Taiga's Electric Snowmobile, Reviewed: A Quiet Revolution

2022-03-26 03:43:00 By : Ms. Vivian Jin

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They're not perfect for everyone, but they could be a gamechanger for many.

The first time I ever rode aboard a snowmobile was in a long-lost era: the mid-to-late '90s. Grunge was giving way to protoplasmic nu-metal on the radio dial, superhero movies were still a joke, and Bill Clinton was either denying having "sexual relations with that woman" or, well, having sexual relations with that woman. I was sitting pillion on the back, riding through the night with friends. The wind whipping my face, the snow blurring past beneath, the forest an endless reel of skeletal trees — it was as pure an expression of speed as anything I'd ever experienced.

On the flipside, also seared into my brain: the steady chainsaw roar and pungent wake of two-stroke engines, soiling the tranquility of the Vermont winter. Especially the latter: they say that if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes; if you're not the lead snowmobile, the smell certainly doesn't.

Yet while enough time has passed since those halcyon days for nostalgia to grow thick like kudzu and resurrect the era's trends, snowmobile technology has barely evolved over those decades. Plenty of models still use those two-stroke engines burning a noxious blend of oil and gasoline, engines that not only pollute far worse than the four-stroke motors found in cars and trucks, but also don't last as long (and cost more to run, since you're buying two fuels).

Enter Taiga. Never heard of them? You will. Especially if you're ever planning to ride a snowmobile on vacation.

Taiga CEO and founder Sam Bruneau, for what it's worth, was likely still learning his A-B-Cs back when I forged my first memory of snowmobiling; he graduated from McGill University back in 2015, and started Taiga with a couple fellow engineers soon thereafter. Like Mate Rimac, he'd worked on electric race cars; he knew what electric motors were capable of. Unlike the Croatian Rimac, however, Bruneau hails from the Great White North — so his mind went somewhere other than EV hypercars.

“No one was talking about electric snowmobiles,” he says.

Of course, electric vehicle drivers might think there's an obvious reason for that: EVs and cold are not the best of bedfellows, as I found out the hard way. But Bruneau and the Taiga team — a crew of 15 engineers, for the first few years of the company's existence — were well aware of that issue. Thus, their snow machine's 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack is designed for fast thru-rates — in other words, it heats up quickly and cools down quickly. (Snowmobiles tend to run at steady-state power for long periods, generating ample heat once moving, so letting the battery warm up fast is a boon.)

Doing so meant developing as much as possible in-house; Taiga's machines benefit from internally-crafted batteries, motors, electricals and more. “The goal was to outperform any gas sled in its category,” Bruneau says. Base models make 90 horsepower, but Bruneau swears it feels more like a 120-hp gas-powered machine — something that I can admittedly confirm after a spin behind the handlebars.

Full disclosure: I'm no die-hard snowmobile enthusiast. But from my perhaps closed-minded point of view, it's hard to see what, from a rider's perspective, might be appealing about a traditional snowmobile's powertrain. Even if you grow to tolerate the steady-state drone of those exposed engines, they're still connected to the tread through a CVT gearbox, which gives throttle inputs — especially at low speeds — a somewhat rubbery, imprecise feel.

Taiga's snowmobiles — at least, the Nomad I rode for a short spin around the trails of Stowe, Vermont — suffer from neither. Power it on and squeeze the throttle, and it takes off as smoothly and immediately as if you were pushing it forward with your own feet (albeit much more easily). And as with electric cars, the motors deliver instant torque, so forward acceleration is simply squirt-and-go — a battery-powered rush that, like Ludicrous Mode, never gets old.

It's not, however, quiet — at least, not from behind the handlebars. Quieter, absolutely, but even electric snowmobiles still make quite the racket as their treads tear into and toss up the hard-packed snow of a trail. And once the speed picks up, the rush of wind buffeting your helmet is loud enough to drown out any other sound short of an attacking grizzly bear.

Still, it's much more quiet for other folks, which is to a large extent what matters; many a snowmobile trail across the world is under fire from local residents sick of the racket of passing machines. After arriving back at the staging area, another journalist commented that he hadn't heard me coming until I was practically on top of him — as opposed to the other gas-powered snowmobiles across the field, which could be heard football fields away. And, quite obviously, there's no odor associated with the Taiga snow machines, either.

If there's one Achilles heel to Taiga's snowmobiles, it's range. The Nomad can do around 60 miles of range on a charge, depending on factors like temperature — but not always in the way you may think. "The colder it gets, the harder the snowpack gets, so you get better range,” says Bruneau.

60 miles may be plenty for some recreational riders; according to the company, around 70 percent of snow machine users only do that distance or less a day. Still, for many enthusiasts, part of the fun is knocking out day-long trips through the wilderness before circling back home. To court those folks, Taiga is also working to install a network of DC fast-charging stations along major snowmobile trails in North America, enabling riders to juice the battery from empty to 80% in just 30 minutes. (The machines use a CCS charging port, just like most electric cars, so you can plug into a ChargePoint, EVGo or Electrify America station if you find an accessible one, as well.)

But even if many traditional snowmobile fans aren't wooed over just yet, there's another market for whom the EV bell tolls: tour groups. During my recent trip to West Yellowstone to ride Ski-Doo's latest gas-powered models, the streets were rife with tourists on rental machines heading in and out of Yellowstone National Park – where speeds are restricted to 45 mph and wildlife that could be scared off by noisy gas engines abounds. The advantages of electric snowmobiles felt pretty damn obvious then and there.

Indeed, Taiga says tour operators and ski search-and-rescue teams are two groups they're targeting with their machines. Both need machines that do well with constant use and short-range travel — two factors EV snow machines do well with, as the ranges fall within their capabilities and their electric motors require far less maintenance than gas engines. And that's not even getting into the advantages of a more pleasant riding experience without the noise and the stink.

So don't be put off if the next time you take a snowmobile tour, you find yourself astride an electric machine. You'll probably enjoy it more than you expect.

Take it from someone who knows: it's incredibly fun, but only if you can see.