Sport UTV Shootout: Can-Am Commander 1000 vs. Polaris Ranger RZRS 800

Four-wheeled thrill ride

While UTVs started out very utilitarian, they were still a blast to drive, offering a different experience than a typical ATV. In recent years, buyers have been demanding sportier versions of these steering wheel equipped vehicles, and the manufacturers are listening.
One of the top offerings in the sport genre is the Polaris Ranger RZRS 800. The newest competitor in the sport ring is Can-Am’s Commander, which is offered with 800cc and 1000cc engines.
For this test, we have pitted the redesigned, lower-cost, standard 2011 RZRS against Can-Am’s Commander 1000XT. We will compare comfort, handling and, of course, top speed.
The two machines battled it out around our desert test course and on our mountain adventure loop. The desert track has a mix of sand dunes, washes, whoops, rocky sections and flat-out, wide open, power service trails. Up in the mountains, we tested cargo carrying capabilities, horsepower at high altitudes, engine braking, fuel mileage and comfort levels for hours in the saddle.

Can-Am claims their 1000cc V-twin Rotax powerplant puts out an incredible 85 horsepower. The smaller 760cc engine in the RZRS 800 only puts out 55 horsepower. For comparison’s sake, Can-Am’s 800 produces 71 horsepower. Fortunately for Polaris, those numbers are all relative to drivetrain construction, tire size and, of course, weight. This means you can easily have a faster machine even with a smaller motor.
Both powerplants in this test are twin-cylinder designs. Polaris uses a compact parallel design, while Can-Am uses the more popular V-twin setup. Electronic fuel injection feeds fuel to each engine, providing easy, chokeless startup.
Along with the displacement advantage, Can-Am also supplies their Commanders with a much larger 10-gallon gas tank versus the 7.25-gallon tank on the Ranger. Again, this is where the weight factor may end up in the RZR’s favor as the battle brews on. Claimed numbers from the manufactures are 1400 pounds for the Commander and only 1000 pounds for the RZRS.

We know that Can-Am’s 1000cc V-twin has plenty of hidden potential to make the Commander go as fast as you want it to. Companies like Ron Wood Racing have exhaust and intake systems in stock. Call them at (949) 645-0393.

Polaris has made minor modifications to the RZR engine over the years. However, we are still waiting for them to stick their 850cc SOHC engine from the Sportsman XP into this model.

Another number that evens the score for the Polaris is its price. For 2011, Polaris lowered the price of the standard RZRS to an affordable $12,500. Can-Am lists its 800 at $11,700 and the 1000XT in this test retails for $14,700.
On our test track that spans over five miles of varying terrain but very little top speed sections, we were able to clock an average lap of 10 minutes and 4 seconds driving the Commander. Even with less horsepower, the Polaris Ranger RZR averaged a lap of 10 minutes flat. Very close!
Our expert test driver noted he could tell the Commander was quicker coming out of the corners, but in the RZR he could brake harder into the corners. They would both slide predictably, and with the same speed the Commander would push slightly in the middle of the turns. When you let off and get on the gas in the Can-Am, there was always a slight hesitation, where the RZR would respond instantly and rocket forward.
On the open dry lake beds, sand washes and hardpack dirt service roads, the Can-Am was able to show only a 5 mph greater top speed at 67 versus the RZRS according to our Garmin GPS unit. Getting there was quicker as well. Off the line, in 4WD, the RZR would take a slight jump but was quickly passed at about the 20 foot mark. Then the Can-Am would slowly increase its lead. However, in two weeks of testing, there were very little trails where we found ourselves going these blinding speeds.

These two machines are the widest of all UTVs. They corner and slide great with no hint of two-wheeling or tipping. Keep in mind, you can still tip these machines over if you’re not careful around turns or on off-camber trails. Although wide, each machine in this test was still able to fit in the back of our Dirt Wheels hauler a full sized Ford truck. The Honda Big Red is the only stock UTV we have tested that has to be hauled on a trailer.
All that width leads to wheel travel. Polaris gave the Ranger a class-leading 12 inches at all four corners, while the Commander has only 10 at each corner. For comparison’s sake, a Yamaha Rhino and Kawasaki Teryx have only 7.3 and 7.5 inches, respectively.
Surprisingly, there is a little more body roll felt in the Commander. Like its ATV counterpart, the Outlander, the yellow UTV tends to dive under braking as well. It’s not bad, it’s just more noticeable than on other machines.
Over our whoop sections, the heavier Commander is handicapped by its weight. You can easily feel the rear end bottom out, then start to buck. The action of the shocks in the front are as good as the shocks on the RZRS. In the lighter RZRS, you feel like your are skipping over the tops of the bumps more than driving through them. It was easy to decide which machine worked better through our whoop section—the RZRS.

Our track has a large bump in the middle of a long straightaway. At 60 mph, the Polaris flew level and landed smooth from about a 6-foot drop onto flat ground. The Commander kicked rear-end high and bottomed out slightly.
Neither of these machines in this test have power steering; however, Polaris does sell a limited edition RZR with the feature, and you will most likely see a Commander in 2012 with the option.
The RZRS’s steering was so light, none of our testers even mentioned the need for power steering. Every one of our testers complained about how heavy the steering was in the Commander versus the RZR.
A section of our test track is called the rock garden—it’s half sandwash, half harpack, but 100 percent littered with bowling ball-sized rocks, steep ledges and sharp tire-ripping granite. With ground clearance numbers exceeding 12 inches, the Ranger RZRS zig-zagged through the section the best. We rarely scraped the stock plastic skid plates or felt a jarring hit through the steering wheel.
What hurt the Can-Am through this section was not only its heavy steering but the lack of ground clearance. Many scrapes were heard under the Commander. With two occupants in the Commander under acceleration, the ground clearance was reduced to about 6 inches under the trailer hitch receiver.
To Can-Am’s credit, they outfitted Maxxis Big Horns on the complete Commander line, while Polaris replaced Maxxis Big Horns with an ITP light mud tire. The only tire failure we had in testing the two machines was on the Polaris. It was a small puncture that we repaired on the trail.


During our testing, we spend a lot of time in both the driver’s and the passenger’s seats, checking comfort and control. Both machines in this test are equipped with side safety nets instead of doors. They keep weight down, but don’t provide the splash and debri protection of a door. Companies such as Pro Armor and have great aluminum door options for both units that we highly recommend.
Adjustable seats are found in both UTVs. The Polaris RZR has a two-position adjuster, while Can-Am provides a track system much like an automobile.

(Left) The front dual A-arm suspension on the Commander took a pounding but worked well. The rear end found its limits quickly in the real rough stuff. (Right) The Polaris RZRS is their long travel version with 12 inches of travel. These preload adjustable Sachs shocks worked well and helped lower the overall price of the RZRS for 2011.

Can-Am has a built-in sensor that requires you to have the driver’s side seatbelt buckled or the vehicle is limited to 7-10 mph. Can-Am also equipped the Commander with a triple-keyed ignition safety system. A gray key limits the machine to 45 mph and is considered the “learner” key. An orange key limits speeds to 25 mph and would be great if you have employees using the machine on a job site or farm. The black key is the standard full-power option.
Keys and seatbelts on the RZRS are standard issue. What is adjustable on all RZRs is the T-shaped passenger grab handle. The Commander has a solid hoop mounted over the glove box, plus an additional post handle on the center console left of the passenger seat.
Both machines have very sporty, comfortable seating positions. Entering and exiting the machines from either side is a breeze. You do feel like you are sitting a little lower in the RZR, but the seats are a bit more comfortable in the Commander.
For a better view out of the cockpit of both machines, we installed convex rearview mirrors. The RZRS was equipped with a Moose unit, while the Commander was outfitted with Can-Am’s own product.

(Left) Polaris retained the front hood and storage box on the RZR. Plus, they redesigned the top for a more secure attachment. (Right) Both units in this test have closing glove boxes. The piece in the Can-Am, as well as the rest of the bodywork, has great attention to detail. The fit and finish of the whole machine is first rate.

Each of the machines in this contest have a standard glove box situated in front of the passenger seat. The Polaris and the Can-Am unit are about the same size, but the Commander’s is sectional for a little more organization. You can also utilize a shallow cargo area on the RZRS’s hood, which is good for jackets, tow ropes and other lighter items. On the back end of the Ranger there is no dump bed like is found on every other UTV. The lighter, more compact RZR does have a recessed platform storage area capable of holding 300 pounds of cargo. Although it only measures 22 by 42 inches, we have carried coolers, tents, dufflebags, fishing tackle and enough gear to camp with for a weekend.
However, that’s no match for Can-Am’s unique, dual-stacked, dump bed cargo box unit found over its rear tires. If you are using this machine for work, you can store loose items in the bottom closeable box, keeping the dump bed free for larger items. The only problem we found with the Can-Am’s bed is that its V-shaped design doesn’t allow loose items such as sand, woodchips or grass clippings to slide out as easy as a square box does. To their credit, the Commander’s bodywork looks better than any other UTV offered. In total, you can carry a recommended 600 pounds on the rear of the Commander.

If top speed is what you’re looking for, the Commander is faster than the RZR but may not have all others beat at 67 mph. The Arctic Cat Prowler 1000 does go slightly faster at 70 mph, at our 3000 foot altitude test area. However, in our findings, we rarely go over 55-60 mph in any UTV. And at those speeds, you’re not asking for more speed, in most situations. When you are out trail exploring with your buddy, it is nice to have a couple of miles an hour on him.
In terrain, where top speed doesn’t matter, it’s all about the driving excitement, comfort and control. Around our test track with or without a passenger and very little cargo strapped on, all of our testers preferred the driving experience they got from the Polaris Ranger RZRS over the Commander. It feels lighter, is easier to control and you can actually knock off faster lap times using less horsepower.
The reaction was the same when we took the two machines in the dunes. The Commander would win drag races, but the RZR was more controllable, had lighter steering and was slightly more fun to drive. In the mountains, you could feel a power loss in the Commander as well. The Ranger RZRS, with its 760cc, fared very well, even with reduced oxygen at higher altitudes. But don’t get us wrong—the Commander feels like a rocketship and is a blast to drive in all conditions.
So picking a winner or a machine you should buy depends purely on your intended use. No matter what, the thrill factor is greater on these two machines than on any other UTV. Not only are top speeds some of the fastest you will see, suspension action and control are far superior to the rest of the competition.
If you are looking for a UTV that will be used for fun on the weekends and to help earn a living during the week, then the Can-Am Commander 1000 or even an 800 will do the trick.
If getting the chores done around the house takes a back seat and thrill seeking is high on your priority list, then you will find those thrills faster and more enjoyable in the Polaris Ranger RZRS—and for less money.

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