The story is hard to follow, with tangent story lines, strange intersections and unpredictable twists. But here’s the punch line: Highland is a new ATV being produced in the heartland of America. And it has the potential to be the lightest, fastest sport quad ever made.
We first got photos of the Highland in time for last month’s issue. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to ride the machine, and we were shocked to discover that the company’s claims hold water. It is fast. It is light. And everything looks good for real production to start as soon as the new Oklahoma assembly line is finished. Here’s the once-over: The motor is a six-speed, liquid-cooled, four-valve, 450cc, EFI single that bears a resemblance to the original Husaberg motorcycle powerplant. The chassis has a twin-beam aluminum frame with Elka suspension.
With so much power available, the Highland is always ready to destroy a berm on command.
How could something this sophisticated just spring up out of nowhere? Because the Highland didn’t come from nowhere. It has a motor that’s been seen in Swedish motorcycles and a chassis that came directly from another great American hope: Cannondale. The story actually goes back to the late ’80s when Cagiva purchased Husqvarna motorcycles and moved the company from Sweden to Italy. Suddenly, unemployed Husqvarna engineers started an engineering company known as Folan, originally producing a super-lightweight V-twin motor, then a single-cylinder version. Those motors ended up in a limited-production Swedish motorcycle called the Highland. The ATV came along when ATK got involved with the project, as well as some Chinese investors. ATK, if you remember, purchased all the Cannondale inventory when that company went bankrupt. ATK has been supporting and refining those Cannondale ATVs under its own name all this time.
Somewhere along the way, the ATK connection fell apart, and now Highland has new investors that are locating a production facility just outside of Tulsa. The company will produce high-end motorcycles and ATVs on a custom-order basis. You’ll be able to order the ATV in virtually any state of tune you want. There are also plans to produce a 100-horsepower V-twin quad. We rode the motorcycle version of that, and we think that 100 horsepower is a conservative estimate. It was crazy fast.
If you want art in an exhaust system, the titanium/carbon fiber/stainless steel twin-canister system qualifies.
The heart of the Highland motor isn’t the piston or head. It’s actually its electronic hardware. The motor has a sophisticated brain that operates the ignition and EFI system. The motor actually has a memory. It keeps a record of every rpm that it has turned since it was first fired up. It also has a device that measures G forces so that Highland technicians can analyze impacts from every jump and bump. The plan is for the company to keep track of every unit, even when they appear on the used market. Beyond the big-brother brain, the EFI system has an interesting throttle body, which uses a slide instead of a butterfly, and two channels to direct flow into the two intake valves. At the other end, the two exhaust valves lead directly to two independent exhaust pipes.
The aluminum frame is a direct descendent from that of the Cannondale/ATK—in fact, it appeared that the one on the prototype we rode was originally manufactured by Cannondale. The Highland engineers made some changes, but they mostly seem to be in the cradle area, in order to hold the new motor. The Highland motor (at least the single-cylinder version) is much more compact than the original Cannondale design, so it was an easy fit. At this point, it’s equipped with Elka suspension, although the plans call for options to be available.
The idea is to use the best components everywhere, including Elka suspension, front and rear.
We got a chance to ride the Highland products for one day. The 450cc ATV was still a prototype, but it was impressive. The power was just incredible. It ran cleanly and smoothly from the very bottom of the powerband all the way to an impressive top-end. The torque was excellent, and it was as fast as any production 450 currently available. This machine was clearly in competition form. It had a racing exhaust system, nerf bars, racing tires and full MX-width A-arms and axle.
There’s an interesting amount of inbreeding involved in European motors. The Highland engine has some of the same ideas and designs that were seen in the original Husqvarna four-stroke motorcycle motor, the Husaberg motor and the KTM RFS and Polaris Outlaw motors.
We always liked the way that the Cannondale/ATK handled. It was light and easy to muscle around. The Highland is the same way, but it should be even lighter. There were some setup issues that are typical of machines in this early stage of development. The front shocks were too stiff for MX (evidently they came from a Supermotard quad). The bars were located oddly high and the rear shock was soft. None of that detracts from the big picture, though. Highland’s plan is to offer custom-built machines that will allow you to choose all the details. Pricing hasn’t been established yet, but we don’t expect this to be a budget machine. You can learn more about the company at www.ushighland.com, but at this point, the ATV division of the company isn’t mentioned on the website. This is clearly just the beginning of a very big project.