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Best Crossover Sleds of 2018

Top 2-strokes (plus one 4-stroke) that tame the trails, tackle the powder
RELATED TOPICS: YAMAHA | ARCTIC CAT | POLARIS | SKI-DOO
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2018 Ski-Doo Renegade Backcountry X 850 ES
Rob Budrow
“I want one sled, and I want it to do EVERYTHING!”

If you work in the sales department of a snowmobile dealership, then you have probably heard this before. Snowmobilers want it all; it’s just the way we are hardwired.

While it is true that the majority of sales go to purely on-trail riders, there are also plenty of utility, family, touring, mountain, and racing riders too. Today, however, most snowmobilers demand their sleds fill at least 2-3 of the aforementioned roles, not just one. Owners also expect that they will not give up anything with dual- or triple-use sleds.

That’s where sleds like the new Polaris Titan come in (see the full report on extreme utility crossovers in an upcoming issue). But for many more consumers, crossover (or 50/50) sleds are best at filling numerous needs/wants.

This year, we tested the brand new Ski-Doo 850 Renegade Backcountry X 850, the new-last-year Polaris Switchback Assault 144, the Arctic Cat XF 8000 Cross Country Limited, and the off-trail rocket that is the Yamaha Sidewinder X-TX SE. Here’s how they compared for us.
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Rob Budrow
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Rob Budrow
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Wide, open running boards (1) clear snow easily, KYB HPG Plus shocks (2) cushion landings, and the optional 16x146x2.0 PowderMax track (3) churns the deepest off-trail snow.
Rob Budrow
Ski-Doo Renegade Backcountry X 850 ES
In this year’s AmSnow Best of The Best awards, we give top crossover honors to the new 2018 Backcountry X. But the loosely defined crossover category is the fastest growing (and arguably most popular) segment in snowmobiling, mostly because there are simply so many snowmobiles that tend to fall into this category now. So is the newest 850cc E-TEC-powered Renegade Backcountry worthy of overall best honors? Let’s dig a little deeper.

We’ll start with the motor. It’s not just that the 850 is 5-10% more powerful than other 800cc 2-stroke liquid motors on the market. There’s significantly more technology in the second-generation direct injection E-TEC motor too. But the MOST impressive thing is that price-wise, this sled is still on par with or cheaper than the competing, smaller 800s. The spring-buy Polaris 800 Switchback Assault and the Arctic Cat XF 8000 Cross Country Limited are $150 and $350 more, respectively, than the new Rotax-powered Backcountry X.

Ski-Doo has built a sled with a motor that’s quieter, has more power, belches less exhaust fumes and has similar or better oil/fuel efficiency, yet it costs less. That alone is a powerful justification for our Best of the Best decision! Exclusive 850 technology includes a two-piece lightweight but heavy-duty crankshaft to handle the power, plus directly oiled crankshaft bearings, booster injectors, and a new pDrive primary roller clutch (we had more exclusive info on the roller primary in our January 2017 issue). Everything from start to clutch engagement, to the very top end of the power band, is smooth with this new motor. We’ve tried hundreds of times to mash the throttle on the new 850, let off and mash it again, over and over in different on-trail or off-trail conditions, and we’ve gotten the same response every time. This is one area that is a definite improvement over the old 800 E-TEC. However, fuel capacity dropped from 10.6 to 9.5 gal.

The RAS 3 front suspension was new last year, and in pre-production testing, we weren’t 100% sold on the benefits versus the RAS 2. Well, we are believers now (see our Long-Term Test of the 2017 850 MXZx). Combined with the rMotion rear suspension, the RAS 3 took trail handling up another notch, but now that the RAS 3 front suspension is paired with the new cMotion rear suspension on the Backcountry 146, we are convinced there is not another crossover sled out there with similar multi-use performance. The tipped-up rail (3 degrees) in back allows exhilarating transfer, better on-trail cornering, and impressive top end for a long sled. A dual-rate rear center spring in the cMotion offers a plush ride, with the ability to handle big moguls. Remarkably, Ski-Doo claims an 11-pound drop in weight from the shorter Renegade rMotion 137 skid. The new one has torsion springs and a rising-rate rear shock motion ratio. There is no flexing or pivoting in this rear suspension like there is in the tMotion on the Summit mountain sleds, or like the former Backcountry 146.

We tested this sled with the three different track options you could get in the spring-buy program, but be forewarned: there are no FlexEdge track options from the factory. There is the big 16x146x2.0-inch PowderMax, as well as a more trail-friendly 15-inch wide, 1.6-inch lugged Ice Cobra with small, pre-studded traction devices on the ends of the lugs. You can also get it with the standard 1.6-inch Cobra track, but from our experience, the 1.6-inch Ice Cobra worked best for the largest amount of conditions. That’s what I would personally be buying. Pre-sales of this model reflected most consumers thought so too, according to our sources at dealers across the country. Still, we have to give kudos to Ski-Doo for giving folks options.

That is what is most awesome about this sled: the options. You can spend all day off-trail and use less effort to go more places than similar 50/50 sleds, then go back to the trail and be just as fast and nimble as many of the purely trail sleds. It also boasts a bunch of new LinQ accessory, storage and fuel options available through Ski-Doo’s catalog.

A few downfalls with the Backcountry X were a shortage of stock storage, a lack of good tools if something goes wrong, the look of the snub-nose front end, and the grab bar. But really, all those things are insignificant compared to what this sled does well.
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The IGX 144 rear suspension works extremely well on and off trail, the Walker Evans compression-adjustable shocks are second to none in the crossover market, and seating is tall, comfortable and offers great field of vision.
Rob Budrow
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2018 Polaris 800 Switchback Assault 144
Rob Budrow
Polaris 800 Switchback Assault 144
We had one of these models as a long-term demo sled last year. We rode it a lot, and it’s a massively fun sled to ride!

The Assault was our Best of The Best crossover sled last year, and it is just as good this year. The only reason it didn’t repeat is that Ski-Doo’s Backcountry stepped it up a notch and the Assault stayed the same. The truth is manufacturers can’t upgrade every single sled every year. Honestly, this sled could have been named “Test Riders’ Choice” this year if we wanted to give out yet another award.

At our Real World Shootout, the 2017 version of the Assault exceeded expectations in acceleration testing (March 2017 issue, p. 17). For 2018, it is still more adept off-trail than any of the 50/50 sleds in this comparison. It is simply super lightweight and climbs extremely well for a 144-inch machine. The IGX (Ideal Geometry Xover) uncoupled rear skid is part of its off-trail suitability, but it also has the RMK-infused “flickability.”

This one has a tipped rail design, which Polaris has used in its crossover and utility sleds for many years, albeit not this exact rail. The rail tip is slightly greater than that of Ski-Doo’s new cMotion rear suspension, and our crew debated the pros and cons of that difference. Our conclusion was that both rails work well for each platform. The ability to use reverse in deeper snow was slightly better on the Polaris Assault, but track lug size and conditions were the main factors. The rails on the Assault are also reinforced more.

The Assault Switchback is still the lightest sled in this category, with a dry weight of just 456 pounds on paper. That is 22 pounds lighter than the new Ski-Doo Backcountry X at 478. We will have full wet weight testing of the Backcountry X later this season, but from our own data and past experience, we would venture to guess that these two sleds will be VERY close to the same “riding” weight once they are both full of fuel, oil, coolant, etc.

Side-by-side, both with 2-inch lugs, the Assault climbs slightly better than the Backcountry. These two sleds are extremely well matched, but the Assault gets the nod in the front shocks segment. The Walker Evans clicker adjustable piggyback coil-over shocks are a step above the HPG Plus shocks on the Backcountry when it comes to handling harsher terrain. Powdertrac hybrid running boards on the Assault are also great, but pretty much any 50/50 sled that does not have similar boards is old iron at this point. They are a necessity to remove snow and combat ice buildup. Finally, as we’ve said before, we feel all snowmobile manufacturers should follow Polaris’ lead and put the far-reaching LED headlights on ALL snowmobiles.

Another piece of newer tech available on this sled is the Polaris Interactive Digital Display (PIDD). The Bluetooth connectivity is pretty awesome, and the ride tracking can be extremely useful in certain situations as well. However,

I think nearly all of our test riders would feel more positive about this gauge if the display actually turned off when you hit the kill switch, or following a certain amount of time after the sled has been turned off. Unfortunately, this gauge still draws power as long as the key is in the “on” position. That’s not a good thing, as it could plausibly run down your battery if you forget to turn it off. Still, we have left the key on overnight (both on purpose and not on purpose) while the sled was in a trailer, and we were still able to fire the sled up the next morning.

One final area of concern we have with all the Polaris sleds is the lack of a beeper when they’re put in reverse. This is both a safety concern and an issue for the rider, as he or she cannot always tell if they have finally shifted in reverse. Often there is snow or ice on the dash, obstructing the reverse light. Finally, you must wait until the sled is 100% at idle and the rpms are stable, with the track not moving, to get the sled to go in reverse.
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Arctic Cat XF 8000 Cross Country LTD
Rob Budrow
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The FOX QS3 coil-over clicker shocks up front and in the rear are great for this sled, which also utilizes the tri-hub rear axle/wheel assembly.
Rob Budrow
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Arctic Cat XF 8000 Cross Country 137
Arctic Cat has broken its Suzuki chains and produced its own 794cc liquid twin 2-stroke motor. Manufactured in Minnesota and operating off the same dual-stage injection technology as Cat’s current 600, the C-TEC2 engine reduces the distance fuel has to travel. It mixes oil with fuel in the rail and injects it directly into the cylinders. The good news is that Cat controls its own destiny as far as their 2-stroke motors go now, but if things go badly, then Cat only has itself to blame.

Thankfully, things are going well for the new 800 and the three-year-old 600 C-TEC motors so far (save some clutching and electrical issues). The claims of decreased fuel and oil usage and emissions cannot be totally tested until the production models come out, but we did have access to an “early release” ZR 8000 137-inch machine at the end of last season. We took the sled through the ECU-controlled break-in: 20 minutes of run time when the motor was limited to 6500rpm. Of course, we did this by driving around the parking lot before we left on the first ride. For the next 5.5 hours or so, you can run the sled like normal as far as engine speeds go, but the fuel/oil ratio is still reduced to 30:1. After that, things go to normal ratios, but honestly, the transition from break-in mode to normal is hardly noticeable when riding at trail speeds. It is not a miraculous difference like it is on the old Ski-Doo 800cc E-TEC motors. Finally, we experienced zero hiccups or maintanence issues with our 800 throughout 4-6 weeks of testing. Read more in our Long-Term Test article in the upcoming December 2017 issue.

The Cross Country in particular is one of our favorite sleds from Arctic Cat. There are big and little reasons for this. Small things like the quick-release tabs
for the side panels and the next-gen styling of the body up front make this a sleek and stylish sled on the snow.

We know for a fact that the looks of the Cats can be enough to sway buyers, and AC has the impression of speed down to a science, at least on the showroom floor.
The name “Cross Country” embodies the essence of this sled, as that’s what I think of when I hop on it and feel the 1.75-inch lugs of the 137-inch long BackCountry X track start to churn anything underneath. The machine is perfectly suited for high-performance bombing through deep powder-filled ditches, flying across wide-open meadows, twisting down tight trails with a dumping of fresh snow on them, or going on a long backpack ride with your buddies.

With a set of awesome forged aluminum shocks – FOX QS3 coil-over clickers over the skis and in the rear – the CC can handle any off-trail or on-trail bumps, logs, rocks, moguls, etc. The quick, three-position adjustability of the QS3 shocks allows you to easily dial in compression for your ride style or conditions.

More little things we like: the deluxe digital gauge displays coolant and exhaust temp readings, and the Mountain Seat is easy to maneuver around. Amazingly, you gain rider agility without losing much in the way of comfort with this seat. This sled also has an LED headlight with accent lighting. Field of vision is great, and we go back to our earlier comment that all snowmobiles should have better headlights. Finally, the newly designed windshield adds more protection and warmth than the former mid-height shield, and it still looks rad (for the young folks). Other options include a mountain grab bar on the handlebars and electric start – two add-ons that any crossover sled should have, in my opinion.

What I can’t stand is that for some reason the goggle holder (just in front of the handlebars near the gauge) seems to have gotten smaller … that or all my goggles have gotten bigger! But I can’t even fit a pair of standard 509 goggles in there, even without the nosepiece attached.
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The 2018 Yamaha Sidewinder X-TX SE 137 is basically a reiteration of last year’s X-TX, but it has new features that include a 137-inch track and a hi-vis/gray color scheme.
Another New Sidewinder?
Technically, this is a new model for 2018, but it’s really just the X-TX from last year with a different track length and color scheme ... well, that and replaceable ski tips on the Gen3 Tuner skis, if you choose. That’s OK though; this sled is a riot!

We can’t compare a 204hp turbo 4-stroke directly to 150-170hp 800cc and 850cc 2-strokes (it is even a stretch to compare the 850 to an 800), but we do think that buyers in this segment of the market should take a look at this sonic boom-inducing sled. The engine is a triple cylinder with hair-straightening turbo attached. After a full year of running, the Sidewinder and its premium nickel alloy turbine body turbo show no signs of issues. We did experience some belt problems early on in mountain scenarios, but not with flatland sleds like this one. One cool thing we noticed is that you can actually hear the coolant after the sled is shut down. The coolant continues to circulate even without the pump operating, increasing the longevity of the components.

Compared to last year’s X-TX, this one has shrunken to a 137-inch track length. It’s the same 15-inch-wide BackCountry track with 1.75-inch lugs that you’ll find on many crossover sleds today. It also has the Dual Shock SR 137 rear suspension. Because it’s coupled, this suspension is not as off-trail savvy as some of the other sleds in this group that have an uncoupled design. You will stay flatter, smooth out big moguls, transfer less, and generally have a better trail manners with this suspension. This type of suspension is almost mandatory for staying in control at high speeds on the trail.

Other than that, the only things that are new are the hi-vis/gray colorways, a clear mid-height windshield and a taller, narrower mountain seat just like the Arctic Cat Cross Country (these two sleds share the same chassis built by Cat). Also like the Cross Country, the Sidewinder has Fox QS3 shocks up front and in the skid, and they work just as beautifully for the heavier 4-stroke as they do for the lighter 2-stroke. The Sidewinder still has the YSRC primary and roller secondary clutches, and the big 4-stroke has an Engine Braking Reduction System (EBRS) that helps maintain smooth deceleration when you let off the throttle quickly and the sled begins to backshift. This is a major difference between some earlier 4-stroke sleds and the new Sidewinder. Even though there is much more power here, you won’t ever feel like you are getting thrown over the handlebars when you abruptly let off the throttle.

One thing that always irks us about the Cats and Yamahas (in Cat’s chassis) is that the key is hard to get to and turn with big gloves on. It’s just in an awkward position, and it’s especially tough to turn when there is a lot of snow packed in behind the windshield around the key area (not uncommon in off-trail situations).
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