Bungee jumping, skydiving, stunt boats, black-run heli-skiing… There’s legitimacy to the claim that New Zealand’s Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world.
It’s certainly a fitting venue for CarAdvice’s introduction to a developing breed of transport that aims to offer recreational fun for families, as well as serving as a utility vehicle for farms and commercial businesses.
The Yamaha Wolverine X4 has nothing to do with Hugh Jackman’s most famous character, but it is designed to claw its way up mountains and across other challenging terrain.
It’s a four-seater side-by-side vehicle – or SSV – that you could describe as a hybrid vehicle mixing elements of an ATV (quad bike) and a small car. Colloquially, of course, we also know them as ‘buggies’.
Yamaha already provides an array of SSVs, or ROVs (recreational off-road vehicles) as they’re also known, though the X4 is the first to seat more than two people and be intended for sporty use not just commercial applications.
“The recreational [off-road] market isn’t as developed in Australia and New Zealand as it is in America,” says Lance Turnley, Yamaha Motorsport Australia’s marketing supervisor. “But we hope it will develop over time. We have graphs indicating growth is going in a positive direction.
“The Wolverine X4 has a wide range of appeal. It has great flexibility because it can be used in commercial capacity on farms or by contractors, and it can be shared with family for activities at the weekend.”
Turnley says typical Wolverine X4 buyers would be aged over 50, with half owning acreage such as farms, with 80 per cent being a 4WD owner/enthusiast, and 80 per cent being a first-time SSV buyer.
Recreation (40 per cent) would be the primary usage, followed by agriculture (30 per cent) and commercial (20 per cent).
Yamaha says the X4’s cargo versatility is especially beneficial for agricultural use, while the extra seating allows companies to transport extra crew on construction or mining sites.
With the latter in mind, the X4 features a speed-limiting device that can halve top speed from 80km/h to 40km/h.
The versatility centres on the rear seats that can be stowed in a forward position just behind the front seats to expand the X4’s cargo space – or from 72kg to 272kg to express it in payload terms.
Beyond the four-seat layout, there are a couple of other key new features that distinguish the X4 not just from the two-seater Wolverine, but also the company’s other SSVs.
The first is a motorcycle-style 850cc two-cylinder engine that sits low in the vehicle, courtesy of an engine made more compact by integrating the cylinders into the crankcase and employing a dry-sump set-up with a separate oil reservoir.
Second is a self-levelling rear suspension from Sachs, which can operate within a 6cm window to maintain a consistent ride height regardless of people or cargo in the back.
To properly test the Wolverine X4 in recreational mode, Yamaha took us to Queenstown’s Off Road Adventures – led by sibling guides Lachie and Scott Columb – for an off-road playground featuring steep mountain climbs, creek crossings and heavily enveloped forest tracks.
I’ve ridden quad bikes before, but never driven an SSV, so I’m grateful for some practice laps around some tame terrain before we hit the trails proper. It doesn’t even take minutes to get used to the X4, such is the immediate ease of its operation.
The two-cylinder is highly responsive and revvy, just as you’d expect from an engine inspired by Yamaha’s sports bikes. More surprising is the torque. You can bring the X4 to a standstill on a steep descent and take off again effortlessly – not merely pulling away gradually, but accelerating with vigour.
The engine’s smoothness is matched by the Ultramatic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) – claimed by Yamaha to be the most durable auto in the SSV segment. The drivetrain is sufficiently quiet that you can engage in conversation with your front passenger without shouting.
A drive-by-wire throttle also helps avoid the jerkiness of cable throttles, allowing for a right foot that can be bouncing on the accelerator pedal over bumps.
Light weight always benefits performance and handling, and the Wolverine weighs just 754kg.
Another bonus on the gnarly and narrow trails we’re covering is the X4’s compact dimensions. It’s just 3.1m long and 1.5m wide.
And with zero front overhang and a 4.5m turning circle, it’s ridiculously easy to navigate the tightest hairpins that would leave even a compact 4WD vehicle's driver reaching for reverse gear and a series of multi-point turns.
Just look down to position the inside front wheel at the apex, give the gas a squirt to slide the rear around, and wind a bit of steering lock on and off again. Easy, and addictive.
There’s surprising traction even if you keep the X4 in its 2WD (rear drive) mode, though with conditions quickly deteriorating with heavy rain during our drive, we were quickly switching into 4WD via a dial.
Turning it to the far right engages a rear diff lock (when stationary), done in conjunction with moving the main gear lever from H (High) to L (Low). This can be fiddlier, sometimes necessitating a rocking motion of the vehicle or even a tiny reverse to help alignment.
Low gear also best highlights the Wolverine’s impressive engine braking, which is so good that the brake pedal is regularly redundant.
The Wolverine X4 is at its most fun being driven quickly, scrambling madly up rocky trails or slicing through sludgy terrain to ask more of the mud tyres with their distinctively deep, widely spaced grooves.
The Yamaha’s comfort and control both stand out. Whether you’re encountering varying cambers, bumps, rocks, dips or charging over crests, nothing upsets the Wolverine’s composure. It’s also less susceptible than 4WDs to tramlining in ruts, essentially giving the driver free choice over their line.
Among many obvious advantages over a quad bike is that you don’t have to move your backside around to help balance the vehicle.
You get a seatback to lean against, too. There’s excellent cushioning from the four identical seats, all featuring three-point seatbelts.
The rear seats are set higher, though you still find yourself leaning towards the centre of the vehicle for the best forward view. It’s fractionally bouncier in the back, too, and your legs can’t stretch out, yet it’s sufficiently comfortable for more than an hour’s driving.
We didn’t even mind being exposed to a deluge, though waterproof clothes were crucial here. Other Wolverine models on the launch featured some of the multiple accessories available – which include a $7495 Hard Hat Enclosure System comprising glass windscreen (with wiper), roof, and lockable plastic doors with sliding windows.
Alternatively, there’s a cheaper Soft Cab Enclosure that includes a durable nylon rear window and vinyl doors. You can even dabble in relative luxury with a heater and audio pods plus subwoofer. For the most serious off-roaders, the X4’s protective elements can be further bolstered with extra guards and bash plates, while there are also various options for winches and LED forward lighting.
Goggles and a crash hat are especially advisable if you’re in an exposed-rollcage SSV, even though helmets aren’t yet compulsory.
Yamaha, along with the ATV/SSV industry, is trying to encourage more users to wear helmets to prevent unnecessary head injuries, or even deaths – including those associated with quad-bike riding.
Our crash hat was a new Shark ATV Drak that is the world’s first fully certified helmet for utility ATVs and SSVs – and it’s been designed specifically to appeal to farmers who have complained that crash helmets are typically too hot and too heavy for long use.
Shark’s ATV/SSV helmet is constructed from a fibreglass composite shell to save weight – just 1200g – and features large cooling vents that can be closed in the event of rain. Additionally, there’s a ratchet-buckle chin strap that’s remarkably easy to use, ear pods that allow for easier hearing, removable lining for easy cleaning, and Bluetooth readiness.
Yamaha is also trying to encourage states to create more recreational areas for SSVs.
And it is supporting the Australian Off Road Vehicle Association (AORVA, pronounced ‘or-va’), a non-profit organisation dedicated to expanding riding locations throughout Australasia.
AORVA’s website includes a handy location locator, as well as lists of ride parks (for NSW and SA only for now). Buy a Wolverine X4 (or the sportier, two-seater YXZ1000R SSV) and Yamaha will throw in a free 10-visit ride-park pass.
You can’t drive to the locations in the X4, however. It isn’t compatible with Australian Design Rule regulations, so it can’t be registered for the road.
At least its compactness and lightness mean you don’t need a particularly big or powerful vehicle to tow it along on a trailer.
I have to admit I don’t have any reference points for comparing the Wolverine X4 against rival buggies from the likes of Honda and Polaris. But I’m told by other journalists with more experience of such vehicles that the Yamaha leads in many areas, while an experienced motorbike writer also trying an SSV for the first time was equally impressed by its capabilities.
It can provide an extreme adventure, regardless of whether you’re in Queenstown or not.
Click on the Photos tab for more images of the Yamaha Wolverine X4.