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UTV Trail Showdown


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UTV Trail Showdown

ATV News

The Walk Around

Enter the Polaris Ranger XP. The Ranger is the side-by-side that introduced the market to recreating with them. The rest of the UTV manufacturing industry was building work vehicles. The Ranger, then the Ranger 4x4 models, came along sporting function, speed and off-road ability never before seen with this class of vehicle. As a result, 4x4 Rangers were selling like free beer.

The XP version is the top shelf model, boasting extreme off-road performance. Polaris also openly advocates its highest top speeds. This latest generation incorporates the 700 twin EFI engine and an independent rear suspension.

Advertisement At this test, the Arctic Cat Prowler XT was the newest member. As for style, it’s easy to spot some Cat lineage, which itself resembles the Jeep brand with the wide, vertical-slat grill. In many ways and viewed at some angles, the Prowler tends to borrow some styling cues from the Yamaha Rhino, too. Perhaps incidental, perhaps targeted — but there’s no mistake the Prowler was designed with competitive spirit in play, and seemingly built with a Rhino parked on either side of it in the engineering bay.

It’s different from the Rhino, however, in dimensions. The Prowler is the tallest vehicle in the test, poised at 78 inches. For that matter, it’s also the widest at 61 inches and the longest with overall vehicle length of 115 inches. It’s stature off the pavement, with the class-leading 13 inches of ground clearance, threw off the visuals because when looking at these vehicles all lined up, it appears the Ranger has the largest dimensions.

It was the Yamaha Rhino that changed the side-by-side game. It added a new layer of legitimacy to the market, exhibiting sportier capability. Rangers and Mules were plenty capable, but the Rhino made side-by-sides look more fun.

Yamaha’s Rhino SE has some upscale features. It comes dressed in a steel blue scheme with unique graphics. There are also one-piece aluminum wheels, interior enhancements and a sport steering wheel. The Rhino is a nice-looking rig that wins our vote for the most attractive.

As for the Rhino’s dimensions, it’s the narrowest vehicle by about 6 inches, at 54.5 inches. In terms of length, it’s within 2 inches of the longest one (the Prowler) and the wheelbase is comparable with the others.

We measured the full-tank running weight of all three using an Intercomp scale system. The Rhino was built the lightest at 1,142 pounds. The Polaris the heaviest at 1,314 pounds and the Prowler was in the middle at 1,249 pounds.

Climb In

The Ranger has the easiest entry. But it also has the most basic accommodations. The flat, straight bench seat can seat three, but it isn’t comfortable for any passenger compared to the other vehicles. It’s a vehicle that — though surrounded by a cage — felt like we sit on it, not in it like the others. Lap belts come standard for all passengers.

The steering wheel is large and in an OK position that gives drivers a commanding, controlling feel that redeems the comfort level. Somewhat. The foot controls are awkward, as if they were never redesigned from prototype No. 1. The angle is uncomfortable for anything other than full-throttle application. Good instrumentation, displaying a speedometer, tachometer, odometer, hour counter, trip meter and fuel level redeem the Ranger once more.

The Prowler has good comfort once in the vehicle. There is good legroom in front of the seat, but that makes for a long steering column that is an obstacle for easy entry and exit. Rather than a bench like the Ranger, driver and passenger each get a bucket seat in the Prowler with a handy center console with drink holders and dual 12 volt accessory plugs.

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The Prowler XT has a digital speedometer and odometer, but the view is a bit obstructed by the wheel, and it’s hard to read when moving — if that’s important to you. The steering wheel is smallish, which gives the vehicle more of a vibrant, sporty feel. The foot controls registered no complaints.

The Rhino SE has a similar two-bucket-seat layout, but driver and passenger have 3-point seatbelts, something the other two vehicles don’t offer. The steering wheel is a smaller design like the Prowler, which has a similar feel. In the Rhino, we felt a little less comfortable than we did in the Cat, but still in control.

Getting into the Rhino is easy. Comfort was improved for 2007 with new headrests. Dash controls are easy to access when on the go, and the SE model gets good instrumentation that includes speedometer, trip meters, fuel meter, 4wd status, gear position, hour meter and odometer. We were also fans of the console-mounted shift lever as opposed to a dash-mounted lever.

Turn The Key

The Arctic Cat and Yamaha vehicles both use a 650-class carbureted single, but that’s where the similarities end. Arctic Cat’s H1 engine is a 641cc overhead cam single. This is the engine developed, tested and assembled by the company, as opposed to one of the Suzuki-supplied engines.

The engine is both liquid and oil cooled, with primary cooling coming from an oversized radiator and thermostat to keep engine temperatures consistent. A 36mm Keihin carb mixes the fuel charge. All of these UTVs use a maintenance-free belt CVT transmission, but the Prowler (in its XT trim) also has an engine braking system in its tranny.

After the transmission, drivers have a choice of two- or four-wheel drive, with an additional activator for the front differential lock. There is an increase in steering effort with the front end locked, and we also noted during our acceleration runs that the Prowler had a large difference between its acceleration in two-wheel drive vs. four, meaning the front end steals more torque than the others.

The Rhino employs its 660cc overhead cam, 5-valve single as used in the previous-generation Grizzly. We wouldn’t be surprised to find the newer 686cc version of the engine the next time the Rhino is updated. It has EFI, more power and less vibration than the current offering. Not that there is anything wrong with the current engine.

A CVT transmission on the Rhino has high and low forward gears, neutral and reverse. A parking brake is positioned on the console next to the shift mechanism that is simple and effective. Yamaha’s popular On Command drive system is used on the Rhino’s simple push-button control for four-wheel drive and an additional button for the locking front differential. The Rhino suffers from the heaviest steering with all four wheels driving.

The Ranger uses a second cylinder. The 683cc parallel twin is liquid-cooled and has EFI. The engine doesn’t have distracting vibration when climbing up the rpm ladder, but there is considerable vibration at idle felt through the feet, steering wheel and controls. The Ranger XP has the most pleasant exhaust note, sounding raspy, as opposed to tinny, like the singles.

The Ranger uses a CVT transmission like the others with a high, low, neutral and reverse gear. The drive selector doesn’t get easier — it’s an in-line shifter. However, the shifter lacks a solid, positive detent so it’s easy to get between gears or select the wrong one. A toggle switch on the dash activates the Ranger’s drive mode which includes a Turf mode with an open rear differential. When in four-wheel drive, the unique Polaris system sends equal torque to both front wheels automatically.

Letting It Rip

The Rhino has the best acceleration and mid-range punch of these three vehicles, which makes the corner-to-corner trail rush a bit more exhilarating. Yamaha’s conservative legal department, however, has a speed limiter installed on production Rhinos which cap forward progress at 40 mph. Without the handicap, the Rhino would be the drag race champion, as seen in our speed and acceleration graph (page 49).

The Prowler is middle of the pack. It doesn’t lack any gusto, and the acceleration is aggressive and linear. In a 500-foot run, the Prowler wins the drag race. The engine is a bit on the loud side — there is some vibration but it’s an acceptable level. Like the Rhino, throttle response is good and there is a solid punch of speed. From the driver’s seat, the Prowler has the best combination of power: linear and strong, that keeps pulling through the top end.

The engine of the Ranger XP is responsive and the top speed is higher than the others here, but its acceleration is slowest. While the Ranger XP was the heaviest machine of the three, it’s only heavier than the Prowler by 65 pounds and its higher horsepower should make up for it. We blame conservative clutching, which makes sense considering the utility-first priority of the Ranger. A steeper helix and a clutch kit in the primary would make the acceleration even more sporting.

Hauling The Load

While the emphasis of this test was recreational trail use, we loaded each of the vehicles with salt bags and drove through a rough off-camber course with some tight turns to see how each vehicle handled loads.

With 400 pounds in its cargo hold, the Rhino handled it with ease. Little squat, and good engine braking made it hardly feel like we were actually driving the UTV at its capacity. That is until we were in the tight corners where we noted considerable front-end push.

It was especially evident in tight, rough corners when the suspension was cycling. We had to reverse during a turn when the Rhino went straight despite the vehicle turned to full lock. The turn was also muddy, but when empty the Rhino didn’t push as bad in the same conditions. It was easy to see that while the cargo box seems fitting to haul more than its 400 pound capacity, the change in weight bias compromises handling too much for a higher rating.

The Prowler touts a 600-pound capacity, and with both a 400-pound and 600-pound (capacity) in its bed, the Prowler wasn’t strained in the least. Brakes remained fantastic, there was plenty of suspension remaining to soak the rough trail and the change in weight bias was the least perceptible. Steering remained precise, and the Prowler’s EBS helped in the downhill section.

The Ranger XP has the greatest capacity of 1000 pounds. It’s well poised with the 400- and 600-pound loads, and the engine and driveline can certainly haul its full payload — as long as you abandon plans for sharp turns. Front-end steering push gets notably worse when approaching capacity, but at 600 pounds the Ranger doesn’t break a sweat.

On The Trail

The trails were the most fun in the test, and were the reason we assembled these three machines. It was also where we were able to gain our greatest opinions and test notes on these side-by-sides.

At speed, the Prowler XT delivered reassuring confidence. The suspension was not as plush as the Ranger, but it was the most progressive and had the best combination of comfort and responsiveness. It also had the most wheel travel. In many situations, the long travel came in handy for maintaining traction and clearing obstacles with its big-number ground clearance.

Steering was heavy at times, but precise with great feedback. When in the Prowler, all of our test drivers felt in control. Part of its stability comes from the sway bar design on the front end, which helps to keep the front end level. While there is still body roll, it doesn’t coincide with corner push. While usually a sway bar can introduce corner push at slow speeds, there is enough soft suspension movement to keep slow- and high-speed corner push well controlled. The outside tire grips.

As one test driver said, “The Rhino is fun and quick, but has some harsher handling.” That sentiment was echoed with the other two drivers. We all thought the ride quality was less refined on the Rhino. There is more body roll which makes it feel less stable. The adjustable suspension preloads will alleviate that somewhat, but the Rhino’s deficiency is still its overall suspension performance.

Though we expected the narrow Rhino to be the most agile in the tight stuff, it was the only vehicle we needed to reverse in a tight uphill corner. Some of the difficulty can be blamed on the turning radius — simply, it doesn’t turn as sharp. But we place some of the onus on its front-end push. Going downhill, with more weight and traction on the front end, the Rhino could easily negotiate the same tight switchback.

The plight in the Rhino is its steering whip. The steering wheel can move violently in an unintended rotation when one of the front wheels catches a rut. We hope, sincerely, that Yamaha’s electronic power steering system makes its way to the Rhino next year. While it isn’t needed for steering effort, it would be a welcome defense to the unwanted steering effects.

The Ranger was the most plush in the variety of terrain, and the suspension also adapted well to whatever bumps were in front of it. The MacPherson strut front end bottoms out frequently, but it isn’t harsh. More progression, a multi-rate spring with a stronger second rate or an adjustable preload would improve its trail prowess.

While the Ranger’s engine and transmission are good, they are not as hard-hitting or quick revving as the other two vehicles, and this is evident on the trails. It steadily pedals through any terrain and does so with good manners but it’s not as thrilling as the Rhino or Prowler.

Even though the engine and driveline are slower to engage, we also blame the ergonomics and dated cockpit design for the Ranger not feeling as sporty. The large steering wheel feels connected to a steering geometry that is less responsive. Lock-to-lock turns take three full steering wheel rotations, whereas it’s about a half-turn less with the more responsive Rhino and Prowler.


Truth be told, we knew the Ranger would be outgunned in this test with the main focus on recreational trail driving. However, this was the original play-well side-by-side, and we wanted to see how it would compare to the others that were built with a stronger recreational emphasis. It’s important to note that the new Ranger RZR would reposition the Ranger brand in an entirely different manner in such a recreational/sport side-by-side test.

Even though it’s safe to assume the RZR would outperform the others in this test, the Ranger XP still plays remarkably well. Not surprisingly, the Polaris’ large displacement and comfortable suspension made the Ranger XP shine. It came as a complete surprise that the formidable, more utilitarian Ranger XP was easiest to maneuver in tight radius situations. You wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at all these machines side-by-side.

The Rhino is the most popular recreational utility vehicle, and with reason. The engine packs a thrill, it has a sporty character and loves to move quickly through every trail encounter. We love the interior layout and some of the other features like the 3-point seatbelt that better protect in the event of a rollover. However, when compared to the Prowler, there are a few shortfalls: chiefly, the less predictable front end and its less refined suspension.

That leaves us with the Prowler XT. Make no mistake: This is the best off-road vehicle that Arctic Cat has fastened together. We stated earlier that we believed the Rhino was parked next to the Prowler when it was getting designed. We’ve changed our minds, thinking instead that the Prowler was designed alongside and benchmarked against both the Rhino and a Ranger. The Prowler has the right parts from both to have the better side-by-side.

The Prowler XT gave us the most reassuring driving experience. The suspension was the best combination of plush and capability and conquered everything. The power was commanding and exhilarating. The cockpit was comfortable, the steering the most precise. It handled loads comfortably, offers tremendous off-road ability and tight space agility. It also comes with plenty of nice touches like the front and rear 2-inch receiver and enough storage to pack the required rations for a trans-Sahara adventure. In our test, looking to crown the best trail recreational side-by-side, the Prowler XT is tough to beat.


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