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In a quest for lower exhaust emissions and higher trail performance, the four major snowmobile manufacturers have produced an incredible array of innovative new sleds and practical features that make 2003 perhaps the most exciting new-model year in a decade.

On the emissions front, manufacturers are preparing to meet an EPA mandate that calls for a 30 percent reduction in hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide levels in exhaust by 2006. One way to achieve that goal is to replace the two-stroke engine that powers almost all snowmobiles with a much cleaner four-stroke engine. For 2003, the Ski-Doo Legend, Arctic Cat Four Stroke and Polaris Frontier will be offered with low-emission four-stroke engines, which are also quieter and up to 30 percent more fuel efficient than a two-stroke. However, because these four-strokes make roughly half the power of a two-stroke of equal displacement, these sleds offer more modest power platforms.

Arctic Cat
Arctic Cat F7 Firecat EFI
Length: 118 in.
Dry Weight: 460 lb.
Suspension Travel (front/rear): 9.2 in./13.5 in.
Engine Type: Two-Cylinder Two-Stroke
Displacement: 698cc
Price: $7,999
The all-new Arctic Cat F7 Firecat EFI utilizes a host of weight-saving ideas developed by the Arctic Cat Racing squad to create a 140-hp snowmobile that weighs just 460 pounds. Cat slimmed down this sled by reducing the width of the rubber drive track from 15 to 13.5 inches, and then narrowed the chassis and suspension components to match.

The number of parts on the sled was reduced by a whopping 26 percent, and many now “multi-task.” The 13-gallon plastic fuel tank, for example, incorporates oil and coolant reservoirs and supports the steering post. The fuel-injected 698cc two-stroke engine is mounted in a horizontal position to lower the sled’s center of gravity. With less mass sitting between the rider’s legs, the Firecat feels exceptionally agile and responsive. Contact: Arctic Cat (601 Brooks Ave. South, Thief River Falls, MN 56701; 218-681-4999; www.arcticcat.com).

Polaris Indy 800 RMK
Length: 120 in.
Dry Weight: 495 lb.
Suspension Travel (front/rear): 7.2 in./17 in.
Engine Type: Two-Cylinder Two-Stroke
Displacement: 794cc
Price: $8,149

Polaris furthers the evolution of the deep-snow sled with its 2003 Indy 800 RMK. The 800 RMK is powered by a 794cc twin-cylinder two-stroke engine with a new decompression port that reduces starting effort by 35 percent. And new pistons coated with slick, graphite-impregnated Grafal help prevent seizure if the engine ingests snow dust.

A new Series 4 track (available in 144-inch or 151-inch length) has wide, stiff shoulders at the base of its two-inch lugs for good wet-snow traction, and thinner, more flexible tips that work best in light powder. New Sidehiller 2 plastic skis have dual steel runners that eliminate darting on rutted trails and a turned-down edge for better grip when traversing steep slopes.

Contact: Polaris Sales (2100 Highway 55, Medina, MN 55340; 800-765-2747; www.polarisindustries.com).

Ski-Doo MX-Z REV
Length: 110 in.
Dry Weight: 454 lb.
Suspension Travel (front/rear): 9.5 in./14.5 in.
Engine Type: Two-Cylinder Two-Stroke
Displacement: 600cc
Price: $7,049

The riding position of an off-road motorcycle was the inspiration for the daring new Ski-Doo MX-Z REV. The controls and seat on other snowmobiles position the rider with both arms and legs stretched forward. Aboard the REV, the rider is moved forward about 12 inches and raised an inch, so that the hips are higher than the knee joint. This makes it easier to soak up bumps with the legs, or to stand while riding over really rough trails.

Because the threee heaviest components of the sled-the fuel tank, engine and rider-are grouped in the center of the sled, mass is centralized, so the REV is less prone to pitch fore and aft over trail moguls. The upright riding position takes a little getting used to, but after a long day on the trail the REV rider will feel much less strain in the arms, neck and back. Contact: Bombardier Motor Corp . (7575 Bombardier Court, Wausau, WI 54401; 800-375-4366; www.ski-doo.com).

Yamaha RX-1
Length: 108 in.
Dry Weight: 550 lb.
Suspension Travel (front/rear): 9 in./11.5 in.
Engine Type: Four-Cylinder Four-Stroke
Displacement: 998cc
Price: $8,849
The new Yamaha RX-1 is proof that a four-stroke snowmobile can deliver a thrill ride. It’s powered by a 998cc, four-cylinder engine that winds out to 10,200 rpm to deliver a very potent 145 horsepower. The engine is smoke-free, even on cold starts, and delivers seamless, silky-smooth power at the touch of the throttle. Like other four-strokes, the RX-1 requires electric starting and a battery, which helps boost the sled’s dry weight to 550 pounds, or about 100 pounds more than a comparable high-performance two-stroke. You feel the weight on tight or bumpy trails, but point the RX-1 across the lake and few sleds will catch it.

Contact: Yamaha Motor Corp. (6555 Katella, Cypress, CA 90630; 800-889-2624; www.yamaha-motor.com).

Ready for the Mountains? It’s hard to beat snowmobiling on the trails and backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. However, flatlanders planning a trip out West should consider these tips for a safe, enjoyable adventure.

Tune Up for Elevation: For every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation, an engine loses 3 percent of its horsepower, which means you’ll need to adjust clutching and carburetor tuning if you’ll be riding your own sled in mountain terrain.

First, check on the elevation at your destination. Some sleds have a chart right on the belt guard with tuning specifications for various elevations, or you can consult with your dealer. Better yet, call a dealer at your riding location and get his setup recommendations for your sled.

Unless your sled has EFI or an altitude-compensating carburetor, you’ll need to lean out the carburetor jets. A stiffer clutch spring or different weights may also be in order.

And don’t forget to revert to your low-elevation tuning when you get home, or the lean carburetor settings could destroy your engine.

**Stay Hydrated: **Altitude sickness can occur at elevations as low as 5,000 feet, with symptoms ranging from mild headache to overwhelming nausea. To help your body adjust to oxygen-thin mountain air, drink lots of water and avoid alcohol for at least the first few nights at elevation. It’s also wise to avoid strenuous exercise on your first day at altitude.

**Be Prepared: **If you plan to do any off-trail riding in the mountains, follow these rules. i If it’s your first ride in powder, hire a guide to show you the ropes. i Never ride alone and always pack basic survival gear, water and extra gas. i Every rider in your party should wear an avalanche beacon (and know how to use it) and carry a shovel.

i Mark your trailhead with a GPS receiver and carry it and a cell phone with you. In an emergency you can call in your location if there’s cell service.

  • Keep the phone, GPS and survival gear in a pack on your back, not on the snowmobile. If the sled rolls down a cliff, you want the gear with you.
  • Always tell someone where you plan to ride and when you expect to return.
  • Leave a note describing your route on the dashboard of your vehicle.