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Tested : Polaris Ranger off-road utility vehicle

Tested : Polaris Ranger off-road utility vehicle

By Motoring Writer Jacqui Madelin

At first I thought the $16,395 ($14,573.33 plus GST) Polaris Ranger TM was neither fish, flesh nor fowl. It's clearly not an ATV as we know it. Equally clearly it's not a normal ute. But it combines some of the more useful attributes of both, as I was soon to discover.

Polaris doesn't build cars, its wheeled products we see here in New Zealand are ATVs, and this offshoot. As a result the brand can put a lot of thought into producing something for almost every application. It's an approach that obviously works, since this US company is one of the largest sellers of ATVs in the world.

This test unit was a two-wheel-drive version, but there's a four-by-four and even one with six-wheel-drive. The 4x4 has been out since 2001, joined by this one last year; they look superficially similar, though the 4x4 has a full roll cage. It also has a different engine - the all-wheel-drive using the same liquid-cooled 499cc unit as the Magnum 500, but mated to the same 4WD system as the ATP. That means it's two-wheel-drive under normal operating conditions. Click a switch and the shaft still sends power to the rears until the system detects wheel slip, when it also engages the front wheels. But the magic bit for those not wanting to rip up the grass is the diff lock system that lets you unlock the rear diff, giving a much tighter turning circle without dragging a wheel.

But back to the test unit, which drives just the two rear wheels on their lockable diff. For a start, it's powered by an air-cooled 653cc, 18hp V-twin engine sourced from Fuji Heavy Industries, of Subaru fame. Polaris has a relationship with Fuji / Subaru spanning several decades, and has just elected the Japanese brand to its Polaris Hall of Fame.

The Fuji engine puts power to the wheels via PVT - Polaris Variable Transmission. If you've driven a CVT car you'll know the format. There are no steps between gears, instead a drive belt sliding up and down cones effectively gives you an almost infinite range of pull from bottom to top. That means you're always in the optimum range for power and economy, at least in theory. In fact these systems work pretty much as advertised, with the added benefit in this application of no hesitation between gear changes.

That's a bonus when you're hauling a heavy load, and this beast certainly can. At a 568.2kg payload capacity and a 454.5kg towing rating it'll carry just over a tonne. Plus your lunch in the nose-mounted boot (the engine's actually under the seat). Unloading? The tailgate drops and the 'no more rust' composite tray tips - couldn't be easier.

Unlike a conventional ATV this Ranger has a bench seat, with space and seatbelts for three slim people who like getting cosy, or two comfortably. It also has a conventional steering wheel. But you'd better be tall - my five-foot-six height meant I wished the bench slid forward. It doesn't, so if the Ranger fits your bill just slot a cushion behind you and you're sweet.

Bear in mind here that you're not going to be hooning around. This vehicle's designed for chugging about with heavy loads, not for speeding. It'll top out at 40kph, ample for work situations and certainly fast enough to round up the stock.

While the 4x4 probably has the most appeal in NZ - I'm told its climbing ability is amazing - the 2wd is likely to sell to orchards, vineyards and golf courses. And they needn't be that flat.

Slid behind the wheel, my cushion behind me, I was faced with a simple dash - little more than glovebox, steering wheel, lever for go, park or reverse; the key and choke. Oh yes, and there's an accessory socket to keep the cell phone (or Walkman) powered up. And an hour metre/fuel guage; you don't need a trip, few of these utes will cover big miles. Plus, ta daa! Two cup holders - yes, Polaris is an American company.

The footwells are simple, with the accelerator, brake and foot-activated mechanical park brake. Those stoppers are four-wheel hydraulic disc.

Once underway we chugged up and down surprisingly steep farm tracks, the 2wd hauling us around at a steady, ground-eating pace with the sort of purpose that suggested it'd happily do so all day. And do the same with a load aboard.

Ruts and rocks were dispatched with ease; ground clearance is 183mm, as much as some soft-roaders - Ford's all-wheel-drive Territory's got 178.

The front MacPherson strut suspension offers 117mm of travel, with 109 from the rear dual shock swingarm setup. Ride is comfortable too - there's minimal jolting and jouncing even when empty.

All in all you can see why this model's tagged the TM - or Task Master. And that's before you start ticking option boxes. Everything from roofs to brush mowers, winch kits to front-mounted ploughs is available.

The only downside I could find on my brief test was that long stretch to the pedals for shorties.

You do need a licence to drive the Ranger, but a standard A or B class one will do it.

Bearing in mind the 2wd version will take on moderately hilly terrain, it's likely to prove popular with those willing to save the more than $5000 difference between it and the 4x4. It's ideal for tasks that are too big for an ATV, but for which you don't need a conventional ute, and operation is child's play. So what if it ain't cool; it'll do the job, and more.

Pics: The Polaris Ranger off-road utility vehicle tackles farm and contracting tasks with ease.

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