Arctic Cat’s 50/50 Crossover
We want to bring you up to speed on the Arctic Cat Riot 8000 we rode for 2,000 miles last winter. This was a brand new model for Arctic Cat, fitted with the latest version of their 800 two-stroke twin engine. If you recall what we told you about this sled almost a year ago, our spring testing of the sled was less than impressive and we had some serious doubts as to how the Riot would end up in production trim.
Arctic Cat took a dual-path with their Riot and Riot X models, trying to cover all bases with the Riot being more of the trail-oriented crossover sled where the Riot X was the more off-trail oriented crossover sled.
For several years now Polaris has enjoyed huge success with their AXYS-based 144” Switchback Assault. This is a wide front end machine fitted with a longer track of varying lug heights, so it is more of a trail sled with stable handling and a longer track for added flotation. For those looking for an even more off-trail capable version, they could migrate to the SKS 144”, a model that blends more RMK features with a narrower front end and taller lug track.
Ski-Doo had made the switch from 137” to 146” for their Renegade Backcountry models, but soon discovered the added length gave these machines their own identity so they dropped the Renegade portion of the name and went with the Backcountry name by itself. Instead of offering a wide Renegade front end for trail stability, Ski-Doo opted for a narrower front end to aid sidehilling and off trail agility. So, instead of being a long track trail sled like the Polaris Switchback Assault, they opted for more of an SKS approach but with a lower lug track, placing it more in-between the Assault and SKS models from Polaris.
So when we get to Arctic Cat, instead of chasing only Polaris or only Ski-Doo, they have opted to offer both versions – a long track trail sled in the Riot, and more of an off-trail biased sled with the Riot X, the key differences being in the steering post, front end width and track lug height. The Riot lined up nicely against the Switchback Assault, where the Riot X lined up nicely against the Backcountry and even the SKS models. Add in the different shock packages and track options offered by Arctic Cat and they covered most all of the bases in this category.
Seeing how we typically do more forest road riding than we do true off-trail riding we ordered a Riot 8000 for testing last winter. We opted for the QS3 shock package and the 1.6” Cobra track, added a functional windshield, skid plate, SLP skis and an Up North Technologies LinQ Adapter so we could carry our trusty Fuel Caddy and LinQ cargo bag. From what we could tell it was as close to a true 50/50 crossover sled as Arctic Cat has ever offered. We also had a Ski-Doo Backcountry X 850 and a couple of Switchback Assaults for comparison, an 850 and an 800.
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How did the Riot compare to the Switchback Assault, the true competition in this segment? The Riot does not have a tipped up rail so on hard packed trails it still feels like a 146” track sled, tending to push far more in the corners than what a Switchback Assault does. In this manner, it is closer to the Ski-Doo Backcountry sleds that have minimal tip-up at the rear of their rails.
Through the bumps the new rear suspension was very impressive, far better than the pre-production sleds we rode last spring. Arctic Cat had been making a 146” torsion spring suspension for some of their Crosstour sleds, but this new Cross Action rear suspension, while sharing some elements, was truly a new rendition designed specifically for this application. Key elements were the Slide Action front arm and Torque Sensing Link (upper rear arm pivot) that were not found on the XF 141” models in the past delivering a huge difference in both design and function. The ride comfort exceeded that of the Switchback Assault but it did not approach that of the cMotion rear in the Backcountry X, hands down.
Going back to the handling of the Riot we found not having a tipped up rail was a bigger factor than the added length. The Riot does not handle or respond like a Switchback Assault on packed trails but it is more stable than a Backcountry (X or X-RS) with the wider front end. So once again it was, in many ways, in between the character of the Assault and Backcountry models that are the primary competition in this segment. We found it was not as much of a trail sled as a Switchback Assault and not as much of an off trail sled as a Backcountry, so maybe that’s their formula to call it a true 50/50. We ran it in wide and narrow widths, depending on what the snow as like, to best suit the riding. If it had the tipped up rails it would be even better. We compensated with a set of Straight Line Tracking skis from SLP which greatly helped.
One thing we all noticed riding it back to back with the other crossover sleds is how big, or wide, the Riot felt. Polaris only makes two-strokes so they have a narrow platform. Ski-Doo has a narrow Gen4 platform for their two-strokes and a wide Gen4 for their four-strokes. Arctic Cat uses the same platform for both two- and four-strokes so the Riot, fitted in a platform big enough to accommodate a four-stroke, felt bigger, which it was. A couple of our riders said it felt like the Yamaha X-TX but with less power, as it was in the same 146” platform.
Then there was the “revised C-TEC2 8000 Series 2-stroke” engine. After only two years of production, the DSI 800 was updated and revised to a semi-direct injection system. Curiously, the C-TEC2 twin was still an 800 (794cc) instead of growing in displacement to better compete with the 850s from Polaris and Ski-Doo. While similar to the DSI version, the revised engine featured new cylinders, pistons, combustion chamber, flywheel and fuel rail, plus a new fuel calibration strategy that delivers cleaner and more responsive performance, with improved fuel economy and torque. Arctic Cat continues to describe it as being in the “165 HP class of engines” but there was really no power gain over the previous DSI engine as it was fitted with the same exhaust system as the DSI engine used as a cost-saving measure.
Again, where the pre-production sleds we rode last spring were not that impressive the production engine was awesome. Where the calibration was not yet final and the running quality was not up to production standards on the pre-production sleds we had rode and reported on, the production sled we had for 2,000 miles delivered exceptional running quality and the calibration gave us nothing to complain about. It’s definitely not 165 HP, but it is a solid package. Of course, the revised engine also delivered increased efficiency and – the key reason for the change – reduced emissions. At the end of the day this translated to increased range from a tank of fuel, something many of us value highly, where others would far rather have all of the power instead. Emissions targets must be met to remain legal for sale, so that is the priority of the manufacturer in this instance.
The ingredients are all here for an outstanding crossover sled, and the final versions were delivered in a far more refined state than what we reported on one year ago. When we report on brand new sleds we have to tell you how they work in pre-production form, and when the actual production models work better we have an obligation to update our position and tell you what we experienced. The engine ran exceptionally well. Yes, it’s only an 800 but out riding them in the real world it’s not like the 850s have that much more. Out in the mountains the M 8000 sleds have such good driveline efficiency that they are right there with the 850s in most situations. Not being an 850 isn’t that big of a deal out on the snow, it is a bigger deal in many rider’s minds than it is in reality.
Off trail we flogged this thing, hard. I mean real hard. The deepest snow of the year we had this sled out and rode it like an M 8000, forcing it to break trail and really find out how good of a deep snow sled it was. Considering it had a 1.6” Cobra track this thing really did get around. Granted, the Backcountry X was a better sled in this extreme but the Riot performed admirably.
So what’s not to like about the Riot? Well, we need to be honest here. First ride out we thought this was the worst rear suspension we’d ever been on, but after seeing how the QS3 clicker did nothing for us we soon determined the front torque arm shock didn’t have any nitrogen charge and was only riding on the spring. After installing a new front arm shock it was a completely different machine.
Then at about mile 500 we grabbed the brake lever and it went all the way to the bars. Yep. Being a dirt bike rider I am familiar with how the pads and piston can get pushed back when you pull a wheel off and re-install it but forget to pump the brakes back up, so when the brake lever went to the bars I pumped it a few strokes and got the brakes back. Luckily I had time and space to do this. But it was un-nerving. We immediately stopped and did a quick inspection, the fluid level was good and there didn’t seem to be any leaks. The brakes seemed to be holding at that time, so we continued, cautiously. Not much further when the brakes were again needed I pulled the lever and once again to the bars, but again it came back with a couple of strokes. I rode it this way back to camp where we got the sled thawed out and found the cause – the circlip that holds the brake disc to the driveshaft had broken, allowing the disc to wander back and forth on the shaft which in turn pushed the pads and piston away from the disc, requiring several pumps to get it back.
But…..in the process of looking for this we also found broken exhaust springs down in the bottom of the belly pan, and upon further inspection we discovered the belly pan and skid plate was all melted around the exhaust outlet. Knowing how we had just flogged the living crap out of the sled in the deep snow, we wondered if that was enough to get the exhaust that hot to melt that much, but then seeing the broken exhaust springs we surmised the missing springs allowed an exhaust leak which could cause the sled to retard the ignition timing which would create a huge amount of heat in the exhaust which would melt the plastic around the outlet. Or so we figured, it was our best theory. Our dealer agreed.
We loaded the Riot up and back to the dealer it went who fixed it all up for us (again) under warranty. When we got it back it we discovered injection oil collecting under the sled as it had also melted an oil line. Back to the shop again it went to replace the leaking oil line. The sled was pretty much down and out of service for about a month. It then took maybe another 1,400 miles for the brakes to again quit working (broken clip on the drive shaft) and more broken exhaust springs which again melted the plastic around the exhaust outlet. Upon seeing this we parked it, knowing we wouldn’t get it back before the end of March.
Performance-wise the 2020 production Riot 8000 exceeded our expectations after what was a somewhat dismal experience with the pre-production test sleds we rode in February of 2019. The engine and rear suspension were far better in final calibration. The Riot didn’t quite handle as good as a Switchback Assault but it was an excellent trail sled, with the biggest difference coming from the lack of a tipped up rail as it would push more in the corners. The ride quality was better than the Switchback Assault but not as compliant as the Ski-Doo Backcountry X. The sled feels big compared to the competition, but having an 800 engine instead of an 850 seems to be less of an issue out in the snow than it does in people’s minds. The deep snow performance was exceptional, not as agile as the Backcountry but almost as easy to tip up as the Assault.
The 2021 Riot 8000 returns with few if any changes as the Riot X is the model that gets the rework after only one season, now fitted with the Alpha monorail and a whopping 2.6” lug track, making it even more of an off-trail sled and far less of an on-trail sled, to the point that calling it a “crossover” sled is now becoming a stretch. Either way, if the reliability issues don’t take you down the 2021 Riot riders should be pleased with their new scooter this winter.
By Kevin Beilke