How do you choose? By the staff of Dirt Wheels
We aren’t sure that the story of Goldilocks and the three bears is as popular today as it once was, but it applies here. To recap: little girl Goldilocks was lost in the woods and strayed into the family home of the three bears—papa, mama and baby. No matter what she was interested in—food, a chair or a bed—one was too small, one was too large and one was just right. This comparison isn’t about a head-to-head winner; it is for those lost in the “woods”, of current dealer floors, looking for that machine that is “just right.” The choice used to be easy—sport quad or 4×4 quad. UTVs changed the off-road fat-tire landscape, and now Polaris has divided the market further with the Ace single-seat machines. For some, a solid-axle sport quad is in the mix, and for others, the two-up touring-style 4×4 quads add further choices for those looking for a new off-road weapon.
For our purposes we felt that the Polaris Sportsman Scrambler XP 1000 can ably represent sport quads and two-up quads. It is a rowdy, bare-knuckled 4×4 fully capable as a racer yet domesticated enough for trail fun. Since the Scrambler is at the pinnacle of 4×4 quad performance and, at the moment, standing pretty equal to the 1000cc Can-Am sport 4×4, we wanted to compare the brash and bold end of the Ace lineup, so we chose the potent Ace 900 XC. To represent UTVs, we opted for the well-regarded Polaris RZR XP 1000. We could have found a lower-priced unit than the Velocity Blue LE with Ride Command, but that is the unit we have, and it stands in for all UTVs, whether two- or four-seat.
Polaris’ Scrambler XP 1000 seemed like a monster when it was released, but as we spend more time with it, we are continually amazed by how civil it is despite being monstrously fast. The fact that Fox Podium X shocks are standard helps a lot. Our machine was tested as we currently race it, with a higher-mounted Fasst Co. Flexx handlebar, beadlock wheels and taller tires. The Ace 900 XC is box stock, but it boasts slightly more suspension travel than the Scrambler. Our RZR 1000 had 30-inch Tusk Terrabite desert tires to prevent flats, but was otherwise stock with just over 200 miles on the machine.
The Ace 900 XC is as much a bare-knuckle, visceral hot rod of the group. It has massive hit off the bottom and probably more power than it really needs, but it will fit in a full-size truck bed. The combination makes for a huge smile-per-dollar ratio. The RZR is as composed as the Ace is rowdy. It is plenty powerful, amply suspended and relaxingly comfortable.
At first glance all of these engines are Polaris parallel twins, but the quad uses an 89-horsepower, single-overhead-cam engine; the 78-horsepower Ace 900 is a double overhead cam; and the 110-horsepower RZR XP 1000 is a high-output, Prostar dual-overhead-cam model. All are fuel-injected and liquid-cooled, and all deliver power through a belt-driven CVT.
By any frame of reference, all of these machines are very powerful, but they feel quite different on the trail. The Scrambler quad has smooth delivery and what feels like a long rpm range to play with. Anyone careful with the throttle can ride it with no problem. Let it rev and it is shockingly strong. When we had all the machines in the dunes, the quad was literally a hard act to follow up steep bowls. We had to quit trying with the RZR when the belt started to smell hot. When we raced the 4×4 Scrambler against solid-axle sport quads, it made all its passes in technical, rocky sections of the course, so it is easy to control if you respect the power.
While the quad is smooth and builds power in a linear fashion, the Ace drops all the cards on the table as soon as you hit the throttle. It accelerates hard enough to keep the front wheels light, and it feels stronger than any of these machines. After you get accustomed to how delicate you must be with the throttle actuation, you realize that it ultimately does taper off a little at high rpm. In a package this compact, nobody will think it is slow. If you are easy on the throttle, you can easily negotiate technical trails and climbs with ledges. Throttle it too hard, and you would be aiming rather than steering it.
Before turbo cars, the RZR XP 1000 was the power king in the UTV world, and it remains the favorite of many thanks to an amazingly responsive yet flexible and controllable output. It, too, feels flat at high rpm compared to turbocharged models, but in fact it does have plenty of power in most situations. Only in the dunes and on high-speed roads and trails do you feel the power sign off. It goes 80 mph and isn’t shy about getting there. None of these machines are hard on belts, but of the three, we were most careful with the RZR.
PLEASE BE SEATED
Here is where we find major differences. Obviously, you sit on the Scrambler 4×4 quad, but the seat is softly padded yet supportive. It also has linked braking (via a left-side hand lever) like the cars do, but it has the option to use rear brakes only with the right-foot control. The Ace has one thing in common with the Scrambler—you sit evenly between the wheels instead of off to one side. Drivers without quad experience found that feeling odd, but most liked it.
You don’t feel as “in” the Ace as you do with the RZR. The doors are small and you feel up a little high. There is very little of the car in front of you. The hood is low and easy to see over, and the dash feels low. That forward visibility was one of the strengths that every tester praised the Ace for. The seat is comfortable, and you can use either door to enter or exit, though most used the left door out of habit and to avoid the shift lever. If anything, the Ace has more legroom for tall drivers, and you can stretch your left leg out farther than in the RZR while still using the provided left-foot rest.
There is much to like about the RZR’s people skills. The seats are nice, though they flex on the base. The seats remove quickly, so they are not rigidly mounted but are secure. You feel more “in” the RZR as the seats feel low, the doors and dash higher, and the front end does limit your vision directly in front of the machine.
By the numbers you might think that the quad is handicapped with the least amount of travel. In fact, the 9 inches in the front and 12.5 inches in the rear offer a very smooth ride thanks to well-sorted Fox Podium X shocks and oversized tires. The other key here is that you can stand up in the rough if you want, and that is a huge advantage. The Scrambler doesn’t like blitzing through deep whoops, but will jump two at a time for a skilled rider, or wheelie over every other one. We hit a trail with relatively small but deep and steep G-outs. These bottomed the cars and kicked the rear up hard. On the quad we pulled the front end up and they were barely an issue.
The Ace has a similar suspension package with A-arms, but with shocks that are less adjustable. And even though the wheelbase is long compared to a quad, it is very short for a car. The Ace can handle rough and choppy conditions fine, but you feel more of the small and sharp impacts than you do with the Scrambler or the RZR.
The RZR XP 1000 has more travel, larger rear shocks and a trailing-arm design that all help it be extremely smooth-riding. It handles the fast rough like a race car and the slow technical like a dedicated rock crawler, and there seems to be no real compromise at either end of the off-road spectrum. It is a waste of the suspension’s talents, but it handles smoother dirt roads and two-tracks with total confidence as well. There are plenty of conditions that will force you to slow down, but the range of the RZR suspension and the sheer comfort of it is most impressive.
Oddly, only the quad is rated for towing, and it has dedicated carrying racks as well. You will have a hard time convincing anyone that the Ace is an effective farm vehicle. It is just limited. There is some storage under the hood and there is a small bed as well. Both the Ace and the RZR have what looks like a small hitch attached, but neither are rated for any towing. The RZR will carry some cargo in the small bed. It is the largest bed here.
With a smooth ride and plenty of usable power, the Sportsman Scrambler 4×4 quad has a lot to recommend it. That trend continues when you ride it. With the narrowest track at 48.6 inches, the shortest wheelbase, and the ability to stand and use body weight to help it absorb bumps and change direction, the Scrambler is very nimble, and will shoot the smallest gaps. It still climbs and descends well. It is happy on any sort of trail. We actually worried that it would be hard to switch, but most of the riders were eager for turns on the quad. You definitely do exert more energy riding the Scrambler than you do piloting the cars.
We did some rock-slab riding, and one normal line causes machines without sufficient width or suspension articulation to suddenly pop a wheel in the air. The quad was just not happy there if we forced it to take the UTV line. On the other hand, it would easily turn up out of the notch we were in and simply avoid the mess where the cars could not. Quads still have a lot to offer. Two of our friends and their wives attended an event in Utah with some trails limited to 50-inch machines. One couple was on a two-up Polaris quad, much like the Scrambler but with a slightly longer wheelbase. The other couple was in a 50-inch RZR 570. The couple in the RZR enjoyed the safety aspect of the RZR and its cage and seat belts, but claimed the quad was faster and rode better in the rough compared to the travel-limited 50-inch machine.
When you are off the throttle, the Ace steering feels as quick and precise as any quad. When the power gets involved, though, the Ace is busy. It accelerates so hard that small bumps that don’t hamper the acceleration allow the front end to get light to the point of detracting from the steering accuracy. Without a doubt it is always fun with a huge smile factor, but it can’t hang with the RZR in the fast terrain. It feels bumps where the RZR does not.
The fact that you have only one seat is interesting. The more aggressive you drive, and the more extreme the trails you like, the fewer volunteers you have to take up the second seat. A lot of dedicated drivers didn’t feel the loss of a passenger seat was a deal-breaker.
In sand dunes, where there is no such thing as too much power and conditions are relatively smooth, the Ace is a complete howl-at-the-moon kick.
Finally, there is the RZR. And after this comparison, we certainly see why they have become so successful. If you have a favorite passenger, choosing the two-seat machine is a slam dunk. Even when you consider money, one two-seater is cheaper than two high-end quads or a pair of Aces. The current XP platform has had years of suspension and chassis development, and for that reason it easily handles 110 horsepower. It is comfortable and capable in a fantastically wide range of applications. Unlike many high-performance machines, it is as happy going slow as it is blistering the trail.
There is an undeniable appeal to the minimalism of the quad and its compact size. It is easy to transport, and while it fits best in a full-size truck, it will fit in a short-bed mini truck. It will require only a small trailer if you choose to go that route. It will thread gaps the others will not, but they will traverse off-cambers that it doesn’t like. Naturally, you are a little more exposed, but you also have more freedom.
The Ace has similar appeal. Compact and highly maneuverable, it is effective and has a huge grin factor and it does fit in a full size truck bed. You will feel more of the small chop than you do with an IRS quad like the Scrambler and more than the RZR with its additional travel and larger wheels.
For some, the option to have a friend along is a knock-out punch to the other two, but for others that is a luxury and one they won’t miss. Polaris XP 1000 models are simply stunning all-around performers.
The good news is that no matter what segment of the market you choose, there are some amazing choices out there. It all depends if you like things free and loose, which suits the quad; comfortable and contained but with a wild side like the RZR; or just plain aggro and edgy like the Ace.