The Desert Monster
The toughest beach buggies you can get
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.
I’M IN MEXICO DOING 140 IN A VEHICLE WITH NO WINDSCREEN ON A SURFACE WITH NO TAR