Arctic Cat 500i

In the summer, 2002, after considerable research, I purchased an Arctic Cat 500i with manual transmission, for use on my timber farm. I'm sharing my impressions here for anyone considering a similar purchase.

This has to be one of the most useful tools on a farm. Goes anywhere, easy on the gas, and unlike a dirt bike, you can carry tools with you, and pull heavy things when you get there. It's a 45 minute hike to the back of my farm, while the quad does it in a few minutes. It can drag a tree off of a fencerow, in places where you couldn't hope to get a truck or tractor. And, it's just plain fun.

Each manufacturer puts a particular emphasis on the design of their machines. Arctic Cat has built a serious workhorse, a harsh terrain eater. This is more or less the Hummer of quads - not the fastest, but the most capable of getting over rough ground. 12" ground clearance, 10" wheel travel, independent rear suspension, disc brakes all around, and 5 speed manual transmission. The air intake for the engine is snorkled up under the gas tank, high enough that the owner might want to consider a snorkel for themself. Not a lot of flashy extras or glitzy electronics on this machine, just about everything is manual, right down to 2/4wd shift, which is that much less to break or short out. Forget the fancy decals or electronic gadgets. Arctic Cat has put guts in this machine, where it counts.

This is a big machine. Weighs around 650 pounds. You sit high in the saddle, much higher than most quads, though the extra width offsets the higher center of gravity, the Cat is quite stable on inclines. The extra width makes things interesting when fitting it into the back of my Ranger pickup. It will fit, but just barely. If you're going to put a Cat in your truck, back it in. The rear bumper stops at the tires, while the front bumper overhangs a bit, and can go through your rear window. I didn't learn that the hard way, and I hope no one else does.

A view of the rear suspension. Fully independent, with brush guards. To give you an idea of how high the rider sits, those are 25" tires.

And the front, with winch. The winch doubles as a very nice brush guard. The radiator is above and behind the winch, well protected.

In comparison to other large utility machines, it falls short in acceleration and top speed. It isn't slow, it just isn't scary fast. Top speed? Low 50's, but it feels strained at that speed. It is fairly stable at high speed on pavement, unlike my Bear which is a twitchy nightmare at speed on pavement. Handling is good, but definitely no match for the sport quads.

However, it more than makes up for those deficiencies in rough ground capability, simplicity, and rugged reliability. The big Cat just crawls over everthing. If someone would build a trail the width of the US, I'd get on the Cat tomorrow and ride it. It feels that solid - it's going to get you there, wherever there may be.

Extremely comfortable ride, especially across rocks and other junk. Doesn't beat you up on a rough trail, the way other quads do. Thanks to the IRS and long wheel travel, it holds a rough trail well, without telling you about every twig and pebble on the trail.

Steering is surprisingly light, for a 650 pound machine, much lighter than my bear that isn't nearly as heavy. It handles better in 4wd than 2wd, the front tends to drift a bit if no power is on the front wheels. And putting it in 4wd doesn't seem to stiffen the steering up.

Brakes are discs all around, controlled by a single lever. Sport riders don't like the single brake lever, but I find it a lot simpler to use. Discs are particularly good where I ride, which includes several creek crossings. My Bear has drums on the front, which fade out completely after an extended dunking in water, and don't come back until you ride the brake lever for a few seconds. Not so good if you need to stop quickly. The Cat's discs always have stopping power, even after a lengthy water run.

Pulling power? Plenty of it. It has dragged some very large hardwood logs. It has pulled a trailer load of hardwood, probably 800+ pounds, and it pulled that across a rough trail. Climbs like, well, a cat. I've added a winch to the front, after getting stuck on a hillside, nearly rolling over (a tree stopped it), and having to hand winch this big heavy thing up a hill. As this Cat came with a manual transmission, no problems with burning out a belt when towing a heavy load.

Acceleration and top speed? Adequate, but not stellar. It's not that much faster than the Bear in terms of pure acceleration, though top speed is quite a bit better. What the Cat's engine does have, is torque, bags of it, whatever your engine speed is. If I hit 2' of water with the Bear, it bogs down and requires a shift to a lower gear. The Cat doesn't bog down in the same situation, just give it more gas and it charges right through.

Engine braking? Terrific. Put it in 1st gear low, and it crawls down a hill. It's a manual transmission - they all have terrific engine braking.

And here's the Cat, on firewood detail. That's a Koplin saw press that the Husky saw is sitting in. Note that I have to leave the saw slightly high in the mount, that's a 32" bar and it will bang the ground if I'm not careful. Not that I'm particularly devoted to AC products, but their wagon was about the only reasonably priced off road trailer I could find. Garden trailers will fall apart or hang their skinny little tires if you tow them over rough ground, and most flatbed offroad trailers are $900+. AC retails this one for $445. A full load of oak is probably 600+ pounds, and the Cat hauls this easily, up some pretty steep hills. Only problem on steep inclines is logs rolling out the back.

I've left the stock tires on, as I haven't been let down by them, yet. If they do get replaced, it will probably be ITP ATR's, mud tires tend to tear the ground up too much. When you own the trail, you tend to take much better care of it.

In action, again:

I'm using the winch to brace a tree, and keep it from rolling into the creek while I'm sawing it up.

One of my favorites, crawling up a rocky creekbed. The wide angle photo tends to mask the size of the rocks, only the Cat can get through here without dragging bottom.

The Cat has been a reliable machine, with a solid, torquey engine. The best rough ground capability you can buy, plus a Cadillac like ride, very smooth. While it's not a slug, neither is it a neck snapping hotrod. It won't get you bragging rights at the local mudhole, though you're likely to be pulling others out of the mudhole with it. This is a workhorse that doesn't drive like a slug. If your primary interest is in fast trail riding, the sport quads will fit you better. But, if you want a rough ground workhorse that can also be used for long trail rides, the Cat is hard to beat.

Update: three years later.

Now that I've had the big Cat for three years, how has it held up? In a word, terrific. I've had one casualty - the gear indicator lights went out, but they're not really essential to operation, so I never fixed that. Oh, and here we are in fall 2005, and the battery is getting weak. Finally - those batteries usually only last two years.

Otherwise, it's been gas and go. Change the oil in the spring. Hitch the trailer, and tow the wood. My Cat has spent a lot of time hauling heavy loads of firewood, and has yet to break anything. One tough machine.

In the winter of 2003, the Cat really paid for itself. We lost power for five days in the middle of an ice storm, and I'm looking at three thousand dollars worth of brand new plumbing that's likely to freeze and break if I don't get heat into the house. Roads iced over, no one was delivering firewood. Power wasn't going to be fixed any time soon. Looks like we'll have to wing this one by ourself. For those five days, the only thing standing between me and a lot of expensive plumbing work was my Cat 500i, my Husky 272xp chain saw, and two wood stoves. And that was driving down ice covered trails to get more wood when my ready supply ran out.

So would I buy another Cat? In a heartbeat. I'd leap on one of the new H1 650's, if they'd just put a manual transmission on it.

Some Cat tips and tricks I've learned:

If you're buying, try to do business with an established motorcycle/dirt bike dealer that has a good shop. One of the Cat's few weak points is the fact that they'll give a dealership to just about anyone, and service after the sale may not be so good at Joe's Chain Saw World.

Also if you're buying, establish what you want the machine for, and stick to that. When I went looking for a new quad in spring 2002, I quickly found that the published reviews did not contain the information I was seeking. The utility quad reviews were all written from a sport quad point of view - testing for jumping ability and top speed instead of ground clearance, towing ability, and rack load, which is what I was looking for. If you want a utility quad for work, you will have to find out for yourself if it meets your criteria.

Break it in properly. Most car manufacturers break their engines prior to selling these days. Motorcycle/quad makers do not, so care during the breakin period will pay rich dividends later.

Loading ramps: the Cat is wider than most quads, and barely fits on a standard folding loading ramp. Get individual ramps for each side, or watch very carefully as you drive up the ramp, I've gone off the side once. And back it in - the front bumper overhangs the front tires enough to go through the rear window on a truck.

Get the winch. I stuck my Cat crossing a hillside, it was just a little too steep and kitty ended up wedged against a tree with one wheel in the air. After hand winching it off the hill with a Red Devil, I went and got the power winch. Never again!

Adjust the shock preload to suit your needs. From the factory, the springs are at the softest setting, which makes for a very comfortable ride, but you will get some body lean and front end bob if you push it hard. I have found the middle setting to be a good compromise in handling and comfort.

The plastic gun rack looks neat, but won't carry much of a load. As I tend to lug 14 pound smallbore target rifles around, I'm switching back to the all metal racks. The plastic racks wiggle way too much with a load on them. Update: replaced the plastic rack with an aluminum one, much better.

You may hear a knocking sound in the 500 engine, sounding remarkably like a rod bearing. It is a crankcase ventilator valve. Don't worry about it.

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