Arctic Cat has been building a solid reputation in the off-road biz for years now and when it comes to ATVs, that reputation has been anchored in a couple of stalwart attributes. First, Cat’s Sport-Utes are well-known for being faithful workhorses and second, their uncanny capabilities when 4WD is required.
From the earliest years 4WD was made available on its ATVs, Arctic Cat has offered incredible ground clearance – sometimes two more inches than any other competitor. This factor has had a profound effect on a Cat 4-wheeler’s ability to slog through deep mud and get over the gnarliest junk you can imagine.
Combined with the high ground clearance, the engineers have shunned any use of anti-swaybars on their IRS models allowing the rear wheels to operate completely free of one another – supposedly to maximize traction at low speed and in work situations. For over a decade we’ve commented on this, usually opining the company should move to a more conventional swaybar setup and soften up the suspension springs and shocks more.
The hard truth is, if you don’t have a swaybar, you have to compensate for body roll by using stiffer springs, or at best, dual rate springs so in high speed corners the ATV keeps its wheels on the ground and doesn’t yaw over left or right.
The new XR series of Arctic Cats display a fresh mindset from the Thief River Falls, Minnesota powersports company. All indications are the designers have turned a 180 and have focused on improved ergonomics, a more compliant ride and much improved handling at all speeds. It’s been no small undertaking and the results are impressive.
The good news is Cat didn’t mess with the ground clearance (still 11-inches), suspension travel (10-inches) or 4-wheel-drive system at all. Instead, they added a rear swaybar and measurably softened the springs. The driver’s seat is slightly lower and the handlebars are slightly higher and reshaped, lowering the center of gravity and helping with ergonomics when standing, sitting and transitioning between the two. The new riding position is a big improvement and when cranking the bars you never get the feeling you’re “reaching” to turn the handlebars to their full extent like before.
Chassis changes and revised double A-arm front end geometry has assisted with handling and because there’s less body roll, the ATV provides much more rider confidence from the driver’s seat – especially when braking hard on downhills or using the front brakes on loose surfaces at high speeds.
Riding bumps, the XR feels like it can use all of its travel before the springs and shocks begin to pack up. Because of this, the rider is suddenly aware of the shocks doing their job through their full 10-inches of movement. Body roll? Much better, although there’s still a bit when the ground is hard and the tires are biting. The difference now is, the handling is much more neutral and you can lean the ATV’s body without feeling you’re going to lift an outside wheel. It means you can keep the throttle on with confidence and break the back end free to generate oversteer. Nice.
We’d love to see Cat upgrade to gas shocks on its premium XR models. There are limitations with these standard issue ones and we think buyers who have already indicated they’re willing to spend a bit more to get more would welcome the extra cost. At best, these ones could use an adjustable damping feature to accommodate more driver weights and different riding conditions.
Before we go further we should point out what we feel is the new XR’s biggest flaw. The Duro Kaden tires Cat has chosen are the same tires or mighty close to what Yamaha has used in the past and what we’ve often complained about. No argument these are decent quality meats but they just don’t have an aggressive enough lug to perform well on wet, slick surfaces or in a submerged environment. If you’re riding in these environs, you need to upgrade – pronto! Likewise, if you ride on hard, rocky terrain all the time, you may be fairly happy with them.
A couple more items on our checklist: The SOHC 695cc single built by Cat in its St. Cloud, Minnesota engine plant is a torquey, strong-running 700 we’ve heard zero complaints about. Its calling card is bottom end grunt and it works extremely well for rock crawling and hard 4WD lugging. It’s CVT tranny is well calibrated to this mill and although it won’t set any land speed records, it is a very good 700.
We think Cat has truly focused on and achieved much better production quality recently. The XR is more than just a new ATV, it is a rethought, re-prioritized product that looks better, fits better and exudes better value. The transplanted gauge package looks better on this ATV and the styling is worlds better integrated than the former more dated “Jeep-style” front grill and organic body shape. The XR has a more modern, angular look and it’s really pleasing to the eye. We fully approve.
Overall, we’re really pleased with the new XR. Although it is not a ground-breaking, revolutionary approach to the sport, it is a huge upgrade from the former full-sized Arctic Cat sport-utes we’re accustomed to. Arctic Cat customers will be very pleased. The jury is out on whether or not other-branded buyers will be impressed enough to convert.