DEMISE, COMPROMISE, THEN REVISE - Return of the Midsize
UPDATED FEBRUARY 26, 2017
I originally wrote this post one week before Arctic Cat released the 2018 ZR 200 Youth Trail snowmobile and also found out that Yamaha appears ready to release the new 2018 Yamaha SnoScoot. My previous blog discussed how major manufacturers have ignored the pleas of consumers for midsize products for their children - then Arctic Cat did what I didn't expect - they released a new midsize machine! And Yamaha appears poised to do the same! What is going on here?!
I decided it was only logical to revise my blog and include these new entries to the segment that has been long forgotten by major manufacturers. These new machines pack a minor jab in the power department, but a knockout punch for the midsize segment and snowmobiling kids everywhere. More on these new competitors in a bit...Rejoice!
Once upon a time, snowmobile manufacturers provided a host of models to fit a wide range of demographics. As the complexity of the technology increased, so did research, development and production costs of snowmobiles. Add in a horde of accountants screaming about cost cutting coupled with some tougher years for manufacturers and something had to give. Manufacturers decided phase out many midsize and smaller chassis machines to focus mainly on larger chassis with the flexibility to host a variety of engines and other options as these would give the best return on their dollars invested. What resulted was many years of model line ups where the youth segment was ignored and a drought of new midsize products ensued. Fast forward to today...and Arctic Cat triumphs with the return of the midsize sled and Yamaha appears ready to do the same!
A new snowmobile purchase from the major manufacturers until this week, would have required a child to jump right on to a full-size machine that offers a fullsize chassis with an engine size of 499 cc or greater which is more than the largest vintage sleds from back in the day! There are several less known Chinese manufacturers trying to cash in on the midsize market gap; however, with limited means for sales and parts distribution and a stereotype of questionable reliability from Chinese manufacturers for recreational products, success to break into the North American market has been limited in most areas for the Chinese midsize sled manufacturers. For the FCM Motor Company Phantom PD250, for example, I was not even able to find any online details of whether these machines are even still being made and distributed! The information does not seem readily available for anyone seeking one of these unless you troll used snowmobile sites like Kijiji or Autotrader.
Major manufacturers (Polaris, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo) continue to build small 120 cc 4-stroke snowmobiles for the smaller kids; however, most kids out grow these machines by the age of 5 or 6 years of age. The major manufacturers’ decision to ignore the midsize segment for such an extended period of time has significantly fuelled the mid-size “vintage” sled market.
VINTAGE/USED MIDSIZE SLEDS
My quest for a midsize sled began several years ago when my daughter outgrew her Arctic Cat 120 at the age of 6 years old and even with some upgrades such as a sprocket kit, to increase speed to around 30 kph, it was physically too small for her to ride and I needed to search for an alternative. I decided to look at 340 cc or less displacement machines of any vintage to see what was out there. The first machine I looked at was a 1998 Arctic Cat Puma with a 340 cc engine that was in mint condition. The owner was marketing it as a child’s snowmobile on kijiji. Once I got a closer look at this machine, I realized it was too big for my 6 year old to ride safely as this was a full-size sled chassis. That was when I realized that many of the later model 340 cc machines are actually built on full-size chassis!
[endif]--I decided that allowing my small children to pilot a vehicle that weighed in excess of 10 times their body weight did not seem like a recipe for success in my mind and I predicted an unhappy ending to that story. That would be the equivalent of an adult 200 lb male riding a 2,000 lb sled!!! No Yamaha jokes intended here…I know many may argue with me on allowing children to ride full-size machines and I am not looking for a fight here, only that there are more suitable options out there that would make it more safe and fun for the kids.
I did a lot of research in what characteristics I wanted in a kids sled and how best to get my kids into the sport and enjoy their time on their sleds. In my quest for a lightweight, smaller horse-powered, midsize snowmobile, I stumbled upon on the John Deere Spitfire built between 1978 and 1982. The Spitfire was a direct drive, all aluminum 275 lb midsize sled with a 340 cc free-air cooled Kohler engine. These machines do not have antifreeze or radiators to cool the engine, they do not have hydraulic brakes or oil injection tanks or chain cases filled with oil. The only fluid in these machines is gasoline mixed in a 50:1 ratio with 2-stroke oil. The machine was marketed towards women and teens in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and over 24,000 were built in North America. In addition to being a good candidate for a children’s midsize sled, these can be very collectable and the vintage John Deere snowmobile community is still going strong even after 35 since John Deere stepped away from the snowmobile industry.
The only problem with seeking vintage machines such as these is they can be hard to find in useable condition (especially in western Canada from my experience) and most have been destroyed and lay in fields in pieces or have been parted out. I posted a wanted ad on kijiji specifically looking for a running reasonable condition Spitfire in and around the Edmonton, Alberta area. That is when I found “Sparkie” in working condition but requiring a mild restoration to bring her to her current status. Surprisingly, parts were relatively easy to find locally through a new/used John Deere parts distributor in Leduc, Alberta (Center Point Performance – www.centerpointperformance.com).
This machine has proven extremely reliable over the 3 seasons we have owned it and the kids love it! They loved it so much I ended up buying another Spitfire (a 1979 model) for my son. “Sparkie” the Spitfire attracts serious attention wherever we go. It is lightly restored (not a trailer queen and not perfect by any means) but still hits all the trails every time we go out. Many riders come up and say, "I used to have one of those as a kid and wish I still had one".
Sorry off topic a bit there! What I am trying to say is don't rule out the older sleds thinking that they are unsuitable as their are so many cost effective options for kids midsize sleds out there. The older vintage sleds can be bought typically for much less than the cost of a newer 120 cc machine that you would be upgrading from and in my opinion much more useful. The 120's are great for familiarizing a kid with how a sled works and development of hand-eye coordination to build skills for driving larger sleds but that is about all...even with upgrades they aren't "typically" useful on trails for regular outings with the big sleds; however a midsize sled will change all that. Plus when you take the kids to ride after upgrading them to a midsize snowmobile, it allows you to ride solo so you can also have more fun!
You may have to do some research to make sure the sled you are purchasing is ready to hit the trails and understand the value of used snowmobiles taking into account their condition and potential problems. Alternatively, if you are up for a project, maybe look for a cheaper beat up machine that needs restoration to do as a project with your child or on your own. That is the route I have taken with my 6 year old son and his Spitfire – we purchased a non-running complete 1979 Spitfire and we are in the process of restoring it together…something a little boy will never forget!
Another factor to consider when contemplating the purchase of an older midsize sled is understanding the availability of new and used parts for that particular model. Do some research on the sled you are considering to ensure parts are still available for repairs and/or restoration. Where are the parts located? Can you get them locally or do they have them shipped from a cross the country or from out of the country? Can you get new parts, do you have to hunt for used parts or are there salvage yards you can get parts from?
If you are on the hunt for a used vintage machine or otherwise and aren't familiar with snowmobiles, it is probably a good idea to take someone along with you who has some understanding and familiarity with snowmobiles. I have been that guy a lot and honestly, happy to do it, cause I love looking at sleds! My wife loves it too because I get to go along to purchase a sled, spend “no” money and bring home “no” sleds! Alternatively, if you don’t have any snowmobiling friends available to look at a sled prior to purchase, you can make inquiries regarding what to look for on various models or what problems various snowmobile may have at various snowmobile forums, social media platforms, (Facebook or otherwise) and/or you are always welcome to visit www.SledZEROS.com and ask any questions in the SledZEROS Talk Zone under the “Help?/Restos/Mods/Builds”.
A summary of midsize snowmobiles I considered in my search are provided in Table 1 below along with the 2017 Tao Tao Snow Leopard, the 2018 Arctic Cat ZR 200 and the 2018 Yamaha SnoScoot. Please note these are only a few examples and "far" from an exhaustive list as there are “many” other options out there. Please feel free to share your favourites on our site as a comment to my blog post.
TABLE 1 - MIDSIZE SLED COMPARISON SPECIFICATIONS
* - long track model
** - no details available on other model years
*** - 4500 model only
^ - 4 stroke engine
na = not available
Details provided above may not be complete or fully accurate and are presented for comparison purposes only.
NEW MIDSIZE ARRIVALS
The new kids on the block include the 2017 Tao Tao Snow Leopard 200 and the all new "just" released 2018 Arctic Cat ZR 200 Youth Trail. The 2018 Yamaha SnoScoot has not to my understanding been officially released, but some details are available. Arctic Cat and Yamaha definitely has the upper hand in this game regardless of product quality and performance over Tao Tao. Tao Tao, a Chinese manufacturing company who's primary market for snowmobiles has been Russia, will have to overcome some stereotypes plaguing Chinese manufacturers relating to quality, building and maintaining a fleet of distributors for sales and parts, as well as build its brand in North America. Apparently there are some dealers popping up in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington and Colorado, but none I am aware of in Canada at this point.
The Snow Leopard hosts a slightly smaller 4 stroke engine than the other two new competitors (170 cc versus 192 cc in the Arctic Cat and 200 cc in the Yamaha); however, they are all marketed as a "200 Series" 4 stroke snowmobiles targeted at the youth segment. The Snow Leopard is rated at 8.4 hp verses the ZR200 at 9 hp and the Yamaha's 9.1 hp (claimed). It is suspected that all these machines will struggle against the two stroke midsize sleds referenced above; however the three together would likely have similar performance stats.
The Snow Leopard has a quirky look and some strange suspension, skid and ski arrangements which include single A-arm front suspension with shock assisted ski dampers. These unfamiliarities may put off some buyers as these features are not common on North America machines; however these sleds have been selling in Russia for several years and are supposedly built for more utilitarian purposes.
The Snow Leopard has a 94" track length verses the 93" track on the ZR 200 and a claimed 90" track length from Yamaha. Both the Yamaha and Arctic Cat will have 1 inch lugged tracks. Both the Arctic Cat and the Snow Leopard offer optional electric start and heated handle grips. Tao Tao indicates that the Snow Leopard has reverse; whereas there is no mention of reverse as an option on the Arctic Cat. Both machines claim a top speed exceeding 30 mph. Details of electric start, hand warmers and reverse were not readily available for the ScoScoot as of the posting date of this blog; however, it is suspected that features will be similar to those on the Arctic Cat model.
The pricing on the Snow Leopard is suggested at a retail price of $2,995. The ZR200 on the other hand comes in at $3,749 US and nearly $800 more. It is suspected that Yamaha will try and stay in a price point similar to that of Arctic Cat. The problem for Tao Tao may not be price of the Snow Leopard, but availability and proving a reliable distributor and parts network, something that Arctic Cat and Yamaha already have in place. I suspect that Arctic Cat and Yamaha will have success with their new entries to the midsize segment and that Tao Tao will struggle. It will be interesting to see if Polaris and Ski-Doo will throw their hats into the midsize arena in the next few years to offer competition. More details on Tao Tao Snow Leopard 200 and the Arctic Cat ZR200 Youth can be found at www.Taotao.us and www.articcat.com, respectively.
Arctic Cat has positioned the pricing for the new ZR200 in a good place in our opinion and we expect Yamaha to fall somewhere similar with the SnoScoot; however, if you compare this pricing to that of the vintage sleds, you could probably get 2 or 3 decent machines for the price of a new ZR200. If price is no object and you are looking for a reliable midsize sled for your child after the 120, the new ZR200 or the SnoScoot may be a great choice. On the other hand, if price is a concern, there are a host of great vintage midsize sleds as mentioned above that can fit the bill for much less money. The Snow Leopard may prove to be a capable competitor; however, we believe that Tao Tao will struggle with distribution and sales especially now that Arctic Cat and Yamaha have/will be re-entering the segment.
Hopefully you are successful at finding a reliable midsize snowmobile that your kids will enjoy over many winter seasons that gets them excited about outdoor winter adventures. Good luck with your quest for a midsize sled!
Chief Snowmobile Evangelist