If you tuned in last year for my rider journal from Snow Shoot 2011 you will remember that the snow conditions in West Yellowstone, Mt were less than optimum. So this year, when Snow Shoot 2012 was scheduled for West Yellowstone again I was hoping for better conditions. I really like the West Yellowstone and Island Park areas, I’ve been riding them since I was a kid. I knew that 2 years in a row of less than good snow conditions were highly unlikely and the snow gods proved me right.
As I rolled through Island Park and in to West Yellowstone in early March I was thinking “I haven’t seen this much snow here in years”. Official reports were 6’ of snow on the ground in the town of West Yellowstone, it was going to be a good few days. Base camp for the Max Sled team was once again the Brook Trout Inn, go read the article Randy wrote about it, it’s a great place to stay.
So without further delay, let’s jump right in to it. Most of you probably know that I’m a mountain guy. Born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Utah, taught to ride by an older brother that to this day is still my regular riding partner. So my thoughts are going to be primarily geared towards the mountain sleds and cross over sleds although I do spend time riding in the flatlands and love getting time on those sleds. I tell people it’s like riding a dirt bike one day and a street bike the next, both of which I love to do.
This year Snow Shoot 2012 followed the standard format it has for a while… Day 1 is spent in tech sessions, getting the scoop from the 4 OEMs in small groups where they give us the run down on the new and changed technology and load us up with all sorts of printed info and links to downloadable press kits and such. It’s a great chance to get some pretty detailed info from the factory guys and understand their reasoning behind things. After Day 1, we ride our guts out for the next 4 or 5 days getting seat time on the models we are interested in. We also have full access during that time, usually because they ride along with us, to knowledgeable factory guys to answer any questions we have. I know what you are thinking, “Dan, how in the world can you do such a tough job”. Well I make the sacrifice and suffer through it.
One tidbit of info that we got that I want to share before diving in to the 4 OEMs’ offerings. All the factory guys were smiling because they had a good 2011 model year. Sales across the industry were up between 12 and 18 percent depending on what numbers you look at. At one point this season there was snow on the ground in 49 or 50 states in the US and all the Providences in Canada. The white stuff, when it comes in quantity and comes early, has the ability to cure a lot of ailments. Aside from the numbers, I noticed in my riding in the West and the Midwest when I was back there, that people who haven’t ridden in the past couple of years either bought new iron or dug out their old iron and rode this year. For those of us in the snowmobile industry, that is a good thing. I still believe the price of new snowmobiles is a huge concern, but when there is snow on the ground, people want to ride and find a way to do it.
Of course the buzz this year was all around Arctic Cat. With it being their 50th anniversary we all knew we’d be seeing new offerings and suspected a new chassis. Well the Cat guys delivered just that. For the last few years, Cat has actually had 3 distinct chassis that they offered: Mountain, Flatland 2 stroke, and 4 Stroke. Each chassis was built specifically for the intended use and motor. One can imagine some of the issues with trying to maintain 3 different chassis and all the expense, parts, and split engineering effort. Well for 2012 that is no more. The new chassis is a single platform that readily accepts all the engines and can be tailored easily to the different needs of ditch banging, mountain riding, or trail cruising.
For the mountains, Cat is offering 3 different motors. The M8 is the new chassis wrapped around the wonderfully performing 800 2 stroke motor. The motor is unchanged from 2011 and that is just fine as it makes plenty of power and has proven to be one of the most reliable 800 class motors in the industry. The 2012 M8 scales out at nearly the same weight as the 2011 M8, a little disappointing that it didn’t lose a few pounds to be more in line with the Doo and Polaris, but the new chassis works well. The M8 retains the telescoping steering column, a terrific feature that I love, and is a very capable mountain sled. Fit and finish on the new Cats is the best I’ve seen from them, they have worked hard on making sure things are ready to roll. The M8 is well balanced, easy to ride and goes through the snow well. I do have a slight concern about the front end design, not the suspension, but the front of the chassis. In some of the video we shot, I noticed that the powder stacks up behind the A-arms sort of like a snow plow. Similar to what I saw on the Polaris Dragon a couple of years ago, makes me wonder if a set of lower A-arm guards won’t help the Cat float even better in the deep stuff.
The other 2 motors offered in the mountain sled are the 1100 4 stroke and 1100 4 stroke turbo. Yes, you read that right, no other 2 stroke offering. In fact, even the flat land sleds, other than the Sno Pro 500, don’t have anything other than the 800 2 stroke offering. The Cat marketing team is pitching the 1100 as their ‘600 class’ sled… a nice idea, but really not very effective. If you are thinking you are going to buy the M1100 and run with the Polaris and Ski-Doo 600s you are going to be disappointed.
However, Cat throws out the trump card in the way of the M1100T as in TURBO. Yup, factory mountain sled turbo. Take the proven 1100 Turbo motor that has been available in the flat land sleds for a handful of years now, put it in a new mountain chassis with a weight only 30lbs or so more than the M8, making 180’ish HP and you will get my attention. Yes, the M1100T is heavier over the nose than the M8, but let’s put it in perspective… it weighs in at less than what most of the mountain sleds of the late 1990s and early 2000s weighed and makes nearly twice the HP at altitudes of 8000’ and above. Climb off the M8 and on to the M1100T and you will notice it’s heavier, but point it at a big hill in deep snow and wack the loud lever and you’ll have a big smile inside your helmet. In my opinion, this is the surprise in the lineup. The 2012 M8 is as capable as last year’s M8 for sure, maybe a bit better, but the option for a 4 stroke turbo with manageable weight is really something to get my attention.
The new Cat chassis is just that, new. They redesigned it from the ground up. Take a few minutes and jump on the Cat website and read through the material on all the changes. The new chaincase/oil tank combo is very interesting in its space and weight savings ideas. And the new chassis link between the front and rear clutches may finally be the ticket to longer belt life and more consistent clutching.
The Polaris guys were pretty excited about the year they have had. The new ProRMK from last year has been a huge success for them and helped Polaris retake the number 1 spot in the mountain sled market. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that we saw the lineup expand to include the 600 this year. Take the terrific ProRMK chassis and put the wonderfully smooth and best in class performance 600 in it and you end up with a well-rounded mountain lineup offering.
I’ve enjoyed the 600 motor from Polaris for several years and each change they make seems to only make it better. The new 600 ProRMK is not to be overlooked when you are thinking about a new sled. Everyone is tempted to move right to the 800, but the 600 mill offers terrific power and it’s smooth running, instant throttle response actually makes it a kick in the pants to tree ride and boondock.
For 2012 Polaris is offering both standard and Pro RMKs, which don’t different in design much but differ in available shock and control packages. The RMKs get a changed running board that evacuates snow better and offers better side/edge grip. They also get a new optional security feature that the dealer can turn on that allows you to lock out the sled from revving over engagement RPM so you can start it and let it warm up without worrying about someone stealing it.
I believe the ProRMK is the best mountain sled out there right now. It’s lightweight and balance make it a simply terrific mountain sled. That said, the controls on the standard RMK are dated, they are the same basic design we had on the 1997 700RMK. And the ProRMK, with its switches located between your knees, not lighted and the thumb and bar warmers on the same circuit are well, just plain annoying to me. The other 3 manufactures all have controls that are easy to read and manipulate while riding, but if you want to change the warmer settings on a Polaris then you will likely have to stop and maybe even remove your glove.
There are a couple of other great offerings that stood out for me from Polaris this year. The Assault RMK was a super fun sled to ride. I spent some time on it in firm snow conditions… about 12” of powder on a firm base. Snow you could get stuck in if you weren’t paying attention, but good hookup. The stiffer track and great shocks on the Assault in those conditions made it a kick in the pants to play on. Snappy throttle response, predictable behavior on rough, tracked up hills, and great hook up kept me grinning.
For 2012, Polaris revamped the Switchback models to have the Pro rear suspension stretched to 136”. In February I got to spend a couple of days on one of the prototypes and then spend some more time on it at Snow Shoot. I’m a capable trail rider, not an expert, but not afraid of a 200-300 mile day or maybe even 3 in a row. I’m not a ‘ditch banger’, but when riding the trails like we did in Northern Minnesota I have been known to ride quick. In my opinion, the new Switchback with the Pro Ride rear in 136” is stupid fun. Yea, quote me on that. We put 450 miles on one in February and it was the best all around trail sled I’ve ever been on. I think the shorter, 121 Rush is hard to get balanced between big bump performance and chatter bump smoothness. Not the Switchback. Maybe its calibration, likely it’s the 136” length, but it handles the big bumps with easy and is butter smooth over the chatter bumps. I really like that sled.
For 2012, Ski-Doo makes no excuses, they are pushing the 800 E-TEC to the entire lineup. In fact, the carbed 800 motor is only available in a couple of very limited models. And why not, the 800 E-TEC has been a huge success this year with great power and dependability. Production is now in place to meet all of the demand so the E-TEC is the standard.
Doo, in the mountains, isn’t making a lot of changes. The biggest news is the option PowderMax II track. 2.5” lugs, non-ported. Stock tracks have come a long ways and this new one from Doo seemed to work better than last years in the powder on the back side of Two Top. Ski-Doo is also offering a couple of optional front end kits for the Summits this year. If you have a 2011/2012 and want the wider front end like the 08-10s had then you can buy a full kit that offers all the pieces including shocks to make the change. If you have one of the older sleds and want to narrow it up, then you can get a kit that has all the parts to switch to the 11/12 width. The thing is, these kits are in the $500 range, which is a great deal when considering you get a full set of a-arms and shocks.
I have to tell you all about the 600 Summit. With the move by Cat to offer the 1100 4stroke as their 600 class sled, and the 600 ProRMK new for this year, I spent quite a bit of time comparing 600s this year. I have to admit that the 600 E-TEC Summit is as fun to ride as the ProRMK is. That motor is smooth as silk and has very good performance. For me, the longer tracked Summits (read “Dan is short and fat”), are hard to ride. But the 600, with the 154 track, was pretty fun for me to spend time on. I still can’t ride the Doo as well as I can the Cat or Polaris chassis, but I think the 600 E-TEC Summit is a nice sled.
Big news in the Doo lineup for 2012 is the flatland suspension change to the new rMotion rear suspension and quick adjustment. Basically the idea is that the rMotion is a rising rate suspension all tucked inside the tunnel. Doo equips it with remote adjustment outside the tunnel. I won’t go in to all the details about the rear suspension, but I will say it flat works. I’m 250lbs plus gear and with just a couple of stops for adjustments, which are silly easy with the remote adjusters, I was able to dial the rMotion in to my liking. I purposely tried to overpower the suspension and wasn’t successful at it. Hitting those spine tinglers at the bottom of a dip in the trail didn’t upset the suspension at all. And performance through the chatter bumps was excellent. I’ve always liked riding the MXZ but struggled to get the suspension set right for me in the past. No more, this new setup flat out worked.
Let me introduce you to the Boost Fairy. Yamaha has a Spring Power Surge option for your Nytro this year that allows you, for $1500 plus install, to get either the PUSH Turbo or a Supercharger for your Nytro. I will be the first to admit, there are more capable mountain sleds than the stock Nytro. Don’t get me wrong, the Nytro with its great shocks and smooth 4 stroke is a good sled, but it’s heavier than the other mountain sleds and the riding position is a little funny for me.
Enter the Boost Fairy. We got to spend the day on both the turbo and supercharged versions and all I can say is “YEE FRIGGIN’ HAW”. Both of the boosted options make silly levels of power. To give you a comparison, we found a long hill, maybe 500 yards, with 18” of powder on top of a good firm base. Hill was maybe a 25 degree slope, nice open gentle pull. Run the 800 ProRMK or 800 E-TEC Summit up it and you’ll hit 35-40 mph and pull over the top. M1100T, 50mph and pulling hard. Nytro turbo and the skis will be wagging in the air and you’ll see 70mph if you have the, well courage, to hold the loud lever open the whole way. Yamaha says the boost option gives you 180’ish HP… yea, you get every bit of that and probably more. If I was betting I would say it’s closer to 195. It takes the relatively docile Nytro MTX and makes it a ski packing rocket. It doesn’t matter who gets on it, they get off with a big grin. A couple of our less experienced mountain riders (read flatlanders never been over 500 feet in elevation) were down right intimidated by it. Either boost option is actually very smooth. No harsh hits and just pulls good and strong through the RPM range. I would say the turbo has a bit more on the top end than the supercharger, but that might just be a perception thing… the turbo is a bit louder and has more of a growl to it than the supercharger does. Supercharger is probably a bit easier to ride through the trees, it was slightly smoother off idle than the turbo.
No matter how you look at it, the $1500 boost option is a heck of a deal. Yamaha and the Boost Fairies warranty the machine and you get an incredible package that runs on pump gas. Currently its only offered for 6000’ and above, but rumor has it they are working certifying it for thicker air.
And less I over load you with the talk of boost, I really must mention the addition of EPS (Electric Power Steering) to the Vector lineup. Last year when Yamaha put it on the Apex we all agreed it was a terrific new feature. I have spoken to many riders this past year who said “I don’t need power steering” and well, I suppose that is right. But if you can have power steering, and make changes to the steering geometry to benefit from it, then you get something pretty cool. That’s what the Apex did and so for 2012 the Vector gets it too. And just like with the Apex, it makes the Vector a whole new machine in steering and control. I was as impressed with the handling on the Vector as I was on the Apex. EPS truly does make a difference in how predictable and precise the Vector handles. As with the Apex, I find that I can ride the Vector through the twisties incredibly quick and what’s even better is that arm fatigue is eliminated. Just a great addition in my opinion.
A note about the surprise sled of the week for me. You are going to think I’ve lost my marbles. In the course of riding all the sleds sometimes we need to take an extra one out because either sleds are double booked or we have some other reason why we don’t have enough sleds allocated. One day I had this situation so I wandered over to the Ski-Doo trailer and asked what was available. They pointed me to the Skandic SWT. I rolled my eyes but mounted up anyway. 4 hours later, I was laughing my head off at the fun time I had been having. The SWT has the 600 E-TEC H.O. motor and the largest track in the industry, 156x24x1.25. It’s a lot like riding a horse, it’s so wide, but talk about having fun. I decided I was going try and get it stuck and I failed. I took it down through the creek bottoms, out through the swampy areas, up hills through the trees and then rode it crazy quick down the groomed trail. Is it a back country mountain sled? No. But it has to be the best utility sled out there. The 600 E-TEC gives it excellent power and it’s now in the REV-XU chassis. All I can say is that it was a fun 4 hour stretch.
Once again this year I am going to declare that the new sleds bode well for a good year. I must admit I am concerned about the price trend. 600 class sleds at or above $10,000, very few options for an entry level mountain sled under $10,000 concerns me for the long-term survival of the sport. EPA regulations have been of such a concern that as an industry we have neglected the fact that without new riders entering our sport it will eventually dwindle and disappear.