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Four play

Sirish Chandran  | Updated: November 14, 2011, 11:21 AM IST

The moment I saw the Polaris Ranger I thought the olive green, the purposeful, brutal styling looked like vehicles I saw in American war movies as a kit. But in attitude, it was more like Arnie in the The Predator. Arnie's whole team gets killed, but with infinite resourcefulness - and some mud wading which the Ranger also does with panache - the muscle man trumps all. The Ranger sorts of feels like that, just standing innocently around doing nothing.

Ranger is Polaris' range of what are called side by sides, a mystifying name because utility ATV would probably be a far clearer moniker. They are based on ATVs, but instead of being all fun and games, they are practical vehicles for off-road work with usually the ability to carry people or loads around. ATVs, to us, are about mobility in difficult terrain and about immense amounts of get-the-clothes-dirty fun. But with its steering wheel and the roll cage, the Ranger feels even less familiar. Polaris offers four distinct classes of Rangers, attuned respectively for hilly terrain, for sport and recreational use, four seaters (they pioneered this segment) and what they call extreme which is supposed to offer 'premium performance under all conditions.' There are also diesel and electric Rangers.

Now I've ridden ATVs but driving one is something I have never done. Who doesn't? This butch looking buggy-like thing with its load bay and roll cage was just begging to be driven around.

The pics don't say it, but the roll cage equipped Ranger is six feet tall so it looks rather imposing next to the more colourful ATVs. The sense of purpose is conveyed by the robust looking roll bar at the front and the exposed chunky ATV tyres add to that impression. Suspension is MacPherson struts at the front with a A-arm rear. Travel is an off-road worthy 203mm at the front and 229mm at the rear. The engine is mounted at the rear with the exhaust mounted at the top to allow greater operational fording depth. The two-seater passenger... what to call it... area is spacious with only the small steering wheel, the accelerator and brake pedals ahead of you. There are seat belts and safety nets to stop you from falling out and since this is a CVT automatic there is no clutch. A shift lever allows you to select two-wheel (rear) drive and four-wheel drive. The instruments are typically spartan - there's an analog speedometer and a digital display with a tacho, tripmeter, fuel gauge, drive mode display and a temperature warning light. Other amenities are a cigarette lighter power socket and a small glove box. For bigger loads there's space under the bonnet and there's the load bay, of course, that can be hydraulically lowered or raised.

The Ranger 500 EFI I got to drive uses a liquid-cooled, fuel injected 498cc four-stroke single cylinder engine making 32PS of peak power. You start it up with a key as usual and it sounds throaty but certainly not like a motorcycle. Floor the pedal and wheelspin comes easily. The bottom-end grunt is important to the package not only for crawling through impossible terrain but because the Ranger is rated to lug 225kg in the load bay and up to 560kg when towing a load. At the other end of the speed spectrum, the Ranger will hit 70kmph. With discs all around, shedding speed is no issue and the brakes felt sharp and I was quite amazed at the tyres' ability to find traction. At 479kg it isn't all that light and the Ranger feels a bit ponderous in the engine performance department. Strong bottom-end aside, the Ranger often felt like it needed to build momentum to handle inclines. Then again, it's a workhorse so in its role, it might be that it needs that bottom-end lugging ability a lot more than the ability to scramble over inclines like a motocross bike.

But the Ranger's ability to traverse difficult terrain is pure awesome. The off-road course laid out for us had bumps and jumps and some tricky corners as well. The Ranger trundled cheerfully through all of that and I quickly found both grip and then confidence around the corners as well. The suspension set-up is stiff but it aids obstacle handling as well as load carrying. There was also a deep water crossing where the tyres would submerge. But while I hesitated, the instructor egged me on and while I flooded the footboard at the deepest point, the Ranger chugged through, submerged engine and all without any hiccups.

Before you ask if I tried to wheelie it or not, I didn't even think of it for once. I was just amazed at a completely new vehicular experience which in our line of work is a rarity nowadays. The Ranger is Polaris' solution to a number of applications. It can be used as a recreation vehicle on the weekend or for serious work on a farm or resort. Polaris' range is huge and there's ATVs, Rangers and snowmobiles in there all of which attack non-tarmac-ed terrain.

The stumbling block at the moment is the price. Given that all of these are being imported and subject to full CBU duties, adding this new dimension to your off-roading is quite expensive. We don't have detailed pricing at the moment, but the Polaris range starts at ` 2 lakh for the small 50CC ATV and goes up to a whopping ` 20 lakh for the top of the line Ranger, the RZR 800. The problem is compounded by the fact that these vehicles aren't registrable for road use at the moment.

But the bottom line is simple. Arnold Schwarzenegger totally rocked in Predator. And the Ranger 500 EFI totally rocked the off-road course and my sense of ATVs being for fun and fun alone.

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