So there I was, floating down a stream. Only, instead of a kayak, it was Polaris’ Sportsman 500 HO doing the sailing. The ATV’s tyres and all-independent suspension had a lot to deal with. They dipped in and out of rocky crags, shuffled over slippery rain- soaked boulders and clambered through hidden trenches that lay covered by the stream. Over 200mm of suspension travel at the front and rear allowed the Polaris to make it through without breaking a sweat.
Rewind to an hour or so ago, and it was me who was doing the sweating. The alien controls of the ATVs had thrown me off gear. The familiarity of the motorcycle-like handlebar is corrupted by a thumb-operated throttle. The four disc brakes are mainly operated by the handlebar-mounted lever, but there is also a pedal on the right footboard that works the rear brakes only. And then there is the ATV’s behaviour – because of the handlebar, you expect it to behave somewhat like a bike. But when you hit a corner, it behaves like a car and leans outwards. There’s a lot to get used to. On the upside, the Sportsman’s 498cc single-cylinder liquid-cooled motor comes mated to a CVT gearbox, so there are no gearshifts to worry about.
The instructors at Aamby Valley’s adventure park, 19 Degree North, started off on their extensive off-road trail at a slow and steady pace. Slowly, my confidence grew and as I started pushing harder, the oddities started to make sense. A motorcycle-like twist grip accelerator would have made controlling speed quite difficult, as getting the 336kg Sportsman to change directions in a hurry means really heaving at the handlebars. And sometimes you’re just hanging onto them to stay on the ATV. The Sportsman could whizz through muddy, slushy and bumpy corners too; all you had to do was lean inwards as the ATV leaned outwards. Simple.
Once our tense frowns were replaced by wide smiles, the instructor threw different obstacles into the mix. Descending a rock face needed little more than a good path selection as the engine braking system controlled pace fairly well. We splashed through deep pools of water, only because it was fun, I think. We climbed up inclines that made me worry about toppling over. What made it all the more incredible was that the Sportsman had bashed its way through most of the challenges with only the rear wheels doing the pushing. Four-wheel drive can be selected via a handlebar-mounted switch on the right. With that engaged, we could get the Sportsman climbing terrain that the Lunar Rover would think twice about straying onto.
However, the ATV I was itching to have a go at was the RZR 800. The car-like look, its familiar steering wheel and pedal controls were part of the allure. Although the main reason, I have to admit, was the 760cc twin-cylinder motor’s deep bass note that hummed out of the exhaust. Before you get going, you need to buckle up and latch on the safety net where the door would normally be. The RZR also gets an L mode for serious mud-plugging when required – I snicked the autobox to H and was ready to go.
I was seriously keyed up. So I pushed the throttle, and off we went. Only, a bit slower than I had imagined. A few prods at the handbrake, and the drive selector showed that everything seemed to be okay. Then, with a fair bit more force than is usually reserved for an accelerator, I whacked the throttle. Like a scalded cat, the RZR took off. I had to work frantically to keep up with it.
Like the heavy throttle pedal, the steering too was meaty and when poked with courage, responded with a fantastic – no, make that dizzying – ability to turn. The small, almost go-kart-sized steering wheel was hooked up to a quick steering rack. And so, when driving fast over the bumpy terrain, it snapped and fought like it was trying to break free. As a driver, you need to stay calm, let the steering do what it wants, but keep yanking the inputs you need. With the throttle as your ally, the RZR can be driven very smoothly. This Polaris’ sophisticated double A-arm suspension all around made it feel like a mini rally car gobbling up bumps with an ease that made the Sportsman feel a bit lumpy and crude. At the same time, the RZR didn’t baulk at any of the challenges at 19 Degree North.
Neither of these two Polaris are cheap, and buying one would require seriously deep pockets. But I do know that if I had a piece of land to let it run wild and the dough for it, I would have the RZR in a heartbeat. What for, you ask? Well, it would just be preparation for a long and successful career in rallying!