We Test Drive The Can-Am Defender SxS at Harpole’s Heartland Lodge
Can-Am recently introduced the all new Defender Side by Side as part of their Off-Road vehicle lineup. Unlike their current sport and recreational models the Maverick and Commander, the Can-Am Defender SxS is designed, engineered and manufactured from the ground up to be their first true Utility Terrain Vehicle. They invited us out to Harpole’s Heartland Lodge in Nebo Illinois to test drive the all new machine and we graciously accepted. On the first page of this article we will offer up our initial impressions seeing the Defender up close and personal for the first time as well as offer up our ride impressions from a recreational point of view. Over the next few days we’ll also delve into its innovative features, storage solutions and accessory options in separate articles to show why we believe the Can-Am Defender is a standout vehicle in today’s UTV market.
Prior to driving the Defender… Having driven the Commander and Maverick side by sides a number of times in the past, I have always enjoyed my time behind the wheel of both, and found their comfort, handling, power as well as their fit and finish to be among the best, if not the best in the industry. And after reading the initial press release and specs for the Defender I would expect it to be the same… well maybe it wouldn’t be as fun, or as powerful, or as comfortable. On a personal note, I have never needed a UTV for work or hunting, nor have I enjoyed driving or being a passenger in any stock UTV when riding on the trails. Most of them have just been uncomfortable, underpowered and quite frankly, just boring to drive for any period of time. I ride for recreation only and honestly prefer being on an ATV, or behind the wheel of a Sport SxS whenever we ride. So to say I wasn’t that excited personally when I read the initial press release for the Defender isn’t an understatement. After all I would rather see Can-Am release a 50 to 55 inch sport side by side for riding in my neck of the woods instead of a farm vehicle I would never consider utilizing for recreational riding… Fast forward 1 hour after driving the Defender for the first time… Okay, maybe I was wrong.
At first glance, there is no mistaking the Can-Am Defender is a UTV first and foremost. Its styling, cabin and its tilting cargo bed are designed with Hunters and Farmers in mind. Now as far as UTV’s go the Defender has style out its tailgate. Can-Am always designs great looking vehicles like the Renegade and Maverick, and the Defender is no exception. To me it looks like a UTV that’s pissed off because it wants to go play on the trails instead of work… well I should just say it is the best looking UTV on the market currently as far as I am concerned. As you look closer you begin to see all the cool little features Can-Am has implemented into this vehicle. From the different cabin storage features like the removable water resistant toolbox, to the ruler which is molded into the plastic liner of the tailgate, Can-Am has really put some serious thought into the design of this vehicle and all its features. And while they have always paid great attention to the little details with all their vehicles, they have really outdone themselves with the Defender. If you utilze a UTV for any type of work or hunting, the Defender and its complete accessory line are designed to handle anything you need it to. Another great feature of the Defender is hidden right under its tilting cargo bed. The engine in the Defender is located at the rear of the vehicle under the bed for easy maintenance. The engines are also maintenance-free for one year – 1,865 miles / 3,000 km or 200 hours. The rear placement of the engine optimizes weight distribution with 56% of the weight at the rear and 44% at the front of the vehicle. The Defender also has a 10.6 gallon fuel tank for a longer range of traveling. We’ll offer more impressions on all the Defenders features over the next few days in a separate article.
Once it was time to choose our vehicle for the testing, we decided to jump in a Camo Defender XT with the HD10 engine first. We would be testing out other models later in the day, but as you read on you’ll see other than some minor power differences between the HD8 and HD10 engines, all the models handled and rode the same on the trails. Once we strapped in and fired up the engine we immediately noticed how quiet the cabin was since the engine is mounted to the rear of the vehicle. We pulled away from the staging area and began heading down our first section of trails and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the Defender was like no other UTV I have driven before. Can-Am engineers definitely injected a little bit of their sport DNA into the Defender, and although it’s designed to be a work horse the Defender would be more than capable as a recreational trail vehicle as well.
Over the course of the two days of testing we drove the Defender DPS model with the Rotax HD8 V-Twin engine and the Defender XT model with both the Rotax HD8 V-Twin and Rotax HD10 V-Twin engines. The Rotax HD8 V-Twin delivers 50 hp and 50 lb-ft torque while the Rotax HD10 V-Twin delivers 72 hp with 61 lb-ft torque. Both engines had more than enough power for the trails and obstacles we encountered in our testing. We actually found the Rotax HD8 V-Twin engine to be almost as powerful as the HD10 engine (without a load) and more than adequate for general trail riding. We managed to hit speeds in excess of 50 mph easily with the HD8 engine without hitting a rev limiter and never felt a loss in power ascending any rutted hilly trails. Compared to the HD8, the Rotax HD10 V-Twin has a higher top end and a bit more torque for hauling a bed full of materials. On the trails the HD10 accelerated a bit quicker through the power band and the additional displacement was more noticeable when the machine had a load in the bed. Since the engines are rear mounted under the tilting cargo bed the cabin stayed cool and quiet as well.
The Defender incorporates the all new PRO-TORQ Transmission and utilizes an Electronic Hill Descent Control system which combined with Can-Am’s engine braking helps slow the vehicle without riding the brakes descending steeper hills. In High gear I found it worked well although I still needed to feather the brakes to keep the vehicle from gaining momentum on steeper descents. In Low gear however it worked flawlessly due to Can-Am’s PRO-TORQ Transmission and its Quick Response System (QRS). Actually I am pretty amazed at how good it really worked. We tested it on a few steeper hills and without touching the brakes or throttle the Defender just crawled down them at 2 to 3 mph. Climbing steeper, rutted trails in Low gear was just as impressive. No matter what we pointed the Defender at, if we put it in Low gear it would just crawl up, over or down it with ease. Another thing worth mentioning is how smooth deceleration was when letting off the throttle while in Low. I was pretty impressed when we were testing low cruising at 10 mph and I let off the throttle as the engine smoothly decelerated to 2 mph. The CVT with its larger ratios delivered exceptional torque especially in Low gear. It also incorporates optimized ventilation and electronic belt protection to ensure more efficient power transfer and increased drive belt durability.
Also included on the Defender models is the 4-Mode Tracking System. The system consists of the Visco-Lok QE front differential and the lockable Gear-on-Gear Rear Differential. 2 buttons on the dashboard control the 4 different modes = 2×4 locked rear, 2×4 open rear, 4×4 open rear and 4×4 locked rear. The 2×4 open rear is essentially your Turf Mode and allows for a tight turning radius of 26 feet. We tested this feature and it works extremely well and it also improved maneuvering in tight tree lined areas on the trails. We tested every combination and they all performed as described. And whenever we had the Visco-Lok engaged the front wheels showed no signs of slipping. The Defender XT also incorporates Can-Am’s Selectable Drive Mode, and an additional rocker switch is added to the dash with ECO™/ Work / Normal modes of operation. The Normal mode is what we used for our regular testing and has no limitations on speed or torque. Work mode is calibrated for working with high loads in a smooth manner, offering a smooth power delivery, still with full power and torque. The ECO mode limits both high-range speed and torque to produce moderate driving with regulated-but-smooth acceleration.
Comfort and Handling
We will be offering our impressions about the Defender cockpit, dash layout and all of Can-Am’s innovative new storage solutions for the Defender on the Defender Interior article over the next few days. For now I will delve into how it feels sitting behind the wheel of the Defender DPS and XT while out on the trails.
The Defender DPS and Defender XT utilize The VERSA-PRO Bench Seat which is a 40/20/40 split. The XT model comes with a flip-up passenger seat with sealed/waterproof under seat storage and a reinforced seat cover with thicker vinyl and a special material finish to be more resistant and offer a premium look. The drivers seat in the Defender XT also is adjustable 3 inches forward/rearward. The bench seats in both models were extremely comfortable throughout our testing. I felt secure sitting on them even when we were traversing off camber climbs or steep trails. I never slid sideways when taking a turn aggressively and overall the height and position were quite good for a UTV. At the end of our testing I thought for sure I would feel tired but the seats design, along with the DPS steering and the suspension made the Defender a comfortable vehicle to drive.
The adjustable steering wheel tilts 25 degrees and felt comfortable in my hands with a grippy feel with or without gloves on, and Dynamic Power Steering made steering effortless in every situation. The few times we did hit the skids or an obstacle with a tire at a bad angle, the shock wasn’t felt in the wheel. At normal speeds and with steady throttle the steering performed well. The only negative thing we experienced on either of the Defender models we test drove had to do with the steering. During aggressive riding or hard acceleration the steering feels too light at times and the front end of the Defender seems to push right a bit. Granted these are prototype units and this was only during aggressive trail riding. Under normal acceleration or work conditions it wasn’t noticeable, but I thought it should be mentioned none the less.
The suspension on both Defender models also performed great during our testing on the trails. Both models utilize twin tube gas charged shocks and allow for 10 inches of suspension travel in both the front and rear. And according to the specs, both models also have 11 inches of ground clearance. We managed to bottom out the front shocks once on the Defender XT HD10, but overall they handled every bump, root, rut and rock extremely well and the TTA HD rear arms and external sway bar kept the unit planted when cornering aggressively.
The Defender DPS model comes with 25 inch Maxxis M923J tires mounted on 12 inch cast aluminum wheels as standard equipment. The Defender XT models come with 27 inch Maxxis Bighorn 2.0 tires mounted on 14 inch Black Cast Aluminum wheels as standard equipment. The Defender XT model with its 27 inch Maxxis Bighorn 2.0 tire and 14 inch wheel combination did perform a bit better on the trails, especially on the more rutted steeper sections, but the DPS’s tire and wheel combination was fine for general trail use as well.
Protection and Chassis
The Defender DPS model comes with a central skid plate and integrated front steel bumper, while the Defender XT models come with a full skid plate, integrated front steel bumper and a full hard roof as standard equipment. Can-Am has many optional protection accessories available as well like front and rear bumpers, full aluminum skids, windshields, rear windows, and body side protection. They even partnered with Best Top for a complete soft cab enclosure. During our testing there was one trail where everyone got to try out their skids. It was on a section of trail with the left side rutted down a few feet more than the right side. The center had marks running up it for about 15 feet from every vehicle scraping up it. I would have to say the standard steel skids worked well since no one seemed to damage their vehicle from that trail. The full hard roof was also nice to have to keep the sun and dust from entering through the top of the vehicle. The roof was also designed to channel water away from the cabin effectively.
Can-Am’s new High Rigidity Chassis is a fully welded frame made from high-strength, low-alloy (HSLA) grade steel meant to take the abuse of heavy duty chores. The new Steel Cage on the Defender has the front pillars moved forward for increased visibility and ease of entry/exit to the cab. The visibility is amazing when riding down the trails with this new cage design. No matter the angle, you have a clear view of everything ahead of you and entering and exiting the cabin of the Defender was extremely easy as well. Can-Am has added the door nets which work well for daily chores and general use, but it would be nice to have a full door instead for recreational trail riding.
As both a passenger and driver throughout the time of our testing we traversed terrain of varying degrees of difficulty from flat faster trails to steeper tight twisty rutted hills and the Defender handled everything with ease. We drove the Defender like we would any recreational or sport SxS and although it doesn’t ride or handle as well as a Maverick, the Defender was still a blast to drive. And it’s definitely more fun to drive than any UTV I have driven before. The cabin was very quiet and there were no rattles or squeaks coming from the vehicle at all.
With all the torque the Rotax HD8 V-Twin and Rotax HD10 V-Twin engines produce, the Defender is a low end beast and you could feel its power with every stab of the throttle. The throttle was very responsive and acceleration was great throughout the entire power band as well. The Low gear was excellent for crawling up the steep stuff and when combined with the electronic hill descent control and engine braking made descending steep hills a breeze.
The lockable rear diff was a great feature and we loved unlocking it as it allowed us to ride a little bit faster through the tighter twisting tree lined sections of trails we encountered. The 4 – 220 mm disk brakes were very quiet and stopping power was quite good. The seats were comfortable and there was no bump steer feedback felt through the wheel. The suspension also performed well and soaked up every bump, rock, rut and root we hit. The machine felt planted in faster cornering and the different tire combinations did a great job of gaining and holding traction on the trails.
From our initial testing I have to admit I was totally surprised with how well the Defender performed as a recreational vehicle. Before strapping myself behind the wheel I really wasn’t expecting it be much fun at all on the trails. Can-Am has really changed my opinion on how capable and fun a UTV could be when designed and engineered for both work and play, and if you’re in the market for a new all-around performer be sure to check them out when they start arriving at your local dealers in December. To view the entire Can-Am Off-Road Vehicle Lineup visit them at Can-Am Off-Road.
2016 Can-Am Defender Specs .pdf2016-Can-Am-Defender-Specs