The Arizona desert is a long way from Ontario, but the off-pavement riding it offers is painfully familiar-the dry stream beds and twisting trails through the Hieroglyphic mountains north of Phoenix are covered with endless stutter bumps and whoops that are universal trail-riding byproducts found everywhere. There is no escaping them. I've had my teeth rattled on them while frying near the equator, and my kidneys shaken loose hitting them while freezing in the Yukon-and in each case, I know I took more of a beating than the machine I was riding. Till now, that is. Say hello to my little friend, the new side-side from Polaris, the Ranger RZR.
The '08 RZR is an 800cc mid-engine, twin rider, "dune-buggy" style ATV that's designed to eat up those bumps with four-wheel independent suspension and a low-slung chassis that seats the occupants ahead of the engine-not on it. Currently that's how the competitors' side-by-side machines are built-a logical evolution from the utility bikes that were their origins-but the ATV market is changing, and the Ranger RZR is more than just technically innovative. It's answering a new need in the market.
In 2000 there were 100,000 North American ATV sales, and almost all of them were utility machines. Since then sales have risen to 245,000 as of last year, but the distribution has changed. It's now roughly 150,000 utility; 55,000 to commercial and industrial buyers, and 40,000 are being sold to recreational-only riders. It's this last segment that is now growing the fastest. These new sales are to trail riders-folks riding just for fun and, unlike utility owners, they don't ride alone. That's what's pushing the development of the two-up machine. But even before the first two-rider ATV was introduced just five years ago, the aftermarket started building add-on seatbacks which made space for a passenger on a one-rider machine. These were (and still are) dangerous-but this trend showed the manufacturers that the need for two-rider machines was a market reality. This led to the longer-wheelbase two-rider ATVs, which are currently selling well.
The Ranger RZR though is building on the success started by the Yamaha Rhino. Three years ago, this was the machine that instantly founded the side-by-side market that the RZR is now diving into. These machines put the passenger beside the driver rather than behind him, and they're operated exactly like an automobile, which makes them instantly familiar to anyone trying one for the first time. But the RZR has also been designed with another unique application in mind. At just 50 inches wide, the RZR is a U.S. State Park trail-capable side-by-side. Unlike Canada, where there is no restriction on ATV size, many parks in the States have gates which are set 52 inches wide specifically to limit access to larger ORVs. For the moment, that means that the 54-inch wide Rhino (the next smallest side-by-side) is restricted, as are the Arctic Cat Prowler and the fullsize Polaris Ranger. At 945 pounds, the RZR is also currently the lightest side-by-side and also has the lowest cage height compared to its competitors. That's a welcome feature but (as I discovered) it means you'll always want to wear a helmet as the clearance between a taller rider and the lowest bar isn't much. On the other hand, I've had the much taller Ranger out on northland trails, and the top bar regularly caught and snapped overhead branches, causing showers of wooden shrapnel.
This unique design of the RZR is intended to let it go anywhere single-width utility ATVs can go. For a comparison, consider that it's almost exactly the same size as a two-up BRP Outlander or, for that matter, Polaris' own two-up Sportsman X2. But this design isn't just about size. By placing the engine behind the seat, Polaris has also achieved a low center of gravity that has riders sitting at least 7 inches lower than they would in competitive side-by-side vehicles. This distribution of engine and rider weight gives the RZR good handling, particularly in corners where taller ATVs tend to lift a wheel and lean dangerously.
The RZR has 9 inches of suspension travel in the front and uses double A-arms and heavy (adjustable) coilover shocks. It also carries a front antisway bar that controls suspension dive under hard cornering, keeping the vehicle remarkably flat. In the rear, a rolled independent rear suspension (IRS) has 9.5 inches of suspension travel. The term "rolled" means that when the suspension is compressed, the wheel moves up but also back, in an arc, which firstly keeps the tire surface flat in relation to the ground and secondly does a better job of absorbing the bump energy. Under the RZR, there are 10 inches of ground clearance, but there are plenty of opportunities to bottom the RZR particularly while picking through loose rocks. To that end, all vital areas of the underside are shielded. The scratching doesn't sound nice but nothing gets broken.
Powered by a liquid-cooled, 800cc twin-cylinder EFI engine, it's currently the highest horsepower (52 hp) ATV in its class. Throttle response is good, though I'd prefer a stiffer return spring as I couldn't help stabbing the accelerator involuntarily on really rough sections of trail where everything was bouncing including my foot. And that throttle stabbing is very noticeable, as this engine develops substantial torque pushing the RZR from 0 to 35 mph in four seconds. It also has a top speed of 55 mph. Power to weight ratio is excellent, even with a combined rider/passenger weight of more than 400 pounds.
The drive system is an all-wheel-drive setup that automatically engages when the rider needs more forward traction and reverts back to 2WD automatically when AWD is no longer needed. This limits steering difficulties as the front differential is mostly running open. The system is also electronically engaged with a manually operated rocker switch, leaving the choice of drive up to the rider. Also for the comfort of driver and passenger, the seats adjust, the steering tilts, and the passenger gets an adjustable hand rail, which provides much needed security on rough trails.
Unlike the much larger three-rider Ranger, the RZR is cargo rated for 300 pounds only. But it does have a 12 point tie-down system-will tow 1,500 pounds and has front underhood storage. In addition Polaris is offering dozens of additional add-ons for RZR that feature its Lock & Ride accessories, cabs, cargo systems, and all manner of utility items.
Model: 2008 Polaris Ranger RZR
Base price: $9,999
Engine: 700cc liquid cooled, four-stroke twin cylinder, EFI
Transmission: Automatic PVT
Drive: Switch-engaged on-demand four-wheel-drive
Gear range: Hi/Lo Forward, Neutral, Reverse, Park
Suspension, f/r: A-arm IFS, coilover shocks/IRS
Brakes, f/r: Hydraulic dual piston disc/Single-piston disc
Wheelbase (in): 77
Turning radius (in): 101.5
Dry weight (lb): 945
Length (in): 102
Width (in): 50
Height (in): 69
Payload (lb): 300
Towing capacity (lb): 1,500
2100 Highway 55