Will Can-Am’s hot rod reel in the RZR’s lead on the sport UTV market?

The competition is getting fierce. Not content with sitting on the sidelines and watching Polaris net a 40% chunk of the entire US side by side market, Can-Am set off to develop the world’s best UTV. Five years ago, Can-Am engineers began designing their envisionment of the perfect UTV, starting with an all-new 976cc V-twin powerhouse putting out an industry-leading 85 horsepower. If you have kept up with UTV Action, you already know that the Commander is a force to be reckoned with, and is definitely the industry’s fastest-accelerating UTV to date, beating out even the almighty Arctic Cat Prowler 1000. For 2011, Polaris introduced a cheaper, more refined RZR S as a base model- only LE units get the compression-adjustable Fox piggyback shocks- saving consumers $1,500 for a little less flair. We couldn’t get a base-model Commander 1000 to test against the RZR S, so we threw it up against a 1000XT. The XT packages receives upgraded 14 inch aluminum wheels clad with Maxxis Bighorn tires, a digital speedometer/tachometer, bed rails, 4000 lb winch, fender flares, and an upgraded steering wheel over the Commander 1000 base model for $12,799. Besides the winch and steering wheel, the base model RZR S comes with the same amenities as the Commander’s XT package, making it a suitable match.


The RZR S. At $12,499, it is a whopping $1,800 less than the Commander 1000XT. For that extra $1,800, you get a 4000 lb winch and a nicer steering wheel as far as features go. Both units feature full instrumentation, preload-adjustable shocks, aluminum wheels with premium tires, single-buckle side nets, and three-point seatbelts.


The RZR’s 760cc parallel-twin EFI-fed engine is 216cc smaller than the Commander’s thumping 976cc V-twin, and the power numbers back it up. Polaris claims 53 horsepower from its 800, and Can-Am claims 85 horsepower from its 1000. The 32 horsepower offset may sound like a game-ending handicap, but the Commander’s extra heft and less-refined CVT clutching help to even out the race a bit.

The Polaris mill uses an old-school pushrod design that actuates two big valves per cylinder, keeping engine weight low and well-centered. The engine sits right behind the seats in the RZR, and is transversely mounted to sit low in the frame for a very low CG. This year, the RZR’s EFI system was replaced with a more finely-tuned Bosch EFI system that decreases fuel consumption by a whopping 30%, which translates to more miles per tank. The bottom-end response was also cleaned up a bit, making the RZR’s already-snappy engine feel even lighter.

Can-Am’s approach to their UTV’s engine is similar to the way American automakers did it in the ’60s and ’70s: throw a big-block motor in a small sports car and slap an SS badge on it! The 976cc V-twin is the largest UTV engine to be embraced by any of the main UTV manufacturers, and its power output is also the highest. Using a throttle by wire system, Can-Am can restrict the power level to three different settings controlled by different keys. The orange key limits it to 25 mph for construction sites or beginner drivers, the grey key will hit 42-43 mph for intermediate drivers, and the black key unleashes all 85 horsepower for a 70+ mph top speed and full power on tap. Giving an inexperienced driver the black key is like unleashing a hyper toddler on a coloring book- it’s best to start drivers off with the grey key and work their way up.


Despite its weigh disadvantage, the Commander still wins this fight. The 32 horsepower advantage over the RZR is like combining the output of a RZR S and a Rhino 700 to form one engine, and even its extra heft won’t cut down the V-twin’s work ethic. Each one of the RZR’s horses carries around 18.9 pounds per the claimed dry weight, whereas the Commander’s horses carry a less burdensome 15.24 pounds of claimed dry weight.


Leading up to this, you would think the Commander, right? Well, you would be correct in that assumption, but it’s not as big of a shutout as you would expect. From a standstill in 4WD, the RZR gets a jump on the Commander in the first ten feet or so, but as soon as that big V-twin spools up to its running speed (and catches traction), it reels the RZR in and just keeps steadily pulling away.


The Commander does. Depending on elevation, we saw anywhere from 65-76 mph on our GPS during testing. The highest top speed was seen at sea level, ticking off a blazing 76.1 mph. The RZR S is limited to 63 from the factory, but actually hits about 64.6 mph in our testing. Top speed is irrelevant to this testing, however, as at that speed, one wrong move in the Commander could spell trouble, as its 10 inches of suspension travel get blown through quickly at speed. The RZR S feels miles more confident at high speeds, as it turns, stops, and handles bumps better than the Commander does.


The RZR, by a mile. This year’s Bosch EFI system is even more responsive in situations where throttle modulation varies quickly, and the motor responds to inputs willingly. The Commander, on the other hand, uses a throttle control motor on the throttle body that is controlled by a sensor in the gas pedal, meaning there is no mechanical link between the gas pedal and the throttle body. This allows Can-Am to program in many cool features, like adjustable power levels, different throttle response curves, and a 10 mph safety mode when the driver’s seatbelt is not buckled. The placement of the throttlebody is strange- residing up under the dashboard, there is a large intake plenum between the intake ports and the throttle body. When you mash the pedal down hard, this plenum is filled with slow-moving air, which creates a sort of throttle lag, or a slight hesitation between your foot moving and the engine’s speed changing. For normal driving, this isn’t bothersome, but in fast-paced driving situations where you need to steer the UTV with the throttle, it definitely requires more practice and extra driving skill to drive hard. In the RZR, you can hop in and drive like a pro- with the Can-Am, it takes a bit more skill and work to keep up with the RZR’s pace.


This one goes to the Can-Am. With the most luxurious interior of any UTV to date, the Commander conveys the engineer’s long hours of interior design and testing well. The gauge cluster is by far the most informative and breathtaking to behold of any UTV, and the push-button start adds a racy feel. The Commander also features a dual-mapped throttle response program, with a normal mode and a more aggressive sport configuration for fast driving. The switches on the Can-Am are backlit and have a nice feel, and the seats are undeniably the most comfortable and supportive OEM pieces on the market. The RZR has a much smaller cockpit, being that it is based on the narrowest UTV around, and feels more cramped than the big Commander.

As far as sound levels go, the Commander isn’t as quiet as the RZR- the engine noise is subdued well and sounds downright beastly, but the CVT whine is largely audible at high speeds, and drowns out the V-twin’s thunder by a longshot. You can hear the Commander’s transmission from a great distance when it’s charging, and it sounds angry.



It depends on what kind of duner you are. If you like to jump, rail bowls, and keep up with quads in the tighter sections, the RZR S won’t disappoint. We have surprised many ATV and dirtbike riders in the dunes when we blow past them in the RZR S. It’s so much fun, it feels illegal. The Can-Am has far more horsepower and torque, and it really shines in the sand. While the Commander’s suspension lacks the whoop-soaking ability that the RZR S posseses, it is still plenty good enough for moderate duning, and will eat the RZR S alive at the sand drags. It’s not as willing of a jumper, as the rear end bottoms far too easily even with the preload dialed in, making the rear end skittish in the whoops and big G-outs. Where the RZR S feels composed and light, the Commander feels heavy and cumbersome in the big bumps.



The Commander, as long as you don’t mind heavy steering.The Commander’s more spacious interior, better seats, grippier steering wheel, and softer suspension make it more comfortable for a long outing, but the RZR’s almost effortless steering feel trumps the Can-Am in every situation, especially in 4 wheel drive. Both are comfortable, but the Commander’s cockpit feels more like a nicely appointed SUV than a race machine.


In short, the RZR. It is much more stable and confidence-inspiring than the Commander, due to its extra 3 inches of overall width and lower CG. In the RZR S, you feel like you’re driving a rally car, as you can pitch it sideways and lean into the throttle hard. The Can-Am is an able handler, but feels quite a bit more top-heavy and doesn’t turn in as quickly as the RZR S. In the bumps, it’s no contest. The RZR’s well-engineered suspension setup soaks up off-camber hits and whoops with aplomb, leaving the Commander in the dust (no pun intended).


The RZR. Lighter weight and four-wheel disc brakes make hard stops more comfortable than in the Can-Am, which is a great stopper in its own right. Being one of the heaviest UTVs around, the Commander will still slap your eyeballs against your goggles when you stomp the brake pedal, but it doesn’t feel as confident doing so.


In slower going, the Commander’s softer suspension feels a little more forgiving on hard-edged impacts. Its rear suspension is valved too soft for our liking, as it bottoms out and drags the rear portion of the frame on the ground quite often if you hit the bumps hard. The RZR S is very hard to bottom out, and even its less-expensive 2″ body Sachs shocks beat the Commander when the going gets rough. The base model RZR S’s preload-adjustable shocks feel a little stiffer initially than the Fox Podium units on the LE, but resist bottoming just as well.



Picking a winner out of these two comes down to personal preference. Both are amazing sport machines, but the Commander posseses much more utitility-oriented features, like its two-part bed, higher towing capacity, and larger cargo box. The RZR still handles very well with a full ice chest and 5-gallon gas can in the bed, but that’s about all that will fit in its smaller cargo box. The way we have explained it to many friends and readers is this: if you’re going to buy a UTV to drive fast and want to leave it close to stock- buy the RZR S. It’s the sportiest UTV on the market out of the box, and repetitively turned faster lap times than the Commander on our 8-mile test loop despite its 32-horsepower disadvantage. If you plan on modifying the UTV, the Can-Am’s 32-horse advantage will only grow with modifications. If you don’t mind sacrificing the winch, slap down the extra $400 for the X model 1000- its Fox Podium shocks are high and low-speed compression, rebound, and preload adjustable, and are the best on the market. The X model 1000 is a very close match to the RZR S in handling and bump absorption, but nears a $15,000 price tag that turns many buyers away.



HIGH GEAR: RZR-64.6 mph; COMMANDER-76.1 mph



RZR-5.25 seconds

COMMANDER-4.7 seconds


RZR: 60’4″




RZR: 20.2 mph

COMMANDER: 19.3 mph


Includes whoop sections, wide-open fire roads, tight sand wash, and mountain trails

RZR…9 min 54 sec

COMMANDER…10 min 12 sec

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