THREE FORKS RANCH, Wyoming — I’d like to start this review with a caveat. I’m not a farmer. I’ve never mended a fence or baled a hay or uttered the phrase, “Git along little dogies,” while trying to herd a fleet or whatever of cows into the corral. Despite this, I imagine the new Polaris Ranger Extreme Duty 1500 side-by-side can make all those things much easier to do.
At a first drive at the Three Forks ranch on the border of Wyoming and Colorado – the state line literally goes right through the front pasture – I get to sample a tippy top NorthStar Ultimate. While Premium and NorthStar Premium trims are available, this Ultimate trim starts at right around $45,000, is fully enclosed and features a cold-blowing HVAC system, heated seats for winter time, a 7-inch touchscreen, JBL sound system and 30-inch tires with the possibility to upsize to 32-inches. I’m basically driving a little truck, albeit without standard sun visors. Those are an accessory.
Regardless of trim this little UTV comes with some impressive work specs. It can tow 3,500 pounds – about as much as a Ford Bronco – and can haul 1,705 pounds in the bed. The base Premium gets a payload of just over 2,000 pounds but only the top two trims include a power tilting bed to easily dump whatever weighed just over 2,000 pounds. The first part of my drive is a look-see of the ranch. Here I get to exploit the 15 inches of ground clearance and 12 inches of suspension travel as we cruise around, air conditioning and tunes cranked to equally sky-high levels.
The Ranger XD has an industry-exclusive steel-belted continuously variable transmission. Not only does this eliminate the fear of throwing a belt while out on the trail, it means the Ranger is extremely easy to drive. Polaris says the steel belt will last for the life of the vehicle. The only servicing buyers will have to do on the transmission is change the fluid and filter every 6,000 miles.
From a driving perspective it’s quieter and it’s easier to shift into gear, although I have to push the lever away from me to get into Drive instead of towards me. There is no low gear but there are a few drive modes. Most of my drive is done in Standard, which has a decent throttle response and enough engine braking on the downhills that I don’t have to ride the brakes. Comfort mutes the throttle too much and I hate it, but Sport mode allows for higher revs and no engine braking. Make no mistake though – this isn’t a racing UTV. With 110 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque, I see 60 mph on a graded dirt road, but don’t expect blistering acceleration.
Our ride leaders tell us to switch to Tow/Haul mode at the bottom of a steep hill. No, I’m not dragging a trailer, but this mode maximizes engine torque for climbing, acting a little bit like a low gear. What’s more, it allows for a secure hill start assist. Half way up, I stop and take my feet off the pedals. The rig remains stuck in place, although it encourages me to shift into Park. Polaris says this is to keep folks from walking away from the Ranger while it’s still in gear. Me, I just get back on the throttle and the UTV keeps on trucking up the hill.
The Three Forks is a working ranch with 9,000 head of cattle. On our drive they keep a cautious distance away, except for one. She decides she must join her friends on the other side of the trail and runs out in front of me. I hit the brakes and the boosted system slows my tester confidently. I have a bit of a heart attack while ol’ Bessy saunters away, giving me just a touch of side eye. I am still not gittin’ along with the little dogies, apparently.
The ride quality here is great with the Ranger soaking up bumps and rocks at speeds that would make a mid-size truck slow down precipitously. Narrow trails pose no problem for this 64-inch-wide UTV. In fact, at one point I think I’ve taken a wrong turn, the trail is so overgrown with bushes and small trees. A Toyota Tacoma is some 11 inches wider and would definitely earn its pinstripes out here. I don’t hear any squeaks or rattles during my drive time and best of all, my clothes and face remain dust-free thanks to the enclosed cabin.
You can fit six people into a Ranger XD, but I’d put the larger folks in the outboard seats. Those middle seats are best for those under 5-foot-10 or so. The bummer is you’ll lose two cupholders and some storage if you’ve got a third person up front, but there are still two cupholders just below as well as numerous rubberized cubbies and nets for storage. Heck, there is even underseat storage, two gloveboxes and a special cell phone cubby for the driver.
My quibbles here are few. First, the seats are not comfortable at all. I find them to be hard as a rock and too short in the seat, leaving my legs to flop around a bit. Ergonomics can be subjective, of course, but I would want some padding before I commit to spending long working hours behind the wheel.
I’m also not a fan of the rear locker. When it is unlocked, the indicator light is on. Yeah, that’s weird but not a deal breaker. However, in order to engage the locker, I need to be off-throttle and at a speed below 13 mph. It’s not a quick engagement and every time I try it, the Ranger essentially slows to a stop. Further, the button is placed to the left of the steering wheel and it’s a bit hard to see. My advice is to just stop and engage the locker. Otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re doing too many things at once.
But look, I’m not here for a trail ride. I’m interested in how this thing tows. With only 105 pound-feet of torque, I don’t understand this engineering magic. Polaris has a trailer set up with what looks like enough hay to feed 20 horses. I push the drive mode selector into Tow/Haul and the thing just … goes. In addition to maximizing engine torque, Tow/Haul mode also limits my speed, but the boosted brakes make stopping this load pretty easy. The steel-belted transmission also provides really precise throttle control while I’m backing up the trailer. With a rubber-belt CVT, it would be tough to regulate the power so accurately.
If you know you’ll be towing and hauling most of the time, the rear suspension is adjustable. You can move the rear shocks outboard just a bit and tighten the spring up for a stiffer ride in the back. My tester isn’t modified in such a way and is fine, but it’s nice to have the option.
Polaris says there are more than 70 accessories you can buy for the Ranger XD, including curated packages for ranching, farming and hunting. I particularly dig the Lock and Ride cargo system to easily attach gear like shovels or recovery boards. Also on tap are a front and rear winch, a snow plow and the aforementioned sunvisors.
I don’t get too much time to explore the Ride Command system, but I notice a few standouts. The 7-inch touchscreen displays a speedometer, battery status and engine temperature, but the navigation is probably the most useful feature. It can connect everyone in your group together so drivers always know where their pals are. At one point I look down and see that my lead has sent a message out to all the UTVs in our group. This is a great feature if you’re out of cell service or have no radio or walkie communication.
Frankly, it’s tough to see why any rancher or farmer would buy a new midsize work truck when the Polaris Ranger XD 1500 exists. It won’t haul your horses around or anything, but it does much of the same work a midsize truck can do while getting into tighter places and moving quickly over rough terrain. However, with new base model trucks starting in the mid-$30,000 range, you need to stick with the Premium trim starting at just under $30,000 and give up the enclosed cabin to make it worth your while. Sure, a truck is also a vehicle you can drive around town, but UTVs are street legal in many states.
Why bother with a truck, indeed.