Last month, off-roading enthusiasts descended into Johnson Valley, California to turn the desert into a temporary city and an all-out high octane party. I was there, getting sand in my teeth and sleeping in a fantastic little camper. I also got to take a drive in the absolute cheat code of off-roading. The 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR is about the closest you’ll get to having a superpower.
Side-by-sides are already vehicles that can often skip and hop across terrain better than an off-road-oriented passenger vehicle. But when you give them long-travel suspension and more power than most motorcycles they become something else entirely. A Can-Am Maverick is so good and so fun that I’m not sure it’s possible to be unhappy behind the wheel of one.
(Full Disclosure: Backbone Media and Bombardier Recreational Products invited me out to Johnson Valley, California to experience the 2022 King of the Hammers. BRP let me hoon a 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR and loaned me a Commander XT for my stay. Backbone covered more pricy expenses and snacks while I covered my own meals, adult beverages and more.)
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of skipping a wild side-by-side across the desert, let’s talk King of the Hammers. Before my plane landed in Palm Springs, California I had no idea what to expect. I’ve done plenty of Gambler 500 rallies and raced total junkers in HooptieX. I sort of expected something like a Gambler, but more organized and with professional racing going on. In reality, it’s way more than that.
Upon arrival you learn that Hammertown is a massive makeshift city in the middle of nowhere. Its sheer size dwarfs actual incorporated communities and the off-road action spreads further than your eye could even see. You have no data connection. You have no cellular connection. The only structures are tents and RVs.
And in every direction that you look there is a side-by-side, Jeep, or truck absolutely sending it down the area’s countless public trails.
As David Tracy noted in his trip out to the King of the Hammers to beat up a Bronco, the terrain wasn’t all that challenging. There was endless sand, some shrubs and a whole bunch of whoops. This was great for complete balls out speed if your vehicle could handle it. If you wanted a challenge, the rock formations were good for that, and more on that later.
Can-Am invited me to the event not only to try out BRP’s latest side-by-sides, but to experience the event as a whole, including the racing. I caught a glimpse of Ford Broncos conquering rock climbs, but the racing that I was set to watch was the 2022 Can-Am UTV Hammers Championship.
As the name implies, this was a race of side-by-sides and they were an absolute blast to watch. These little rigs made rock crawling look like a drive in a parking lot. Check out this part of the course:
I watched Jeeps get stuck here for hours the day before, and these side-by-sides were making things look easy.
My favorite place to post up to race was an area called Chocolate Thunder. This rock climb is so difficult that recovery vehicles with winches were placed long before the first side-by-side slid through. And by the time that the first UTV came through — a Can-Am — the driver was so far in the lead that we had to wait several minutes for second and third place to come through.
Then the gap between third and the rest was incredible, with the wait sometimes being 30 minutes between the next racers.
But the side-by-sides usually conquered Chocolate Thunder just as easily as the trail earlier. Can-Am went on to take the entire podium in this race and 2022 became the third year in a row that Can-Am has won the race.
For another example of how good these side-by-sides are, let’s go back to Chocolate Thunder but at night. When darkness falls, this climb becomes a desert party. Campfires are alight, liquor is flowing, and people take their own personal vehicles up the climb.
While a side-by-side may take just a few seconds to get here, Jeeps can take minutes. And other vehicles will simply get stuck or break down trying to traverse terrain. I watched as one Jeep roasted its transmission and the subsequent hours-long recovery.
The only vehicles that get through quickly are side-by-sides and purpose-built rock crawlers.
Can-Am loaned me a Commander to experience the madness for myself. I’ve written about this side-by-side before when I took a guided adventure in one through Utah last year. But this time I was all on my own with nobody to tell me where I could and couldn’t go.
The Commander showed itself to be even more of a beast, taking the whoops in the sand with stride and navigating rocky terrain with ease. You know that hill that David got stuck on a number of times in the Bronco? The Commander did it the first time without breaking a sweat.
It was just as much unforgettable pinning the throttle and just bombing the Commander out in the open desert. I’m used to tight trails, dirt and mud in forests. But wide open expanses of sand are something else entirely.
The pictures don’t make things look that fun, but I highly recommend off-roading in the desert.
And the Commander wasn’t all that I had access to. Can-Am gave a handful of media at King of the Hammers a demo of the Maverick. The one I belted myself into was the 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR.
While the Commander is already a beast with its 100 HP 1,000cc Rotax ACE V-twin, this Maverick doubles down with a 200 HP 900cc Rotax ACE triple. That’s more power than most motorcycles in a body that weighs in at just 1,646 pounds.
The Maverick then improves its capabilities with 22 inches of suspension travel, 32-inch Maxxis Carnivore tires, 16 inches of ground clearance and a suite of tech. You get a double-A arm suspension up front with Fox 2.5 Podium piggyback shocks. In back you get four-link torsional trailing arms with Fox 3.0 Podium remote reservoir shocks.
The result is that you can treat this thing like a trophy truck, getting incredible air off of sandy whoops and practically glitching your way through obstacles like you are a videogame speedrunner.
This is off-roading on a completely different level. This is off-roading that makes you feel like a deity.
To show this off, Can-Am took us through a huge rocky climb. It’s one of those inclines where if you lost momentum, you’re getting stuck, and you also don’t take it at a bank unless you don’t want to keep the blue side up. I shifted it into low gear, flicked on the locking front differential, then let the Maverick crawl its way up like it was nothing.
I said that the Can-Am Commander makes anyone look like a pro rally driver. That’s not the case here. The Maverick has so much power that if you use it irresponsibly you can hurt yourself. Like a superhero, the Maverick gives you power that you have to use responsibly. You can drive the Maverick nice and easy, but if you put the pedal down far enough you’ll hear that turbo spool up behind your head and you’ll be in for a ride.
Once our convoy reached flat sand, I buried the throttle into the Maverick’s plastic floor. The side-by-side’s CVT responded immediately and the vehicle rocketed forward as the speedometer could barely keep up. This Maverick accelerated through sand like my Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI does on easy, smooth pavement. The Maverick has so much power that you can turn with the throttle for fantastic drifts and turns.
Perhaps even more amazing than the speed is how little drama you experience in the cabin. The Commander feels closer to a car, where the whoops will jostle you about and things can get violent enough to break your case of White Claws in the bed. But the Maverick? You could be flying through dunes at 70 mph and things will be so calm in there that you could almost take a sip of coffee from an open mug.
But like I said, with this much capability and this much power you have to be careful. Unlike the Commander, if you weld your foot to the floor and try to go around mountain switchbacks, you might send yourself over.
The demo also led us to a cliffside mountain climb. From a distance, this seemed so vertical that you might have thought you’d roll end-over-end, but the Maverick once again drove up like it wasn’t a big deal. Later that day I returned in the Commander, where I had to pin the throttle to make it up. Some old trucks gave it a go and had to back down after spinning their wheels.
After my nearly week-long stay in the desert I further understood why people buy side-by-sides like these. While not being able to take your ride onto the road severely limits its practicality, your off-road prowess is really only matched by custom-built machines. And, despite my mouth and eyes filling with sand you couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face. This is just about the most fun I’ve ever had in a vehicle that didn’t fly and wasn’t road legal.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to meet up with David to see how a side-by-side stacks up to the Bronco.
To experience such a giggle of off-road excitement in the 2022 Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR is $31,299. If that’s too rich for your blood you can get the 2022 Maverick X3 DS Turbo RR. This gets you that 200 HP and much of the more expensive unit’s capability, but for $22,999.
That’s a lot of dough to lay down on an off-road rig, but if you have the cash I don’t think you’ll ever regret it.
There’s one final thing that we should talk about. Readers expressed concern in David’s piece about spectators who more or less turned the event into a quasi-MAGA rally. Sadly, the experience was similar for me.
In my time out there it was more than just a dumb chant and thousands of “Let’s Go Brandon” flags. Some flew racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ screeds, openly broadcasting hate. That has no place anywhere and there’s no excuse for it.
Off-roading is an activity that at its core is for everyone. The beauty of off-roading is that anyone with practically any vehicle of any price can send it down a trail. So it’s greatly dismaying to see what happened out there. I’ve been to off-road events where people flew all kinds of dumb flags, but it was taken to another level here. Most of the time I stayed by myself, away from the toxicity.
I’m sure the organizers are aware of it, but I will reach out as I was far from the only one who felt this made things unwelcoming for King of the Hammers’ targeted audience. I’m not really sure what could be done, but it was legitimately disheartening. Hopefully, things will be cleaned up because this event is something special, but currently not for all.