The Thundercat rolled slowly at little more than idle. Then quickly the rider slammed the throttle to the bar. The front wheels popped up as the rear tires gripped and violently flung turf clumps.

Point taken

Arctic Cat’s all new Thundercat ATV is exactly what Cat engineers intended—the biggest, most powerful all-terrain vehicle in the ATV kingdom. With its 1000cc, V-twin engine delivering 188 lbs-ft of torque in a package that weighs just over 700 pounds, it is the king of Arctic Cat ‘wheelers.’ But, as incredible as it may seem, the Thundercat can be as docile as a kitten. This is also a result of its incredible torque. The gentler side of the Thundercat comes in useful when working your way slowly up deeply rutted forest trails where speed could get you into more trouble than you could imagine.

We were astonished at this ATV’s capabilities. It is a utility 4-wheeler, but with its power it can hold its own against many all-out sports quads. Cat engineers may have started with a basic utility chassis from Arctic Cat’s single cylinder 700 EFI and 650 H1 models, but they were clever enough to make all the right refinements that give the Thundercat the utility of a workhorse and the playability of a sport quad.

Stoutly framed

If you take a close look at Cat’s utility ATV frames, you’ll see that they are stouter and a bit overbuilt in comparison to some competitors. While Cat engineers simply could have dropped this V-twin into an existing frame, they didn’t. Forward of the driveshaft the frame is strengthened where necessary to accommodate the new engine’s tremendous torque. From the driveshaft back, the Thundercat is new. Stretched nearly two inches to increase the wheelbase, the Thundercat rides on a 52.5-inch stance compared to a standard 50 inches for Cat’s 700 EFI model.

Aiming to make the Thundercat easy and comfortable to ride, engineers dropped the ride height to create a very rider-friendly seating position. Along with that, they designed an all-new handlebar set expressly for the Thundercat that is lower and more ergonomically friendly than those of the 650 or 700 series Cat ATVs. The bar height complements the new seat height and combines to give the Thundercat less of a utility quad feel and a more sporty feel.

Ride friendly

These changes make for a powerful ATV that corners flatter and faster than its big bore, single cylinder Cat cousins. To get this handling prowess and extension of the wheelbase, the rear suspension mounts had to be repositioned and Cat engineers designed in about two inches of suspension ‘sit-in.’ When you climb aboard the Thundercat, your weight immediately lowers the ride height. But, on the showroom floor, the big Cat stands tall and aggressive. Yeah, it’s a marketing trick designed to help sell Thundercats at the dealership, but what really seals the deal is the Cat’s on-trail performance and full use of the 10-inch suspension travel front and rear.

While ride and handling are much improved compared to other big-bore Cats, what makes this Arctic Cat so exciting is the power. Thundercat says something to potential buyers, especially to ones who know Arctic Cat’s snowmobile history. The ‘Thundercat’ name was first used on a very powerful Arctic Cat snowmobile. It was brawny and bold, the most powerful sled on the snow. Let that be a warning to you ATV riders. Arctic Cat is making a statement with the name.

Powerful challenge

“One goal with this engine was to provide mind-blowing corner-to-corner performance,” says Arctic Cat’s product manager Craig Kennedy. “We also had to make the power and performance manageable so that the Thundercat would have broad appeal to a variety of riders.”

Despite its engineering relationship with partner Suzuki of Japan, the all-new V-twin is an Arctic Cat design and built at Arctic’s St. Cloud, MN, engine facility.

Cat engineers told ATV.com that they designed the Thundercat’s 90-degree V-twin to deliver broad power from idle to wide-open throttle body of the electronic fuel injection. Each 475cc hemi-headed cylinder on this 950cc twin spins into operation willingly and runs up to maximum power easily. Cat’s proprietary CVT drive system easily controls the power delivery

Kennedy feels that, unlike a parallel twin design of this displacement, the Thundercat’s 90-degree V-twin doesn’t need additional internal counter-balancing to mitigate vibration. He feels that each cylinder in the 90-degree V-design offsets the other.

What it does need is a strong drive system. Cat powertrain engineers had to strengthen the CVT drive and tune it to handle the increased torque load of the new the V-twin. A so-called ‘spike load dampener’ is mounted to the front of the drive shaft. This device is really a quite conventional torque limiter, but Cat prefers calling it a “spike load dampener.” Regardless, the device is a simple and effective means of keeping the engine’s torque from breaking the drive shaft. The load limiter allows the driveshaft to slip just enough to absorb a torque spike like when you go spinning your wheels from loose turf to, say, an asphalt road.

Fierce, yet docile

We found this four-wheeler had a bit of a split personality. In a test of its docile side, we eased our way up and around a tight, but deeply rutted forest path. Just above idle the fuel injection kept the drive sheaves in play against the drive belt and allowed the unit to climb at a slow walking gait. But, once clear of that path, we headed on to a long, open section of trail and gunned the throttle. The CVT shifted out and away we charged. What had looked like a long straightaway fell away quickly as the Thundercat built speed.  Kennedy would later explain: “We feel that the Thundercat suits those riders who simply want to cruise all day, yet it offers high performance for those who want to chase it.”

Yeah, we know! Corner to corner acceleration is not for the meek. And we didn’t have any place to truly discover top speed. Let’s just say that the Thundercat is quick. It is fast.

Cat realizes that it has a problem with how best to market this beast. On the one hand, buyers will recognize the massive powerplant and expect a high performance machine—which it can be. But then, what about people who may be intimidated by the torque and displacement? How does Cat get them to try this model? In our estimation, the Thundercat is a great all-around ATV. It can be useful around a farm or ranch. The tougher the trail, the more we liked the big Cat. And, we really would like to have this beast for plowing snow. Put this baby behind a five-foot snowplow and our driveway is history!

The Thundercat is a fast and powerful ATV well suited to performance riders and equally, if not even more, adept at utility needs.

Stiff tired

When you go to the Cat dealership to look at the Thundercat, check out the special Thundercat-spec Maxxis tires. They were designed expressly for this ATV. Cat engineers worked closely with Maxxis to create a totally different tire from its other ATV models.

These tires use a much stiffer sidewall for better traction, greater durability and improved ride handling. There are 25×8-12 Maxxis tires up front with 25×10-12 Maxxis on the Thundercat’s rear rims.

At the Thundercat test ride, we had the chance to try a unit with and without the special spec tires. Let’s just say that we knew the difference in tires within a few feet of hopping on the properly shod Thundercat. Where the standard tire—used on the standard 700 and 650 models—would feel like it was rolling on its ankles, the spec tire was firm and easy to steer. Cornering on the spec tire was quick and sure-footed. The non-spec tire wanted to squat before it would flatten out and get a good footprint for turning grip. You may get used to it, but the spec tire makes life pleasant and the Thundercat a much friendlier ride. We figured that turning efforts were at least 40 to 60% easier with the spec tires.

Buyer expectation

In our test ride of these pre-production Thundercats, we learned that buyers should expect quite a bit from the newest Cat. It will feature a high/low CVT transmission complete with engine braking. There is ‘on-the-fly’ capability for getting from 2WD to 4WD. For tough going, add in a front locking differential. There are wide fenders to keep mud and debris from flying onto you and rubber engine mountings to reduce any residual vibration from the big V-twin. There’s even digital instrumentation with 14 settings and a complete tool set under the seat.

With all of those features standard, when you combine the Thundercat’s power, its lowered riding height, more rider friendly steering and new spec tires, you end up with one of the best and most powerful utility/sport quads on the market.

Related Reading: 2007 Arctic Cat 700 EFI

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