Over the river and through the woods, with 150 horses to go .... incredibly fast. Today's snowmobiles are marvels in internal combustion, drivetrain, and suspension technology, with engines as big as my college sports car (and more powerful ), not to mention a more comfortable ride. Snowmobile enthusiasts, whether their tastes run to deep-woods racer or open-trail cruiser, have their pick of the litter with the 2002 lineup from the "Big Four" manufacturers -- Polaris, Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, and Yamaha.
The key is to find the right sled for your riding style and terrain. Bigger isn't always better. High-end snow machines typically come with larger engines, but all that horsepower can be intimidating, even dangerous, for an inexperienced rider. Bigger engines also mean heavier machines, which can affect handling. But deluxe models also offer improved rider ergonomics, more responsive suspension systems, more reliable liquid-cooled engines, and superior materials in general.
To help you choose, think of your fantasy car -- do you dream of a taut, agile Bavarian roadster that can tackle the Paris-Dakar rally, or a powerful luxury model engineered to buffer any impediment in the road? Answer that, and you've taken a major step toward establishing that all-essential rider/machine partnership. Then find your match with the following snowmobiles – grouped by speed, distance, and two-seater models. All will get you to grandmother's house and back in high style.
All-Around Performers: The Need for Speed
Yamaha SXViper ($7,399) -- All you have to know about what Yamaha engineers were thinking when they took the SXViper from drawing board to trail is the company's "From One Bump Champ to Another" ad campaign. The ad features motocross champ Jeremy McGrath side by side with a photo of the sleek SXViper carving through the snow. The message? If you want to tackle rugged terrain and beat your buddies back to the trailhead, you should be on this sled. With a sculpted front end that resembles a Star Wars fighter jet, the SXViper's stylish good looks, ProAction chassis, and well-designed dash are a perfect match for its 696cc powerplant. This engine can play with the big boys, going from 0 to 60 mph in under 5 seconds. And at 489 pounds, the SXViper handles the twists and turns with dexterity.
Arctic Cat ZR 800 EFI ($8,199) -- A no-holds-barred trailblaster, the ZR 800 EFI marries a potent Suzuki 785cc engine and 145 horses with an aggressive rider platform and wide, solid running boards. It's the ideal match for the super-charged rider looking to get the most out of a weekend on the trails. The electronic fuel injection allows worry-free riding, regardless of changes in temperature or altitude. For a smoother ride, Arctic Cat also offers a new Cross Country Edition that features a more plush coupled rear suspension package and slightly wider track. Or consider the ZR 800's stable mate, the Arctic Cat ZL 800 EFI SS ($8,399), with the patented Smart Ride suspension that absorbs bumps of all sizes.
Polaris 800 XCR ($9,009) -- If the 800 XCR was a football player, it would be an All-Pro linebacker -- quick, nimble, powerful. While this machine packs plenty of muscle with its Fuji 794cc triple-cylinder engine and 160 horses (capable of rocketing from 0 to 60 mph in under four seconds!), its handling is surprisingly crisp. Steering, though not effortless, is precise. And the suspension, highlighted by new Ryde FX gas shocks up front and electronically adjustable stiffness in back, shines in a variety of conditions. The slightly outdated chassis could use a makeover, but that's a minor quibble.
Ski-Doo MX Z Renegade 800 ($8,399) -- Bombardier, the Canadian company that produces Ski-Doo, promises "no compromises" with its 2002 lineup. Owners of the MX Z Renegade 800 will agree. This sled is one of the most adaptable rigs on the market, equally adept on the hills as it is on flatter terrain. The 140 horses harnessed by the liquid-cooled Rotax 799cc twin-cylinder dynamo can push this sled from 0 to 60 in an eye-popping 4 1/2 seconds. But the most eye-catching feature is the adjustable stance that enables riders to tweak the distance between the front skis, and allows the 489-pound machine to hug the terrain like a magnetized slot car. If luxury is a high priority, consider Ski-Doo's Legend GS 700, a solo-touring rig that packs plenty of oomph but also offers a cushier ride.
Cruising/Solo touring: Going the Distance
Polaris Indy 700 Classic ($8,049) -- Hard to imagine what possessed the folks at Polaris to name this brand-new solo touring rig a "classic." Maybe it is marketing, or it could be that they know this handsome machine with Polaris' acclaimed EDGE chassis will be turning heads for years to come. The new 700cc VES twin-cylinder engine provides plenty of giddyup (roughly 130 horses) for the long haul, starts more reliably, and goes farther on a tankful of gas than previous models. It comes with composite skis and an improved front suspension, coupled with FOX shocks in the rear that admirably support the sled's 521 pounds.
Arctic Cat ZL 800 EFI esr ($8,599) – This is the action hero of snow machines -- powerful enough to handle almost any terrain, yet sensitive enough to smooth out the rough spots. Even the new gunmetal gray color, a departure from the classic Arctic Cat green, adds to this sled's larger-than-life aura. The sturdy Suzuki 785cc twin-cylinder and trouble-free electronic fuel injection inspire trust over the long haul. And the newly coupled FasTrack rear suspension, together with wide running boards, provides bedrock stability for the sled's 547 pounds. The rider cockpit has been refined, and the twin rear-view mirrors are a nice touch. Especially if you want to keep on eye on your buddies.
Yamaha SXViper 700 ER ($7,599)- - Everyone knows that red sports cars are the easiest targets for Johnny Law with a radar gun. So it figures that Yamaha's top solo touring model is the only 2002 model to come in a striking shade of "heat red." This is a light (509 pounds) touring sled, allowing riders to get the most out of the 130 horses supplied by the Yamaha 696cc triple-cylinder, variable exhaust port engine configuration. Want proof? How does zero to 60 in under five seconds sound? Add an electric start, an aggressive track, and a reverse mode, and the SXViper 700 ER leaves little to complain about. The ProAction chassis and rear suspension with adjustable transfer rods delivers an authoritative, well-balanced ride capable of whiplash turns and long, gentle cruising runs.
Dual Touring -- Twice the Fun
Ski-Doo Grand Touring SE 800 ($9,499) -- Bentley. Rolls. The QE2. Whatever luxury craft you want to liken it to, the Grand Touring 800 measures up. Start with the basics. Bombardier's robust liquid-cooled, Rotax 800cc twin-cylinder and dual-carburetors delivers 140 horses of open-trail touring energy. The ZX chassis, ergonomic seats, and adjustable two-way coupled air shock rear suspension (with velvety Variable Rate shocks up front) provides BarcaLounger comfort for driver, passenger, and the sled's 552 pounds. Want more? How about push-button electronic starting, full reverse, tilt steering, side mirrors, a wind-cheating front end, and ample storage compartments? About the only thing the Grand Touring doesn't provide standard is the Grey Poupon.
Yamaha Venture 700 ($8,399) -- Yamaha's flagship dual touring rig is part of a vanishing breed -- the triple cylinder -- much to the disappointment of many 2up enthusiasts. It's no accident that last year's model won Snowmobile Magazine's award for "Best of Class: Liquid-cooled Touring." The sinewy 698cc engine produces just under 150 horsepower, generating a smooth, self-assured ride, while the larger 12-gallon fuel tank offers peace of mind. Underneath, an all-new 136-inch track supplies stellar grip, while ProAction Plus long-travel rear suspension supplies 11 1/2 inches of travel. The result? Superb traction and a very plush ride, with heated grips, large footrests, and the Easy-Adjust backrest.
Arctic Cat Pantera 800 EFI ($8,799) -- Comfort and performance. This new addition to the Arctic Cat touring line is the total package, and was an instant hit with the snowmobile press. Comfort is provided by the highly regarded FasTrack rear suspension combined with 10 inches of travel up front, and the oh-so-clever convertible queen seat. Performance comes from a Suzuki 785cc two-cylinder screamer with electronic fuel injection. Though bottom-line horsepower dropped off a hair when Arctic Cat dropped its immense 1000cc powerplant, the Pantera isn't going to back down to anyone. Composite racks to store gear are another nice touch.
Arctic Cat 4-stroke touring ($7,649) -- Revolutionary. Radical. Stealth. There are any number of adjectives that accurately describe the first mass-marketed four-stroke snowmobile. This luxury cruiser sports a liquid-cooled Suzuki 660cc C-Tech triple-cylinder engine, electronic fuel injection and exemplary driver and passenger ergonomics. But what truly sets it apart is what it doesn't have - significantly less noise, and exhaust, than traditional sleds. At 610 pounds, this rig demands a lot of a powerplant that produces less than 50 horsepower, and it's not going to win any point-to-point races. But with a range of more than 250 miles on a tank of gas, it allows environmentally conscious riders -- or those just looking for some peace and quiet -- to enjoy Mother Nature's great open spaces and pristine beauty guilt-free.
--Boston-based writer Brion O’Connor is known to routinely escape the bright lights of the big city in favor of the moon-lit trails of deep-woods Maine and Vermont.
The mainstream manufacturers all make brawny mountain sleds for the high backcountry, such as the Ski-Doo Summit Highmark 800 ($8,399), the Polaris 800 RMK 151 ($8,439) and Arctic Cat's huge Mountain Cat 1000 ($10,399). Some riders, however, long for something out of the ordinary.
Among the best of the independent brands are the machines produced by the decade-old Crazy Mountain Motorsports (www.crazymtn.com). These Montana-made snowmachines’ boast hefty price tags -- $19,500 to $25,000 -- with hefty performance packages to back them up. Which is why the company is sound despite only producing about 25 rigs a year. Billed as "high-performance, limited-production mountain sleds for the adrenaline-craving snowmobile enthusiast," these rigs have as much in common with the assembly line snowmobiles as NASCAR stock cars have with their showroom counterparts. The Crazy Mountain Xtreme comes in two engine sizes -- a Polaris 800cc and a new monstrous 1085cc. The PSI 1085cc Genesis twin-cylinder is, simply, a snow machine on steroids, cranking out a mind-bending 225 horsepower. Both models tip the scales at a svelte 425 pounds, so there's no flab here to hold these sleds back.
For something completely different, but tons of fun, check out the AD Boivin Snow Hawk ($8,699). The most distinctive feature of this radically designed sled is the single ski up front -- people don't know whether to call it a snow bike, a snow sled, or a snow machine. Those who have tried it just know the Snow Hawk is a hoot to ride. A Rotax 503cc fan-cooled engine is more that enough muscle to power the Snow Hawk's 350 pounds.
The one caveat with exotic machines is this cold truth -- the snowmobile industry has recently seen a number of smaller manufacturers fold. In the past year alone, brands such as Goat Industries, Scorpion and Trail Roamer have disappeared. This doesn't mean the same fate awaits other specialty makers. But you should research each company's track record to make sure they'll be around to service your machine after the sale.