Pushing the right buttons

— UTV testing isn’t an exact science, but we strive to do it as accurately as possible. Conditions can change from one day to the next, so when we’re comparing UTVs, the machines in the test will travel the same trails and face the same obstacles on the same days. Whether we’re testing for a shootout or an individual test, terrain and conditions can greatly affect how machines perform and feel, so we always spend some time on familiar trails when we can so that we have a point of reference.

Do we only test on familiar trails to keep things as comparable and scientific as possible? No way. If we get the opportunity to try new trails, we take it.

Last month I was out getting some seat time in the Kawasaki Mule Pro-FXR when I found myself in new, uncharted territory. It was new to me, anyway, because it appeared fairly well traveled by somebody. I followed a dirt road that degenerated into a tough UTV trail, and then to dirt bike tracks that didn’t show much sign of use. It didn’t take long to see why the route wasn’t very popular. I found myself on a downhill so steep, my view of the hill ahead just vanished. You know the feeling, like when you start down a unfamiliar black-diamond ski run by mistake. The bottom was just a ravine, and the next hill soared upward, steeper and bigger than the thing I was beginning to slide down. I could see that dirt bikes had made it, but the climb ahead was horrifyingly steep, and I was wondering if I was even going to make the steep transition at the bottom. Some hills don’t have much of a run at the bottom, but this hill had no run at all. If I got stuck at the bottom, backing up or turning around might be impossible.

I was thinking, this is a cool trail and some great hills to test on—and for the first attempt, it would be a whole lot smarter to have a go at it in something with way more power. A wise UTVer would also have someone else along in another machine, with a winch, in a situation like this. A helicopter capable of lifting a UTV would be welcome also. In addition to all that, it struck me that I was a good distance out in a remote location with not a whole lot of daylight remaining—all very good reasons to try the hill another time.

Despite all the sound logic and good common sense, the steep downhill and the immediate uphill seemed very tempting. I don’t recall the hills and the ravine saying anything, but they were challenging me and the Mule. Hmm, the trusty Mule had surprised me with its climbing ability so far during testing, and it climbed some very tough sections just getting to where we were. Suddenly, dropping down the downhill I couldn’t fully see, toward a ravine I could get stuck in, before I even had a shot at climbing a hill I had no idea I could make seemed like a good idea.

I eased down the downhill and started skidding with all four wheels locked, regained control, then skidded some more, then regained control again and I was at the ravine. The Mule’s nose looked like it would grind on the hill ahead, but it didn’t, so I matted the throttle, hung on and started praying. The Kawasaki was spinning and clawing at the hill but making encouraging progress. Just when things seemed to be going pretty well, I dug in and stopped, and my own cloud of dust cruised past me, climbing the hill with an annoying lack of effort.

I took a moment to let my heart rate back down from its rev limiter and let the adrenaline pass so I could assess the situation sensibly. Obviously, trying this hill wasn’t the wisest choice. There was nothing to gain and much to risk in backing down, since it looked like I had already climbed the hardest, steepest part of the hill. Staying on the hill was a possibility. The steep grade put the Kawasaki’s seat at a comfortable, recliner-like angle, but living in the Mule on the hillside would be a lonely life that could end as me being a meal for a mountain lion. I had to see if I could continue up the hill. I noticed I had made it just beyond a bump on the hill that could offer me life-saving traction if I rolled back onto it and applied the right amount of throttle. I might only get one try at this, so I checked the Mule’s controls to be sure everything was where it should be. Transmission in low range, good, four-wheel drive on, of course, rear differential lock off—wait, what?!

I went at this hill with the rear diff unlocked? What a bonehead move! How could I have done that?! I could say that I mistook it for a front differential lock and switched it off because some front differential-lock systems have speed or rev limiters—not the best for pin-it-to-win-it hill-climb attempts. The truth is, I know the Mule doesn’t have a front differential lock, and I know it has a locking rear differential; I just forgot to hit the switch to lock it—on my first try at the hill.

I pushed the toggle, heard the little servo lock the rear differential, rolled back against the bump on the hill and put the coal to the Kawasaki. Steady, upward progress began, and soon the Mule and I crested the hill. I experienced joy, relief and mild embarrassment for forgetting to lock the rear dif all at the same time. I like manual controls on UTVs and most other kinds of vehicles, especially when I remember to use them.

diff lockKawasakiPro-FXR MuleUTV hill climbingUTV tests