Five years ago, I spent a few days down Mexico way driving a Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS side-by-side. That naming jumble translates to “factory Baja racer,” and Baja buggies are wide. That X3 is a full six-feet wide, which, besides increasing stability, looks cool as hell—like a predatory creature from another galaxy, or a Team Associated RC off-roader at 1:1 scale. The year after that, I rolled a standard 64-inch-wide Polaris RZR while racing Joey Logano, and I thought, “If only that sucker were wider, I would have triumphantly powered out of that corner and not had a NASCAR driver laugh at me.” (At least, not for that reason.) But wisdom comes with winters, and I am now here to tell you that a wide side-by-side is not what you want. No, friends. Trail width is where it’s at. By which I mean: 50 inches. Narrow is the new wide.
Now, if you live in the great sprawling west and your backyard looks like Tatooine, then by all means buy the widest machine you can find. But if you live in an area that I’ll call “everywhere else,” your trails will include trees and sluices and rocks, not all of them considerately spaced more than 64 inches apart—let alone 72 inches. Enter the trail-width machine, like the 2021 Polaris RZR Trail, which squeezes the essential elements of off-road rippin’—all-wheel-drive, 75-horsepower twin-cylinder engine, Fox suspension—into a slim package. Not only will the dang thing squeeze betwixt the trees, it’ll fit in the bed of a regular full-size pickup truck. And the only thing better than Bring a Trailer is Don’t Need A Trailer.
To take advantage of the Trail’s tidy dimensions, I brought it to a place that’s normally not very side-by-side-friendly: Devil’s Ridge, in Sanford, North Carolina. The place is dirt-bike-centric, with a busy motocross track and the cackle of two-strokes echoing through the trees on any given Sunday. I’m pretty sure the RZR wouldn’t be welcome on the MX track, but there’s also a beautiful five-mile trail loop through the surrounding woods. Legend has it that this trail began as a single-track for mountain bikes before evolving into a slightly wider single-track for dirt bikes and ATVs. Needless to say, the trail is one-way, so once you’re out there you’re committed. The trees crowd every corner as the path wends through the forest, and the two wooden bridges are generously sized for two-wheeled vehicles. Four wheels? If you’re wider than 50 inches, you’d better learn to stunt drive on two wheels like Travis Pastrana.
Speaking of whom, he also extolled the virtues of slim side-by-sides when I visited him last year at his personal off-road playground, Pastranaland. He’s got a loop out through the woods where everyone vies for quickest lap time in the Can-Ams that he drives. It’s not a particularly tight trail—plenty of room for a 72-inch machine—but he told me that the quickest times are had with a 64-inch machine. “Those eight inches make a difference,” he said. “That’s eight more inches to take a better line through the trees.” Or, as is the case at Devil’s Ridge, to fit between the trees at all.
The RZR uses a CVT with high and low range and selectable rear-drive or all-wheel-drive. I set out in high range all-wheel-drive with my friend Giuseppe following in his Can-Am Maverick (a 50-inch trail model as well). With the 875-cc twin-cylinder pumping out 75 horsepower against about 1300 pounds of weight, the Trail accelerates with a ferocity that’s exaggerated by the proximity to the trees. With a relentless succession of blind corners and long-leaf pines whizzing past a few inches from your doors, 20 mph feels like Warp Zone in the Mint 400.
While the Trail looks low-slung next to something like a RZR XP 1000, it nonetheless offers 11 inches of ground clearance and 10 inches of suspension travel from its Fox Podium 2.0 coil-over dampers. Translation: In situations where you think maybe you should slow down, like a rock-strewn hillclimb, you can actually speed up and seemingly skip over the trail detritus. And the RZR’s CVT, like the one in the Yamaha Wolverine, delivers engine braking when you lift off the throttle, to the point that fast, flowing sections of trail won’t require much use of the brake pedal. Some side-by-sides are reluctant to turn in with all-wheel-drive engaged, but this one is nimble and eager to hunt for the inside line. I’m guessing that even in AWD mode, the majority of the torque is going to the rear axle.
My main gripe, which applies to most side-by-sides, is that I consider CVTs the Big Bang Theory of transmissions—popular, but I don’t understand why. This one works well out on a trail, where you’re constantly changing speeds—hey, you’re never in the wrong gear. But should you find yourself on a fire road or other constant-rpm situations, the engine will wind up to 4500 rpm or so and stay there, when a real gearbox would allow you to upshift and mellow out. Plus, paddle shifters are fun. Downshifting into a corner is fun. But if you want a trail-width side-by-side, you’re getting one with a CVT. The Honda Talon (dual-clutch six-speed) and Yamaha YXZ1000 (five-speed sequential) are both at least 64 inches wide.
Normally, riding a loop at Devil’s Ridge with an ATV or side-by-side requires frequent stops to let the dirt bikes past—no matter how quick you’re going, it probably won’t be quick enough for the maniacs on KTMs out there. But today, we’re not really holding up traffic. Recent rain muddied the trail, and the dirt bikers have to pick their way around those spots if they don’t want to slog through a bog. Meanwhile, with full doors and a watertight tub (there are removable drains in the floorboards), I’m staying clean despite the occasional plunge into a wallow. It’s a luxury to go muddin’ without wearing the terrain home.
When it’s time to pack up, I park the RZR in my six-foot-wide trailer and then enjoy another benefit of trail width: I can actually open the door to get out. Normally, side-by-sides crowd the walls of the trailer such that you need to pull a Dukes of Hazzard move to climb in or out. No such limberness necessary here.
The RZR Trail starts at $13,499 for a Sport model, putting it on the most affordable end of the side-by-side spectrum. This one is the Ultimate ($17,499), which includes goodies like a Rockford Fosgate sound system and a ruggedized navigation system and backup camera. And no, it won’t win a drag race with a 181-hp RZR Pro XP, but it will probably go anywhere its wider, more expensive siblings can go. And also plenty of places they can’t.
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