Ride Tested - The Polaris Sportsman 550

Weekend in the Woods
Written By: 
John Arens

2012.polaris.sportsman550.black.front-left.riding.by-water.jpgIt takes more than a few laps around the track or a quick ride through the dunes to truly get the feel for a machine.  We like to ride it, use it for work, maintain it, and live with it on our turf before we write any review.  It also helps to let many different riders try it as well, and although most machines hit the mark for some riders, there is one machine that is almost universally loved.  Welcome to the Polaris Sportsman 550.

The Crowd Pleaser

Polaris introduced the Sportsman XP 550 and XP 850 a couple years ago, and the new design was meant to build on the immensely successful existing Sportsman models, but with an all-new chassis that was a radical departure from the Polaris design bible.  It was a watershed moment for Polaris, and for utility ATV design as a whole.  Polaris engineers looked at every part of the Sportsman 550 for ways to extract more performance, improve ergonomics, maximize durability, and increase practicality.  The overall look is rugged yet sporty, but it’s from the seat and on the trail everyone really begins to love the Sportsman 550.  We knew just where to go with it!

Like most ATV riders, we love weekend trail rides.   So we gathered up a large group of friends and pointed our trucks north.  We had been using the Sportsman 550 for work around the farm and yard, but this was an opportunity to let others get to know it as well.    2012.polaris.sportsman550.black.front-left.riding.down-rocks.jpg

Polaris Trail Posse

The first thing everyone noticed about the new Polaris was how narrow and sporty it feels compared to other utility ATVs.  With five less inches between your ankles, and your knees 3.25 inches closer together than previous Sportsman models, the 550 feels more like a sport ATV than a 4-wheel-drive utility machine.  Combine that with a perfect handlebar bend, smaller, more comfortable throttle housing, and a narrow seat that somehow manages to keep the legendary Polaris comfort.  If we could get one in the living room, we’d ditch the Lazy Boy!  The automotive quality painted fenders are wide enough to give more protection over the tires, and there is better splash protection from underneath- the older Sportsmans used to drench our left foot when splashing water.  Polaris also claims that the automotive finish is more durable and scratch resistant than the standard plastic.  For towing any load, the Sportsman 550 comes with a handy rear receiver hitch.

A turn of the key on the bar-mounted headlight pod brings the 550cc, fuel-injected, single-cylinder thumper to a quick start and it gives a healthy yet quiet rumble.  The digital instrument cluster displays everything you’ll need to know on your ride:  speed, engine RPM, hours, miles, dual trip meters, a clock, warning lights, gear indicator, and a digital fuel gage that flashes its low fuel warning adequately before the point of needing a strap and a friend that owes you a favor.  After a minute of idling to warm up, we slid the familiar shifter into gear, and we were off.  The 550 is noticeably snappier on takeoff than the previous models thanks to the clutching.  When designing the 550 engine, Polaris chose to mount it sideways in the chassis and the advantages are huge.  The “sideways” motor allows for better power efficiency, improved ergonomics, and for the CVT to be cast with the engine cases.  This eliminates any flex or slight twisting and the result is greatly increased belt life.  Polaris fully expects you to go 5000 miles on the stock belt, provided you don’t burn it up by pulling a heavy load in High gear.  The fixed center distance between the primary and secondary clutch also makes for much more precise clutch performance, and since the engine crankshaft and clutches are in line with the drive shafts, the engine’s power gets to the axles much more efficiently with little CVT whine.  Combine the more efficient driveline with the 40-horsepower engine, and you have an ATV that is much quicker, and has an 8 to 10 mph top-end advantage over the traditional Sportsman 500.  On our north woods adventure, fuel efficiency was noticeably improved over the 500 as well and the 550’s 5.25 gallon fuel tank gave us 75 miles of aggressive trail riding with some wide-open runs before the low fuel warning began to blink.2012.polaris.sportsman550.black.left.riding.by-water.jpg

It’s not all high speed runs on the trails though, and we actually prefer tight, twisty sections where the 550’s excellent suspension comes into play.  Polaris had always equipped every Sportsman before the 550 with MacPherson struts on the front end and it was ultra-stable, but the trade-off was it lacked steering precision and seemed under-damped.  It sucked up impacts well, but the struts inability to control the spring motion sometimes reminded us of a small boat in big waves.  That tendency was cured with the 550.  Long front and rear A-arms allow the spindles to be located deep into the 14” wheels, allowing for precise handling and effectively reducing wheel scrub, a condition that causes your tires to push apart as the suspension is compressed.  Thankfully, the new oil-damped shocks are preload adjustable and can be dialed in for your riding preference and trail conditions.  In the front, the suspension offers an impressive 9 inches of wheel travel, while at the rear, the 550 has 10.25 inches of travel.  What it all adds up to is the Sportsman 550 is an absolute joy to ride in tighter, rougher situations.  It has the nimble handling and agility of a much lighter, smaller sport/utility ATV and it can be ridden through rough terrain and even whoops with greater confidence.  The Sportsman 550 is still a full-sized machine, however, and that can be an issue when the trees are too close together.  For the most part, though, the 550 can dart its way through places that most utility quads will never see. 2012.polaris.sportsman550.close-up.engine.jpg

Traction & Electronic Power Steering

We’ve always liked the tires Polaris has equipped the Sportsman ATVs with, and that doesn’t change with the Sportsman 550.  The MAXXIS tires grab traction everywhere, yet clean out well in mud and are some of the best tires offered by any OEM.  On the trail the Polaris has the ability to climb pretty much anything thanks to the wide stance and longer wheelbase.  You’ll be clawing your way to the top long after some of the competition will have likely given up or cartwheeled their way to the bottom.  When it comes time to head back down, the Sportsman 550 has another trick up its sleeve - the standard Engine Braking System (EBS) and Active Descent Control.  ADC allows the Sportsman 550 to crawl its way down practically any hill at a very slow pace, and all you need to do is leave your thumb off the throttle.  

Polaris was one of the first companies to offer Electronic Power Steering (EPS), and unlike some power steering systems, the Polaris EPS is a brushless design.  It senses force at the wheel and responds with equal input to the system, and the steering is almost effortless.  It’s so easy in fact we would almost prefer a little more feedback and feel to the handlebars, but we do love how the EPS system eliminates kickback from any obstacles encountered on the trail.  

Regular Maintenance

It’s easy to check all fluids on the Sportsman 550.  Both the radiator and coolant reservoir bottle are easy to find, and for quick oil checks, a large, yellow dip stick is found on the side of the engine.  When it comes time for an oil change, it’s easy to get to the spin-on Polaris filter, and the pleated fabric air filter is found under the seat.  You can shake the air filter out a couple times, but for heavy or extremely fine dust, you should consider replacing it rather than continually reusing the same filter.   NEVER use compressed air to clean a filter, however.  It will send particles though the filter media like a miniature shotgun blast.

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Wish List

Polaris thought of pretty much everything with the Sportsman 550, but there are a couple things we would change.  The Sportsman 550 could use more storage.  It does have a nice storage box between the tail lights, but we became spoiled with the giant front storage box on previous Sportsman models and we want it back.  Thankfully, one is available as an accessory.  As with most of the extensive lineup of PURE Polaris Lock & Ride accessories, it takes only moments to mount any accessory box to the front or rear racks.     

Another odd issue surfaced when riding through a whoop section and it’s something we never expected.  While riding through the whoops, part of the key chain wedged itself between a ridge in the bodywork and our knee, accidentally turning off the engine.  Removing the plastic key tag from the key remedied that issue effectively.

The only major change we would make to the Sportsman 550 is nothing more than a programming change.  We would dial back the Electronic Power Steering input to make steering a little more firm, and to get a little better feel of the terrain.

The Good Sport

The Polaris Sportsman 550 is one fantastic ATV.  The ride is outstanding, reliability has been excellent, maintenance is a breeze, power is almost perfect, and we’ve never known anybody who tried one who came away disappointed.  It’s a winner!

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Specifications: 
Engine Type549cc Liquid Cooled, Fuel Injected, SOHC 4-Stroke
Carburetor42mm throttle body
Drive SystemAutomatic PVT, P/R/N/L/H; Shaft drive, 2WD / AWD / AWD with ADC
Engine BrakingStandard
Decent ControlStandard
Front SuspensionDual A-Arm / 9” travel
Rear SuspensionDual A-Arm / 10.25” travel
Front BrakesSingle-lever hydraulic 4-wheel disc
Rear BrakesHydraulic Disc with Foot Brake
Front Tires26x8-14 Maxxis
Rear Tires26x10-14 Maxxis
WheelsCast aluminum or stamped steel
Dry Weight732 lb.
Length /width / height83.25” / 47.6” / 50.75”
Fuel Capacity5.25 gal.
Front Rack Capacity120 lb.
Rear Rack Capacity240 lb.
Hitch Towing Capacity 1500 lb.
Ground Clearance12”
InstrumentationAnalog Speedometer, Digital Odometer, Tachometer, Two Tripmeters, Hour Meter, Clock, Service Indicator, Diagnostic Indicator, Gear Indicator, Fuel Gauge, AWD Indicator, Hi-Temp/Low-Batt Lights, DC Outlet
Colors - Base ModelPolaris Pursuit Camo, Sage Green, Indy Red
Colors - EPS ModelSunset Red, Blue Fire
Colors - Limited Edition ModelsStealth Black, Polaris Pursuit Camo
MSRPBase Model $7,699, EPS Models $8,699, Limited Edition Models $9,299
Organization: 
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