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Hold my beer, I’ve got a new UTV!

If you haven't driven a UTV, you're missing the most fun you can have off-road

Image used with permission by copyright holder

A side-by-side UTV (for Utility Task Vehicle) is an unlikely-looking off-road machine. It’s almost insectoid with its wide stance and minimal bodywork.

When you see one at a desert race sitting next to a full-tilt Trophy Truck most UTVs look almost fragile, like something that was built for the SEMA show but never intended for real use. Yet looks can be deceiving. The UTV is quickly becoming one of the most popular off-road racing vehicles because of its extreme capability, speed, and most of all, its ability to take the toughest punishment and still get you to the finish line.

To give you an idea of how tough these vehicles are, a Bombardier Can-Am just won its class at the grueling Dakar Rally in South America, finishing the 14 stages from Lima, Peru to Cordoba, Argentina in 72 hours, 44 minutes and six seconds. Of the 11 entries in the UTV class, three were Bombardiers, three were Yamahas, and five were made by Polaris.

What is a side-by-side, anyway?

The term side-by-side (sometimes SXS) covers a broad category of vehicles, from a gardener’s micro-truck to a desert racer. The desert racing versions are more properly called MOHUVs, for Multipurpose Off-Highway Utility Vehicle. There are many different brands on the market, but Polaris is leading the charge into affordable off-road racing with several different models of its popular RZR (pronounced Razor) and a factory-backed racing effort.

Most UTVs look almost fragile, like something that was built for the SEMA show but never intended for real use. Yet looks can be deceiving.

The anatomy of a MOHUV is pretty simple. The vehicle is built around a tube frame with rollover protection, and a few plastic body panels to help keep some of the rocks outside the vehicle. The part you care more about is the driveline. The most basic Polaris RZR you’d want to use for racing is the XP, powered by a 1000cc ProStar two-cylinder engine with 110 horsepower. There are less expensive 45- and 75-horsepower models, but they’re not affordable enough to justify the power loss.

The RZR uses an on-demand all-wheel drive system, which makes it primarily a rear-wheel-drive vehicle with the ability to transfer torque to the front wheels as needed for traction. Fully loaded with driver and passenger, you’re looking at about 1700 pounds. With the Polaris’ continuously variable transmission, you’ve got plenty of power at all times for about $17,999. But if that’s not enough, you can move up to the RZR XP Turbo, with 168 horsepower for $19,999. That’s money well spent, right there.

The real magic of the RZR comes with the suspension. It looks positively spindly, with slender rods holding the wheels out past the corners of the vehicle, but it’s the hardiest part of the Polaris. The leggy suspension design gives you a huge range of motion, which keeps the wheels in contact with uneven ground.

You’ve got your choice of three different shock setups. You can go with the basic needle valve shocks, and they’re very good. Depending on the terrain, that may be all you need. If you’re running around on powder like I did at Coral Pink Sand Dunes state park in Utah, the RZR will be silky smooth. On the rough rocks of the Mint 400 course outside Las Vegas, not so much. You can upgrade to Fox internal bypass shocks with five separate compression zones for about $3,000 more, but the RZR you want has Polaris’ new Dynamix active suspension. All-in with the turbo engine, it’s $25,999.

Dynamix for your duo

The Dynamix suspension is something like you find on the latest Corvette. It’s an active system that monitors everything going on several hundred times a second. You can dial up comfort, sport, or firm settings from the RZR’s dashboard-mounted touch screen. Once you get moving, the Dynamix system is looking at compression and extension, grip, braking, and weight to figure out how to keep the Polaris under control and moving fast.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

When you get on the brake pedal, the Dynamix system firms up the front shocks to stop nose dive. When you race into a corner, the outside shocks respond to keep the RZR level. It’s a magic carpet, capable of turning a rough rocky surface into a smooth highway where you can put your foot down.

Bombing down the Mint 400 course

For a test run on part of the Mint 400 racing course, I was driving the RZR XP 1000 with the standard needle valve suspension. For all my raving about the Dynamix, this is still a very capable setup. The course we ran featured all kinds of surfaces, from rough rocks to silty lake beds to uneven wavy ground the racers call “whoops.” Of all these, the whoops really show the benefit of the RZR.

We saw speeds north of 80 MPH across the smooth surface, and could have gone faster

When you’re headed over whoops, the best way forward is to go fast enough to get up on the tops of the bumps so you’re not being tossed around. This lets the RZR suspension soak up the motion while you stay relatively stable. With the RZR’s variable transmission, you just put your foot down to go faster and hang on. The RZR comes with electric power steering, so the wheel won’t rip itself out of your hands.

Out on the silt, it’s wide-open racing. We saw speeds north of 80 mph across the smooth surface. We could have gone faster with a bit more space and perhaps a bit more confidence. The lakebed gives way to a climb over hilly country, where we had to pick our way over larger rocks, experiencing some truly impressive suspension articulation on our way back to the pits.

Spraying sand in Utah

For a counterpoint to the rough Las Vegas desert, we headed over to Coral Pink Sand Dunes on the Utah/Arizona border. This off-road vehicle park offers a constantly changing landscape of powdery sand with long, steep climbs and heart-pounding descents. Traction is the name of the game in this environment, and the AWD system in the RZR XP 1000 proved its mettle. Spraying sand from all four corners, the RZR floats over the powdery pink surface, never staying in one place long enough to dig in.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

One major difference between the two environments was the choice of tires. For sand, you need balloon tires with aggressive tread designed to stay on top of the shifting surface while providing as much traction as it’s possible to get without digging a hole. Out on the rocky Nevada desert, we used BF Goodrich Baja KR2 tires sized and designed for the RZR. In the Nevada environment, we needed tread that would not only grip the sharp rocks, but will also withstand the abuse of racing long distances over the rocks.

How to go racing with a UTV

It takes just one taste of the RZR in the desert to make a believer. If you’ve got any racing at all in your DNA, you’ll pull your helmet off and start scheming about how to get one of these for yourself. Depending on the racing series you choose, you can effectively run a showroom-stock UTV and have a competitive ride. If you decide to go to Baja with SCORE, or run the Mint 400 with Best in the Desert, you’ll have a little work to do, mostly in the safety area, but you’ll also need a radio for team and official communications and a GPS system.

There’s more you can do for performance, but that comes later as you gain experience. Assuming you start with a brand new RZR XP 1000 for about $20,000, you can be ready to race for another $10,000 to $20,000. Or you can buy a turn-key, race-ready UTV from several different brands on a variety of online forums and save a bundle while you get good enough to justify a newer ride.

Sure, it may sound like a lot of money, especially after you add the truck and trailer and about a million other things you’ll need. But when you stack up a UTV against just about anything else racing in the desert, it’s a bargain. And the limited development allowed in the UTV classes means that you won’t be outclassed by someone who can spend truckloads of cash to win a trophy.

There are UTV rental places all over Las Vegas, and you can get that first taste for just a couple hundred bucks. The question is, are you going to do it or not?

Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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