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It’s no secret that UTVs have seen a meteoric rise in popularity recently, and thanks to the ongoing COVID drama of the past year and half or so, that growth has only gained additional momentum as folks seek outdoor activities that they can do close to home.
As enthusiasts we tend to think of side-by-sides as ostensibly miniaturized tube chassis off-road buggies these days, and there are certainly apt comparisons to be made with performance-focused beasts like the RZR Pro XP. But it’s also important to remember that there’s a “U” in UTV: These machines were originally designed for light-duty farm work and other utilitarian tasks. And for a large portion of would-be buyers, those needs still apply today.
The upshot is that while Polaris’ side-by-side roster now spans from the work-first-play-later Ranger to the sport-oriented RZR (with the General landing somewhere in between), all of these UTVs are incredibly capable on demanding terrain. To showcase this, Polaris invited us out to ERX Motor Park in Elk River, Minnesota to put their latest and greatest to the test. What we discovered is that while there’s a little something for everyone here, there’s also no question which one we wanted to take home with us.
Our tour-de-Polaris started off with the Ranger SP 570. As the most work-focused of the bunch, the Ranger is a distant relative of the company’s original UTV and remains a hugely important vehicle for the manufacturer.
“In many cases, the folks buying these vehicles are looking for a way to make the work fun,” said Polaris’ Matt Anderson. “And these vehicles offer tremendous versatility.” Evidence of that comes by way of a large bed box, a 1500lbs tow rating, and a steel front bumper with mounting points for a winch or plow.
The Ranger might be Polaris’ most work-focused UTV, but thanks to its small footprint and improvements to its turning radius, it feels sprightly out on the trail.
There are some creature comforts, too, like new seats with improved bolstering, and there’s even a JBL audio system on the options sheet. But what really got our attention was improved turning radius and the Ranger’s best-in-class suspension travel, so we stopped gawking, settled in at the helm, and headed out to the trails to find out what the SP 570 is like at speed.
Right away it was clear that this machine was primarily built to get things done – the riding position is upright, and you basically sit on the top of the seats rather than “in” them. But the new model’s 44 horsepower, 567cc four-stroke engine and its fully independent suspension (which provides nine inches of travel up front and ten inches in the rear) deliver a combination that makes it a nimble and (perhaps more importantly) very approachable little runabout out in the dirt. Still, we have to admit that it wasn’t long before we were ready for more.
It’s not as focused as the RZR, but the General XP 1000 has more than enough performance on tap to keep things entertaining.
And the General XP 1000 Trailhead Edition is indeed more. Motivated by a 100hp two cylinder engine hooked to a passively variable transmission (PVT), the XP 1000 rides on 30-inch Pro Armor Crawler XG all-terrain tires and is equipped with a high clearance suspension setup with Walker Evans Velocity Series shocks that provide 14 inches of travel at both the front and rear. But as product director Dave Elia explained, this model also takes both work and play into account in its design.
“UTVs really got their start as a tool for farming and ranching, and that remains the largest segment in off-road vehicles today. But along the way, people also realized that UTVs could be really fun for trail riding if you give them more power and make them handle a bit better. That spawned the recreational side where models like the RZR live. More recently, what we’ve seen in the last five years or so is that a lot of people basically want a crossover – something that combines the sporty aspects of the RZR with the utility of a Ranger. And that’s where the General comes in.”
Built on a performance chassis, the General XP 1000 Trailhead Edition is bigger, faster, and loaded with features like the 7-inch touchscreen with GPS navigation and Group Ride, the latter of which allows riders to keep track of the other members of their group even outside of cell range.
Right away it feels like a big step up from the Ranger – and much more in its element being put through its paces out on the course – but its multi-faceted design also points the way to some inherent trade-offs. Utility still takes precedence here, and for those that need it, the large rear dump box that boasts a 600-pound payload capacity, the heavy-duty winch, and the 1500-pound tow rating are certainly welcome features. But because of its relatively soft suspension tuning (for increased trail comfort) and slow steering rack, the General is happiest at a moderate clip with tunes bumping from the optional Rockford Fosgate audio system bumping rather than flying over whoops and kicking the back end out on corner exits.
The RZR abandons any and all pretense of traditional utility in favor of outright performance. RZR Pro XP is powered by a turbocharged 925cc two-cylinder engine that churns out 181 horsepower, which can be sent to the rear wheels or all four corners at the push of a button.
But for those that prioritize the riding experience above all else, there’s the RZR Pro XP. Fourteen years after the introduction of the original RZR, Polaris’ current top-spec performance offering has evolved into a stunningly capable machine probably has more in common with a trophy truck than it does with its predecessors. Boasting 14.5 inches of ground clearance and trailing arm rear suspension that delivers up to 22 inches of travel, the RZR Pro XP’s turbocharged 925cc four-stroke, dual-overhead cam two-cylinder engine dishes out 181 horsepower – nearly double the power of the General XP 1000, and more than four times that of the Ranger SP 570.
If the motocross-inspired bodywork and hunkered-down seating position didn’t make the RZR’s performance-above-all-else mission clear from the outset, a quick stab of the throttle certainly did. The powertrain’s willingness to pile on speed was only limited by our own bravery, but it’s the RZR Pro XP’s balance of capability that really makes it all work.
The RZR’s trailing arm rear suspension provides up to 22 inches of travel. In situations where that might not be enough, progressive rate springs with built-in bottom-out cups are on hand to take the brunt of the impact.
Top-spec models outfitted in Ultimate trim are upgraded to Fox 2.5 Podium active dampers, which react to throttle inputs, steering angle, accelerometer information, and other data in real time to improve stability. It’s not unlike the adaptive suspension setups found in today’s sports cars, and as in the automotive realm, the Polaris system provides different levels of baseline firmness settings (Comfort, Sport, and Firm) which are selected via the 7-inch touchscreen.
This active damper setup also adds a big red button to the steering wheel; when pressed, it instantly sets the dampers to their maximum stiffness. Think of it as an emergency button, the one you hit in case you go off a jump a little too hot and realize it after the fact. But try as we might, we couldn’t find anything at ERX that was able to put the RZR out of sorts. It’s the kind of capability that inspires confidence and begs you to push harder with each successive lap.
In between riding sessions, the Polaris folks whisked us away to a remote part of the facility to show off their electric Ranger concept, another project they’ve been working on recently. EV technology is rapidly expanding into UTVs right now, and many of the same attributes that make electrification compelling in passenger cars can translate over to side-by-sides.
Polaris also showed off their latest engineering project, a Ranger EV concept. Like all-electric automobiles, the emissions-free UTV benefits from massive off-the-line torque. Ditching the PVT will also allow drivers to be much more precise with throttle inputs.
To illustrate this, the presenters first had a rider creep up a seesaw-style trailer, balancing the vehicle perfectly in the middle to showcase the greater amount of input control that the EV powertrain is capable of providing. But the big news here is the torque, and judging by the way it towed a full-sized pickup – along with the race trailer attached to it – this Ranger EV appears to have plenty of it.
When it comes to their traditional offerings, Polaris still remains tight-lipped about future products, but Elia seems to indicate that the company isn’t waiting around for innovation to find them. “I’m not bored – let’s just put it that way.”