Last year marked the first official ATV Rider 12-Hour race. The event kicked off at Rausch Creek Off-Road Park in Pennsylvania. If you've never ridden Rausch Creek and live anywhere nearby, do yourself a favor and plan to spend a day there. In addition to several different motocross tracks, there are miles of GNCC-style trails beckoning to be ridden. It is there we punished two of the newest midsized 4x4s from Polaris and Suzuki.
Fans of last year's midsized Polaris Sports--man are going to love the 2005 500 H.O. New and improved suspension components, enhanced stability and increased storage capacity mean there is plenty to admire. The Sportsman is a four-wheeler that is built tough and ready to work or play. Weigh-ing in at a reported 111 pounds more than the Suzuki Vinson, this steed has some meat on its ribs.
For 2005, Suzuki's Vinson is available in five versions. For this shootout, we had the 4x4 Auto on hand. A longtime favorite of ATV Rider staffers, the able-bodied Vinson is great fun on the trail and is well-supported by a host of aftermarket performance parts. The Vinson is an outstanding choice for those wanting a relatively lightweight 4x4 with plenty of versatility. Changes for this year include an easier-to-use thumb throttle.
The trails at Rausch Creek wander through heavily vegetated mountains, offering an almost tranquil place to ride. Scarred by decades of strip mining (a process of harvesting coal that leaves large open trenches in the ground), the course constantly changes elevation and terrain. You will find sand, rock boulders, mud, stream crossings and coal--lots of slippery black coal. The new Sportsman offers a noticeably superior ride to previous Polaris models, allowing pilots to maintain higher speeds without excessive fatigue. While riding the Sportsman we noticed the handlebar was never ripped out of our hands without warning, as happened with the Suzuki, and there were no surprises other than how smoothly and reliably the machine handled. We found the Polaris/Carlisle tires would go wherever we pointed them, and overall, we would have to say they performed exceptionally well. You won't be disappointed by this machine's ability to go fast.
The heavy Sportsman feels portly until you get it rolling along. On rough trails, its bulk works to your advantage as the Polaris plows through just about anything the Vinson seems to bounce over and deflect off. While side-by-side drag races proved the Vinson to be quicker than the Sports-man, the Polaris definitely makes use of what it has in a package that works well as a whole. Whether it can hang with the Vinson is more a function of the rider's ability, but our testers agreed that the Suzuki definitely makes you work harder to keep the pace.
Riders may prefer the Polaris AWD slide-type selector over the Suzuki push-button type. We found it easier to operate while bouncing around and safer to determine which mode you are in--this way you can keep your eyes focused where they belong: on the trail in front of you.
If it's a workhorse you are seeking, the Sports-man is a fine choice. It comes with a rack system that supports a myriad of accessories and options. Anticipating customer demand, Polaris has gone ahead and pre-wired the middleweight Sports-man for Warn 2500-pound winches. This allows you to add a winch with a minimum of trouble and installation time. The Sports-man found itself the able-bodied photographer cart, moving man, woman, gear and machine around the 12-Hour racecourse with plenty of payload capacity.
The Suzuki has two storage compartments. Both are tough, almost 100 percent waterproof and easy to access. The front compartment is weird in that it looks like a gas tank and offers an awkward space to store goods. It works well for small or soft items, such as gloves or candy bars, but is less forgiving in stowing rigid items that won't conform to its odd shape. This is the perfect place to safely store your car or truck keys. We preferred the Sportsman's storage compartments for caching larger items. We easily fit a compact fishing kit, a jacket, a bottle of water and a camera into the front of ours with room to spare. A unique feature of the Polaris' rack system is that you are able to bungee down additional gear while still being able to access the storage compartment underneath.
Everyone had a beef with the Vinson's handling--particularly the lackluster damping action experienced at fast speeds. The Suzuki would hit something on the trail and begin to jounce around, leaving the rider feeling disconnected from what the machine was doing. Combine this with an occasional bump that yanks the bar right out of your hands, and the Suzuki quickly turns into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. This kind of frightening feedback instilled distrust in the machine and left everyone feeling uneasy about going fast.
In the past, we've complained about the Vinson's floorboards, specifically with regard to how easily they pack up with snow in the winter and how little traction they offer. Well, this time there was no snow, but the same complaint rang out from all of our testers: the boards just don't work. Your foot slips free when you least expect it, and with all the bouncing the machine produces, it was not uncommon for boots to slide beyond the raised outer edge.
On day two of testing, and during the middle of the 12-Hour sport-machine race, an occasional racer seeking to maintain adrenaline flow between shifts would grab one of the two available Sports-man models and continue around the moto-cross course or woods track for a good thrashing. The machine proved to be solid, and its components showed a minimum of wear despite repeated abuse. How-ever, it was not a matter of whether the machine would break being ridden this way but when. The Sportsman could be seen in the distance flying through the air on the track, higher than it had been on previous attempts, only to come back into the pits with the rear-wheel drive broken--apparently a stripped shaft in the transmission. Reckless? Yes. Tough? Definitely!
The Vinson beat us up noticeably more quickly when riding around the 12-Hour course than the plush-riding Polaris. When the Vin-son's four-wheel-drive was engaged, overall steering effort was increased significantly--not so for the 500 H.O. With stronger brakes, better handling, a larger and more convenient storage capacity and more available accessories, the new Polaris 500 H.O. is the winner in our book.