab the snow as well. However, the pushing experienced on the Vmax and Z is not the ski’s fault completely. Would we change the skis from plastic back to steel? No chance. For general, all-purpose riding the plastic skis are the way to go and any weight reduction is always welcome.
Rear Suspensions: Keeping It All In Line
Like the front suspension, the rear has more than one function. First and foremost it must isolate the rider from the bumps. Second, it must track straight whether on smooth trails or extremely rough ones. Third, it transfers weight to and from the rear of the machine during acceleration and braking. Proper weight transfer is a must in order for a sled to handle well.
If a rear suspension works good the rider will hardly feel moguls as the rear of the machine obediently follows the front, if all is not well riders could experience spine-crunching jolts or have trouble keeping the machine pointed in the correct direction. So which rear suspension did all of this better than the others?
The battle for first was close, but when the time came to hand out awards, first place went to the Mach Z and the Ski-Don C-7 rear end.
With three superbly calibrated HPG shocks ready for duty, the C-7 was the best bump absorber of the bunch. Not to say we didn’t bottom out on occasion, but it didn’t happen often nor did the impact result in any bone crushing jolts. The C-7 happily went about its duties and never hinted at fading.
The C-7 also offered the best compromise between weight transfer and bump handling. Typically, when a rear suspension transfers weight too easily the suspension is soft and bottoms out easily and often quite harshly. if little or no weight is transferred there is a good chance the suspension is stiff. The C-7 handled the bumps comfortably and transferred the right amount of weight making it the winner.
Second place goes to the Arctic Cat FasTrak rear suspension. This was a tough call. Equipped with Fox Racing Shox, the FasTrak does an excellent job of absorbing bumps, just as well as the Ski-Doo. And it transfers just the right amount of weight, like the Ski-Don. The decision maker shows up when you slow the machines down.
Because the ZRT is based on a race sled and shares several components with the race-bred ZRs it likes to be driven fast. The faster the ZRT is pushed the smoother it gets, but when it comes time to slow things down then the aggressive nature of the Fox Shox becomes apparent.
At trail speeds between 30 and 50MPH the FasTrak has a tendency to kick you in the seat. Those Fox Shox like to be abused so pick up the pace and the kick disappears. It is a small gripe, but we had to draw the line somewhere and that is why the FasTrak is relegated to second.
The gap back to third and fourth was not nearly as close as the first and second. There is a significant margin between the top two rear suspensions and the bottom two.
The Progressive Link rear on the Vmax proved to be confusing. The lighter riders of the crew claimed the suspension was too stiff and didn’t give enough. While the heavier riders said it was too soft and bottomed often and hard. Either way it didn’t put a smile on our faces, but did make us cringe as we hit the rough stuff. Give the Vmax the third best rear suspension of the four.
As we mentioned earlier, there was only one thing all four test riders agreed on and that was the prowess of the AWS IV. We nearly did it a second time. Three out of four gave the Storm fourth place in the rear suspension category.
The XC- 100 rear suspension rode like a rock. We all scratched our heads and tried figure out why this machine had one of the roughest Polaris rear suspensions in recent history. We played with the preload, but it didn’t help matters. When the Indy’s tail hit a bump, its tail hit you.
Weight transfer was not that bad considering how stiff the suspension was. The Storm would rock back on its haunches fairly easily when being launched off the line. However, the ride was overwhelming and there was no place but fourth place for the XC-l00.
Ergos, Brakes And More… Little Things Make Lasting Impressions
Everything from wind protection, gauges, styling, down to taillight visibility are covered in this section. If it made an impression we’ll take note of it here.
First let’s start with the ergonomics of the four machines. Which machine fit the Rode Warriors the best? The ZRT.
With its low-slung seat and contoured fuel tank the ZRT was the easiest machine to shift body position. The handlebars were both the right height and width. The footwells let riders “lock into” the machine. Even the windshield offered decent protection. Although we did notice a strong draft on the back side of our arms. This backdraft could result in powder snow collecting on rider and machine.
The Yamtha ergos were a very close second. Everything fit very well on the Vmax except the footwells, they are a little too steep which makes it difficult to keep your feet where they belong. The new, blacked-out sport windshield offers little protection. Fortunately the Vmax has the new adjustable hand warmers to keep the fingers toasty.
Third in the ergos race is the MachZ. Nothing really annoyed us here nor did it impress us. We would like to see straight handlebars on the mightiest Z. In its favor the low windshield did do a fairly good job of protecting your hands, but nothing else. Like the Vmax, the Z could benefit from different footwells also.
The Storm was, without a doubt, the least comfortable of the four. The handlebars were tall and narrow. The seat, too, was tall which gave bigger riders a clearance problem between their knees and the bars. The combination of high seat, high handlebars and low windshield left the rider to be blasted by the cold winter air. However, the footwells were very comfortable and extremely warm.
For some reason the Storm did more than a good job of keeping your feet warm. It overheated them causing our feet to sweat. Several times we had to move our feet towards the back of the tunnel to cool them off. Too much heat can be just as much of a problem as too little.
With all this horsepower on tap, things can happen in a hurry. To keep speeds at controllable levels you’re going to need a good brake.
The best decelerator of the bunch is on the ZRT. Grab the brake lever on the ZRT and you’ll feel as if you just tossed a boat anchor overboard. The Wilwood unit takes some getting used to because it is so grabby, but we would rather get used to that than not being able to rely on the brake.
The Mach Z received an excellent hydra disc brake for 1995. It isn’t as aggressive as Cat’s, but it is just as effective. Only one finger is needed to bring the Z down from warp speed. It is a major improvement over the old mechanical disc.
The Storm still features the only liquid cooled brake of the four. It has long been the standard, in much the same way as the IFS has been, and it has lost nothing. The competition has just gotten stronger.
The mechanical disc brake on the Yamaha really took a beating. It is a good brake, but it doesn’t belong on a machine this capable. One has to wonder why, with all the technology available to Yamaha, that hydraulic brakes have yet to appear on their snowmobiles. With such a wonderful engine package and such great attention to detail throughout the entire machine, how does this brake make the grade? There really is no excuse.
Speaking of attention to detail. Yamaha has long been known for its fit and finish and the Vmax 800 is no exception. Everything on the machine looks as if it were custom-mad to fit. It really is that good, though it has to in order to fit all the hardware under the hood
The Ski-Doo finished a very respectable second with its fit and finish, followed by the Polaris, then the Cat. However, each of these machines were in different stages of development at the Rode Reports, so final judgment should be held until you can look at the machines in the showroom.
Keeping riders informed of the vita) statistics is the responsibility of the gauges. The ZRT and MachZ are just about even in this category.
Cat has put new, 5-inch, backlit gauges on the ZRT and let us tell you — everything on the gauge is big and easy to read at any speed. The Mach Z has similar gauges, plus a temperature and fuel gauge. The Storm gauges come in third. They are fairly easy to read and placed well, but like the IFS and hydraulic brake, the gauges are good, just not the best.
Yamaha’s instruments are the toughest to read of the group. The placement is good, meaning you don’t have to look down very far before you see the gauge, but they are the smallest of the bunch. With the numbers being close together you have to take a long look before you can get an accurate reading. Taking long looks away from the trail is not something you want to be doing with machines this quick.
Even though styling is not the most important part of a snowmobile it still factors in. Nobody wants to look out of touch.
In this category we ran into a deadlock. Two of us thought the Vmax deserved the title of best-looking muscle machine while the other two thought it should be the Mach Z. After much teeth-gnashing we agreed to disagree, and declared the styling category a tie. Despite the tie, we were able to agree on third fourth.
Give the Storm third. Mainly because uses more color than the ZRT. With its black base, minimal graphics and all that metal staring at you from the front, the ZRT is the least eye-catching of the four.
And The Winner Is…
We can hear you already: enough with categories all ready. Who won? The Arc Cat ZRT. We’ll tell you why in just a minute but first the rest of the field.
The other three machines all have the good and bad points. What is important to one rider may not be important to someone else. Take the Yamaha for example: It has the best engine and the worst brake. Or the Storm: which had the second best front end and the fourth best rear suspension. So does that qualify for second, third or fourth? For that reason we didn’t come to a overall second through fourth order. We could have, but it wouldn’t have been fair to say that one person’s views were more important than another person’s.
In order to come up with second through fourth you will have to figure out what aspects of a snowmobile are most important to you, check the chart below and see which machines did well in the categories you deem important.
But we did agree on a winner.
Arctic Cat has accomplished, with the ZRT, what the other three have yet to do. Take a musclesled and make it just as much fun to trail ride as it is to drag race.
The one-two punch of the AWS IV and FasTrak give this machine terrific handling. The ZRT will take to the rough just as good as some of the smaller, lighter machines and better than others. Add a great brake, ergos that make a rider feel at home, some wind protection and top-notch gauges and you have a machine that is a blast to trail ride all day long.
All is not perfect on the ZRT. It finished fourth in both fit and finish, and styling. A reminder though that all these machines were prototypes and things can change before the production run.
When you get right down to the basics of a good snowmobile you need an engine and suspension that make you smile. More go than show will always prevail and when you sit on a ZRT you just gotta go.