The Desert Mon­ster

The tough­est beach bug­gies you can get

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Contents -

On specs alone, the new Can-am Mav­er­ick X3 X RS is a car: a tur­bocharged and in­ter­cooled 115-kilo­watt en­gine, zero to 100 km/h in less than five sec­onds and a base price (in the USA) of R375 000. The 2 590-mil­lime­tre wheel­base is not much shorter than a Ford Fo­cus’s. And it’s 1,8 me­tres wide, slightly broader than a BMW 3 Se­ries. The only thing un-car-like about it is the sus­pen­sion travel, which tops out at 60 cen­time­tres. That’s the spec that de­fines how much per­mis­sion you have to try to catch air off a sand dune.

Over the years, ATVS have mu­tated from four- wheeled dirt bikes into in­creas­ingly out­ra­geous util­ity task ve­hi­cles (UTVS, aka. side-by-sides), ma­chines that are closer to a mod­ern pickup than the sin­gle-cylin­der Kawasaki Mo­jave I grew up rid­ing. Laws are chang­ing to re­flect this evo­lu­tion, with many ju­ris­dic­tions now al­low­ing you to drive them on the street. And while I would love to roll into a sub­ur­ban Wal­mart in the X3, I’m in Baja, Mex­ico, do­ing 140 km/h in a ve­hi­cle with no wind­screen on a sur­face with no tar.

That’s when the elec­tronic lim­iter steps in, com­pen­sat­ing for my heavy foot. Just as well. The lack of con­trast out in the desert can ob­scure ob­sta­cles that you don’t want to hit at 140, cows, boul­ders, gul­lies two me­tres deep. One mo­ment you’re try­ing to blink the sand out of your eyes, the next you’re drop­ping into a river bed at high­way speeds and brac­ing for im­pact.

It’s dan­ger­ous out here. At one point, I stop to let the dust clear and find my­self at a small memo­rial for Kurt Caselli, a mo­tor­cy­cle racer. He died three years ago when he hit some kind of large an­i­mal dur­ing the Baja 1000. I’m sud­denly thank­ful for the op­tional anti-in­tru­sion bars bolted across the wind­screen area of my X3. They’re de­signed to pro­tect you from that par­tic­u­lar brand of off-road peril.

I thought my group’s plan to reach Mike’s Sky Ranch, an off-the-grid ho­tel where they kill the gen­er­a­tor a half hour af­ter last call, be­fore sun­set was mildly in­sane. Ten of th­ese ma­chines, driven by a bunch of testos­terone- crazed lu­natics, were set­ting out to cover 400 kilo­me­tres at high speed across a moon­scape of ra­zoredged rocks, deep silt and blind hills. The first day, on a flat, empty beach that would’ve been crowded by man­sions were it a few hun­dred kilo­me­tres north, two of our posse flipped their X3s. (Les­son: when you want to spin a donut, put it in twowheel drive so that you don’t have too much grip.) But the ve­hi­cles and driv­ers were un­scathed. We heaved the ve­hi­cles right-side up and kept go­ing.

De­spite the wor­ries of my pas­sen­ger, who hap­pened to be the trav­el­ling me­chanic, the beach mishaps ended up be­ing the worst that hap­pened. “I nor­mally have an 18- wheeler full of spare parts,” he said. “Out here, if we break, we’re walk­ing.” At one point, lack­ing a jack, we changed a flat by lift­ing the cor­ner of the X3 off the ground. Other than a smat­ter­ing of tyre swaps and two bro­ken drive­belts, the ve­hi­cles sur­vived two long days of se­vere abuse. No­body ended up walk­ing.

The belt break­age was in­evitable. The X3’s CVT trans­mis­sion was de­vel­oped for the low-trac­tion, low-am­bi­ent-tem­per­a­ture world of snow­mo­biles, not for four­wheel-drive turbo desert bug­gies. There’s just too much power, too much trac­tion, too much weight, and too much heat. Yes, it’s an easy part to re­place out on the trail, but the me­chanic had hoped it wouldn’t be a prob­lem. Yamaha, by con­trast, has both man­ual and pad­dle-shift gear­boxes in its X3 com­peti­tor, the YXZ (see be­low), fur­ther ob­scur­ing the de­lin­eation be­tween UTV and civil­ian au­to­mo­bile.

A few years ago, I drove a lap in the Mint 400 desert race be­hind the wheel of a 150-kw cus­tom buggy. My co-driver that day, an ex­pe­ri­enced racer, de­ri­sively re­ferred to the side-by-sides as golf carts. As in, “Hurry up and pass this golf cart. We’re los­ing time.” Now? A Mav­er­ick X3 X RS, float­ing on its daddy-lon­glegs sus­pen­sion and rid­ing a wave of turbo torque, is de­ci­sively quicker point to point than that Mint race buggy. Which means that, strangely, th­ese pricey play­things are a good value. That would be a lot of money for a golf cart, but it’s a pretty sweet deal for a race car that you could drive to Wal­mart.


The wide stance pre­vents flipping in places you don’t want to flip. Like next to sheer cliffs in Mex­ico.

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