Mountain trails are PM’s proving ground for a tough breed of off-road vehicle. By Andrew del-Colle
By the time I gunned halfway up the 30-degree dirt slope and got stuck, deep in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, I’d learned that recreational off-highway vehicles can carry enough camping gear and bourbon to keep eight guys supplied for three days. I’d learned that our ROVs could hit close-to-highway speeds on straights, but probably shouldn’t. And I’d learned that, when you’re driving an open-air half-ton vehicle uphill, with little more than a roll bar and some netting for protection, the last thing you want is to rock back with your front tyres in the air.
My ride was a sneeringly powerful, sporty blue Can-Am Commander Limited 1000. I was almost to the top of the pitch when the rear left wheel caught against an anvil-size rock. Every time I hit the accelerator, the machine erupted in a spasm – back wheels spinning and front wheels bucking wildly. This is it, I thought. I am about to somersault backward down the hill, ricochet off a pine tree, and tumble into my companions, waiting below in their own ROVs. I wonder if the rangers can get a medevac helicopter in here.
Kirk Swain, one of the most experienced riders in our group, shouted instructions from up ahead. “Let off the brake and drift back! Now adjust your angle and try again.” So that’s what I did – again and again. Finally, my front wheels found dirt and my back wheels bit into the rock. The beast launched forward and scrambled up the last few yards with ease. I guess that’s what a 976 cm3 liquid-cooled two-cylinder can do when it’s pulling a mere 588 kilograms – assuming, of course, there’s an experienced driver behind the wheel. This was the steepest slope I’d encountered in my limited ROV experience, but we had upwards of 120 000 hectares to explore in the eastern foothills of the snow-topped Cascade Range. I’d be getting plenty of practice.
ROVs are the high-adrenaline part of the category of off-road vehicles known as side-by-sides, named for their car-like seating arrangements. Recreational vehicles like ours look a lot like the utility vehicles used by many ranchers and farmers – cargo bed, short wheelbase, mud-splattered sides – but they are built with bigger engines and beefier suspensions. And, by the industry’s definition, they can drive 60 km/h or faster. The goal is pure fun, which includes everything from sand-dune carving to backcountry exploration. Prices can be steep, yet riders don’t seem to mind. Chris Brull, the marketing director for Kawasaki, likes ROVs because they’ve been moving off dealers’ showroom floors in big numbers over the past five years, while sales of motorcycles and ATVs have cratered. “It’s the No 1 fastest-growing segment of the business – clearly,” he says.
Although they are sophisticated machines, ROVs are surprisingly simple to operate. Most have continuously variable transmissions (CVT) with high- and low-speed ranges, and they all have standard steering wheels. Typically there’s a button somewhere to select either four-wheel or two-wheel drive, and certain models even have differential controls. Basically, if you can drive a golf cart, you can drive an ROV – at least until the terrain gets tough.
Summer days are long in Washington State, with the sun rising at 5:30 in the morning and traces of light remaining until almost 10 at night. That gave us plenty of time to explore ravines and creeks, take in views of the Cascades, and fail to catch the brook trout feasting on midge flies in Lost Lake, while still lingering over snacks and bourbon in the evenings. The group included Andy Moler, my best friend since the sandbox, and some local riders who know the area well and instruct for the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association (ROHVA). Throughout the trip, we rotated drivers among the ROVs we’d assembled for our test fleet: the Can- Am Commander, a Yamaha Rhino, a Polaris Ranger, an Arctic Cat Prowler, and a pumpkin-orange Kawasaki Teryx4, the only four-seater in the group, which we nicknamed the Schoolbus.
All ROVs have thick, heavily treaded tyres, and wheel travel typically falls between 18 and 28 centimetres. Machines increasingly come equipped with direct or electric fuel injection, adjustable suspensions, power steering, and automatic engine braking, which kicks in when you tap off. That proves handy on descents, though it isn’t always enough.
I proved that late one morning as we were coming off a ridge during a long ride. We’d briefly stopped to take in the view – the distant white peaks that make up the spine of the Cascades and closer slopes bristling with firs and bright green tamarack pines. From the top of the ridge, the trail takes an abrupt dive into an old logging plot spotted by new growth. The grade was the steepest descent we’d encountered so far – cross-your fingers steep – and it was broken by a metre drop halfway down the left side.
Swain went first to show us the line and then positioned himself to shout directions. When I rolled to the edge in the Schoolbus, I saw nothing but sky and mountaintops beyond the vehicle’s bonnet. The rest of the group huddled around to watch. As I crept over the lip, I realised that engine braking wasn’t going to cut it here. So I buried my foot in the brake and inched my way down, glancing from the trail to Swain, who was using his hands to guide me. Right, he gestured. Now left, and, finally, eeeasy, as I approached the drop-off. I slowly dipped the left front tyre into the void and then felt my back tyre follow. “Let it roll, let it roll!” Swain hollered as soon as both my tyres were through. Jun Villegas, another pro, grabbed his inclinometer and laid it on the slope. “Wow,” he said. “It’s 45 degrees.”
Our group had a pro-to-newbie ratio of about two to one, and Swain and the other veterans kept up a steady drumbeat of advice for the newer riders. First, they said, it’s important to put your tyres right on top of the biggest rocks. You can’t straddle them the way you might avoid a pothole – otherwise, you risk getting the chassis hung up. Second, you’ve got to maintain your momentum when you’re going over an obstacle, uphill, or through a patch of sand. But you also can’t put foot too much or the tyres will just spin. This was the problem I had going up that one steep slope.
You would also be wise to take some extra fuel into the backcountry. Manufacturers don’t provide official fuel-economy numbers for ROVs, but we rode back out to the parking area to refuel at one point, and I took the time to do some rough calculations. After approximately 38 kilometres, our vehicles’ fuel efficiencies ranged from a best of 15 litres/100 km (the Arctic Cat Prowler) to a worst of 25,6 litres/100 km (the big four-person Kawasaki Teryx4). Not terrible considering the terrain, but still.
When we headed back out to climb Frost Mountain, a nearby peak, a ceiling of grey clouds had concealed the afternoon sun and rain seemed to be coming in. We didn’t see any other riders as we sped along the trail. In fact, in three days of midweek riding, we ran into only one other person, a hiker who was busy prowling the treeline with binoculars in hand. On the weekends, though, mountain bikers, hikers, ATV riders, and other off-roaders like ourselves cross paths in Cle Elum Ranger District where we were riding and in other public lands across the country.
Some visitors would prefer to see all off-road vehicles banned, and there have been a number of court battles over the issue. We were careful to minimise our impact by staying on marked trails, and we still saw plenty of wildlife – mule deer, at least a dozen elk, and even a blue grouse, sitting statue-still on a log.
At the bottom of Frost Mountain, the trees were sparse and big bunches of emerald-green grass carpeted the ground. The trail was scarred with miniature canyons caused by melting snow and rainwater run-off. I tried to avoid one of these shallow trenches, but picked the wrong line. I was driving the Rhino, and soon its left-side tyres were more than half a metre deep in a donga, with the vehicle leaning so hard to port it seemed beyond physics for it to stay upright. But I had plenty of kilometres under my tyres by now and knew enough to keep my right foot pressed down, even though every instinct told me to brake. Within about 6 metres, the ditch started to shallow out, and soon I was back on even ground. My shoulders relaxed and I remembered to breathe. Then I punched the accelerator and blasted up the ridge.
2012 Kawasaki Teryx4 750 4X4 EPS LE
Engine: 749 cm3 liquid-cooled V-twin
Trans/4WD: CVT, three-mode 4WD with cockpit switch, differential locking system
Weight: 739 kg
Suspension/wheel travel: (front) dual A-arms with adjustable shocks, 20 cm; (rear) adjustable independent rear suspension with adjustable shocks, 21 cm
Features: electric power steering, full instrumentation, two-tone seats, rear “stadium seating”
Our take: The long wheelbase made tight manoeuvring relatively difficult, but the suspension was superb and that V-twin hum is oh-so-nice. The perfect family hauler.
2012 Polaris Ranger 800 EFI
Engine: 760 cm3 liquid-cooled two-cylinder w/EFI
Trans/4WD: CVT, selectable AWD/2WD/ VersaTrac Turf Mode
Weight: 562 kg
Suspension/whee l travel: (front) dual A-arms, 24 cm; (rear) dual A-arms, 23 cm
Features: modular cargo system, 1-ton towing capacity, pallet-size rear dump box
Our take: The Ranger is slightly sportier than the Rhino, a comparable ROV. The steering was also lighter, with a heavy dose of oversteer. In 2WD we had fun kicking out the back end on loose gravel roads. And the Ranger took care of business in the tough stuff.
2012 Yamaha Rhino 700 FI Auto 4X4
Engine: 686 cm3 liquid-cooled two-cylinder w/EFI
Trans/4WD: CVT, three-position On-Command In/Out 4WD
Weight: 544 kg
Suspension/wheel travel: (front/rear) independent double wishbone with five-way preload adjustment, 18,5 cm
Features: digital LCD multifunction display (speedo, odo, fuel, etc), 12-volt accessory outlet, two cup holders
Our take: The most utilitarian of the group, the Rhino had a somewhat agricultural feel, partly because it lacked power steering. Still, it performed solidly and gave off an “old reliable” aura.
2012 Can-Am Commander Limited 1000
Engine: 976 cm3 liquid-cooled two-cylinder w/EFI
Trans/4WD: CVT, selectable 2WD/4WD
Weight: 588 kg
Suspension/wheel travel: (front) double A-arms with anti-dive geometry, 25 cm; (rear) trailing arm with anti-roll bar, 25 cm
Features: 1 800-kg winch, quick-ratio steering, air-controlled suspension, dual-level cargo box, sound system, GPS
Our take: The Commander was polarising. Some loved our tricked-out ride’s brute strength, but others felt it was more suited to sand dunes or tamer terrain. It did all we asked of it, but in the end, this particular model is a little too rich for our blood.
2012 Arctic Cat Prowler 700I H1 EFI HDX
Engine: 695 cm3 liquid-cooled two-cylinder w/EFI
Trans/4WD: CVT, selectable 2WD/4WD, Electric Front Differential Lock
Weight: 619 kg
Suspension/wheel travel: (front) double A-arms, 25 cm; (rear) coil-over shocks, double A-arms, 25 cm
Features: Power steering, transformable tilt rear cargo box, side storage compartments, front and rear 5 cm receivers
Our take: A perfect mix of sport and utility, the Prowler was a standout. More aggressively styled than the Ranger or Rhino, it cleared obstacles with ease and handled responsively. And that fat steering wheel felt great.