2009 Polaris Sportsman XP Models

There’s a strikingly similar question for buyers in the market for a middle-of-the-road Polaris utility quad. With a mere $ 400 price difference between two strong contenders, which mid-displacement Polaris ATV offers the most bang for the buck? Candidate A, the Sportsman 400 H.O., rides atop a newer platform (see: change), while Candidate B, the Sportsman 500 H.O., is the company’s token utility quad and one of the best selling ATVs of all time (see: experience).

Meet the Candidates
How is one to decide? Polaris makes a strong case for both the mid-size Sportsman 400 H.O. and its full-size 500 H.O. model – the 400 is a new entry level machine with big boy features, while the full-size 500 offers a larger engine and a slight price penalty. With such a narrow difference in fiscal policy (a.k.a. price), the choice seems fairly insignificant.

As you dig in to the specifics, though, you’ll see there are some meaningful differences that must be aired out – namely how the 400 spins the truth and actually packs a 455cc single cylinder engine from the departed Sportsman 450, whereas the 500 meets expectations with a 499cc unit in office for a decade. Looking at dry weights, obesity being a key issue and all, there’s a 91-pound advantage for the 400 – 605 pounds versus 696.

The wheelbases also offer a stark contrast. The 400 is 4.5 inches shorter than the 500, which makes for a more manageable package for less experienced riders, or loading up in a crowded toy hauler. Let’s not get bogged down in contrast – there’s a lot in common here, too. Both rigs have carburetors and liquid cooling, are suspended by MacPherson struts in front and IRS out back, display vital statistics through full instrumentation and divide power with the company’s selectable “true” on-demand all-wheel drive. Sounds even-Steven but we’re nowhere close to naming a front runner.

The Initial Debate
It was time for some face time, a true knock-down-drag-out debate. Forget Iowa, New Hampshire or the Carolinas, we’re outdoorsmen here at ATV Magazine and headed for the snowy trails of northwest Wisconsin to pit the candidates head-to-head.

Just thirty seconds into our trail ride, and with only 2 miles on the odometer, we noticed the four-wheel drive wouldn’t engage on the 400. We were unable to self-diagnose the problem. A tough first debate had now raised some potentially serious character flaws with the red candidate.

Even though our destination was snow-covered and slippery, 4WD wasn’t essential and we continued along the undulating, scenic woods trails. Switching off between the two clearly illustrated a disparity in suspension performance. Our 500 rode like so many Polaris 500 H.O.’s before it – soft. Bumps are absorbed to the point of elimination, for a fatigue-free experience. Credit that to the 500’s ample 8.2 and 9.5 inches of suspension travel, front and rear, compared with 7 and 8 for the 400. Acceleration is moderate, body roll isn’t a concern, controls are where you expect them and it feels like a true-blue, full-size machine.

Bruised, but still fighting, the 400 motored along like the underdog it was – lighter and less bulky. Two testers, tall and taller, both felt comfortable on the downsized ride and appreciated its tossability. The four-hundo still delivers that trademark cushy Polaris ride, but whether it’s firmer dampening rates, different suspension geometry or the shorter wheelbase, there is less rider comfort. Instead, riders get a sportier feel than the 500. Lower fenders and three inches less width for the 400 back up the smaller, playful feel imparted by the lower curb weight.
This round’s a draw.

The Power to Change
Finding a clear victor is easier when it comes to raw power. Polaris says the 500’s mill generates 35.9 peak hp, and 31.1 pound-feet of torque at 5000 revolutions, while the 400’s 29.2 peak hp and 24.6 pound-feet of torque scrambles to catch up.

There’s that weight difference, though, and for that very reason, we pulled out the radar gun and did some acceleration testing – never a bad way to kill some time on a deserted country road.

Less weight and more petite dimensions were not enough for the 400, which was soundly outrun by the faster 500. It took 101 feet for the 400 to hit 30 mph, while the 500 accomplished the same task in less than 90 feet. After putting on several miles, and frequently switching between machines, the numbers weren’t a surprise. They’re both fairly close, and can hang with each other on trails, but the 500 wins the speed voters.

Kitchen Table Issues

More time with the candidates brought out some of the finer points of contention – matters of performance, harshness and tone.

On paper, there’s nothing different with the duo’s braking packages. Both offer single-lever hydraulic discs up front and a hydraulic rear foot brake – traditional single-lever braking. But, then you look at the actual record. Our 400’s braking was noticeably front-loaded, with nearly all of perceived braking force sent to the front wheels. Around slippery corners, it was enough to send the machine into instant understeer. Braking on the 500, on the other hand, is a model of consistency – exactly what you expect, when you expect it, and without the front-heavy bias.

Ergonomics are another battleground for any consumer cross shopping these two. As both of our testers were above the 6-foot mark, we were surprised to feel comfortable with both. The trimmer 400 felt like a 9/10ths scale quad designed for smaller riders, but it’s still spacious enough to appeal to the masses.

With all things being equal, noise, vibration and harshness can make a big difference to fickle comparison shoppers. Why go with one, when another is less irritating? To that end, neither single-cylinder engine is all that high-tech or polished. Since this is a debate, after all, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give it to you straight – the age-old 500 vibrates less, a nod to its years of refinement. While the 400 is not harsh, there is more engine and chassis vibration that makes it to the rider. There’s no landslide here, but the Sportsman 500 is the smoother operator.

Wedge Issues

Moving past the big-ticket questions, there are a few small differences worth mentioning. You never know what’s a deal breaker with pesky issue voters. First up, while it has most of the full-sized features of the 500, the 400 does not have low-range or parking gears.

If you’re shopping for a Polaris Sportsman, you’re probably excited about that storage bin under the front rack – we love the feature and use it every chance we get. A smaller space, combined with service access to the radiator and battery charger plug creates a smaller cubbyhole on the 400. It’s still usable storage, but 500 H.O. buyers can be more of a pack rat up front and they get an additional storage box under the rear rack.

Instrumentation is another area that shows some minor cost cutting on the 400 – its all-digital gauges are not as readable as the digital-and-analog display on the 500. There’s also a pod light on the 500. Hey, this is a campaign, and every little detail counts.

Damage Control

As the sun was setting and the trail reached a dead end, it was time to turn around and head back to the trailhead. We gave it all we had for a powerslide-filled trip back, trying to make the final call on these two opposing rides. The truck’s always a good place to think.

Back at the shop, we decided to dig up some answers on the 400’s faulty 4WD system. Polaris service technicians later poked around, prodded and told us that a snap ring either popped out of its groove in the main gear case, or it was never seated at the assembly line. When the power was transmitted through, it pushed against the snap ring until the pinion gear on the snorkel shaft was no longer making contact – hence, no front-wheel action.

Surely a problem bound to be cast in a harsh light by the media. Not so! ATV Magazine has a proud history of objective reporting. Such driveline problems are rare for any mainstream manufacturer, and we’ll cautiously attribute it to a one-off blunder.

Election Day

Trying to nail down a winner, the media rehashed the same old questions. Who’s the ideal buyer for the smaller 400? Who should go with the larger 500? Is there enough of a difference between them? And, which would us testers go with, if we had to make the call for ourselves?

Our vote? The Sportsman 500 H.O., for its full size, super-plush ride, low range, higher speed, more torque and the fact that a Sportsman 500 has never been priced so low. Whether it’s work or play, and we like both, there are plenty of reasons to justify the extra $ 400 spent. Store more gear, haul more butt, pull more stuff.

By contrast, those maybe aren’t major compromises for someone who appreciates the simpler operation, more managable dimension and lighter weight of the Sportsman 400 H.O. It may offer more of the important-to-you features than any other quad in its class.

What’s right for you? That’s your call. But if you’re like us, and you’re looking for a full-size worker and a lively trail rider, mark your ballot for the Sportsman 500 H.O.

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