2021 Can-Am Commander Max XT Review: Spending $22K on 100 HP Shouldn’t Be This Fun

High-powered side-by-sides fly off lots faster than dealers can bring in fresh stock. It’s almost uncanny how many folks pay new-car money for off-road-only vehicles. They’re usually loaded into an enclosed trailer and then towed by a diesel pickup that’s yet to have its first oil change; you know the ones I’m talking about. But beyond stacks of disposable income, I knew there had to be a reason people keep dragging side-by-sides like the 2021 Can-Am Commander Max XT home. They’ve got to be more than status symbols, surely.

Now, I’ve tested workhorse UTVs before, but never anything with 100 horsepower like the Commander Max XT you see here. Even then, it’s a full 95 HP short of the company’s Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR, but I promise it’s got plenty of pep. I spent a few weeks with it around our creekside property, driving it where it was developed to go. It was time to see if it was worth the price that could also score you one heck of a trail Jeep.

That 4,500-pound winch is great if you ever need to use it. Here’s to hoping you don’t need it, though!, Caleb Jacobs

The most important realization came quickly. This isn’t a toy for low-speed, daring rock crawlers. It’s a gravel-slinging, confidence-inspiring rally machine that makes you feel more capable than you probably are. Fifty miles per hour might not sound fast, but when you’re sideways on dirt with plenty of throttle left, I promise it is.

2021 Can-Am Commander Max XT: By the Numbers

  • Base Price (as Tested): $22,069 ($24,528.95 est. for pre-production model)
  • Powertrain: 976cc Rotax V-twin | selectable four-wheel drive | CVT automatic transmission
  • Horsepower: 100 hp @ 7,250 rpm 
  • Ground Clearance: 13 inches
  • Suspension Travel: 15 inches
  • Weight: 1,930 pounds dry
  • Dimensions: 160 inches long | 64 inches wide | 74 inches high 
  • Quick Take: The Commander Max XT marks a sweet spot for weekend fun-havers who’d rather not spend the extra on something like Can-Am’s Maverick X3 DS Turbo R. If four doors are a must, then this is a super solid choice.
Caleb Jacobs

What’s New? Lots, Actually. Glad You Asked

The 2021 model year rings in a new generation of Can-Am Commander. The outgoing model’s comparatively tame styling has been replaced in favor of a total redesign that brings more angles higher and tighter. It skips out on the quad-headlamp front fascia for one prominent light on each side, positioned at the upper corners of the much larger grille that’s better for cooling.

Can-Am found a way to squeeze eight more HP from the Rotax V-twin versus the previous model year which is, of course, welcomed here. After all, 100 HP makes for a nice, round number, and that updated engine is fitted to each member of the Commander family. If you’re looking for a Can-Am with less oomph, then a smaller Defender might be the choice for you.

Just about everything that’s quantifiable has been improved for 2021, from engine horsepower to ground clearance and towing capacity. If you’re cross-shopping it with its predecessor, I’d say it’s worth ponying up a little extra money for the new model.

Caleb Jacobs

Doing the Job It’s Asked to With Plenty to Spare

Can-Am designates the Commander Max XT as a hunting, trail, and work rig; it doesn’t even slap the highest-level “performance” label on it. Maybe that’s because the nearly 1,000cc engine is naturally aspirated instead of turbocharged and the XPS Trail King tires measure 28 inches tall instead of 30 inches like the two-door Commander XT-P’s. I’ll vouch for its ability to go flat-out fast, though, and I wouldn’t get much hunting or work done if I had time to spare with it.

Say you do buy it for hunting. Getting from one spot to the next won’t be a problem, so long as the trees aren’t too close together. While the Commander Max XT is quite a bit shorter than a new four-door Jeep Wrangler from front to rear, its wheelbase is actually a bit longer at 120.6 inches. That’s a plus for stability at high and low speeds, but not great for tight trails. I never ran into any problems with it, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re in the market.

The exhaust is reasonably quiet at low speeds and shouldn’t scare away your catch if you’re smart about it. Romp on the gas and the volume cranks accordingly, especially since peak power picks up so high in the rev range. The CVT doesn’t mind mountains of engine rpm, but you need to keep the hammer down to stay in the Commander Max XT’s sweet spot, since its gearing is fairly tall. That’s just what you get with these performance UTVs that have no selectable gears; they live for wide-open throttle.

You won’t have any problems towing a small, single-axle trailer with the Commander Max XT, but you’ll need to pay attention to how much you’re hauling. It’s rated for a max tow capacity of 2,000 pounds and if you’re putting weight in the bed, you ought to stop before you surpass its 600-pound limit. Overall payload is capped at 1,280 pounds and that includes passengers, coolers, camping gear, and whatever else you might carry around.

I didn’t take my tester hunting, though, and I hardly worked it in a traditional sense. Instead, I treated it like a go-fast off-roader and played around with it like most of the people interested in buying one would.

Caleb Jacobs

Going Fast Is No Problem. Knowing the Situational Limits Might Be

If you have decent open-trail experience, you can control the Commander from one oversteering corner to the next without an issue. Like, zero whatsoever, and I mean it when I say I’m far from a hero. The rear-end slides predictably with a hefty stomp on the gas, and the front tires don’t lose direction, either. It’s as point-and-shoot as I’ve felt from an off-roader, and even with semi-technical driving tricks like rotating the back half while on the brakes, it performed like I anticipated—always a plus.

I hustled the Commander on more than one occasion, with or without four-wheel drive and the diff lock engaged, and it was a blast each time. While I don’t have any steep hills on my property, there’s no reason this thing couldn’t complete a rational climb with the engine revved high. That’s probably the most frustrating part about the CVT—there’s not much you can do, other than floor it, to control the revs. Fans of Honda’s six-speed dual-clutch transmission win the argument here but units like the Can-Am’s are common fare in the UTV space.

Caleb Jacobs
There’s a handy mounting space for your GPS-enabled tablet if you’re into that sort of thing., Caleb Jacobs

I got familiar with just about everywhere I could drive it over the course of a few weeks… save for one spot near the water that I eventually paid for. I went to make a sharp turn and applied the throttle, just as I had basically everywhere else on our 70 or so acres. With a good amount of momentum, I yanked the wheel with the pedal down and found an extremely loose patch of gravel that dropped off on the other side. We’d been moving rock with our tractors for the past week and, wouldn’t you know it, I found the worst part and promptly laid the Commander over on its side.

Humbled (and completely unharmed), I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out over the top. It was honestly a low-speed mishap—my drink never even left the cupholder—but still, I was not feeling great considering it wasn’t my machine. After calling on a buddy to come help, we were able to right the Commander and start it up, business as usual.

You can see the marks on the plastics, which wouldn’t look out of place at any off-road park. Grinding against a tree would do as much damage, save for the scuffs on the hard plastic roof panels.

Still, I’ve owned my screw-up and can’t make any excuses. Here’s your reminder to always check out the terrain before going full-send.

How It Stacks Up Against Others

The side-by-side market is packed, and rivals often overlap in terms of price and performance. That said, direct competitors are sometimes hard to discern across the board. If you’re looking at price, the Honda Talon 1000X-4 certainly plays in the same space with an MSRP of $22,939. The two have about the same horsepower, with Honda’s entry gaining a slight advantage at 104 ponies. As you guessed, though, there are even more from the likes of others—namely, Yamaha.

2021 Honda Talon 1000X-4, Honda

Seeing as I haven’t driven it, there’s no way for me to brag on the Yamaha Wolverine RMAX4 1000. Comparing its specs on paper shows a close fight between it and the Commander—they’re both in the 1000cc segment, each boast 2,000 pounds of max towing and 600 pounds of bed cargo capacity, and the Wolverine RMAX4 1000 has a competitive starting MSRP of $22,374. The horsepower advantage goes to the Yamaha with its 108 ponies, and it’s way shorter than the Commander at 128.1 inches; for quick reference, the Max XT I tested was 160 inches long.

Of the entire Commander lineup, the Max XT is the most capable four-seater. It slots above the Max DPS, with larger tires and more suspension travel, but below the performance-oriented XT-P two-seater, which has Fox 2.5 Podium shocks. Fancy! Even with its extra seats, the Max XT is about a grand cheaper than the XT-P, so you’d really have to want the latter’s suspension and 30-inch tires.

This trim packs lots of off-road-y features as standard, like a 4,500-pound winch and all that trail armor, but you can leap high above the $22,069 base price if you try. The one I drove packed more than $2,000 in add-ons, including a 39-inch light bar ($849.98 with the mounting kit), sport roof ($634.99), LinQ cargo rack ($379.99), and hardcoated windshield ($594.99), which were all welcomed but not completely necessary for everyone.

2021 Yamaha Wolverine RMAX4 1000, Yamaha

Your Questions About the 2021 Can-Am Commander Max XT, Answered

Just after I began the testing period last month, we put out a call for any and all questions you might have about the Can-Am Commander. As we’ll be doing from now on with our test drives, we picked a handful that weren’t covered specifically in the rest of the review to answer here.

Q: “What’s the fuel consumption like?” — Atlas80

It’s surprisingly good given how powerful that nearly 1,000cc Rotax is. You won’t run out of fuel during a full day of wheeling and you might stretch it out for an entire weekend, depending on your driving habits. Solid!

Q: “How is the value proposition? Could/would you have more smiles in a Jeep XJ for $15k out on the trail?” — Stay_Classy

I had this question in mind as soon as plans were made to test the Can-Am. I found out pretty quickly that, really, they’re in two different segments. You’ll have better luck rock crawling in a $15,000 Jeep but on fire roads and through wide open spaces, the Commander is a blast. You might even start calling yourself Sebastien after getting the hang of it.

Q: “If laid (somehow?) on its side, can one person right it?” — foo bar

Wish I never would’ve found out but no, I still don’t think one person could set it upright. It’s best to go off-roading with a group and call on a buddy when you need a hand.

Q: “Power to weight traction going up steep slopes?” — Blind Pig

While I can’t say I took my tester up any truly gnarly climbs, it should be plenty heavy to stay planted at 2,000+ pounds including a driver. It doesn’t bounce around like, say, a two-door Polaris RZR and I think riders will appreciate the stability that longer wheelbase brings.

Oh, and to answer another one of your questions Blind Pig, the passenger experience is a proper mix of fun and comfortable. Would recommend!

Caleb Jacobs

Q: “How does it handle jumps?” — Bummerhummer

It’d take some real speed or a steep incline change to jump the Max XT with its weight and length, but that suspension is forgiving. I’d pass on the Commander XT-P, even with the Fox 2.5 Podium piggyback shocks, unless all I did was drive it fast.

Q: “Can it drag a broken down dump truck across a creekbed?” — kashmired

Neither of my dump trucks broke down in the two weeks I had the Can-Am so it’s hard to say! Looking at it on paper, though, the answer is “not a chance.”

The Verdict

Going into this test, I wasn’t so sure I could be convinced the Can-Am Commander Max XT was, in fact, a good deal. Maybe I was ignorant to it all or just tight-fisted. But after using and eventually almost relying on it to shuttle me to and fro, though, it started to make sense. 

It isn’t without its hang-ups—literally, that long wheelbase means you’ll do your fair share of scraping on steep ledges—but overall, it’s a joy to use. Taller adults should sit in the front while someone who isn’t six-foot-five-inches like me is better suited for the back row. The adjustable driver’s seat means people of nearly any shape or size can drive it, and the low-slung seating position makes you feel safe and like you’re sitting in it rather than on top of it.

If you’re in the market for a UTV with respectable performance, you might already know the Can-Am’s measurable qualities. They’re all competitive with Honda, or Yamaha, or whoever else. And much like the case with similarly positioned performance cars, there’s hardly a bad choice you can make. If you’re leaning toward the Commander Max XT, it’s safe to be confident in that. It’s genuinely that good.

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: caleb@thedrive.com


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