Side-by-sides are versatile vehicles, offering great utility or outrageous off-roading ability. The 2021 Can-Am Commander is a crossover, smashing utility and good off-road capability into a single package. It may not be as powerful as some side-by-sides, but it can make anyone feel like a pro rally driver.
(Full Disclosure: Backbone Media invited me to join Can-Am and the Wilderness Collective on a three day, two night off-roading adventure through the Zion National Park in Utah to the Bryce Canyon National Park and points in between. They put me up in a fancy hotel in Las Vegas for a couple of nights between flights and made sure I was fed and hydrated as I put a trio of Can-Am Commanders to the test.)
Crossovers have long been a part of the side-by-side world and they’re actually sort of brilliant. Wait, don’t close this tab just yet! Yes, the word crossover usually describes a boring car that prints money for an automaker. The crossover side-by-side is different, combining two popular types of UTV into one while remaining awesome.
The two main categories being combined here are the big and slow utility side-by-sides that you’d expect to see at a small farm or airport, and the side-by-sides that can be found getting huge airtime on jumps and racing across the desert. As you could imagine, one is not great at the other’s job.
But what if you want to do farm work on Monday and get airtime on Saturday? That’s where the crossover side-by-side comes in. These machines can tow and handle giant payloads on the farm, then go blaze trails on the weekend.
The Can-Am Commander has been around for a while and 2021 marks a new generation of the side-by-side. It’s entering into a competitive space filled with offerings like the Polaris General, Yamaha Wolverine and Honda Pioneer. It’s a crowded market with several manufacturers offering their own take on the idea. I think Can-Am has a hit on its hands.
I started the adventure in the base Commander DPS. I figured if the base model is good, then everything else is bonus.
Side-by-sides either look like purely functional industrial equipment or completely alien beyond anything you’d see from even the weirdest car manufacturers. The Commander definitely takes the more alien approach with its sharp angles and a front fascia that reminds me of the Predator’s face.
I think the alien look is welcome here, as it makes the Commander appear ready to take on any terrain.
The Commander’s design flows into the rear, where you get a dump bed with generous space. This 29.5-inch by 45.2-inch bed holds up to 600 pounds of gear or whatever you want to fit into it.
It’s ever so slightly larger than the bed of the Commander’s main competition, the Polaris General. Also found out back is a two-inch hitch receiver. The Commander has a 2,000-pound tow rating, perfect for moving things around on the farm.
Inside, the Commander is pretty spartan. Occupants get to sit in bucket seats and the dashboard has some storage for the driver and front passenger. Don’t expect any fancy materials here. It’s all hard, sort of ill-fitting plastic with a splash of rubber here and there. But that’s what you’d expect from a vehicle like this.
Instrumentation is handled by a LCD display. Functions like lighting, drive modes and operations of the four-wheel-drive system are handled by toggle switches on the dash, center console, or if you select the option, even on the roof.
The Commander’s rugged looks extend all the way down to its wheels. On the DPS model you get 14-inch steelies with 27-inch XPS Trail Force tires.
Our first day of riding with the the team from Wilderness Collective, a provider of outdoor trips, started off from a warehouse in St. George, Utah, on a drive out to Warner Valley.
The team lead the way on these adventures, guiding UTV drivers on a journey through the trails of Utah. The group encourages you to get a full adventure experience by putting your phone into a box at the beginning of the trip. You’re disconnected from your little handheld computer but connected to your machine and the nature around it. The Wilderness Collective offers multi-day guided adventures in UTVs and motorcycles all over the country. This event was a shortened version of its UTVs Zion through Bryce Canyon trip.
The other drivers in the group came from far and wide and included people who haven’t driven (at all) in years. Few of the participants had any off-roading experience.
The first minutes being behind the wheel of the Commanders came on pavement and one downside became readily apparent. The XPS Trail Force tires are terrible on pavement.
At slow speeds, it feels similar to driving a truck on mud tires. But take a turn at the speed limit and your heart might skip a beat as you wait for the tires to respond before you plow into oncoming traffic. Under braking, the rear slips enough that you feel like you’re initiating a drift. It doesn’t inspire confidence.
Thankfully, the initial road portion of our adventure ended quickly so I could stretch out the legs of the Commander on the dirt.
Behind the driver and under the bed is a Rotax 976cc v-twin making 100 horsepower. This engine is far from the most powerful you’ll find in the side-by-side world, but it’s plenty to make you giggle. That engine is connected to a CVT, which does a pretty good job getting power to the wheels in a snappy fashion.
In the open, empty desert of Utah I was able to get the Commander up to of 76 mph. Stability at speed in the dirt is good, too. See a corner up ahead? Go ahead and take it at 60 mph. The Commander will do it without problem.
The convoy drove out to a desert playground where everyone really got the chance to get a feel for their machines. It was here that I learned that the Commander could be piloted with your foot buried in the floor and you’ll be so within the machine’s limits that you’ll look like a rally legend. Go ahead and take that berm at wide open throttle. With a flick of the wheel you’ll drift around it with ease.
The Commander DPS I played with has 12.5 inches of ground clearance and 13 inches of suspension travel. This came in handy when I launched it off of the top of a hill a few times. The Commander not only attains airtime easily, but landings are soft and without without drama. In the event that you go a little too hard trying to imitate Travis Pastrana, the undercarriage is a tough, practically flat surface with protection in the form of a front skid plate.
Unfortunately, while the Commander’s frame and undercarriage are rugged, the tailgate leaves some to be desired. A number of the Commanders on the trip lost their tailgates and tailgate trim after hitting small jumps and bigger bumps.
Thankfully, the tailgate is also held on with cables and slots right back into its spot. The trim also clips right back on. But it’s definitely something to be aware of when you’re pushing the machine hard.
The Wilderness Collective team then took us to a different part of the playground to show us how to perform drifts like Ken Block.
The Commander easily breaks into drifts and donuts with a little bit of throttle and a flick of the steering wheel. Some of the other drivers there had never done stuff like this before and yet here they were, drifting around a tree well enough to make an entertaining YouTube video. That’s how easy the Commander is to drive.
The Can-Am Commander also comes with a drive mode system. My Commander DPS, a prototype, was locked to Eco Mode. Driving the Commander in Eco Mode feels a lot like driving an old 90s econobox with the A/C blasting. If you want to get anywhere with speed, use the accelerator pedal like an on/off switch. When you put it to the floor, the Eco Mode’s programming gives you a gentle rise in RPM. Drifting around that took some finesse as the revs build too slow to break traction on power alone.
Sport Mode, however, makes the Commander feel like a completely different machine. Throttle response is snappy and power gets to the wheels quick enough to do a burnout on pavement. Production models of the Commander come with a drive mode selector so you can have Eco Mode for a relaxing drive and Sport Mode for full sends.
After we spent some time goofing around in the sand, the Wilderness team guided us forward to one of the coolest parts of the trip: a technical mountain climb with switchbacks.
This was the real deal. Directly on my left side was a cliff and to the right was a wall of rock. I engaged the Commander’s four-wheel-drive system and made the climb. A side-by-side makes these climbs easy. The Commander climbed over terrain like a goat.
However, the Commander isn’t magic and picking a really bad line can punish you. In my case, I tried to climb over a ledge of rocks, but picked a line that put the Commander at a steep angle with only two tires making contact with the ground. I turned the wheels and tried to power out, but the Commander’s throttle kept cutting out. This was Can-Am’s Electronic Drive Belt Protection system trying to signal me to put the Commander into low gear to prevent wearing out the drive belt. Eventually, I pulled myself out by picking a slightly different line and engaging the Commander’s rear differential lock.
The first day also had my favorite bit of driving. On the way to camp there was a vast expanse of sandy dunes and that’s is where the Commander’s capability really shined.
The side-by-side happily carves its way through sand at any speed you want it to. The two-seater feels like it’s pivoting right behind your back and it will slalom around trees with a ballerina’s grace.
It’s a very approachable vehicle. Part of that comes down to the power. More powerful side-by-sides like Can-Am’s own Maverick RS go so fast that it’s easy to end up on your roof. But weaker side-by-sides don’t have enough power to make you feel like an off-roading pro. It seems like 100 HP is just right. It’s not so much power that you’ll wrap yourself around a tree but not so little that you won’t have fun.
The glorious run through the sand ended with the Wilderness team taking us through about 17 water crossings all in one go. I’m not exaggerating, we splashed down through crossing after crossing.
Take a water crossing fast enough and the Commander will give you a full soaking. This was fine in the dry heat of Utah, but may not be pleasurable on a colder day.
Our first camp was a night under the stars in the Dixie National Forest. Here, Wilderness’ idea of ditching your phones and enjoying nature with others really shined. All of us got to reflect on the day’s fun next to a campfire while eating tasty food cooked by the Wilderness chef. Conversation, stars, good food and a fire. I haven’t had a night that relaxing in a long time. After a good, but cold night’s rest I woke up to the smell of coffee being brewed, a perfect way to start the day.
The second day of driving saw me switch from the base Commander DPS model to the top spec Commander XT-P.
The base model proved itself to be a ball, so I wanted to see how much better could it get. The XT-P gains an inch in suspension travel and ground clearance.
You also get goodies like FOX 2.5 PODIUM QS3 Piggyback shocks, 15-inch beadlock wheels with 30-inch XPS Hammer Force tires, LED lighting, selectable terrain modes and more.
This model was built to be more for jumping and rock crawling and it shows. Landings are even smoother in the XT-P and the tires are far less prone to popping on rocks than the XPS Trail Force tires.
That said, it does feel like the XPS Trail Force tires have more grip in the dirt.
The Commander XT-P was far more willing to slide than the Commander DPS and the XPS Hammer Force tires are actually decent on pavement. On tarmac, it handles like a truck with all-terrains. The Commander could even be usable as a daily in rural areas.
The Wilderness team took us through different terrain on the second day. We got to see how the Commander handled elevation, loose dirt and surfaces that felt like clay. The side-by-side did it all without complaint.
In fact, some of the more timid drivers in the group, some of whom had never done anything like this before, gained so much confidence that they were right on my back as I bobbed and weaved around trails.
The second day of driving ended at the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in Utah. Since this was a shortened version of the Wilderness experience, this was the final night. We were offered some bourbon and cigars for a celebration of an epic adventure.
Camping at 9,300 feet boggles the mind. You could see practically every plane in the sky for miles and the stars were bold and vivid. My tent was right on a cliff’s edge, giving me a breathtaking view of the world below.
At the campfire, everyone reflected on the trip. No phones meant no gazing off into Facebook. Entertainment was getting to know everyone else in the group, talking about the day’s sights and activities. We cracked open a drink, took in the view and ate more of the chef’s great cooking.
However, I must caution that if you’re a flatlander like me you’ll probably start getting altitude sickness. Be sure to pack plenty of water!
The final day saw me taking the Commander MAX XT for a spin.
This Commander seats four, has 13 inches of ground clearance and a 15 inches of suspension travel. It drives a lot like a car, with the extra length offering even more stability than the two-seater models. I got to put it to the test doing downhill cliffside switchbacks. The extra stability offered by a longer wheelbase seemingly pushes you to drive it even harder. But once again, you run out of skill well within the Commander’s limits.
This particular example of the MAX XT came with a windscreen and a rear window. These are great in concept but annoying when you’re riding on dusty trails. Expect to have to stop every ten minutes so you can clean off the windscreen. It also doesn’t block the dust from getting inside the side-by-side, so you still have to wear goggles, anyway.
The Commander MAX XT comes with 14-inch cast aluminum wheels with XPS Trail King 28-inch tires. They didn’t seem any different than the XPS Trail Force tires aside from being slightly taller. They handled similarly on pavement, with the MAX XT’s wheelbase providing slightly better manners on the road. Otherwise, the MAX XT was pretty similar to the other Commanders.
The 2021 Commander DPS starts at $16,399. Stepping up to four seats with the Commander MAX XT is $21,199. The high-end two-seat Commander XT-P comes in at $22,199.
The Commander’s accessory catalog is huge and it can be kitted out for just about anything you want it to do, including driving on the road.
I used to blow off side-by-sides because a $1,500 Chevy Blazer could basically do the same thing while being a real road legal vehicle. But I’ve seen the light. I understand why people buy UTVs. You won’t feel like Ken Block when you break your Blazer after a jump, but you can while sliding around in a side-by-side.
I hope to return to the Wilderness Collective one day to get the full experience. The concept of ditching your phone and going on an adventure is so simple, yet unforgettable.
The Can-Am Commander is a strong offering in the competitive side-by-side world. It’s certainly not perfect and you may spend too much time putting the tailgate back on, but it’ll make you smile every time.