People always want to know about the ultimate adventure. So we go in search of it. Thus far we've found few places that compare to western North Carolina with regard to variety and challenges. We go there ... a lot. Much thought was given this year to using a new place for our premier 4x4 test, but we just haven't come up with one yet. With a huge diversity of riding and situations, the Smokies are still the place to be.
This year, there came a good crop of fresh Open-classers to go with the relatively unchanged classics.
Our blasts from the past are Yamaha's Grizzly and Honda's Rincon. By the standards of the 1990s, these machines, introduced in 2002 and 2003, respectively, are practically new. Welcome to the 21st century. Both are at the small end of the engine scale in the mid-600cc range, but each fits our basic criterion of being a sporty big-bore with independent suspension.
The other three competitors are all-new this year. Suzuki's KingQuad is a dual-overhead-cam single putting out the sort of power that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago; but the King is dwarfed by two larger, twin-cylinder machines. Kawasaki's Brute Force 750 raised the bar for (at least) displacement for a couple of months; then Polaris responded with an even-bigger version of its revamped Sportsman, the 800 EFI.
#5 Kawasaki Brute Force 750 4x4iWhen Kawasaki's Prairie 700 won our 2004 Open-Class 4x4 Comparison (May '04), we mused that with independent suspension, this machine just might be unstoppable. Well, here we are a year later with a new Kawasaki sporting independent suspension and an even more-powerful motor, and it sits in last. Huh?!
As always, execution is everything. We've harped on Arctic Cat for years for its well-suspended yet ill-handling machines; clearly, independent suspension is somewhat of a dark art. The manufacturers have to balance a number of factors-ground clearance, ride quality, true utility usage as well as handling-and hopefully come out with something that we'd want to ride. For most of us, this first-year machine needs to go back to the drawing board.
For those who want the meanest, fastest ATV in all the land, look no further. Who says there's no truth in advertising? There is no ATV that lives up to its name more than the Brute Force does. Need to get through a muddy section? Punch the throttle. Over a pile of rocks or logs? Same deal. Going up a big hill? You know what to do. The 750 twin packs a monster punch at any rpm yet is always very tractable and controllable, giving just as much power as you ask for all the time.
The trigger-actuated front differential lock is another high point for the Kawasaki; it is the best of the bunch in that it engages progressively and positively and will pull the beast through most anything. The best terrains for the Brute are mud and technical rock-crawling situations. Its predictable throttle response makes for easygoing yet endless power. And the suspension works best at low speeds, when it doesn't have to react as quickly. Ergonomics are relaxed and natural, very spread out but not uncomfortably so.
And then there's the handling. It's best in four-wheel-drive; when the front wheels are helping out, the Brute doesn't push the front end as much. For a machine capable of speeds in the mid-60s, it sure doesn't like going that fast. In fast two-wheel-drive situations, the front end is vague and unpredictable. The suspension is also not terribly compliant, despite a feeling that you're sitting up very high on the big machine.