YAMAHA: Two-Strokes You-re Out!?

Yamaha wasn’t the first to the modern four-stroke snowmobile market, as that accolade belongs to Arctic Cat; however, they were the first to deliver a high performance variant of a four-stroke snowmobile in 2003 with the introduction of the RX-1 powered by a 4 cylinder 998 cc engine derived from their R1 motorcycle line. It was then that Yamaha decided to phase out the popular two-stroke machines from their line up and replace them with various four-stroke options. Snowmobilers have been arguing ever since about which technology is better: the two-strokes or the four-strokes.

In recent years, the snowmobile market has been fuelled by consumer demand for lighter, more powerful snowmobiles and two-stroke machines are in a far better position to win that battle. Polaris, Ski-Doo and Arctic Cat have really stepped up their two-stroke line-ups for 2017-2018 with two stroke engines that are more powerful, have better response and claim better reliability and efficiencies than ever before. Yamaha on the other hand, has continued to focus on their four-stroke line up and is determined to prove to consumers that the mountains are not just for two-stroke sleds. The stigma is growing however – a majority of riders insist on the lighter two-stroke machines when things get steep and deep. Yamaha appears to be loosing market share to other manufacturers that offer both two-stroke and four-stroke options.

There were many that believed that for the 2018 model line up (Yamaha’s 50th Anniversary), Yamaha would come out with a bang and introduce a line of two-stroke powered machines once again – many Yamaha enthusiasts were disappointed with the refresh and upgrades to the existing sled line up, which includes some decent updates to the Sidewinders and Viper models and even some new technology for the aging Apex, which I understand is making its final season debut for Yamaha in 2018.

The potential for a serious two-stroke offering from Yamaha seems valid given that their development of High Pressure Direct Injection (HPDI) has proven very reliable in the production of two-stroke outboard motors with impressive performance and efficiency ratings coupled with the release of a single 2-stroke powered snowmobile model for 2017 (VK540 Utility Snowmobile). A big bore two-stroke, long track model from Yamaha utilizing their HPDI technology that could keep company with the likes of the Ski-Doo 850 Summits/Freerides, Polaris AXYS 800 PRO-RMKs and the Arctic Cat M8000 Sno Pros, would be a scary proposition to the other major players.

So where does this leave Yamaha? Can Yamaha continue to compete solely offering four-stroke snowmobiles in a market where two-stroke technology continues to steal market share and customers seem to be focusing on lightweight manoeuvrability over the promise of reliability? Do they need to dive back into the two-stroke arena to stay relevant? Enthusiasts alike could stand around for eternity and debate whether Yamaha needs a two-stroke option or not…

I absolutely believe, as many others do, that if Yamaha delivered a two-stroke line up for 2019, it would be welcomed with much fan fare. They would likely win back many customers who simply couldn’t find what they were looking for in the current Yamaha line up. The problem with this strategic move is that is would likely be a huge blow to all the investment and technological advancements in four-stroke snowmobile design dating back as far as 2003 with the introduction of the RX-1. This would be the beginning of the end of four-stroke technology if the main promoter of the technology decided to offer alternatives.

I believe Yamaha aims to stick to their guns and focus on honing and innovating four-stroke technologies and implementing them into snowmobile platforms. I also believe that they could find success and even dominance in this approach if they play their cards right.

The answer for Yamaha to win back the mountain segment and other two-stroke converts is not further innovation of the Sidewinder nor any other existing platform…it’s a change in mind set and chassis focus! The future for Yamaha is to create a new platform that utilizes the existing 4-stroke technological advancements and marries them to a lighter more deliberate platform: “A DEDICATED, NARROW-CHASSIS, MONO-SKI PLATFORM (DNMP)”.

You are probably wondering why I say, “dedicated, narrow-chassis, mono-ski, platform” verses “snowbike”. I say this because the mainstream market has struggled with the overall acceptance of snowbikes and conversion kits – yes they have a “strong” niche market and demand is growing, but not at a pace that has been convincing enough for manufacturers to take any major focus off of their existing direction with mountain sleds. For guys who ride dirt bikes and others who are more adventurous, snowbikes are a fantastic advancement. For the rest of the snowmobile crowd who simply want machines that are reliable, powerful, light and capable of going most places and being super fun without the build up of a dirt bike to a snowbike and the set up and all the headaches, it can overwhelm and is easier to stick with the familiar.

There was the AD Boivin Snow-hawk, released back in 2002 and would be considered a DNMP; however, it never reach full potential as I believe it was just not the right timing in the market. Arctic Cat is toying with this idea on a mild level with the limited release 2017 SVX 450 Snowbike, which is a “dedicated” snowbike, not to be confused with wheeled dirt bikes converted to snowbikes. Sadly, in this case, the Arctic Cat’s offering still very closely resembles a dirt bike, but likely offers some advantages over dirt bike conversions due to its dedicated design for snow use only. Polaris also believes that there is potential in this market as they purchased Timbersled Products, a snowbike conversion kit manufacturer, back in 2015.

The current mainstream snowmobile platform has remained unchanged for decades and has pretty much been standardized since the late 1960’s to include a chassis with the engine mounted in front connected to a solid tunnel and two skis up front with a track underneath connected to the motor via a belt engaged clutching system. Yes advancements in the design have been incredible over the years and much has changed but the basic shape and function remain similar. The key to building a lighter snowmobile is to utilize lighter, stronger materials and eliminate non-essentials. Why have two skis when one could work just fine? Why have two sets of a-arms and suspension, if you don’ t need to? It’s a redundancy! Two skis and two sets of suspension add weight as well as width to a machine. Why not narrow the chassis (as in a snowbike design)? Yes I fundamentally understand that larger engines also add width to a machine, but maybe there are ways to work around this, such as a different engine mounting strategy and a different clutching or power transfer method. That’s what engineering and design is all about! Lastly, make it a dedicated chassis to ride on snow! Snowmobile buyers will spend the money to buy a machine dedicated to snow travel so give them one! Designing it as a dedicated chassis should allow for more streamlining and strength in design. Anytime something is modified from one use to another, there is compromise…lay out a dedicated chassis and focus on building a chassis that is super light weight, strong and handles well.

Lets not forget about all the other technologies Yamaha has in various markets that they could tap into for a project such as this. Yamaha’s experience in the motorcycle industry could really make some traction on chassis and drivetrain development. If you could marry a significantly lighter, narrower, mono-ski chassis to the latest turbocharged 998 cc Yamaha 4-stroke engine with great climbing and handling attributes, could this not be a two-stroke mountain sled slayer? Think of the horsepower to weigh ratio! I absolutely think it would be and would love to see Yamaha go in this direction as it may revive their dominance on the mountain.

Yamaha understands the need to step up their game and gain back some market share as they have now moved their worldwide snowmobile headquarters into Canada. The idea is that this move will allow them to more intensely focus on the technology they will deliver to snowmobile consumers and the industry as a whole. A good move in my opinion! We can only hope they will make some smart decisions about how to get more competitive in the industry and maybe, just maybe, they will consider the option I have outlined above and take it to the next level. I would buy one!


Chief Snowmobile Evangelist


About Aaron

An avid snowmobile and automotive enthusiast.  He's passionate to share his experiences, discuss topics of interest and to hear from other enthusiasts just like him.

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