The Rubicon Trail. Every off-road enthusiast has heard of it, but not many know how truly difficult it is, especially if you’re driving the wrong machine. Jeep has done a lot to publicize the name (they have a Wrangler model named after it), but the Rubicon, located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, predates their historic Wrangler. Back in the late 1800s, some enterprising individuals constructed a hotel near Rubicon Springs. These mineral springs were marketed as having healing properties and can still be enjoyed at the Rubicon Springs campground today. The hotel lasted a few decades, but it was not until much later that off-roaders would take on the trail.
The first time I ever came to the Rubicon was about 10 years ago on a commercial shoot for a 4X4 ATV manufacturer. I’m not much of a rock crawler. We encounter boulders out here in the western desert where I live, but I don’t often spend time traversing any large rock or wall-type terrain in a UTV. On that first trip, we got to play around on the first half-mile or so of the trail in front of some cameras, but it was just a tease of the Rubicon’s demanding landscape.
The Rubicon has stood out in my memory since that trip as a place that I had to revisit, and it took me until this year to get back there. The Trail is solid granite, with trees poking out of it like hair follicles. It’s an insanely technical course to navigate and was the perfect place to test the off-road capabilities of Yamaha’s Wolverine RMax.
Putting the RMax to the Test
This trip to the “Granite Bowl” was put on by Yamaha to showcase the capabilities of their new side-by-side. The RMax, which retails from $20,299 to $25,799 depending on options, is a UTV that strikes a perfect balance between ride comfort, performance, and versatility. It can haul some serious cargo—the dump bed is rated for 600 pounds, and it can tow up to 2,000 pounds using a standard 2-inch hitch receiver. This isn’t your grandpa’s ranch hand. The RMax was built to take you and your gear absolutely anywhere in total comfort. It handles weight extremely well, with an immensely capable rear suspension setup that glides over massive bumps with ease.
2021 Yamaha Wolverine RMax-2 1000 LE Specs
There are plenty of different model and package combinations you can select from, with slightly variable specs. Here’s what I tested on the Rubicon.
- Engine Type: 999cc liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC, 4-valve
- Fuel Delivery: Yamaha Fuel Injection (YFI)
- Transmission: Ultramatic V-belt with all-wheel engine braking; L, H, N, R
- Final Drive: On-Command 3-way locking differential; 2WD, 4WD, full diff-lock 4WD
- Suspension / Front: Independent double wishbone w/anti-sway bar, FOX iQS piggyback shocks; 14.2-in travel
- Suspension / Rear: Independent double wishbone, FOX iQS piggyback shocks; 16.9-in travel
- Brakes / Front/Rear: Dual hydraulic disc
- Tires / Front/Rear: 30 x 10.00R-14 Maxxis Carnivore
- L x W x H: 119.3 in x 66.1 in x 77.8 in.
- Wheelbase: 86.7 in.
- Turning Radius: 236 in.
- Maximum Ground Clearance: 13.8 in.
- Fuel Capacity: 9.2 gallons
- Wet Weight: 1884.9 pounds
- Bed Capacity: 600 pounds
- Towing Capacity: 2,000 pounds
- Warranty: 6-month (limited factory warranty); Yamaha 10-year belt warranty
- Color: Cobalt Metallic
- Price: $23,799
The RMax Is Built Like a Truck
With full doors, the Yamaha RMax feels fairly truck-like. The steering wheel is thick and nicely shaped, the seats are grippy and comfortable with a great position for passengers. Ingress and egress are simple, as the footwell opens up wide with the door swung fully open. The instruments are large, bright, and clear, all matching the interior mood lighting and lighted rocker switches in a hint of electric blue. The Limited-Edition I tested also came with a dash-mounted Magellan Adventure Pro GPS, a Bluetooth SSV Works two-speaker stereo system, and a Warn 4,500-pound winch.
The RMax Engine Specs
Yamaha’s RMax is powered by a twin cylinder, 108-horsepower, 1,000cc gas engine. Power is fed through a wet clutch and then a CVT (continuously variable transmission). The belt-drive automatic makes easy work of laying down power when you need it, spooling up with a quick, smooth response. Acceleration is fantastic, and the throttle sensitivity can be adjusted to one of three settings to make the UTV easier to drive in slow-speed situations. It comes outfitted with 30-inch tall Maxxis Carnivore tires, which offer beefy lugs and a ton of grip on the rocks. Ground clearance is over 13 inches, a necessity when you’re climbing over massive rocks or navigating through a shallow swamp.
Top speed is north of 70 miles per hour, though that’s best left to the pro drivers. The Crawl Mode, however, is what we used most on this trip, and it offers incredible control over the engine’s operating speed. Since we never surpassed 14 miles per hour the entire two days we were on the Rubicon, it allowed us to move along slowly with total control. Yamaha’s D-Mode throttle controller puts almost every revolution of the engine in your total control so you can crawl up obstacles without spinning your tires and sliding off them. It also helps control wheelspin in delicate terrain, and features incredible engine braking that will keep you slowed without having to drag the brake down every hill.
Expect a Longer Life Out of the RMax
Yamaha went the extra mile to make the RMax dependable. For this model, Yamaha cast the differentials out of carbon steel rather than aluminum for longer life. They also e-coat the frame before applying powder coating to avoid corrosion for a longer lifespan. The materials and fasteners they use are top-notch, and you can tell that the intention is to build a UTV that can take you places for years with little maintenance necessary. Yamaha even offers a 10-year warranty on the RMax’s drive belt, as they are confident they have designed a transmission that will not leave you stranded in a remote spot. The UTV feels solid from behind the wheel. Padded contact pads grace the interior panels where your knees contact the door and center tunnel for a more comfortable ride.
The RMax vs. the Rubicon
Twelve of the RMax’s were parked and ready to load, so I threw my 75-pound Seahorse gear case to the back of the rig and started to load it. Yamaha provided an Engel cooler to keep our vittles cold and contained. I picked a two-seat RMax 1000 Limited Edition. I loaded 125 pounds or so worth of gear into the bed and strapped it down, made easy by the four steel tie-down loops in the corners of the bed. I hopped in the driver’s seat, paired my phone, and strapped my helmet on, ready to head down the trail. To get to our camp, we had to traverse about 15 miles of trail. Easy enough, right?
Like I said, the Rubicon is considered one of the most difficult off-road trails in the United States. It consists of a 22-mile trek between two mountain ranges and can barely be considered a trail by most standards. It is better described as a 22-mile test of a vehicle’s build strength, an operator’s attention span, and patience. The Rubicon is not a place where you come and expect to break 5 mph more than once or twice a day. Many people make multiple-day trips across the short trail one way and, until you experience it, it is a bit hard to understand why.
The Rubicon is full of non-stop relentless obstacles for more than 20 miles with almost no breaks. Some 100-foot-long sections could take hours to complete, depending on the driver’ skill level, vehicle, and other variables like weather.
In the RMax, we never moved too slowly. This UTV features four-wheel independent A-arm suspension with massive amounts of travel. Normal pickup trucks have around 7 inches of front suspension travel; a Ford Raptor has up to 13 inches of travel. The RMax has 14.2 inches. In the rear, it is even more impressive: Two-seat RMax models have an incredible 16.9 inches of suspension travel.
Four-seat models lose about two inches of rear wheel travel due to packaging constraints for the sliding rear seats. What this translates to on the trail is far better stability and in-cabin comfort, as the wheels are continually in contact with the ground even in incredibly uneven terrain. The RMax can articulate and flex to surprising levels without stress, keeping you and your gear upright and comfortable. Yamaha really nailed the suspension tuning on this model, and all versions of the RMax come with three-mode adjustable shocks. The LE models receive a Fox iQS dash-mounted rocker switch to control suspension stiffness on-the-fly. Lesser models have to be adjusted on the shock body but require no tools.
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Yamaha’s 4WD Gives You Maximum Climbing Power
Forward drive is handled by a selectable 4WD system and true front differential lock. Yamaha does not rely on any computer-integrated 4WD or traction-control systems, but rather believes that real 4WD means lockers. I applaud that, especially with how easy the Yamaha system is to operate. In regular 4WD, the front differential is in limited-slip configuration and the rear is locked. When you rotate the knob to “Diff Lock,” it locks the front differential as well, giving you 100 percent unfiltered 4WD for maximum climbing power. It came in handy a few times on the Rubicon.
The RMax’s incredible suspension travel means that it handled obstacles like Rubicon boulders extremely well. The body panels under the doors are angled upward for better ground clearance, and the whole underbody is protected by steel panels, making it almost impervious to damage from below. Yamaha also outfitted our rigs with three accessory items: a $160 front bash plate, a $750 skid plate set, and a set of $280 rock sliders. This is the type of UTV that can take you anywhere—think of every remote campsite in the trees you have never been able to get a truck to, or a tiny spot lakeside you would love to haul fishing and camping gear to. This is a true adventure vehicle, affording you storage, comfort, long range, performance, and above all else, dependability.
Where the RMax Fell Short
It was hard to find much wrong with the RMax. It’s a solid 4×4, but there were a few things Yamaha could have improved on. For one, the tailgate is rather weak and isn’t made to support the weight of a human. That’s not a deal-breaker, but when you’re buying a $30,000 vehicle, that shouldn’t be an issue. Stronger overhead, interior, and bed lighting would also have been a nice added touch. Hunters and anglers end up driving around in the dark quite a bit and having additional lights so you’re not fumbling through gear would have been a great asset. Buyers will have to make those upgrades with aftermarket lighting options.
Further, the premium LE models should come with beadlock wheels. This would save owners who want to upgrade the cost of a new wheel set. That being said, we did take 12 RMax units across the Rubicon trail sans beadlocks, and never had to change a flat tire.
Outdoorsmen Will Find the RMax Useful
Hunters will be happy to know that Yamaha has also developed a fully sealed cab and dozens of helpful accessories for this machine. During our trip across the Rubicon and back, we enjoyed weather between 25 and 60 degrees, so a light Klymit Maxfield 2 tent was perfect for the trip. At the end of the first day on the trail, exhausted from the mental concentration of keeping the UTV’s wheels placed perfectly while traversing crazy obstacles, we sat down to have dinner and a beverage by the fire. As tired as I was, I was also enamored with what we had done that day. Traversing the Rubicon Trail is not easy; we had a guide, scheduled stops, supplies, and wonderfully capable vehicles to traverse the trail. The one thing we did have going against us was that in the morning, we had to tackle the entire thing backward. Now it was mostly uphill.
We tackled the next day with incredible speed, averaging 4.6 miles per hour according to one pilot’s GPS. It was an absolute blast. I had honed a new skillset in 12 hours of seat time. The trip completely recalibrated my equilibrium, too. There were spots where I could swear that I was going to tip, and the RMax just trucked on through, unbothered. The RMax is an incredible tool to get you to places you may otherwise never get to see. It drives so well you will long to explore the great outdoors just to get seat time—it’s the type of codependent relationship I can get behind.