Happiness is finding the right tool for the job By the staff of Dirt Wheels
On paper this comparison looked like a great plan—three limited- or special-edition 1000cc-class sport UTVs equipped with special equipment or features going head to head. The Limited Edition or Special Edition packages often offer some great value, combining a proven platform with popular or specialized equipment to make it excel at specific activities. Each of these machines are new-for-2017 models, though all are evolutionary versions of an existing platform rather than clean-sheet overhauls. When we actually got into the testing, it became clear that as equally yoked as these three machines look on the brochure, on dirt, you would have a hard time finding three machines that are more different. All are surprisingly potent, but each has its own strengths that allow it to rise above the others in specific performance areas.
While the Arctic Cat Wildcat X is not an all-new platform, some nice detail upgrades make it essentially a new breed of ’Cat. The RG PRO (for Robby Gordon) rear suspension is the focal point of the new model. Surprisingly, total travel is reduced to 16.5 inches down from 18 inches. The trailing arms are patterned after Gordon’s Dakar Hummers, and each trailing arm has a double mount, something like a dirt bike swingarm. The front A-arms are stronger, and the tie-rods are doubled in strength. All of the suspension mounts on the frame are stronger as well. The cage has front and rear intrusion bars and looks like an aftermarket race cage. King shocks and desert-oriented ITP tires on KMC wheels are new as well. For roughly $1000, the Limited adds color-matched bumpers, a roof and full-aluminum doors rather than quarter doors.
Polaris’ RZR XP 1000 Gold Matte Metallic Limited Edition was conceived as a rock-crawling specialist. While the name doesn’t mention that, the specs surely proclaim it loud enough. The upgrades start with the obvious, like the sleek gold rock sliders, high-clearance A-arms and 30-inch Pro Armor Crawler XG eight-ply tires. Hidden inside is a low gear that is a stunning 55 percent lower than a standard RZR 1000, and that low range is accented with on-demand AWD that keeps all four wheels turning at almost the same speed. Normally, RZRs have front wheels that are slightly under-driven, so you get no front drive until the rear wheels spin a little. The shifter is gated, so park is off to the side, so shifts between forward and reverse require no thought while maneuvering in tight spots. The front half-shafts are stronger for the anticipated high-traction, high-load, front wheel pulling. A 4500-pound-rated winch is standard as well.
For Yamaha, the basic platform is quite different. Instead of a belt-driven CVT transmission, the YXZ1000R SS has a paddle-shifted five-speed sequential transmission with an auto- clutch and reverse. The high-revving three-cylinder engine, manual transmission and complete control of the gear choice give the Yamaha a very racy, high-performance feel. And all that is for the standard SS model. For the LE (Limited Edition), the obvious upgrades are the matte black body paint with red suspension and cage. The beadlock rims are also a visual cue. But, the big news are the twin-wall Fox 2.5 Podium X2 shocks with high- and low-speed compression and rebound adjusters on the top of all four shocks.
About all that these three machines share in the engine bay are the 1000cc-class displacement and the fact that all three are liquid-cooled and fuel-injected. The Arctic Cat is an H2, 951cc V-twin with four valves per cylinder. For 2017 the exhaust system and closed-loop EFI aid performance. Still, this is the oldest engine design in this group, and it has a single throttle body as well as a single overhead cam for each cylinder. Off-idle response is significant, so the ’Cat leaps forward when you first hit the gas. In slow, technical crawling, the initial bite of the power requires careful modulation of the gas pedal. There is significant vibration and engine intake noise in the cab, so the Wildcat has a rowdy muscle-car feel. At the top end it runs out of breath a little compared to the other machines in the test. Despite that feeling, the ’Cat keeps up just fine. It was slowest on top speed as well, but the difference between the Yamaha’s 76 mph and the ’Cat’s 69 isn’t that much. When we performed drag races, the cars were all pretty close.
Polaris’ RZR XP 1000 is a high-performance, parallel twin-cylinder engine design where each cylinder shares basic architecture with modern 450cc motocross engines. The highlights are dual overhead cam, four valves per cylinder, a short stroke, dual-bore 48mm throttle bodies and long-tip fuel injectors for 110 horsepower. The engine is compact and light with low vibration and smooth but instant response. Compared to turbo models, the XP 1000 engine feels a bit flat at high rpm, but in this normally aspirated crowd, it is a powerhouse. This LE has a new crawler-specific, low-speed throttle map for better torque, control and responsiveness at low speeds. Drivers of all skill levels get along fine with this motor. It really puts a smile on your face with the performance anywhere in the rpm range, yet it remains perfectly civil and polished at all times.
Yamaha has yet another engine type with an in-line three-cylinder. It also has four valves per cylinder, dual overhead cams and a throttle body for each cylinder. As you would expect from a multi, the engine character is very smooth with little vibration. This is a high-rpm motor, and at high revs it out-powers anything in this class. At low rpm the power output is modest to the point of being soft, and even when you have the engine singing near peak rpm on the Arctic Cat, the Yamaha hasn’t really hit its stride yet. Spin the tach all the way up and it really runs, but the engine is screaming rpm at that point.
The end result is that the YXZ is calm and collected and easy to drive at normal rpm, but requires skill when you keep it spun up high. From corner to corner in somewhat tight driving, the Wildcat and the RZR jump away from turn exits, while the YXZ is spooling up. It is rare that there is enough room before the next turn for the Yamaha to catch and pull ahead before the next direction change. It is a thrill ride.
Arctic Cat improves the passenger compartment for the X Limited. Instead of the standard quarter door, you get full-aluminum doors and a full roof. Designers kept the passengers low in the chassis, and, though low, the seats are comfortable and secure-feeling. As far as controls go, the only standout here is diff-lock, but that is standard and not a limited-edition upgrade. Instead of employing a dash-mounted grab bar, Wildcat passengers get a vertical bar near the shifter for the left hand and a second one that is part of the door for the right hand. First-time drivers and passengers took coaching to figure out the door latches, but they work fine.
Polaris is the only company that selected quarter doors for its limited-edition model. You feel plenty secure with these doors, but they do allow more weather, sand, mud, dirt and leaves inside the machine. At the same time, this was the only machine with a standard rear-view mirror inside the cab. The side mirrors and roof are not stock but options we added for convenience. The Polaris had already attended a multi-day event, so it received the additional parts and a cage-mounted fire extinguisher, and we chose to leave them in place. Polaris seats are pretty comfortable in spite of seat flex on the base, but the rock crawler has the best seat-belt system. It has a stock six-point harness. The double shoulder straps are retractable. The system takes a little adjusting, but it is far more secure than the shoulder belts in the other machines.
Yamaha also provided nice seats, full doors and adds a shoulder bolster to the cage. That bolster makes entering the car tight, but it is quite comfortable once seated. The doors open and close easily, and the handle/latch system is nice. Yamaha’s steeply sloped hood provides an excellent field of vision.
Our Arctic Cat test unit was a sales-rep demo, so it had more time on it than the other machines. We had to ensure that the machine was fully in gear before mashing the throttle, but that is most likely a cable adjustment since we haven’t experienced that trait in Wildcat X models before. The shift pattern is opposite of a Polaris, with park at the farthest back position. We drove these cars hard, and on two days had plenty of traction to load the belt, but the ’Cat never faltered. The clutch engagement was a bit more abrupt in low-range-crawling situations than the Polaris, but for the most part it worked very well.
This rock crawler is the only Polaris that has this sort of gated shifter, but we hope it will become common in the range. Park is gated off to the right, but once the machine is in gear, reverse, neutral, low and high are all in line with reverse at the front and high range in the rear. So, when you are maneuvering on the trail, you can easily and rapidly shift from reverse to high or back without even looking at the dash or the shifter. Nice.
With a low gear that is 55 percent lower than the standard XP 1000 low range, the Gold Matte Metallic LE flows smoothly over tricky obstacles with an ease of control that puts the others to shame.
Yamaha’s SS sequential five-speed transmission has some definite advantages. You can easily tell when you are abusing the auto clutch, but for most performance, driving it requires far less care than a CVT belt does. A small console-mounted lever selects forward or reverse, and once forward is selected, you simply pull the steering-wheel-mounted paddles to select the next gear.
As a result of the gearbox and the high-revving power, the Yamaha is happiest being pushed to a point where the other machines require constant worry about the CVT belt temperature. At the other end of the performance spectrum things are not as rosy. The SS trans and auto-clutch combo crawl far better than the standard-shift YXZ with a clutch pedal. Nevertheless, the Polaris rock crawler is vastly superior to all the machines for slow, technical driving. The Arctic Cat is surprisingly able at slow speeds and much happier than the Yamaha is. The triple doesn’t make a lot of low-rpm torque; there is no low-range setting and there is not much flywheel effect, either. The diff-lock is an oddity with a first gear as tall as the Yamaha’s.
You wouldn’t think that with less travel the Wildcat would be better in whoops, but the suspension and chassis upgrades, including the RG PRO rear trailing arms, truly work in the rough. The Arctic Cat is easily twice as comfortable in the fast whoops compared to the machines here. Whoop sections that make you want to stab the brakes on the other cars are a call to mash the throttle on the Wildcat. It tracks smoothly with a minimum of hobby-horsing front to rear and shows little tendency to walk off line, even if the whoops are in turns.
The trade-off comes on small, sharp, choppy bumps like cross ruts, rocks and chatter where the Wildcat allows more feel to the passenger compartment. The X also has a somewhat unique feel in turns. When you toss it into turns, the outside rear wheel has more than normal squat. It feels like a Trophy Truck looks in a turn heeling well over, but when you hit the throttle, there is little tendency to slide. It just hooks and drives out. Test pilots rated the Yamaha’s steering as more accurate, but nearly all rated the Wildcat’s overall turning the best. The Wildcat does have the laziest turning radius, though; we only noticed that when rock crawling.
Polaris has a lot of experience with UTV suspension, and that shows up on the rock crawler. The action is superbly plush and active. None of the cars have the sheer comfort in the ride that the XP has. For general trails and rock crawling, the Gold Matte Metallic LE coddles the passengers. We have a lot of time in other two-seat XP 1000s and XP Turbos, and they handle just fine in whoops, but the Gold Matte Metallic was the least composed at speed in whoops. Perhaps the 30-inch-tall tires (the other machines are running 27-inch tires) or the supple articulation specified for this model handicapped it.
Certainly for trails and rock crawling/exploring it is supremely capable. It likes to be driven precisely. It doesn’t like being flung into sand or rutted turns with abandon, but then again, that isn’t the design envelope of expected use here.
None of these machines are rated for towing, though they will carry varying amounts of cargo. The Wildcat and the YXZ will carry 300 pounds, but the Wildcat has an actual bed to restrain what you carry. The YXZ basically has a platform with tie-down hooks. The Polaris has the deepest bed, and it is also rated for 300 pounds of cargo.
This is more of a comparison than a shootout. All three machines win at different things. Let’s consider the Arctic Cat X Limited. It is the least expensive machine here by $2900; it has the longest wheelbase; and it comes with a roof, bumpers and full doors. It will handle just about any sort of off-road adventure, but it is most thrilling in the rough and whoops. We also like the way it looks.
Even without a roof or full doors, the Polaris RZR XP 1000 Gold Matte Metallic is the most expensive in this group at $23,999, and that is $4500 more than the Wildcat, but that price makes sense. The just-for-this-model shift pattern, six-point harness system, 4500-pound-rated winch, rear-view mirror, super-low gearing and beadlock wheels all add to the price. Polaris has RZR XP 1000 models that are simply stunning all-around performers, but this rock-crawler edition’s specifications that make it insanely good at crawling and technical trails hurt it for high-speed playing. Simply put, for rock crawling or any steep, slow, technical driving, this Gold matte Metallic edition crushes the competition here.
Not everyone is interested in crawling, and if you are one of those who like going fast, then the Yamaha is hard to beat. If you are willing to twist the rpm up and shift for yourself, the YXZ1000R SS SE is a thrill ride that the others cannot match. The Yamaha doesn’t work everywhere, but when the conditions suit its strengths, it is masterful.
As we said in the beginning, these are all great tools; you just need to evaluate your favorite terrain and driving style. For sure there is a machine here that will cover almost any riding or driving style.