By Eric Anderson
Editor’s note: A snowmobile review in a cross country ski magazine? Not to worry, we haven’t changed our editorial focus. But as we move forward to continue to meet our mission of covering all facets of the sport of cross country skiing, this season we bring you a series of articles that looks more in depth at grooming. Our readership includes many Nordic center personnel and grooming staff and even home trail groomers. We hope these articles will prove informative and useful to this constituency. We also think all skiers can benefit from learning more about how ski trails are prepared for their enjoyment and as a result gain a greater appreciation for this aspect of our sport. Ed.
It might look easy as you watch your local groomer tooling around on a snowmobile, creating great corduroy and straight tracks along the way. The job, however, is quite complex, with the snowmobile pulling a 200-300 pound groomer with up to 1,500 pounds of pulling resistance created by the teeth or knives. The machine must maintain traction, steering and, most importantly, cooling at very low speeds, typically four to six miles per hour.
Not just any snowmobile will do. The low grooming speeds
require low gearing and low RPM clutch engagements to prevent engine belts from burning. The cooling systems must be fan-cooled or liquid-cooled with a radiator and fan.An ideal grooming snowmobile wish list also includes:
- transmissions with low gearing
- wide and long tracks with a medium-size lug that can be studded for ice
- stiff rear suspensions that do not squat with the weight of the groomer but deliver adequate ski pressure for steering
- a reverse speed in the transmission
- two or three actuators each drawing 20-30 amps and with a reversible 12-volt electric motor. Actuators are electric devices that allow the driver to control implements being pulled (e.g. moving the teeth on a grooming device up or down).
- 12-volt batteries and charging systems
- heavy duty hitches
With the goal of finding the top utility snowmobile on the market, the groomers at ABR Trails in Ironwood, Michigan, conducted a series of tests to rate fuel economy, power, traction and steering. The testers compared their vision of the ideal grooming machine to Ski-Doo, Yamaha, Alpina and Polaris machines.
The ideal grooming snowmobile would come with a powerful four-stroke electronic fuel-injected (EFI) engine with a low geared transmission. It would have a large radiator and heated floorboards without under-tunnel heat exchangers, which can drop slush on the trail that can then be picked up by the grooming implements. The machine would also have ducts from the radiator and fan to the operator and windshield area. The dash would be equipped with a fuel and temperature gauge, tachometer, odometer and large digital speedometer.
An ideal machine would also come wired with a six- or eight-pin receptacle and a switched rear work light, since most grooming is done in the dark hours when the skiers are sleeping. The ideal grooming machine would have bogie wheels that do not require loose snow for lubrication like the slide systems, and a dash-adjustable shock for
varying traction and steering, depending on snow conditions. The seat configuration would be a one-up seat with a backrest that would flip down for two-up capacity. Finally, it would have a factory installed heavy-duty pintle hitch and a large storage area.The testing at ABR included a combination of objective and subjective assessments:
- Fuel economy was measured in various conditions with the majority of the time spent pulling medium-sized groomers.
- Cooling was tested on hard snow conditions pulling a medium-size groomer on hilly terrain at various ambient temperatures.
Power was evaluated pulling groomers up hills.
- Traction was measured with a force gauge in various conditions pulling a groomer.
- Steering was measured on a level surface with a weighted rear suspension simulating a groomer.
- Noise, odor and vibration were evaluated during the tests.
- Cold starts were conducted at -20 F.
There has been a huge void in the utility snowmobile market since 1995, when Ski-Doo stopped manufacturing the dual-track Alpine. Since then, there have been various wide-track snowmobiles manufactured and one dual-track snowmobile manufactured in Italy. The dual track has always been a favorite because of its wide compaction platform, low gearing and high traction.
The Ski-Doo Alpine did a good job of grooming; it fell short, however, in the areas of steering, maneuverability and, most important, operator comfort. Single-track utility machines have come a long way since 1994. The Ski-Doo Skandic superwide track (SWT) is Bombardier’s replacement for the Ski-Doo Alpine. It debuted in 1995 and has had a few minor changes since then, including an increase in displacement from 499 to 550 cc, and improved voltage regulation and lighting. Basically, though, the machine has remained unchanged for the past decade.
With all of this in mind, the ABR operators tested the 2006 Ski-Doo Skandic SWT, the 2005 Ski-Doo Expedition TUV, the 2007 Yamaha VK Professional, the 2007 Ski-doo Skandic SWT V800, the 2009 Polaris Widetrack IQ, and a 2006 dual track Alpina Sherpa.
The Ski-Doo Skandic (click on the image for a larger version).
The Ski-Doo Skandic SWT 550 fan, uses a two-stroke 550 engine that has been very dependable for grooming, although it has poor fuel economy and there is considerable noise and smell generated by a two-stroke engine. The cooling system has been very reliable and the 24-inch wide track offers an extra four inches of width over other wide-track machines. The two-speed synchromesh transmission has proven very reliable over the past 12 years. The machine steers as well as the old Alpine and can found with additional operator-installed nose weights and after-market Simmons skis to enhance steering performance. The wide tunnel and low seat do not offer comfort for long-legged operators.
The Ski-Doo Skandic SWT 4-TEC V-800 four-stroke came out in 2007, using the V800 engine that was proven in the Can Am all-terrain vehicles. This is an electronic fuel-injected engine. The low-end torque and engine power are very good with low noise, and there is no odor from the four-stroke engine. The engine started very well and was tested in -20F conditions. The engine has some flat spots and I question whether it was thoroughly mapped at low
speeds for grooming. I would still take this four-stroke electronic fuel-injected engine over any four-stroke carbureted engine available on the market.This machine also has the 24 inch by 156 inch track and has the same suspension as the SWT 550 fan. The track lug has been increased to 1.25 inches which gives a substantial increase to deep snow traction. The engine cooling system worked flawlessly. The machine indicated it was getting warm in hard snow while pulling heavy applications, but the heat alarm never came on. The machine has a wider and taller contoured seat for more comfort. The electrical system worked well and has plenty of power for high power work lights in addition to actuators. The V-800 was tested for a complete season and logged 1,500 miles without any issues.
The Ski-Doo Expedition TUV V–1000 was tested with the Rotax V-1000 four-stroke engine with single overhead camshaft. This is a two-cylinder sequential EFI engine with a tuned muffler. The engine started well and had very good low-end performance. However, cooling was an issue. The test machine was equipped with an optional radiator fan kit from Ski-Doo ($800). The machine performed well in all but hard-packed, icy conditions at low speeds, when it would overheat pulling heavy loads. The TUV (which stands for Touring Utility Vehicle) was compared with the VK Pro for cooling and the TUV would last 30-40 percent longer before the heat alarm came on. It houses the same dependable transmission as the SWT but is built on Ski-Doo’s Yeti II chassis.
The TUV’s front suspension is a curved swing arm with a hydraulic shock. The rear has the same suspension as the Skandic SUV, with twin shocks (hydraulic and gas). It is a softer, higher-travel suspension but still offers adjustability for grooming. It takes a more-skilled operator to get this machine to steer properly under load. This was our choice in operator comfort with its comfortable seat, softer suspension and agility in light grooming applications. The electrical system puts out 40 amps, or approximately 480 watts, and did the electric chores without any issues. The TUV may not be available for 2008.
The Yamaha VK Professional came out in 2006 to replace the Viking 540. This machine appears to be built with heavy-duty work in mind; it houses the Genesis 120 engine, which is a four-stroke, three-cylinder engine delivering 120 horsepower. The machine debuted in 2006 with a wide-ratio clutch and no low-range transmission. In 2007, a high-low range two-speed transmission was standard.
The four-stroke engine is carbureted. Even as an experienced groomer and snowmobile operator, I have found the carbureted engine difficult to start in cold and warm environments. Rookie operators will most likely have trouble with this feature. Yamaha has an electronic fuel-injected 1,000 cc engine, but it is not intended for this machine in 2008. The engine fell short in 2006 with poor cooling. The addition of the two-speed gear box may have improved cooling slightly, but the machine still overheated in testing. The combination of the 20 x 156 x 1.25 inch Camoplast Ripsaw track and the well-tuned suspension gave this machine plenty of traction and steering. The front and rear suspension were totally adjustable and provided the best traction/steering combination on the market for single wide-track machines.
The machine was comfortable to operate with the exception of it being very difficult to shift. The electric system was able to keep up with the grooming needs. The 2006 model was tested for a season and logged 800 miles. The 2007 was tested for one season and logged 700 miles. A few hard starts, spark plug changes, hitch failure and overheat issues were experienced, along with some frustrated shifts from low to reverse.
We also tested a 2009 Polaris Widetrack IQ for about a month last spring. While this sled wasn’t tested in all the same conditions as the others, its outstanding cooling ability and the venerable IQ platform meant it couldn’t be ignored. The machine was also tested as a standard utility machine (hauling wood and pulling a sled) and in some late-season powder. The front suspension was up to all tasks, with ample amounts of ski pressure to facilitate good steering. However, the rear suspension was too soft, even at its stiffest setting, to facilitate good grooming. The bobbing motion of the rear suspension required constant readjusting of groomer teeth, which is tricky and annoying.
The low-end torque of the 80-hp four-stroke was comparable to the V-800. We found no issues with the tipped-rail rear suspension in grooming applications. The biggest and best feature of this utility sled, as far as grooming is concerned, is its exceptional cooling ability. The machine was run in some of the worst spring conditions, with hardpack snow and ice and warm temperatures, pulling the largest Ginzu groomer offered (nine feet), and it never once overheated. The motor was steady at 185 F compared to the SWT V-800 running at well over 230 F. If Polaris can get the rear suspension stiffened, this machine will be a very strong contender for trail groomers.
The dual-track Alpina Sherpa is the Hummer of grooming snowmobiles. This snowmobile, if you can call it that, has been hand built in Vicenza, Italy, since 2002. The machine houses a 1.4 liter electronic fuel-injected four-stroke automotive Peugeot engine. The 75-hp engine, coupled with its two-speed low-range transmission, can creep at the slowest grooming speeds without burning belts. The cooling system consists of an automotive radiator and dual electric fans and heat exchanger floorboards. The machine
ran relatively hot during testing, as indicated by the analog temperature gauge, but the temperature alarm never sounded during even the hardest chores (the factory explained the cooling system is designed to run hot for efficient engine performance and clean exhaust emissions). The combination of the catalytic converter, muffler and dual oxygen sensors created clean exhaust and a quiet operation.The tracks are dual 20 x 156 x 1.2 inch and provided plenty of traction, compaction and floatation. The simple rear bogie suspension provided very little travel, which was perfect for pulling heavy loads. The telescopic front suspension steered the machine very well in all conditions except deep unpacked powder. The large work platform and running boards created a nice work area for operating the machine and hauling gear. The heated seat and heated floor boards provided operator comfort even in the coldest conditions (too bad they could not duct the hot air from the radiator up to the windshield and operator area).
The machine creates more snow dust, which collects on the operator since the machine has a large non-vented hood. The electronic dash has 13 alarms, four gauges and two computers to keep the operator in tune with the engine and operating systems. In addition to the automotive alternator with plenty of electrical capacity, the machine can be factory ordered with switches and rear connectors for grooming actuators and work lights. The machine comes with a heavy duty pintle hitch and an optional two-inch receiver. We have tested and groomed with the Alpina Sherpa for four seasons, logging over 2,000 kilometers on three machines, with no major problems pulling the largest groomers available on the market. The retail price on this machine is $32,500 and availability is limited.
Eric Anderson is the co-owner and operator of ABR Ski Trails in Ironwood, Michigan, and has a passion for grooming equipment. He is a licensed mechanical engineer from the automotive industry with several patents in drive train and hydraulic components. He has been operating and testing grooming equipment since 1994, when he and his father opened the ABR Ski Trails to the public, grooming with an Artic Cat long track and two Ski-Doo Alpines. Eric has been skiing and snowmobiling since the age of 10. He has been contracted as a groomer and consultant for several high level ski events throughout the Midwest.
Rick Slade participated as a tester and evaluator for this article. He has been a snowmobile mechanic for 29 years and has been an avid snowmobiler for 40 years. Rick has been grooming ski trails and skiing for the last seven years.
Kevin Balduc is a college student who has been snowmobiling for 10 years and grooming and skiing for two years.
Angela Santini, wife of Eric Anderson, assisted in data compilation and recording.
ABR Trails hosts the annual Midwest Grooming Clinic, which attracts 50 to 100 groomers from across the country and eight to 20 vendors of grooming vehicles and grooming implements. The 2009 clinic is scheduled for January 20-21. ABR tests groomers on a 55 km trail system from mid-November into April. ABR sells new and used grooming equipment and used grooming snowmobiles across the country. ABR has also created a one hour long instructional DVD on basic grooming. www.abrski.com.