'You simply cannot have more fun on wheels." The comment comes from a fellow motoring journalist, and it's a big call, but he's right on the money. This is a pure, unadulterated, laugh-out-loud riot.
We’re at a desert camp about 20 minutes out of Dubai, and we’ve just come back from tearing across the surrounding dunes in the latest range of Polaris ORVs (off-road vehicles). You couldn’t peel the grins off our faces with a can opener and we’re chuckling like schoolboys who’ve just planted a stink bomb in the principal’s office.
The event is dubbed Camp RZR (an abbreviation of sorts for “Razor”), and although it refers to Polaris’s RZR model range, the Ranger, Sportsman and Ace line-ups are also showcased at the venue. Each model range was conceived with a specific audience in mind, with the sporty RZR aimed at recreational riders, while the Ranger is purely utilitarian, the Sportsman is an all-rounder and the Ace is an entry-level quad suited even to youngsters in the 10- to 16-year-old age bracket.
The American manufacturer (it’s based in Minneapolis) is a sizeable organisation that generates an annual turnover of US$4.5 billion (Dh16.53bn), and although 80 per cent of that comes from its domestic market, the Middle East – especially the UAE – punches well above its weight in terms of Polaris ORVs sold per head of population.
It’s the reason why the company has gone to the trouble of shipping across a whole fleet of vehicles and support personnel for this three-day event, aimed at existing and potential new customers. They’ve also put on a media-ride programme, which is the reason we’re now all standing here with foolish grins on our faces.
A bit of background about Polaris: the company was founded as a snowmobile manufacturer in 1954 by Edgar and Allen Hetteen and David Johnson. That remained the company’s core business until 1985, when it launched the Trailboss, regarded as the first American-made all-terrain vehicle. This paved the way for a whole new division (ORVs), which is now Polaris’s main revenue earner, accounting for 80 per cent of its turnover.
The company also owns the Indian and Victory motorcycle brands, and its push into the realm of on-road vehicles has received further impetus with the launch of the Slingshot, a racy looking three-wheeler (with two wheels up front and one at the back, à la Morgan Three-Wheelers). It’s propelled by a 2.4L, four-cylinder engine, with power relayed to the single rear wheel via a five-speed manual gearbox and drive belt.
However, neither the Slingshot nor the Indian and Victory motorcycle line-ups are what we’ve come to sample today. We’re here to kick up some sand with the off-road range, which is parked round us in orderly rows, divided up into the separate model ranges.
Polaris ORVs are not cheap – pricing starts at about Dh30,000 and goes all the way up to Dh105,000 for the RZR Fox Limited Edition – but there’s still healthy demand for the brand’s products in the Middle East, and it’s not at all surprising when you take into consideration the terrain we’re surrounded by in the UAE. We live in an off-roading paradise, and if I had a lazy hundred thousand dirhams burning a hole in my pocket, I’d be making a beeline for the Polaris dealership.
Bear in mind, though, that what you’re buying is essentially an expensive toy. There’s no way you can use any of Polaris’s offerings to make the office trek down Sheikh Zayed Road, as they don’t have the requisite certification for road use in the UAE (unlike European countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, where you can actually road-register certain Polaris models).
Thoughts of Sheikh Zayed Road are the furthest thing from my mind as we begin our media-ride event, however. I’ve hopped into a workmanlike Ranger to get familiar with the whole ORV genre (I’d never ridden a quad bike or vehicle of this ilk before today), and I’m pleased to find a conventional steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. The automatic transmission lever is also similar in function to that in a normal road car, with P, R, N, H (High) and L (Low) slots.
Unlike a quad bike, on which you sit astride, in the Polaris Ace, Ranger and RZR models you sit in a bucket seat, with a lap-sash seat belt and roll cage adding to the sense of security. This boosts these vehicles’ appeal to a mainstream audience, as many people shy away from quad bikes, having heard horror stories of friends or associates who have suffered broken legs or spinal damage after tipping over one of those contraptions.
As for the Ranger I’ve commandeered, it’s got side-by-side seating and a load tray at the back that can accommodate 800 kilograms of cargo. It can also tow an additional 800kg, making it an ideal workhorse in rugged terrain. In the United States, many outdoorsmen use these for hunting, as they’re powerful enough to haul a full-grown deer.
Propulsion for the vehicle comes from a four-stroke 760cc engine that puts out 50bhp, which might not sound earth-shattering, but it’s more than adequate to provide the Ranger with a lively turn of pace, as it weighs just 562kg (without fluids), which is about a third of the mass of a typical mid-size saloon.
It’s extremely easy to operate, too. Once you’ve slotted it into gear, you simply stand on the gas and steer, with the Polaris effortlessly bounding over everything that stands in its path. The suspension has loads of travel, so most lumps and bumps in the surface of the sand we’re traversing are comfortably soaked up by it, rather than being transmitted to our vertebrae.
Our first exercise to familiarise ourselves with the vehicles is an off-road drag strip of sorts. The acceleration is an eye-opener, especially given that the Ranger I’m piloting is a utilitarian device rather than the fun machine that the RZR was obviously conceived to be.
We then move on to a slalom exercise, weaving in and out of a series of flags to gain a feel for the steering response and manoeuvrability of each of the Polaris models. This grows wearisome after three or four passes, but then it’s time to head back to base before embarking on the final, and most significant, part of the itinerary – a freestyle desert ride aboard the fleet of RZR 1000s.
The RZR is the flagship of the Polaris ORV range, with the two-seater retailing for Dh92,000, the four-seater for Dh99,000 and the Fox Limited Edition (which gets special, race-derived Fox suspension, a multimedia display and various other bits and bobs) for Dh105,000.
Each of these models is powered by a 999cc, two-cylinder, four-stroke engine that pumps out 110 horses, which is a pretty healthy output in something that weighs just 625kg (excluding fluids). As with the other Polaris models, it comes with a roll cage, bucket seats and seat belts but, unlike the others, it also has quarter doors, where its stablemates make do with a side net that clips into place with a clasp.
It’s built to conquer the rough stuff, with around 300 millimetres of ground clearance and wheels positioned at each of the four corners, meaning there’s no overhangs to get snagged against obstacles. This enables you to attack dune ascents and descents with real vigour, safe in the knowledge the nose won’t bash against the ground. The latter scenario would be the likely outcome in a road-going four-wheel-drive, in which the grille and bumper protrude well beyond the front axle line.
It proves a revelation how effortlessly and astonishingly rapidly the RZR can scorch from one dune to the next, and on the flatter sections it’s capable of clocking 125kph. It makes off-roading almost too easy, but you still need to pick your lines and aim to ascend and descend dunes – particularly steep ones – straight up and down, rather than diagonally.
You only need to go on YouTube to see how many compilations there are of vehicles of this type rolling or going end over end in rough terrain to realise that care is still needed. As mentioned before, though, you have a seat belt and roll cage protecting you and the Polarises are ruggedly constructed, so there’s a great sense of peace of mind.
Traction is not an issue as the chunky 27-inch-tall Dirt Commander tyres dig into the sand with the tenacity of a sand lizard. The RZR isn’t particularly taxing to drive either, with power steering taking the grunt work out of heaving it around on the sand.
It comes with more instrumentation than you might expect, including a speedometer, odometer, trip meter, tachometer, coolant temperature gauge, voltmeter, hourmeter, service indicator, clock, gear indicator, fuel gauge, high-temp light and seat belt reminder light. You can drive in the dark too, as the RZR is equipped with halogen headlights and LED tail/brake lights.
As the sun begins to set over the dunes, the rich interplay of light and shade renders the reddish orange sand in its most spectacular hues. There’s also a calming stillness in this environment, interrupted only by the buzz of twin-cylinder engines being given the beans. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition, adding to the memorability of the occasion.
I have to admit I’m not an off-road junkie, but two great experiences in the dunes on successive weekends (the previous Saturday, I was out in a modified Jeep Wrangler) have stirred a longing to get back out in the sand as soon as possible. And I very much doubt there’s a more effective or enjoyable way to carve up the desert than in an RZR. If there is, I’ve yet to experience it.
Now then, can anyone out there lend me a hundred grand?
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