Exclusive Insight on Catalyst Design from Arctic Cat Engineering
Since the first teasers and early reveal of Catalyst, Arctic Cat has been pretty sparing with the details of their future snowmobile platform. Like everyone else, we were anxious to learn more.
So this fall, Mountain Sledder spoke with Mountain Snowmobiles Engineering Manager at Arctic Cat, Andy Beavis. Beavis has been working on mountain sleds for Arctic Cat since 1999, and when he talks about sleds, it’s not marketing-speak. From Beavis, we hoped to learn more details about the platform from an engineering and design standpoint.
Beavis was able to provide us some deeper insight into how the new platform has been engineered from scratch with the intention of producing the lightest snowmobiles available, without sacrificing Arctic Cat’s commitment to durability and reliability.
Insight on Arctic Cat Catalyst Design
Development Timeline of Catalyst
One of the first questions people ask about Catalyst is how long Arctic Cat engineers have been working on the new platform.
Part of that story is that it has only recently become known within the walls of Arctic Cat as Catalyst, since the public naming suggestion period closed and the name was chosen and revealed in early September. Prior to the contest, like all Arctic Cat developments, Catalyst had a code name to help keep the lid on things. We’ve been asked not to reveal that name, but we can say that it was quite fitting!
Okay, so how long had Arctic Cat been working on the code-named project before it was officially badged Catalyst and revealed to the world?
Beavis explains that Arctic Cat was testing Catalyst sleds in the current configuration on snow last winter, and even the prior two winters before in earlier prototype form. Some of the systems have been tested on the Ascender platform as far back as five or six years ago. More on that further in the story.
So the answer is that Catalyst has been in development for several years, and not just on paper, but as a real vehicle on snow for nearly three full seasons now.
By the time we spoke with Beavis in late September, the sleds were getting very close to the finalized product, even though the three Catalyst sleds displayed at Hay Days (one each of mountain, trail and crossover segment sleds) were still in prototype form at the time, he said.
To make the sleds available for display at the ‘Official Start to Winter’, Arctic Cat used a combination of brand new parts, like the tunnels and a-arms, and a number of real test parts that were run last winter, including some of the bodywork that was cleaned up and painted to give a good impression of what the production sleds will look like in finished form.
Beavis explains that the tooling for the new platform was actually complete for the most part by the time of our conversation, with just a few small changes still being finalized at the time.
So while the Catalyst sleds were not quite 100% finalized at the time, they were close enough to make a splash at Hay Days with the first physical tease of the new platform.
For early this winter, Arctic Cat plans to have all the parts built so that sleds for marketing, media and engineering purposes will use all production quality parts by that time, in preparation for manufacturing to commence in Thief River Falls when the time comes.
All New Design for Catalyst
People like to say that Arctic Cat mountain sleds have been the same for a decade, but that’s an untrue and unfair conviction.
Over the lifespan of the Arctic Cat Ascender platform (which precedes Catalyst and was first released in 2012), Beavis points out that pretty much everything that could be was either changed or improved upon. Between model years 2012 to 2023, Arctic Cat changed engines, drive systems, suspension, structure, fuel tanks, running boards, controls—you name it. There are very few part numbers or systems that still are in use from 2012. Yet the appearance of the sled was fairly consistent over that span, which surely fuelled some of the criticism.
But beyond the customer demand for a new platform, Arctic Cat had another incentive to start from scratch on the platform of the future—one that stemmed from an engineering limitation.
Beavis explains that the Ascender platform was designed from the start to take a wide range of engine packages, given that Arctic Cat was wrapping up its engine supply agreement with Suzuki, developing its own 2-stroke engine, and later, joining forces with Yamaha to implement their 4-stoke powerplants.
Naturally, with such a wide range of powerplants needing to be housed in one package, there were compromises necessary in that early design to make the chassis adaptable to such a range of engine packages at the time.
And since the Arctic Cat engineering team had improved most of the systems in the Ascender platform already, it was time to start all over from the ground up—this time with a focus on a lightweight, mass centralized design housing Arctic Cat’s propriety powertrain systems and drawing heavily on the DNA of Ascender that had already been proven successful.
Catalyst just had to be lighter, tighter, cleaner, with fewer parts and less weight.
Centralized Design Philosophy
We’ve all heard a lot by now about how the new platform uses centralized mass for better handling, but not much about how that’s been achieved.
In order to lower and centralize the mass of the sled for better control and handling, Beavis explains that everything needed to be repositioned in the new chassis. For Catalyst, a big part of satisfying this philosophy involves moving the engine lower and placed closer to the rider and positioning the fuel in a more centralized location. This necessitated the design of a new tunnel, bulkhead and engine layout—the core of the new platform.
The result is an engine laid down and back tighter than it ever has been before in an Arctic Cat sled. This has likewise allowed Arctic Cat to centralize a lot of the weight by placing the fuel tank in what they consider to be the most desirable position—up front, over the jackshaft and centred in the sled—where Beavis says Arctic Cat’s competition typically has low mass throttle bodies and airboxes located instead.
The Use of Lightweight and Strong Composite Materials
One of the ways the Arctic Cat engineering team has made the Catalyst platform as strong and lightweight as possible is through the implementation of injection molded, long-fibre composite materials in a few key areas.
In our conversation, Beavis points to the Torque Control Link (TCL) as an example of one of the systems that uses a composite material. The long-fibre composite technology was championed largely by one of Arctic Cat’s managers, Ben Langaas, who wrote his Master’s degree on composite technology and its application for this very part.
The composite TCL was developed for use in Catalyst, but since the carbon-nylon part was tested and validated early on, the team decided to use it ahead of schedule in the Ascender platform in 2021.
The actualized success of the composite TCL through testing, validation, production and real world use proved to Arctic Cat the value of finding other ways to use the technology on a wider basis.
Beavis says that while the TCL uses a carbon composite, the use of a fibreglass composite material is actually more commonly used in the platform. The fibreglass composite has more ductility and is more forgiving before it breaks than a carbon composite does.
One of the benefits of the long-fibre (which uses 1/2 in. or longer strands, as opposed to just little chunks chopped up) is great strength-to-weight and toughness. This plays out in the new running boards on the Catalyst platform, which are the most visible example of composite materials use. Beavis says the thermoplastic base allows good flexibility and ductility along with great strength. The flexibility allows ice to break away from the running boards better than if they were really rigid. They’re also easily replaceable, which is a unique feature.
Beavis says their testing team has not failed any composite running boards yet from use in testing, while the current model metal running boards have historically failed in some instances from heavy impacts with objects like rocks and stumps.
The rear kickups are also one of the long-fibre composite material parts, and they are structural. They tie in the running board edge tube, which goes down to the rear suspension bracket and into the side of the tunnel. They are integral to the strength of the chassis, but again are easy to replace and separate from the running boards themselves.
The running boards inserts are common, but the different between the ZR and the mountain sleds is that the running board plate insert is repositioned wide (trail) and narrow (mountain), depending on the application.
Beavis says that the tunnel blank is pretty common between a 154 mountain chassis and a 137 ZR for example, but there is a stout reinforcing bracket that goes between the front and rear mounting points of the skidframe that connects the side of the tunnel to the edge of the running board. That allows Arctic Cat to have all the different suspension positionings, but it is also used as a unique way of mounting the running boards wider for a ZR and narrower for a mountain sled.
So on a mountain chassis, the running board insert sits tight up against the tunnel. On the ZR, the suspension bracket has a wedge that allows the running board to be positioned more than an inch wider and tapered to the same point at the back where it ties into the rear kickup.
It has a different outer tube and a different suspension bracket on the inside of the tunnel and a different toe stop closeout gusset at the front of the running board which accommodates a different drive position, drive system clearance, foot rest width, and so forth as needed for the application.
Long story; short: Arctic Cat is creating design, manufacturing and ultimately cost efficiencies in the new platform by using some of the same lightweight parts in different positions for different applications of the same platform.
Why No 800+ Displacement Engine?
This question is probably the reason why you’re here, reading this.
The announcement that the Catalyst platform will initially be released with a 600-class engine only, naturally raised many questions for sledders, especially mountain riders. Why no big bore 800+ class engine? If nothing new, then why not at least the current 165 h.p. 8000 C-Tec2 that was first released back in MY2018?
If you consider the competition, releasing a new platform with an existing engine is not an uncommon way to do things. Within the last two years, Ski-Doo, Lynx and Polaris have all released new platforms (REV Gen5, Radian2 and MATRYX respectively) that make use of current engines (Rotax 850 E-TEC and 850 Patriot).
Beavis acknowledges that the development team has tested the initial Catalyst platform concepts with the full spectrum of current and in-development engine configurations. He testifies that the concept sleds, stuffed with the current 8000 C-Tec2, flat out rip. So why not release the sled with the current 800 cc engine to start (or at least in the mountain segment where a 600-class sled is deemed by the vast majority to be under-powered), like the competition has done?
The difference is that Ski-Doo, Lynx and Polaris engines all have a ’50’ after the ‘8’ in their engine names.
Which makes the practical, albeit unpopular, answer here that when a manufacturer is developing a new platform design from scratch, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to design it around an engine such as the 8000 C-Tec2, that, while not particularly aged, is already on the low end of the displacement spectrum and is seen by many as uncompetitive for that reason.
For a manufacturer to invest many millions of dollars into developing and producing a completely new platform, it must stand the test of time and be highly competitive and relevant for many years. Beavis says that although Arctic Cat feels their 800 cc engine is still competitive, the message from the media, marketing and customer feedback is that Arctic Cat needs a bigger displacement to keep pace.
He concedes that Arctic Cat could have made changes to the mounting, intake, exhaust and calibration to make the existing 8000 C-Tec2 work in the Catalyst platform for mass production, but that effort would consume millions of dollars of engineering time that could be better spent on a new motor to go with the new chassis, built together from the ground up. When viewed that way, the decision to design a chassis and engine in conjunction is the only practical choice.
In short, when designing a new chassis, don’t waste time and money making it fit an old engine.
So if there is a new, bigger bore 800+ cc displacement engine coming, why then not in the first year of the new platform?
The answer is simple: It’s just not ready. Again, this speaks to Arctic Cat’s long view on the matter—the new engine must be competitive for a long time, so make it good and right the first time and don’t rush it.
But in the meantime, the fact remains that Arctic Cat customers have been clamouring for something new for years, and Arctic Cat wants to deliver, now.
Imperfect as it may be for Cat to do it this way, it adds up, and we’re willing to wait a year for a truly capable mountain sled if the reward is a perfectly-mated chassis and powerplant, designed together from the start.
So What About the 600 Engine Then?
Will the powerplant released in the Catalyst sleds for model year 2024 be the current 6000 C-Tec2, or something completely new?
The answer is neither. The 600-class engine used for the initial release of the Catalyst platform will be an evolved version of the C-Tec2, with some of the updates coming over from the newer 8000 and even the most recent 4000 C-Tec2 engine that make them run better and cleaner.
The updated 600 will use the same long block. The crankcase, cylinders and pistons are all unchanged. However it will use a new crankshaft (with the same stroke), stator ignition system, electronics, servo motor, control systems, fuel mapping, intake and exhaust. These improvements will give the modernized 600 a new life that will carry on into the foreseeable future.
With those updates confirmed, Arctic Cat engineers are all hands on deck on a new, bigger displacement engine to come—information about which has not yet been made public and remains safely guarded at this point. You can probably bet it has a code name though!
So while the majority of mountain riders aren’t too keen on 600-class powerplants in their mountain sleds, they do work very well in other segments like trail and crossover. Regardless, all of Arctic Cat’s 600-class sleds for model year 2024 will be built on the new platform, including the mountain sleds.
Catalyst Platform Design Driven from Mountain Perspective
Beavis points out that most of the features, systems and bodywork design on the Catalyst platform was driven from the perspective of functionality for the mountain segment first and foremost. From there, the body panels and other parts are adapted to other applications, for example with greater wind protection for the trail segment and so forth.
To approach the new design this way makes perfect sense to us at Mountain Sledder of course! But it’s a valid argument that mountain sleds face the highest performance demands of all segments (excluding perhaps snocross), and so a cross-platform chassis should rightfully be designed to handle the demands of mountain first and adapted elsewhere as needed to optimize for those other segments.
A key design consideration for all applications is not only tight bodywork, but a focus on rider ergonomics and making sure that the fuel tank, console, shin and knee areas provide the most freedom to move around the vehicle while riding, regardless of segment. The body needed to be wrapped around the ADAPT clutches, which are another example of a Catalyst designed part that was ready early and put into production on the MY2022 sleds.
Over the years of the Ascender mountain chassis in particular and leading into the release of the ALPHA ONE in MY2019, Arctic Cat engineering put a lot of effort into getting to where Beavis says they felt the rider/chassis balance was dialed in. On the Catalyst mountain, many of the things the development team has learned over the years is applied to the new chassis design—like where the suspension is in relation to driveshaft for example, and where the rider interface with the sled is positioned, including seat, feet, handlebars, etc. The team felt that they had landed in the right spot with the Ascender chassis, and the goal was to not discard any of the lessons learned from the prior generation while moving forward.
That said, there are changes to the geometry in some places, which Beavis points out.
Arctic Cat basically completely redesigned the front suspension on the Ascender platform back in 2016, and they’re happy with what they feel is a sweet spot they’ve found in for handling in sidehilling and all-round backcountry riding.
Still, some changes have been made. Arctic Cat has moved the spindle relative to the ski slightly—not as extreme as some of the aftermarket options, such as the Ice Age Elevate kit for example, and for different reasons—mostly as a way to increase suspension travel at the front of the skid. Beavis explains that simply raising the bulkhead height of the sled runs contrary to what engineering is trying to accomplish, which is to improve the handling for all riders by lowering and centralizing the mass in Catalyst. This move was also made in part to redefine the pickup points inside, not to simply increase the height of the sled.
That said, the a-arm to ski bolt height has been increased slightly, and the top ball joint to lower ball joint height decreased by just under two inches, necessitating the development of a new spindle.
Of course everything had to be re-balanced as a result, but the motion geometry—including the bump steer, the scrub, the caster and the camber—is largely similar to what’s on the Ascender platform.
In the rear suspension, most of the suspension layout is the same, although the team moved some of the linkages around to help actuate the shocks a little farther and differently than in the current mountain platform.
Function vs Style Considerations
We asked Beavis about how much of the new design consideration was given to function, like weight loss for example, compared to new styling.
“Everything has been looked at for lightweight consideration,” says Beavis. “Our intention is lightest in the industry, without sacrificing any of our Arctic Cat durability that we’ve become known for.”
Beavis points to the spindles as a prime example of Arctic Cat’s goals for the new platform. At a glance, the spindles have a new, stylish look to them that is almost anatomical in form. But most importantly the spindles are a super functional part, especially when sidehilling and pushing the sled through snow, and that is the primary focus.
“The mountain spindle is actually one of my favourite parts on the new sled,” says Beavis. “It’s just one part, but it looks the part, it acts the part, it does everything we need it to do and it happens to look cool—which is kind of just a freebie.”
The new mountain spindle design is tapered for strength where it is needed, and it is narrower, with less mass outside the ball joint and more tucked behind.
We are reminded that Arctic Cat’s mountain development team is guided by someone with their finger firmly on the heartbeat of mountain riders when we ask about the tug-of-war between engineering and styling in mountain sled development. Beavis cuts to the chase with his response: “It has to work. If it doesn’t work, they won’t give a s*** [what it looks like]. If it works, AND it looks cool, they’re not going to complain. [But] it has be to reliable, it has to do what you want it to do.” Indeed.
Going back to the example of the spindle, it was intensely scrutinized for weight and packaging, and the styling just sort of went along for the ride.
One-Piece Tunnel Design and Heat Exchange System
The Catalyst platform uses a one-piece tunnel, which is a departure from the two-piece tunnel design that Arctic Cat owners are used to seeing on the Ascender.
At first the design team had some misgivings about eliminating the two-piece tunnel with the replaceable rear section, which, given how they can be sometimes prone to damage, was sort of a sacrificial part thanks to Arctic Cat’s use of a front tunnel heat exchanger.
However, with a shorter tunnel and the new design, the new one-piece tunnel is both lighter and stronger than it was before. And now being shorter, the likelihood of damage is significantly reduced, and this has been experienced by the Arctic Cat team in their on snow testing of the new platform.
Some customers have expressed concerns about the use of a one-piece tunnel and its serviceability, but Beavis explains that the new tunnel can be replaced almost as easy as just the rear section of the two-piece tunnel on the Ascender platform could.
The new one-piece tunnel attaches behind the drive system, so the complete drive system can stay in the sled when the tunnel is being swapped. All that must be done is removal of some bolts, the fuel tank (which is easier than it sounds) and just about as many rivets as there was in the rear section of the Ascender alone.
So the new one-piece tunnel is replaceable, significantly stronger that it was before and because it is much shorter, much more difficult to bend or break. “Strong, light and serviceable,” Beavis calls it. The only real catch is that the tunnel has the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on it, which adds an unavoidable bureaucratic hurdle to the swap.
The front-mounted heat exchanger is a similar concept to what’s on the Ascender. Beavis points to Arctic Cat’s long history in experimenting with the front-mounted heat exchange design as far back as the M7 days in the late-2000s before it was first implemented into production sleds on the HCR models back in 2014. The touted benefits are proven: lower weight from snow and ice buildup in the tunnel and better clearance.
But like most of the Catalyst platform, the cooling system uses all new parts to maximize the efficiencies of the new design, including the main heat exchanger pieces, the tunnel extrusion and the side plates that close off the heat exchanger and help mount the drive system to the chassis. The design team experimented with redesigned extrusions for more coolant flow and better heat rejection, but even along with some other changes like bottle location and inlets and outlets, the heat exchange system ultimately looks and behaves with similar effectiveness.
Tracks and Drivers
The drive positions on Catalyst are different between the mountain and ZR sleds, with the mountain position being lower to accommodate tracks with larger paddles.
The Catalyst platform will continue to provide room for a 3” lugged track stuffed into the tunnel, with provision for a full-size driver, as they have done since 2017 with the longer drop case in the Mountain Cat. The full-size driver, along with the large rear wheel in the skidframe, is key to reducing rolling resistance, and is one of the few carryover parts from the Ascender platform. Beavis points to the Arctic Cat philosophy that the bigger the paddle, the bigger the driver you need, because tracks with 3” paddles don’t particularly like to bend.
The 7-tooth driver used with the 3.5” pitch Powerclaw track (154” x 3” and 165” x 3”) is roughly the same diameter as the 8-tooth driver used with the 2.86” pitch track (146” x 2.6” and 154” x 2.6”), for optimum performance with both tracks.
The driveshaft is new, of course, to fit the new belt drive and the new configuration, but the sprockets themselves are an existing part, just like the skis and the track.
Gauge and Handlebars
The gauge that was displayed on all three vehicles at Hays is a new, base model gauge that complements the trimmings of a 600 class sled, featuring all the info that most riders would want.
The dual display used on the current model year 2023 sleds (that runs the ATAC functionality) will also continue to be used in the immediate future.
However, Beavis points to the larger picture—Arctic Cat feels that the Catalyst platform will have a strong future that will see it though many other changes as technology advances. So what you see this year and next likely won’t always be the case as the platform is updated with new technology like electronics, gauges and so forth as it becomes available down the road.
In terms of the rider interface and riding positioning, there are some further changes.
To accommodate both mountain and trail riding models, the upper casting of the cross-platform chassis picks up a vertical (mountain) or a laydown steering post (trail).
Handlebar position is just a little bit farther forward than Ascender and in-line with the post, just to get the balance right. Arctic Cat prefers to set up the riser in-line with the post, for the smoothest steering. The riser block is slightly shorter because the top tube of the post is a little higher, to accommodate both steering configurations, but the relative height is unchanged. There is still room however to accommodate a shorter riser to meet the preference of a shorter rider.
The handlebar and controls are carryover. Arctic Cat has done some upgrades on the lefthand control to make the functionality of the gauge and the ATAC control more positive. The Hayes brake control, mountain strap, bar bend, kill switch and throttle lever will carry over from the previous model year.
On the Catalyst display sleds at Hay Days, showgoers took note of the use of IFP shocks rather than the premium FOX FLOAT QS3 and 1.5 ZERO QS3 shocks that have been the mainstay of the Arctic Cat mountain sleds for several years now.
Beavis says the premium shocks will be made available, but for the 600 sleds on display at Hay Days, the IFP shocks are a more suitable option for a 600 powerplant configuration offering, and similar to what the competition is offering at that level for those markets.
And while they don’t have a premium flavour to them, a lightweight, rebuildable, non-reservoir IFP shock, calibrated by Arctic Cat, is nearly as lightweight as a FOX FLOAT QS3 and provides a good base package for customers who want that. On some models like the mountain sleds and ZRs, customers will be able to upgrade if they like.
The same applies to Arctic Cat’s ATAC on-the-fly suspension adjustment system. The plan is to make it available as a premium option eventually when the full lineup of sleds is rolled out. It’s all part of the goal of making the right range of model mix to keep the customers happy and be competitive.
Insight on Arctic Cat Catalyst Design from Engineering
When the new platform naming suggestion period closed, there were nine people outside of Arctic Cat who had suggested the name, ‘Catalyst’.
One of the definitions of the word catalyst is: “A person or thing that precipitates an event or change.”
Knowing what we do now about the new platform, the name seems fitting. Catalyst looks the part and in every way should satisfy the market’s demand for something new from Cat.
So, will this ‘Catalyst’ be the one to precipitate change and put Arctic Cat back on top of the mountain? We just have to wait a little longer to find out.