ATV TEST: POLARIS SPORTSMAN 850 ULTIMATE TRAIL EDITION

As good as it getsBy the staff of Dirt Wheels

Even though the Sportsman 850 is the normal 48 inches wide for a 4×4, it feels solid and planted on the trail. It has some serious rubber on the ground for a 4×4 quad!

There are subtle but important changes and updates to the 2021 Polaris Sportsman 850. In this case we are testing the Ultimate Trail Edition. That whole Ultimate Trail Edition (UTE) designation and specifications are new for 2021, so the UTE is, by definition, all new, despite sharing a great deal with current and past twin-cylinder Sportsman models. Regardless of the percentage that is new, the package is impressive, and we were excited to get some trail miles under the wheels. 

Polaris claims the UTE is, “Built for the rider that needs top trail performance and exclusive looks. Trail-ready straight from the factory, the Sportsman 850 Ultimate Trail Edition lets you go wherever the adventure takes you.” One facet of the UTE is fully painted bodywork. We don’t see how that helps for serious trails, but the winch, bumper, lights and tires are all bona fide helpers on any trail.

The tires alone make a big difference. Our last Polaris 850 test vehicle had tires that were an inch smaller and an inch narrower. All of the Sportsman 850 versions offer sublime comfort and convenience to what is essentially a work quad that is big fun to play on. We took the time to look over a good number of customer reviews on the 850. We saw almost none that used the quad solely for work. On the other hand, nearly none of the owners used the quad strictly for fun. All have at least two uses for the quad, and in a large number of cases, the second use was either plowing snow or hunting.

There is plenty of power to slide the Sportsman 850 Ultimate Trail Edition when you want to, but it never just spins from sudden jumps in power. The 850 is very controllable.

RIDER-INSPIRED UPGRADES

The Ultimate Trail Edition is claimed to have been engineered with “rider-inspired upgrades.” That is another way to say the company acceded to customer suggestions. The Ultimate Trail Edition starts with the capable Sportsman 850, then changes it up for riders that demand a trail machine with both looks and performance. UTE improvements include upgraded LED headlights and a handlebar-mounted LED pod light as part of the instrument display. All three lights have high and low beams. Lightweight, 14-inch cast-aluminum wheels hold tough, wear- and puncture-resistant 27-inch Duro tires.

For more clearance, the UTE has front and rear arched A-arms to boost usable ground clearance. New-for-‘21 are automotive-style sealed suspension bushings designed to withstand mud and water intrusion and reduce vehicle maintenance. An Ultimate Series front bumper and steel skid plates provide added protection from trail abuse and the elements. A Polaris Pro HD 3500-pound winch with synthetic rope comes standard. We find winches helpful to clear junk from the trail more often than to free the machine from sticky situations. We are still happy to have one.

We weren’t interested in generating big air on the Ultimate Trail, but small jumps are fine, and it lands easily. The front is a little more prone to bottoming than the rear.

WHAT ULTIMATE COSTS

As nice as the UTE is, the additions that help its trail worthiness have several costs. There is a cost in weight and another in retail price. Electric power steering, tires, a winch and paint all add weight. There is almost a 100-pound difference between the 772-pound base 850 and the 871-pound Ultimate Trail. There is only a 67-pound difference between the base Sportsman 570 and the base 850!

The stripped-down Polaris 850 Scrambler (without EPS) is an even lighter 735 pounds. It isn’t just the fact that it is a twin-cylinder 850 instead of a single-cylinder 570. The Sportsman 570 Ultimate Trail Limited Edition we tested earlier weighed in at 821 pounds. You feel that weight when you start to push the pace, but only feel it as sheer comfort and luxury at slower speeds.

Naturally, there is a dollar difference as well. The base 850 is $8999, and the obviously fully equipped Ultimate Trail is $2500 more at $11,499. That seems a reasonable jump to get the wheels, tires, paint, EPS, Automatic Descent Control, winch, bumper and upgraded lights and instrumentation.

ENGINE PERFORMANCE

The Polaris Sportsman 850 isn’t humble in the power department. As noted, it’s a twin cylinder with EFI, liquid cooling and four valves per cylinder. Sure, it is more complex with a few more parts, but for a jump of roughly 50 pounds between the 570 and a comparably equipped 850, you jump from 44 horsepower to 78 ponies! That is far more than enough to offset the weight difference. When you push the thumb throttle you can feel every horse.

The engine is paired to a fully automatic CVT. All of the 850 Sportsman models have the Polaris Engine Braking System. It is not electronic, but is engineered into the CVT. There are high and low forward gears, neutral, reverse and park controlled by a shifter on the right side of the gas tank. There are indicators on the shifter to see the selected gear, but it is more accurate to watch the display’s gear indicator.

This little display is super smart, and it volunteers massive amounts of information. Opposite the key are the 12-volt power point and the battery charger port.

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE

Polaris employs an on-demand all-wheel-drive system. This 4×4 system only sends power to the front wheels once it senses the rears slipping. That also means that you don’t have true four-wheel engine braking if you have 4×4 selected. The fronts don’t engage and the rear can get tricky to keep in line under extreme conditions.

You can switch between rear and all-wheel drive via an easy-to-operate selector switch above the thumb throttle. In the case of the Ultimate Trail Edition, Polaris Active Descent Control (ADC) is also standard. It is a third option on the 2WD/4X4 switch. ADC is not a simple modification to the clutch. On Polaris ATVs equipped with Active Descent Control, when the switch is on ADC, the ADC system uses electromagnetic coils and clutches to feed engine braking to all four wheels when the vehicle descends a hill or incline. Polaris suggests always switching the 4×4 selector to ADC 4×4 before ascending or descending a hill.

According to Polaris, “The ADC system will automatically engage when all four of the following conditions occur.” The 4×4 switch must be in the ADC 4×4 position. Vehicle speed must be 15 mph or less. The throttle must be closed. The transmission must be in gear (high, low or reverse).

The ADC system will automatically disengage if the 4×4 switch is moved out of the ADC 4×4 position, vehicle speed exceeds 15 mph, the throttle is opened, or the transmission is shifted to neutral or park.

There is a nice storage compartment at the rear, a little push/grab bar and the arched A-arms. The Duro tires wear well while offering excellent traction. We had no flats.

CUSHY SUSPENSION

In terms of suspension, the Sportsman 850 hasn’t changed too much, but the numbers justify that decision. The front suspension boasts 9 inches of dual A-arm-design travel controlled by spring-preload-adjustable shocks. Unfortunately, only the Scrambler XP 1000 comes with compression-adjustable shocks. The back of the machine has dual-A-arm IRS, 10.25 inches of travel and preload-adjustable shocks. Those rear travel numbers are equal to or better than a number of sport quads!

That IRS rear end soaks up rough chop that a straight-axle and swingarm can’t handle. The IRS and EPS mean you’ll have less fatigue on long rides. Stay away from fast whoop sections, though. Heavy machines don’t love whoops. Also, it can be jumped, but it is a good idea to use a lot of caution.

HANDLING BUSINESS

This Sportsman corners quite well for its size, and with EPS, the steering is all but effortless. We love the EPS. The 850 cockpit is roomy and slender enough at the seat but (like most CVT quads) somewhat wide between your boots. The handlebar position is tall enough for gangly riders, and the hand controls are comfortable for small or large hands. We feel comfortable sitting or standing while riding.

Polaris’ unique braking system uses a single brake lever on the left handlebar to engage the hydraulic disc brakes on all four wheels. A foot lever brakes the rear wheels only. Your left hand deals only with the brakes, and your right only with the thumb throttle. It is a clever division of labor. The brakes are strong, but we’d like more initial bite and less hand effort required. You soon get used to the single brake lever.

You can see how wide the tires are on this Ultimate Trail Edition. They are an inch wider than normal—more like UTV tires. The bumper is stout! The arched A-arms are welcome.

GET TO WORK

All 4×4 quads are in touch with their roots as work machines. The Sportsman 850 racks hold a combined 360 pounds. Sitting directly below the rear rack is a 1-gallon cargo bin. A rear hitch receiver comes stock and can handle the Polaris’ towing capacity of 1500 pounds.

The all-digital Bluetooth gauge displays a speedometer, odometer, tachometer, two trip meters, hour meter, gear indicator, fuel gauge, AWD indicator, volt meter, coolant temperature, hi-temp light, clock, DC outlet, and text and call notifications. On the pod face is a 12-volt power point and a built-in connection to charge the battery! What a great idea!

This rear rack is highly effective the way it is, but Polaris offers a bunch of accessories that customize this area for specific uses. Note the indentations in the surface for 5-gallon buckets.

RIDE TIME

Riding the Sportsman is luxury. One tester called it an Escalade referring to the Cadillac SUV. The power of the 850 comes on plenty strong as the rpm climb, but it is surprisingly controllable to use at low rpm. We used high range most of the time, but when we needed low it worked great.

We have an ATV trailer that is narrower than our tow RV, so it is quite difficult to back into tough spots and especially in crowded situations. We had a situation that required precision backing, so we unloaded the 850. We hooked the ATV trailer to the Sportsman, turned hard right and drove up the curb, over a 1-foot retaining wall, and pulled the trailer right across both obstacles. We effortlessly backed the trailer with the quad, parked the trailer and easily backed the RV back up to it. Nice!

Whether you are riding standing or sitting, the 850 UTE is comfortable and easy to ride. It has all the power it needs to make it feel light and responsive despite being in the 900-pound range ready to ride with a full tank. We often used power to swing the rear end around a bit in turns.

Polaris has done an amazing job with the suspension. Even though the shocks are merely five-position preload adjustable, the machine vacuums up small chop and loose rocks while handling bigger impacts well. It has a high center-of-gravity feeling in corners, but it is generally easy to manage with added body input. The seat is easy to move around on, and the plastics don’t get in the way.

It looks like lots of stuff is going on here, but on the trail, all your left hand is doing is operating the rear brake. You’ll soon realize you don’t really want to ride machines with your hands multitasking.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The 2021 Sportsman 850 Ultimate Trail Edition is a great and very complete package as it comes. Polaris also has a Comfort Essentials Collection, Worker’s Collection, Hunter’s Collection and a Winter Rider’s Collection of specific groups of accessories. That is in addition to accessory categories like protection, utility and wheel and tire sets. You can make this quad whatever you want it to be. We saw that many owners are outfitting it for winter duties like snow plowing. It isn’t cheap, but most owners feel it is a good value. We agree with them. This machine will never provide the same feeling as a light, nimble, solid-axle sport quad. But, big 4×4 quads thrive in the chop, rocks and roots that are the enemy of solid-axle machines. That is why you see so many 4×4 quads on the trail. Go to www.polaris.com to check out the rest of their lineup of ATVs and UTVs.

2021 POLARIS SPORTSMAN 850 ULTIMATE TRAIL EDITION SPECS 

Engine Twin-cylinder, SOHC, liquid-cooled, 4-stroke

Displacement 850cc

Starter Electric 

Fuel system EFI

Fuel capacity 5.25 gal.

Transmission Automatic CVT

Final drive Shaft

Suspension/wheel travel:

Front Dual sealed high-clearance A-arms w/ 9.0”

Rear Dual sealed high-clearance A-arms w/ 10.25”

Brakes:

Front Dual hydraulic discs

Rear Dual hydraulic discs

Tires:

Front 27×9-14

Rear 27×11-14

Length/width/height 83.3”/47.6”/50.8”

Ground clearance 12.0”

Wheelbase 53.0”

Curb weight 871 lb.

Payload capacity 575 lb.

Combined rack capacity 360 lb.

Towing capacity 1500 lb.

Colors ..Velocity Blue

Price $11,499

4x4 ATVpolaris sportsmanSportsman 850Sportsman 850 Ultimate Trail