What Drives Snowmobile Development? | Mountain Sledder
September 28th, 2021

What Drives Snowmobile Development?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Those words are commonly attributed to the American industrialist, Ford, who revolutionized transportation with his affordable, mass market Model T automobile.

In truth, that quote has never been verifiably traced back to anything Ford ever said or wrote, and it’s unlikely that he was so arrogant as to imply that his innovation occurred in the total absence of consumer input.

Ford was, however, clearly insightful enough to separate the literal demands of his future customers from their actual desire—which of course was to get from Point A to Point B more efficiently. And that’s what drives success: the ability to interpret and understand what customers truly want, and to provide a product that meets or exceeds that expectation.

Case in point: two snowmobile models that were new for the year 2020—the Polaris RMK KHAOS and Ski-Doo Summit X with Expert Package—are the direct result of manufacturers hearing the demands of their customer base.

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What Drives Snowmobile Development

For Polaris, development starts with listening and understanding what the customer is asking for, says Director of Snowmobile Product Planning at Polaris, Marty Sampson. Sampson has been with Polaris for 23 years, as the lead role in mountain sled development and validation for many years, and now overseeing the entire Polaris snowmobile product lineup.

“The KHAOS came from what some of our customers were telling us,” says Sampson. Through various customer feedback channels, they were starting to hear and piece together snippets of feedback that said, I don’t always need a sled to be as precise or as focused as what a PRO acts like.

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“It took time to hear that though,” says Sampson. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of years making the PRO-RMK just better and better at a fairly focused element, which was—how steep can you climb, how steep of a sidehill line can you pull, how precisely can you carve around that tree. I know that because I was part of that team.

“Quite frankly, it left some people who don’t always ride like that feeling like the sled wasn’t as fun as they’d like it to be for how they want to use it. What we pieced together was: we need a sled that’s a little bit less focused on one thing.” The result was the RMK KHAOS, which was designed specifically to exhibit additional transfer and ski lift for a more lively and fun feeling, without sacrificing much of the precise handling of the PRO-RMK.

Chris Brown, enjoying the playfulness of the 2020 Polaris RMK KHAOS

As for BRP, the goal with the Ski-Doo Summit Expert was also about addressing feedback the manufacturer had received from both their expert ambassadors and customers alike. The Expert offers improvements based on ideas developed and tested in the field by Ski-Doo backcountry experts. These allow the sled to be more capable in challenging terrain and, like the KHAOS, the Expert also exhibits a more playful attitude.


Feedback Comes in Many Forms

So how do the manufacturers capture useful feedback from customers? They try to gather as much consumer voice as they can, through many different channels. Much of that, of course, comes from directly talking with customers on rides, demos and at public events. And yes, believe it or not, even social media comments are being scrutinized. The marketing team is living in the consumer world, and their role in development is to collaborate with the development team to incorporate consumer feedback.

Another source of feedback comes from the frontline—the dealership network. As Sampson points out, a dealer who is in-tune with their customer base can accurately communicate the desires of many individual customers with a single voice.

Naturally, the manufacturers invest in traditional research methods as well, using surveys and focus groups to gain valuable consumer insights.

Another piece of the puzzle comes from the folks working for the manufacturer being enthusiasts and users themselves.

Analyzing and interpreting all that feedback requires some reading between the lines, says Sampson. “You listen, and you ride and you see what people are doing.”

CKMP guide, Shelley Ferguson, gathering some intel on the 2020 Ski-Doo Summit X with Expert Package

The Role of the Athlete Ambassador

Athletes and ambassadors, such as Ski-Doo Backcountry Expert Carl Kuster, are a tremendous source of feedback for manufacturers as well, and their value is two-fold.

First of all, athletes who ride nearly every day have the opportunity to gain a lot of practical experience with the product. When they’re riding, they’re working—unlike most sledders, who are just there for a good time. They are thinking critically about how the vehicle is performing in all manner of varying snow conditions, elevation, terrain and weather. Kuster’s background in snowmobile racing and his experience as a journeyman motorcycle mechanic, for example, allows him to make the kinds of diagnostic assessments that provide invaluable feedback to the engineers at BRP.

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Carl Kuster is uniquely positioned to provide the sort of invaluable feedback a manufacturer like Ski-Doo just can't get elsewhere.

An example of the development that can start at the athlete level is Ski-Doo’s removable snowflap, an idea that Kuster started playing around with back in 2008. He customized a snowflap that could be held in place with a couple of clutch cover pins and quickly removed without tools. Today, BRP manufactures a removable snowflap as an accessory; and in the case of the Expert Package, performance benefits are reaped with no snowflap at all.

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The nearly non-existent snowflap on the Ski-Doo Summit X with Expert Package allows snow to easily clear the tunnel.

To go from inception to final product, “some ideas, even simple ones, can be 10 years in the making,” says Kuster. “Like the small seat on the Expert—we started doing that in 2008 as well.”

Kuster’s own FORTY7C performance seat was first released on the 2020 Expert

The other benefit of athlete feedback is that they get to watch a lot of people ride snowmobiles, talk with them and see what problems they’re having.

“They get a really wide view of the snowmobiling community of people who are expert riders, people who are novice riders and everybody in-between,” says Sampson, of Polaris athletes like Chris Burandt and Dan Adams.

“As much as they themselves have some influence on what we’re doing or what we’re thinking about, they also have a huge view of the customer base because they’re with groups of people every day.”

Product Development is a Balancing Act

New product development must satisfy the needs of five different groups, Kuster shrewdly observes; in addition to what the consumer wants, new product development must also satisfy the needs of engineering, design, sales and marketing, and legal and accounting in order for the product to be successful.

Unfortunately, there’s a common misperception in the media and public that the “bean counters” (aka legal and accounting) dictate the development of new product. That’s just not the case, says Sampson. He asserts that Polaris is really trying to lead with what the customer is asking for, and points out the fact that it really wouldn’t make sense to do it any other way. But there is a balance that must be reached.

“Without other considerations taken into account, the manufacturer development teams could produce a very light sled,” says Sampson, giving an example.

“Heck, Chris Burandt built a 355 lb Polaris PRO-RMK, and he doesn’t have a fraction of the development resources at his disposal that Polaris does. But what you’d end up with is a $40,000 sled that probably can’t stand up to much abuse and may not meet certification requirements.”

So while all the aspects of the business must be taken into account in new product development, it really is up to the engineering team to innovate a product that answers the demands of the customer, in the right way.

Polaris RMK KHAOS Features

  • KHAOS Rear Suspension Geometry
    • Steeper Rail Profile
    • Longer Torque Arm and Front Shock
  • Longer, Dual Limiter Strap
  • Walker Evans Velocity Shocks
    • Mid-mounted Remote Reservoir
    • Hi-Lo Compression Adjustment
  • Aluminum Over Structure and Rear Bumper
  • 3″ Narrower Seat
  • Narrower tank, console, bodywork and footwells
  • Adjustable toe hooks
  • One-piece standard-length tapered close-off tunnel
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  • 5″ shorter tunnel than standard MATRYX
  • Short snowflap
  • Smaller, more centralized cooling system
  • 15″ x 146″ x 2.0″ and 15″ x 146″ x 2.6″ track options
  • Patriot Boost turbo-charged engine option
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Ski-Doo Summit X with Expert Package Features

  • Tunnel Shortened by 5”, No Snowflap
  • Kashima-coated HPG Plus Coil-over Shocks
  • New Ski Spindle and Rubber Ski Stopper
  • Adjustable Limiter Strap
  • Improved Running Boards
  • FORTY7C Performance Seat
  • Short 4.7” Riser
  • Smaller Diameter Grips
  • Shorter Mountain Strap
  • Handguards
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MY2022 Ski-Doo Summit X with Expert Package Updates
  • Narrower adjustable 34″-36″ ski stance
  • Brake reservoir protector
  • Ultra compact seat
  • One-piece lightweight hood
  • Belt drive monitoring system
  • Finned driven clutch sheaves
  • 4.5″ digital display
  • 850 E-TEC Turbo engine option

2022 Ski-Doo Summit with Expert Package

What Drives Snowmobile Development? – Down the Road

So if Polaris customers are asking for a more playful, less precise instrument, does that mean that the PRO-RMK will eventually be phased out in favour of the RMK KHAOS?

I personally think, over time, that we’ll see 75% of our riders migrate to a KHAOS-like handling sled.
Marty Sampson, Director of Snowmobile Product Planning, Polaris

“I think the majority of mountain riders will embrace the quicker handling and the light front-end, and I think it will trend largely towards that. And the guys who are riding super-steep terrain, riding technical lines in the trees, will probably still want a PRO. I think that there’s a place in our lineup for both, for the foreseeable future,” says Sampson.

Many riders will prefer the quicker handling and lighter front-end of the RMK KHAOS

But what about Ski-Doo? Since the first release of the Summit X w/ Expert Package, we have seen some of the initial upgrades trickle their way down into other models in the Ski-Doo lineup for MY2022. Will these be the basis for a future Gen5 platform? They’re not saying. But when we asked Kuster which models he orders for the fleet of client sleds at Carl Kuster Mountain Park, his answer was simple: “All Experts.”

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Carl's not kidding. All Experts.

As for the future, Kuster thinks there is plenty of room for improvement. “They’re good right now, but I think we can make them tremendously better,” he says.

“If I had to take a guess, I think we’re at 50% of the capacity of what these things will be able to do. I hope I get to see some of my ideas through, or they come to life. There’s some stuff that we’re working on that I think will be cool.”

Betcha Ford thought his Model T was pretty cool too.