You could buy a decent Jeep or 10 motorcycles for the price of a Can-Am Maverick X3. And those other vehicles can legally drive themselves to a trail. But once the pavement ends and the leashes come off, it’s the X3’s world, and everything else is just trying to get through it.

(Full Disclosure: Bombardier Recreational Products, also known as the Sea-Doo people, needed me to drive this thing so badly they paid for my food and fuel and beer for a couple days in Baja, Mexico while I test-drove every trim of the X3. The company also footed the bill for off-road racing pro Bruce Anderson to be our tour guide down the peninsula.)

If you live in Southern California you’re less than a day’s drive from this endless, unpaved oceanside awesomeness.

Like a Polaris RZR or a Yamaha YXZ, The Maverick X3 is classified as UTV, which sounds like an ugly infection but actually stands for Utility Task Vehicle. Got a utility task? You need one of these vehicles. But this high-performance sports buggy has evolved pretty far from the humble agricultural workhorses that started the UTV segment.

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Originally set up like miniature pickup trucks, UTVs have been common sights on farms and big properties for years. You may have also heard them called “SxSs” in reference to the side-by-side seating configuration they have. Work-oriented models like the Kawasaki Mule and John Deere Gator are still popular on job sites around the country.

But at some point people started realizing, hey, these little trucklets are pretty fun to drive fast!

I actually remember being told to hold somebody’s beer and “watch this” on one of the construction sites I worked at as a kid, right before the carpenter would try and settle some kind of bet with the plumber over just how quickly the worksite UTV could get through some improvised gauntlet of misuse. Good times.

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Prevailing lore pegs the 2004 Yamaha Rhino as the first UTV to have legitimate “recreational” appeal; i.e. more sporting pretenses than a golf cart. But Polaris is generally credited with creating the high-performance UTV segment as we know it today with the “RZR 800” trim of its utilitarian Ranger in 2008.

Today the RZR (say “Razor”) is its own model with two and four-seat variants, a bigger engine, a turbocharger, a huge aftermarket, and a significant presence in almost every major desert race which seems to grow every season.

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But of course the rest of the industry was not about to let Polaris have this segment to itself. Arctic Cat, Yamaha and BRP are also building compact utility buggies dialed in for hauling ass instead of hay. This year BRP, makers of the Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Sea-Doo jet skis and Can-Am Spyder tricycle has upped its UTV game significantly with the new Maverick X3.

What Is It?

The build quality is good where it counts, but plastic parts are slapped on a little haphazardly.

To a racer, I would say the Maverick X3 is a little like a miniature Class 1 car. It’s basically an engine built around long-travel suspension geometry built to take the kind of beating hard-pack sand hands out at 50 to 80 mph.

To everyone else I’d simply say it’s a two-seat extreme-duty high-performance off-road vehicle with more ruggedness than a Jeep Wrangler, more speed than an off-road motorcycle and a level of posterior comfort somewhere between those two. But if we’re talking comfort as in driver confidence, the X3 leaves road-legal two and four-wheeled off-roaders in the dust, at the trailhead, trying to figure out how to get around the first obstacle.

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The X3 comes in three flavors: a $22,999 base model, a $24,999 mid-range “X ds,” and a flagship $26,699 “X rs” which is the only one that comes in this comic-book-POW copper-on-orange color scheme.

#NSFW

All three X3 trims have the same 154 horsepower turbocharged 900cc three-cylinder Rotax engine, CVT belt-based transmission, on-the-fly switchable 2WD/4WD drivetrain and ultra-robust suspension geometry modeled off the fastest race trucks in Baja.

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They’re also all two-seaters, with a little cargo rack above the engine rated to carry 200 pounds of payload.

Can you see what I wrote in the yellow rig’s skid plate?

The X ds adds more adjustment options to the suspension and runs slightly larger tires: 29-inches in diameter instead of the base model’s 28’s.

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The X rs rolls on 30’s, but the range-topper trim adds a little more than a unique color and an extra inch of rubber on the wheels. The entire architecture of the X rs’s front suspension is beefier than the rest of the line with a massive 72-inches of front track. That extra width brings up stability at speed and gives you more leeway to land safely when you catch some hang time. (Uh, although I’m obligated to mention that Can-Am’s safety manual recommends you keep all four wheels on the ground.)

Adjustable Fox shocks allow for a whopping 22-inches of travel up front and 24 in the rear, which is just a hair over the base and X ds Mavericks. For perspective, that gobbles and spits out the mighty 2017 Ford Raptor’s travel specs of 13-inches in front and 13.9 rear.

The Raptor’s a lot more luxurious of course, and it’s also saddled with a lot more heft. The Maverick X3 X rs is around 2,000 pounds fueled up ready to fly with an ass in the driver’s seat. A new Raptor’s curb weight is more than double that, which is why the X3 can feel like so much more fun with so much less horsepower.

Why Does It Matter?

Cue the angels singing.

Now that the high-performance UTV market has had time to mature, you have options. My greatest regret in writing this review is that I haven’t driven the X3’s competition and cannot pontificate on its comparative performance. That said, it’s important to note that the X3 is no “entry-level” model. Can-Am is making an earnest attempt to take the top-tier rung in this market of small, fast buggies.

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At any rate I have driven Ford Raptors, heaps of modified 4x4s, rear-drive racer-types and dirt bikes. And I can say unequivocally that the X3 makes for a uniquely excellent adventure drive.

This vehicle matters because it’s an easy alternative to any dedicated off-road vehicle build, and it feels like it has a lot more potential for mass appeal than a dirt bike, which you have to be brave and crazy to ride, or a truck, which you have to dump thousands of dollars into to drive off-road fast.

Standout Features

The X3’s drive-by-wire throttle system is neat in that it can adjust how aggressive the gas pedal is with an “Eco/Power” switch, and I loved how smoothly this vehicle could switch between 2WD and 4WD while underway.

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The engine puts you on a tidal wave of torque that seems to build steam forever, but what impressed me most about the X3 was its balance.

With such a low running weight so beautifully distributed, suspension with the enthusiasm of a puppy in pursuit of sticks and that always-available torque I mentioned, it’s so easy to throw the X3 around you can’t help but crack up. Try and keep that smile quick though, because it will catch a bug since you’re not running a windshield.

Can-Am’s extensive collection of customization options is worth mentioning here too. The company’s really trying hard to replicating the deep personal tunability you get with a scratch-built rig. Want the seat to sit lower? Can-Am has the kit. Different roll cage designs are also available at the Can-Am dealer. Accessories, cargo carriers... you have quite a few catalog pages to tear through before having to fabricate a part you might want for this thing.

Disappointments

We’re not obligated to complain about CVTs in sport vehicles on principle anymore. And the X3’s transmission is fine. From a performance perspective it’s actually pretty excellent, I can’t imagine any other gearbox would make me faster in this buggy.

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One of Can-Am’s pro drivers explained to me that deliberate rolling-on and rolling-off of the gas pedal, rather than hard stabs, helps increase the transmission belt’s longevity. I didn’t feel that this technique was a hindrance on my fun-having, but not having any kind of shifter to play with kind of was.

I know: the Ford Raptor, the best-known baseline for fast desert performance vehicles I can think of, is an automatic. Polaris RZRs run CVTs too. But as athletic as the X3's driving experience was, it also felt a little too easy after awhile. If you want your own gears to grind as desperately as I do, only the Yamaha YXZ has a three-pedal sequential manual gearbox option.

Now I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in the minority of wanting to be “busier” while driving this, but I can not be the only one let down by the parts quality in the cockpit.

The frame and suspension mounts, the bits that matter most, all look like they mean business. But the steering wheel, interior grab-handles and every piece of trim you lay eyes on from the driver’s seat looks like it was made for a Happy Meal toy instead of a precision vehicle. It’s thin, flimsy and would definitely frustrate me every time I thought about how much I’d spent on this thing were I to become an owner.

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My last grievance with the X3 is its exhaust note, which sounds like a cat farting through a wet noodle at idle and is just a little more annoying at speed. Go ahead and spec that stereo system, or keep your earplugs in.

Casual Driving

Walking the X3 through Baja’s little towns at 20 mph is tedious. That’s partially because by then you know how much fun this machine is at a roaring boil, but a UTV’s vibration and noise and dust that add to the excitement of the experience at speed just become amplified as annoyances when you’re puttering along.

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On long, slow adventures you’re still going to want a full-sized SUV instead of this. Even if the UTV can keep a better pace over open country.

Aggressive Driving

To the newbie off-roader, the X3 extends welcoming arms. At first you can’t believe how fast it feels. Not long after that, you can’t believe how good you are at powerslides. I mean, as long as you don’t you forget where your wheels are. I’ll summarize it as “easy to learn, harder to master.” Which is good, because it means you won’t get bored of the thing after a single season.

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But to somebody with desert driving experience, a few turns in the X3 and you start feeling like you’re ready to start shopping sponsorship deals. The buggy is so well balanced, with so much clearance and suspension travel to play with that you can link slides like it’s second nature in no time and basically just drive over every obstacle you couldn’t be bothered to dodge.

Acceleration is street-taco-aftermath explosive. Stability is so solid you’ll forget what washboard roads really feel like. And the top speed, I hit an indicated 80 mph in a few straights and ran high 60s almost everywhere else, is more than enough to terrify your in-laws in the passenger seat. (And that’s really why you bought this thing in the first place, isn’t it?)

Value

Welcome!

$23,000 to $30,000 is a ton of money to spend on a toy. And of course without license plates, that’s all the X3 can be.

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But think about comparable toys you could get for that kind of cash– a Jeep Wrangler, even an old one with a few grand in upgrades, would get absolutely crushed by the X3 up, over and around every obstacle off-road. Same goes for an upgraded pickup truck. And unless you know how to build your own scratch-made desert buggy, you’re not getting one of those for anywhere near this cheap.

As always, a motorcycle remains the best dollar-to-performance proposition going. But not everybody’s up for the physical brutality of long-distance off-road rides. Heck I used to do them for a living and yeah, I totally understand when people tell me they have no interest in being cold and exhausted for hundreds of miles.

Who’s It For?

This X3 X rs had just been rolled. Can you see what bent? (It did make it another 40 miles or so home, by the way.)

Even though Can-Am would be correct in calling the X3’s $23,000 base price “reasonable” in today’s UTV market, it’s going to weed out casual enthusiasts unless they’ve got crazy cash to blow. Though a casual enthusiast might not appreciate the full extent of X3’s abilities as much as an experienced off-roader anyway.

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A child with legs long enough to reach the pedals could learn how to operate this machine in a matter of minutes, but mastery takes a little bit longer, as a friend from Road & Track figured out the hard way.

This X3 has extra protective bars from Can-Am’s catalog.

Do you want to go fast off-road for relatively minimal cash and labor outlay? Check out an X3.

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Are you going to cram so many off-road mods into your Jeep that you’ll end up towing it to trailheads anyway? Check out an X3.

Do you dig the exfoliating spray of dirt you get motorcycling, but want to cover a couple hundred miles in a day without walking funny for the following week? Check out an X3.

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If building your own machine to your exact specs is a point of pride and part of your adventure, or you absolutely need license plates, a UTV is probably not for you. And for those of you new to the off-road scene, I should mention that the guys who do build their own rigs from scratch will make fun of you for trying to compete in one of these things.

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But don’t worry; you won’t be able to hear them snickering over the noise of the power tools they’re incessantly running to keep their vehicles alive.

Verdict

The Can-Am Maverick X3 looks cool, is a riot to drive and brings elite off-road racing technology within reach of enthusiasts who don’t necessarily have factory team budgets or professional fabrication skills.

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Not being street-legal is an inconvenience from a practical standpoint, but without compliance rules getting in the way of capability you get an incredibly dialed performance tool for the price of a pretty modest car.

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You could spend $60,000 building a Jeep or buying a Raptor, or $30,000 on a nice daily driver with towing capabilities and trailer, then use the other $30,000 for a UTV.

I’m starting to think I’d have more fun with this little guy.