A huge part of vehicle satisfaction comes down to nothing more than how it feels. A machine can have all the features in the world, but if it feels awkward, cramped, or poorly designed you’ll likely never be truly happy with it. Similarly, it’s not unusual for a vehicle lacking in power or special features to be loved by owners because it feels so natural to sit on and ride. Since their introduction way back in 1993, this has been the most consistent strength for the Polaris Sportsman ATVs. They just feel right and deliver a ride quality to match. When Polaris introduced changes to the Sportsman chassis recently, we were anxious to give it a try and see how the new Sportsman compared to the legendary previous models.
A LEGENDARY ATV
There have been several generations of the Sportsman chassis, all of them with their own features and strengths. They’ve been loved by casual trail riders, ranchers, hunters, and pretty much everyone that has ever had the joy of exploring the trails or putting one to work. The newest generation Sportsman ATV builds on all that has been learned in the past. Key features are:
- 78hp SOHC twin cylinder 4-stroke ProStar engine with Fuel Injection
- CVT style transmission with On-Demand AWD/2WD
- High-Clearance dual Arched A-arms front and rear for excellent ground clearance
- Receiver hitch capable of towing 1500 lbs.
- Plenty of sealed cargo space front and rear
- Electronic Power Steering
- Legendary Sportsman ride quality
The new Sportsman we would be testing would be the Sportsman 850 SP Premium model. It’s based heavily on the base model 850, with an identical chassis, engine, suspension and transmission, but with upgrades such as formed steel bumpers front and rear, fender flares for extra protection, a winch to pull you (or a buddy) out of any trouble, and a premium paint job called Magnetic Grey Metallic, all rolling on 14” cast aluminum wheels.
Upon picking up the new Sportsman at US-27 Motorsports, our impression was that this ATV looked GREAT! We love the color, and the cast aluminum wheels are a nice accent to the automotive quality paint job. Starting the engine provided a familiar, throaty sound common to all Polaris ProStar engines, and we loaded it onto our Aluma trailer and headed for the North Country. It would be on the trails that we would learn if the new Sportsman chassis could match its good looks!
The first few miles of trails reveal a lot about every model. What it told us about the Sportsman 850 is that the engineering crew at Polaris had rethought the entire rider / ATV dynamic. All previous model Sportsman ATVs felt roomy, a little wide through the waist, and as if you were sitting on top of it. This machine feels as if you are sitting down in it despite the seat height actually being over 3” taller than the Sportsman 570! It is the seat foam sculpting that places you a little further back and down “into” the chassis that makes the biggest difference. Between your knees, the bodywork was kept to a minimal distance which gives the chassis a lighter, more agile feel. The handlebars also reach back further to meet the rider, and the overall seating position feels as if you are slightly further back, which makes the front end feel longer. Comparing specs, the 850 chassis is 2.5” longer than the Sportsman 570 chassis, and it feels like it.
One feature common to all Sportsman ATVs is plenty of on-board storage, and Polaris once again came through with two large storage compartments. There is a large compartment in the sturdy cargo racks behind the seat, and another under the front cargo deck. Thankfully, Polaris also made it easy to remove for washing and servicing front end components, and the oil filter, air filter, and oil dip stick are easily accessed as well. Excellent work! The Sportsman bodywork and cargo racks are also examples of excellent work, and the body panels fit tightly, with minimal seams and smooth transition areas, while the sturdy, composite racks have practically limitless places to fasten tie downs or the Polaris Lock & Ride accessories. It’s a well thought out package. All controls are in the right place, the digital display is easy to read, and the overall feel is that the Sportsman 850 is ready for action. So were we.
WEEKS IN THE WOODS
On the trail the 850 engine responds very well to throttle input. You can blip the throttle at any time and get an instant response with no hesitation from the engine or lag from the CVT clutch. We do wish Polaris would go back to cast aluminum thumb throttle blade. The stock throttle blade flexes slightly and feels a little cheap for a machine of this quality. Regardless of the trail conditions, the 850 chassis soaked up bumps with ease. The shocks do offer five settings for adjustment and they are well balanced front to rear. It is in the corners where we learned much about the 850 chassis.
The lower feeling seat height, ample ground clearance, and rear sway bar meant you could charge into corners with complete confidence in the 850 chassis. Thanks to the narrower bodywork between your knees it was possible to shift body position, while the swaybar helps the chassis stay flat. The 26” tires had little sidewall flex and the chassis would either hold it’s line, or hop out of the ruts to wherever you put it. This was even more evident when switching back and forth to the 570 Sportsman chassis. We did find ourselves sliding up on the Sportsman 850 seat to put more weight on the front end, and we would prefer a handlebar with less reach back to keep you seated more forward. This would be a welcome change in future models. Current riders may want to switch to an aftermarket bar and solve the entire problem.
The trails we usually test on feature a little bit of everything. There is tight, twisty terrain, rocks, sand, long wide-open stretches, and now long and deep water crossings thanks to the proliferation of beavers and unusually heavy rains. The Sportsman easily conquered all the dry terrain, but we weren’t sure exactly what to expect in the ponds. More than one ATV or Side x Side could be found stuck in the trail, but undaunted we waded in.
We were pleasantly surprised at the how deep the Sportsman 850 would venture into the ponds. Thankfully, Polaris engineers located the CVT and engine air intake high enough in the chassis to avoid sucking in water, and even at seat depth the Sportsman swam forward. We never heard the squeal or slip of a wet drive belt, and the engine never sputtered. We did discover one unfortunate thing about the Polaris floorboards however. The many large holes drain water away quickly, but thanks to a brace underneath, when venturing into water the holes work in the opposite direction equally well, and the brace produces a small geyser shooting up one’s pant leg. It’s not catastrophic, but it is annoying, and we often wonder how we find such oddities yet the ride testing crew does not.
Overall the Sportsman 850 SP still offers the legendary Sportsman power, performance and ride. It just feels slightly different in how it delivers it.
A COUPLE THINGS TO WORK ON
Every machine has a few features that could be improved, and as much as we appreciate the good traits of the Sportsman 850, there are three things we hope Polaris will address:
- Updated receiver hitch
- VERY light steering feel
- Engine noise
Polaris would do well to finally ditch their 1.25” receiver hitch insert and go with the standard 2” insert common to every pickup brand. Almost nobody uses the smaller insert with any other equipment, while every truck owner – ATV and Side x Side owners – already have the 2” inserts. It can be difficult to even find the 1.25” hithes! Make it easy on the customer and switch to a 2” hitch.
Making it easy on the customer was clearly the intention with the Electronic Power Steering, and the Polaris EPS system is by far the easiest turning system on the market. The problem is, it is too easy, which takes away feel. You want enough power steering input to lessen the arm force required for turning, but you still need to feel tire input from the trail. The Polaris EPS system takes the bars out of your hands. It takes away feel from an otherwise outstanding machine. Our suggestion to Polaris engineers would be to replicate the feel of Kawasaki’s Brute Force 750 ATVs. They provide ample assist for all day rides, but they still retain feel in the handlebars so well you don’t even think about the system. It just works.
Our third area we take exception to and find room for improvement with the Sportsman 850 is with the exhaust note. Not the sound, but the decibel level. After a couple days driving the new Sportsman and then a 2 year old model on identical trails, it was obvious to all riders that the new machine is noticeably louder. Perhaps Polaris wanted a more commanding presence for the new Sportsman, but it is doubtful this one will be appreciated by hunters and casual trail riders, two groups that have long been champions of the Polaris brand. If they can dial back the noise it would be a much more enjoyable to ride for all.
LIVING UP TO A LEGEND
Every generation of Sportsman has to live up to the legendary performance and ride of all Sportsman before it. The trouble is, how does one continually set a new standard and improve on the existing product, especially when the existing product has been an all-time sales leader and favorite for so many? That’s a very difficult task for the Polaris engineering team to achieve, but the Sportsman 850 SP does not disappoint. Surely there is room for further improvement, but it is very, very good already. Keep on the gas Polaris. In the meantime, the legend continues.
ENGINE: ProStar SOHC 4-Stroke Twin Cylinder, Liquid Cooled, Fuel Injected, 78hp
DRIVE TYPE: True On-Demand
TRANSMISSION: Automatic PVT P/R/N/L/H; Shaft Drive
ELEC POWER STEERING: Standard
FUEL CAPACITY: 5.25 gal (19.9 L)
GROUND CLEARANCE: 11.5 in (29 cm)
OVERALL SIZE: 83.25 x 47.6 x 50.75 in (211.4 x 120.9 x 128.9 cm)
PAYLOAD CAPACITY: 575 lb (261 kg)
BRAKES (FNT & REAR): Single Lever 3-Wheel Hydraulic Disc with Hydraulic Rear Foot Brake
SUSPENSION - FRONT: High Clearance Arched Dual A-Arm 9 in (22.9 cm) Travel
SUSPENSION - REAR: High Clearance Arched Dual A-Arm, Rolled IRS, 10.25 in (26 cm) Travel
WHEELS & TIRES: 14”, 26 x 8 CST Front, 26 x 10 CST Rear
HITCH & TOWING: Standard 1.25 in (3.2 cm) Receiver, 1,500 lb (680.4 kg)
CARGO SYSTEM: Lock & Ride, 2 Cast Rack Extenders 4 Gal (15 L) Front, 2 Gal (8 L) Rear
INSTRUMENTION: All Digital Gauge, Speedometer, Odometer, Tachometer, Two Tripmeters, Hour Meter, Gear Indicator, Fuel Gauge, AWD Indicator, Volt Meter, Coolant Temperature, Hi-Temp Light, Clock, DC Outlet
RACK CAPACITY – Front and Rear: 120 lb (55 kg)/240 lb (110 kg)
POLARIS SPORTSMAN 850 SP PREMIUM ADDED FEATURES
WINCH: 3500 LB
FENDER FLARES: Standard
PAINT: Automotive quality
COLOR: Magnetic Grey Metallic
WHEELS: Cast Aluminum - 14”
RACK EXTENSIONS Standard – Front and Rear
850 SP MSRP: $ 11,199 U.S.
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