First Impressions of the 2021 Can-Am Maverick X3

Until recently, most of my adventures have been human powered. Backpacking through the Grand Canyon was one of my all-time favorite trips. I like rising at 4 A.M. so I can skin up the local hill and ski a lap before work, and I need a multi-hour bike ride each weekend or I go crazy.

But I’ve also discovered the power of an engine. I currently have a 2003 Toyota Sequoia that I turned into an overland rig, and it’s helped me access some of the most remote and beautiful spots in the western United States. More importantly, it’s allowed my partner and I to bring our kids along for the ride.

My new favorite adventuremobile, however, is a side-by-side. For the past several weeks, my family and I have been using a Can-Am Maverick X3 Max X RS Turbo RR, and it is simply the most thrilling piece of equipment I’ve ever tested. I’ve skied knee-deep powder in Europe, and this is still more fun by a factor of two.

Case in point: Last weekend I loaded my family into the X3 four-seater and set off to explore the backcountry dirt roads just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we live. As I mashed the pedal, the engine kicked us back in our seats. And that engine was loud—but our screams of excitement easily drowned it out. Stunned by the speed and smoothness of the ride, no one wanted to stop.

We tackled several steep, sandy, technical trails that would have pushed a built-out Jeep to the limit, if not flat-out stumped it. The X3, on the other hand, floated right up and danced over off-camber sections that would have scared me half to death in any other vehicle. At the top of the hill, my partner looked at me with a huge smile and said, “We have to take this thing on some trips!” 

The sense that you can go nearly anywhere safely and quickly is what makes the X3 such a fun vehicle. My family has traveled a lot, and we’ve used our Sequoia to access some pretty remote places. But the insane speed and chart-topping off-road capability of the X3 has opened up entirely new sections of the world for us to explore.

Why Is the X3 So Badass?

The X3’s capability is the product of a few key factors. Suspension is, by far, the most important. The X3 version I’m testing has a suspension setup that allows for a whopping 22 inches of fine-tuned up-and-down travel on every wheel—that’s nearly double the amount of travel my colleague Wes Siler has on his upgraded Toyota Land Cruiser, what he calls one of the most capable overland builds he’s ever seen. (This comparison is not apples to apples; it just gives you a sense of what you’re working with.) 

All that travel lets the X3 crawl over giant rocks and off-camber spots while still feeling completely planted. The suspension can chew up hundreds of miles of rutted roads without leaving you feeling like you’ve just exited a washing machine. 

(Photo: Jakob Schiller)

Adding to the X3’s off-road chops is a wide 72-inch stance, which keeps it stable while cornering. It comes standard with 30-inch off-road tires, which can easily be sized up for even more traction. Front and rear lockers create incredible traction, and down below, skid plates run the entire length of the bottom to keep the X3’s drivetrain safe should you ever bash against a rock.

It’s got a 195-horsepower, turbocharged engine that can rocket the 1,877-pound vehicle anywhere you want to go. Thanks to fine tuning in the suspension, all that power doesn’t become overwhelming when you’re turning or driving fast. An open cockpit with no windshield or windows makes the speed absolutely exhilarating.

Is a Side-by-Side for You?

When I asked my friend Walt Wagner, who owns a nationally known overlanding shop, why he’s a fan of the X3 (he owns the two-seater version), he promptly answered: “Those things are made to be insanely capable right off the lot. They can also be driven hard all the time, and you don’t have to worry about abusing it.”

Wagner owns a tricked-out overland Tacoma, which he’s driven on the country’s hardest trails. But he still purchased an X3 because it created a different experience for him and his family (the two-seater can be modified to have a third, smaller child seat between the two main seats.) Instead of taking his truck—which is also his daily driver—out on rough trails, it’s easier to just load up the X3 on a trailer. His truck remains his primary adventure vehicle for large, multi-day camping trips, but the X3 is more convenient, and frankly more fun, on his half- or full-day excursions. 

Wagner’s situation is the best-case scenario, because he has both an overlanding truck and an X3. Since I’ve been testing the side-by-side, friends have asked whether I’d recommend one instead of an overlanding build. The answer is tricky. For my family and I, the Sequoia overland build is still the better choice right now, because it’s set up for camping, which we all really enjoy. That said, I’ve already started saving for an X3 because I, too, would rather run day trips or tackle rough trails with one, and my kids have a blast in the open cockpit. Additionally, Wagner plans to start outfitting X3’s and other side-by-sides for longer camping trips sometime soon. For someone who’s not ready to dive headfirst into overlanding but still wants to see the backcountry, tackle technical trails, and feel the exhilaration of a powerful engine and fine-tuned suspension, the X3 is the easy pick.

This line of thinking is also true when it comes to cost. The X3 I’m testing costs an eye-watering $30,400, which is what you could easily pay for a new car. The least expensive version of the X3 costs $19,000, which is also a serious chunk of change (for the lower price point, you get a two-seater with less suspension travel, smaller tires, and a narrower stance). But compare those prices to what you’d have to spend to buy a Tacoma or Jeep, and then the upgrades it’d require in an attempt to make it as fast or capable as an X3, and the benefits become clear—even after factoring in the cost of the trailer you need to haul the X3. Wagner says any build that comes close would cost two, three, or even four times more. When you consider that an X3 is perfect for a family (you can squeeze four kids and two adults into the four-seater with a quick seat swap), the price makes even more sense. 

Finally, there are those who will balk at the noise and the gas. I hear you. Engineless adventuring will continue to be important to me, too. But before you write off the X3, ponder this: It usually averages 12 to 16 miles per gallon, depending on how much you like to step on the gas. With just a little more than ten gallons in the tank, you can see 100 miles of backcountry and still have enough gas to tow the vehicle to local trails. For a day of skiing, I easily burn 12 to 15 gallons of gas getting my family to and from the ski area (not to mention the energy used to turn the lifts we all use). If I want to haul the X3 to Moab, Utah, or up to Colorado to run the state’s famous 12,000- and 13,000-foot passes, I’ll burn extra gas pulling the vehicle up there. But I’ll then save fuel by using the X3 once I’m on the trails, as opposed to using my Sequoia.

To be clear, the X3 is not quiet. But I don’t want to drive the X3 where people are camping, because those areas are typically pretty boring for driving a vehicle like this. Thankfully, many of the land-management agencies throughout the United States have done a great job of creating trails for off-road rigs that are scenic, challenging, and well-placed in the outdoor ecosystem. Here in Albuquerque, we’re lucky to have hundreds of miles of trails that offer incredible views and puckering terrain and are located far enough from any populated hiking and biking trails that I don’t have to worry about disturbing other people. 

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Lead Photo: Jakob Schiller

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