When a thaw comes to West Virginia in winter, it means mountains of sloppy, soupy, cake-your-tires-in-seconds-type mud. So when I stepped out my back door to a balmy 40 degrees last January to test a lineup of the newest “sportsmen-aimed” ATVs, I knew I was in for conditions that would separate the timid vehicles from the tenacious.
Assembled and ready for action were the latest 500cc-class automatic 4×4 sport-utilities from Honda, Arctic Cat and Polaris, and a semi-auto 500cc-class 4×4 utility from Bombardier. (Also included here is a surprise entry from Kawasaki, which we tested in Texas at its first showing.) So, after plowing through snowdrifts and icy streams and powering up slippery slopes backward and forward, we’re ready to give you the lowdown on the newest ATVs.
You’ll also see that we’ve included a list of the smartest new ATV accessories. In case you’re wondering, each of these also was tested under the same trying conditions as the ATVs; in fact, during some nasty trail running the Fin Grip Pro held my bow in place even when I was nearly thrown.
Arctic Cat 500
Last year Arctic Cat introduced its first big-bore 4×4 with an automatic transmission. For 2001 the Arctic Cat 500 is available in a “Hunter’s Limited Edition,” which includes a winch from Warn, a gun scabbard, Advantage camo covers and a rear-mounted camo cargo bag. Driving this rig into the West Virginia hills felt more like the beginning of a serious hunting excursion than a test (this rig would have fit right in on the set of Road Warrior).
The run wasn’t long under way, however, when we realized that although this ATV looks fierce, it has a soft touch. The Arctic Cat’s smooth suspension system deftly maneuvered over logs and rocks. Its 11-foot turning diameter might be average for a 4×4 of this size, but its steering is surprisingly light, even when it’s in four-wheel- drive. The 493cc engine and Duramatic transmission deliver good power (especially on the low end) and the vehicle’s engine braking, which is critical to safe descents down steep inclines, is excellent in 4WD mode.
We found that the lights, starter button/kill switch, reverse override and choke are conveniently located on the left handlebar. The gear lever is the smoothest we’ve ever yanked and the shift pattern is simple; in fact, we’d go so far as to say that the lever’s high-mounted position is ergonomically perfect.
One of the features we didn’t care for was the position of the 4WD/2WD lever. Its placement low and left of the gas tank is a bit awkward. Another blemish was the protruding transmission case cover, which crowds the foot brake and provides scant foot room when the gun scabbard is installed. Finally, while the camo covers are functional, a permanent camo treatment is more appropriate. (800-210-5941)