ATV Review: 2019 Polaris Sportsman 850 SP

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850cc of #1.

Would it surprise you to hear that the Polaris Sportsman line of ATVs is continually the number 1 selling brand of automatic 4×4? We’ve heard a lot of praise for them out on the trails, work sites and even some race courses but wanted to find out for ourselves what all the hype was about.

We took delivery of a 2019 Polaris Sportsman 850 SP in Arctic White just as NY winter was pounding us senseless with full intention of torturing the machine through snow, ice, mud and eventually dirt so that we could deliver the scoop.

For 2019 Polaris offers the Sportsman in four displacement packages: 450 ($6,249), 570 ($6,899), 850 ($8,999) and 1000cc ($12,199). We mentioned above we opted for the SP package of the 850 – which bumps the MSRP up to $11,999 but comes with some pretty slick factory options like standard electronic power steering (EPS), winch controls, front and rear bumpers and aluminum wheels.

All told ours weighed in at 785 pounds, tracks a 48” (47.6) wide footprint and 53” wheelbase.

The first impression upon saddling up is that the Sportsman 850 is a lot of machine! It doesn’t matter how big you are physically, you aren’t going to be cramped in this cockpit. There is ample room fore and aft, big deep footwells, and a nice long reach to the bars. Here’s what you don’t expect though- the midsection and seat/tank junction are surprisingly thin. Gone are the days of the beefy 4×4 causing its pilot to perform a split across a wide seat. So surprising is this degree of comfort that we had to study the schematics to see how Polaris’ engineers accomplished this feat.

The answer, it turns out, is that the bulk of that massive 850 twin is situated in the space between the front wheels and tank section and designed so that the cylinders themselves are in line with the frame members. The narrower transmission sits rear of the engine and directly under the rider. As a result the girth of the machine is never felt from the operator’s perspective.

EFI coupled to a 67% larger battery means drama-free starting every time. Are we sure about this? Yup! When we took delivery of the machine, the nights were dipping below zero. It would often sit several weeks in these conditions between starts but never once let us down.

Like most modern 4x4s, you are looking at a fully automatic PVT transmission (and shaft final drive) but that isn’t to say you are limited on options. In its default setting, the Sportsman uses a 2WD/ AWD platform for fuel economy. Within a single rotation of a wheel-slip, the transmission distributes power to each of the four as needed. We used this setting a lot and are pleased to say that even in half a foot of snow, never encountered a single situation that demanded we tap into the heavier duty settings. For trail riding, exploring, snow and mudding, this default gets it done (there is also a low range option here as well).

From there you have the ability to select 4×4 via the right-side handlebar selector or lock the differentials. We put this machine through the wringer but couldn’t find a climb, descent, mud pit or workload that required locking the differentials but it’s comforting to know the ability to do so was there.

Blasting off is a matter of locking the right-side lever into the correct gear and applying the throttle. What’s it feel like in action? Smooth! The Sportsman 850 makes power very early on and delivers it in a very metered fashion. Low range can be very beneficial in towing situations simply because it tames all of the engine’s output down to the meat of the torque curve. In high range, goosing it means hold on tight!

Is the Sportsman 850 fast? Remarkably so. If speed is your prime objective, this machine will not disappoint. The ProStar single overhead cam 850cc parallel twin is good for 78 horsepower and the machine’s ability to put those horses into forward motion is ridiculous. We found ourselves in a game of chicken with the throttle on multiple occasions but ran out of real-estate (and oftentimes courage) long before we found the upper limits of the quad’s top end. Do keep in mind 80HP puts the machine in line with the output of some of the sport’s more exciting SxSs but this machine weighs close to 500 pounds less than they do. Couple this reality to how smooth it pulls and its uncanny ability to find traction and you can start to understand why getting reckless on the Sportsman is an arm-stretching experience.

However, we are pleased to report that any fears of it being more a speedster wagon than a serious workhorse were immediately put to rest as well. We used the machine in our time to pull stumps, drag downed limbs, even remove snow. This machine is a “set it & forget it” 4×4 – just know that if you need to get your work mule to another location in a hurry, it’ll do that too.

It’s often said any machine is only as fast as it can stop and keeping this in mind, we can once again attest the Sportsman 850 is fast! Braking is accomplished via hydraulic disc (dual up front, single in the rear) of the single-lever variety; there’s also a right-side foot pedal to activate just the rear brake. One-lever braking does take a bit of getting used-to, though as, try as we may to get out of the habit, we found ourselves grabbing for both levers to stop in a hurry from years of sport quad riding only to find emptiness on the right side.

Braking is startlingly effective- but believe it or not, very rarely used in our testing. Why? Active Descent Control (ADC) which dolls out engine braking to all four wheels simultaneously. This is a common feature among automatics of late but frankly we have yet to encounter one quite so potent. The system can be disengaged if you want stopping detail to reply strictly upon braking but keeping it engaged can take the big 850 down from speed just by letting go of the throttle in a hurry! The system works remarkably well on descents, as the name suggests, but we came away pretty surprised with its ability to keep speeds in check for hard cornering even on complete flats.

We’ve established the machine has incredible power and the braking capacity to make it controllable, but what about the chassis? At nearly 50” wide, the Sportsman 850 is a planted ride! We encountered snow-drifted cambers that would have dumped lesser vehicles onto their side, sometimes at speed, and found the SP shrugged such annoyances away with ease. We can attribute a lot of its natural surefootedness to the double cradle frame dimensions themselves but the fully independent suspension deserves praise as well. Keep in mind your ATV Connection editors come from a background of racing qauds in a motocross setting; we’ve come to expect truly great things out of our machine’s shocks even if it entails purchasing components that cost as much as an entire ATV if necessary. When we say the Sportsman has good suspension, we don’t mean “good for a heavy 4×4” we mean good. Period. It’s stiff and transmits very little roll in slow, work-heavy settings but as the speeds increase, it becomes incredibly active and plush. We encountered our share of high-speed wash-outs, rut crossings, and rock garden traversing and came away quite impressed with its ability to adapt to the conditions on the fly. Factor in that the machine boasts 11.5” of ground clearance and it becomes clear that getting the Sportsman out of shape is surprisingly difficult, even for the sloppier riders among us.

Electronic power steering (EPS) is a fairly pricey upgrade but to experience it in action really had us questioning how we were able to get along without it all these many years. The slimness of the midsection mentioned above, gobs of usable power for any situation and steering that remains effortless, light, airy and responsive no matter the terrain (or transmission setting) all add up to an experience that does not feel like 785-pounds beneath its rider. In fact this is one of the first times ever that our testers used words like “light”, “nimble”, and “flickable” to describe the experience of riding a utility-oriented ATV. Never mind one that is approaching 800-pounds.

A lot of our time with the quad once the snow melted entailed towing and dragging. We moved a boat trailer, tree stumps and many bundles of branches around with ease. The standard 1.25” receiver is rated at towing 1,500 pounds. Additional perks include storage under the front rack and a dedicated trunk in the middle of the rear. One note of complaint is we had snow on several occasions pack its way into the rear trunk’s release handle, making locking it shut an affair for warmer days or achievable only via a bucket of hot water.

All in all we can state with absolute certainty the 2019 Polaris Sportsman 850SP is a 4×4 that will dazzle riders of all caliber. We spent half a year flogging it in conditions from snow, to mud to sand to an XC race course! We used it to push snow, drag logs, brush, tow a trailer. It got driven hard, put away wet (sometimes even frozen solid) and never gave us a single issue. About our only complaint with the unit is that it had to go back to Polaris when we were done.

Engine & Drivetrain
Active Descent Control Standard
Cooling Liquid
Cylinders Displacement 2 / 850cc
Drive System Type True On-Demand AWD/2WD
Engine Braking System (EBS) Standard
Engine Type ProStar SOHC 4-Stroke Twin Cylinder
Fuel System/ Battery Electronic Fuel Injection
Horsepower 78 HP
Transmission/Final Drive Automatic PVT P/R/N/L/H; Shaft Drive

Estimated Dry Weight 785 lb (357 kg)
Front/Rear Rack or Box Capacity 120 lb (55 kg)/ 240 lb (110 kg)
Fuel Capacity 5.25 gal (19.9 L)
Ground Clearance 11.5 in (29 cm)
Overall Vehicle Size (L x W x H) 83.25 x 47.6 x 50.75 in (211.4 x 120.9 x 128.9 cm)
Payload Capacity 575 lb (261 kg)
Seat Height 37 in (94 cm)
Wheelbase 53 in (134.6 cm)

Front/Rear Brakes Single Lever 3-Wheel Hydraulic Disc with Hydraulic Rear Foot Brake
Parking Brake Park In-Transmission / Lockable Hand Lever

Additional Specifications
Cargo System Lock & Ride, 2 Cast Rack Extenders 4 Gal (15 L) Front Dry Storage 2 Gal (8 L) Rear Storage
Front Suspension High Clearance Arched Dual A-Arm 10.5 in (26.67 cm) Travel
Hitch Towing Rating 1,500 lb (680.4 kg)
Hitch Type Standard 1.25 in (3.2 cm) Receiver
Instrumentation All Digital Gauge, Speedometer, Odometer, Tachometer, Two Tripmeters, Hour Meter, Gear Indicator, Fuel Gauge, AWD Indicator, Volt Meter, Coolant Temperature, Hi-Temp Light, Clock, DC Outlet
Lighting 50w High Beam, Dual 50w Low Beam Headlights
Rear Suspension High Clearance Arched Dual A-Arm, Rolled IRS, 10.25 in (26 cm) Travel

Tires / Wheels
Electronic Power Steering Standard
Front Tires 26 x 8 CST
Rear Tires 26 x 10 CST
Wheels 14 in Aluminum

For more, click here.

Special Thanks: We’d like to thank the following for helping make this review a reality- Maddisen Deutsch and all the good people at Appolson’s Performance Center in Hamburg NY.

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