"The Ultimate Crossover"
Having grown up in Michigan, I spent the entirety of my early adult life riding whatever powersport machine I could get my hands on, be it snowmobile, dirt bike, four-wheeler or personal watercraft. Pretty much, if it has an engine, I've ridden it. On Memorial Day weekends *– the unofficial start of summer – I would usually split my time between tearing up two-tracks on dirt bikes and jumping waves on a jet ski. Now, Michigan-based Gibbs Sports has come up with an innovative amphibious vehicle that my 18-year-old self is glad never existed. It's called the Gibbs Quadski. Unlike those odd, six-wheeled amphibious machines that are built more for practicality than excitement, the Quadski was designed with enthusiasts in mind to create an enjoyable riding experience on both land and water.
The idea for the Quadski actually began with the Aquada, a street-legal amphibious concept car that gained the company a lot of publicity. But Gibbs learned the hard way that getting such a vehicle built was a difficult task when dealing with federal regulations pertaining to both street-legal cars and marine vessels. So the company has taken some of the technologies it developed for the Aquada and applied them to the Quadski, creating what is essentially part all-terrain vehicle, part personal watercraft and even part motorcycle.
Introduced late last year, the Gibbs Quadski is on sale now at a handful of dealers across the country (okay, mostly in Florida) with a staggering price of around $40,000. These days, your top-of-the-line ATVs and PWCs can easily top the $10,000 mark, so with this asking price, the Quadski is indeed being targeted at well-to-do early adopters and government agencies. At the moment, I'm neither, but Gibbs invited me to its custom-built test course in South Florida to put the Quadski through its paces on both land and sea.
When I pulled up to Gibbs' test facility, it was the first time I had ever seen a Quadski in person. My first impression focused on just how large this machine is. Jet skis and four-wheelers are already on the big side of powersport vehicles, but combining the two results in a surprisingly massive machine. In fact, looking at the specs, the Quadski has a wheelbase only three inches shorter than a Smart ForTwo, and it's about an inch wider and almost two feet longer from nose to tail (or bow to stern, depending on how you look at it).
Helping cloud the Quadski's roots even further, it gets its power from the same 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine used by BMW in many of its motorcycles. In this application, power is reduced slightly to 140 horsepower and 87 pound-feet of torque, and on land, power is sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed transmission that requires manual upshifts from a button-operated shifter on the left side of the handlebars (the transmission downshifts automatically). The engine also sends constant power to the jet, which means it is running even if the Quadski isn't in the water.
With its composite V-shaped hull and prominent rear jet, the Quadski looks like a jet ski with wheels. The unique construction of the drive system means that there are no driveshafts to the rear wheels; instead, power is sent rearward via a chain. As for maintenance on the Quadski, it is recommended to be serviced every 50 hours at a Gibbs Sports Amphibians dealer, and the whole thing is covered by a 12-month warranty for models sold in the contiguous US. For a vehicle that does so much multitasking, it still ends up being quite competent on both land and water, offering plenty of power for riders to enjoy themselves at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
I started off on dirt, where a Gibbs instructor showed me around the course. There was a good mix of wide-open trails with some occasional washboards thrown in, a few steep uphill and downhill areas and even a slow-speed rock crawl section. The Quadski's four-wheel independent suspension took it all in stride. In fact, being about double the size and weight of a standard ATV, the Quadski actually felt more stable around some of the turns. Its steering setup is responsive at all speeds, and the best part is that the handlebars don't jerk out of your hands when going over rough, uneven terrain. Full headlights and taillights mean that it can be ridden at night, but sadly, this land and sea Transformer is not street legal. One benefit of the Quadski on land is that its 15-gallon fuel tank, which is recommended to be filled with premium gas, is about three times larger than a conventional ATV and should give it a much longer riding range.
The Quadski's wide body ensures that the rider's feet can't touch the ground while seated, so it has an electric reverse gear to make it easier to navigate tight areas. Backing up on land is accomplished by pushing a blue button on the left side of the handlebars. Unfortunately, the switchgear is poorly placed, requiring that you take your left hand off the brake lever to press the button, unless you cross your right arm over to the left side. In either case, both motions are rather awkward. Following the Gibbs representative on the trail, I also noticed that the hull shape, which is meant to help it perform better on the water, actually reduces ground clearance, and on a few occasions, I saw sand making its way into the jet outlet. Gibbs officials say this occurrence won't damage the impeller – apparently, it's nothing like sucking sandy water through the jet... a jet ski no-no.
Transitioning from ATV to PWC is simple. Just drive into the water, raise the wheels and you're good to go. Again, since the jet is always running, the Quadski is still able to putter through the water with its wheels down. Once the water is deep enough, pressing a toggle button raises the wheels in a matter of seconds, and then it's in full PWC mode. Considerably wider and heavier than the biggest three-passenger jet skis currently on the market, the Quadski seemed to take a little extra time to get up on a plane, but after that, it felt just like it wheel-less counterparts. One of the Quadski's biggest weaknesses is that it literally puts the "Personal" in Personal Watercraft – it only seats one and is unable to tow anyone behind it – no water skiers, no tubers.
One of the coolest moments riding the Quadski occurs when riding straight out of the water onto land. My first attempt was thwarted by my brain's confusion at trying to ride a jet ski ashore – I came in too hot and didn't have time to put the wheels down. Stern tones were addressed in my direction. On the second attempt, I came in at a slower pace – just off plane – and pushed the button to lower the wheels. Once the tires made contact with the dirt ramp, the Quadski's unique design used both the rear wheels and the jet to power up onto land. Even coming straight out of the water, the brakes worked perfectly in bringing the machine to a quick stop – the same can't be said for all ATVs after fording through water. (Interesting side note: the Quadski uses cross-drilled rotors that have scalloped edges, very similar to what is offered on the latest Audi RS models).
The good news is that once when you're getting ready to go from land to water, one's helmet can be stored snugly beneath the seat along with the battery and fire extinguisher, though the retracting front wheels mean that there is no storage area in the front. Even better, if you ride the Quadski right on the water, you won't need to pack a towel or a change of clothes.
Coming in at a little more than five feet wide and offering only rear-wheel drive, the Quadski isn't really a proper direct replacement for some of the high-dollar 4x4 ATVs that can go deep into the woods. While attempting to be a jack of two trades, the Quadski makes a few compromises, but they might not even be noticed by all but the most hardcore ATV/PWC enthusiasts. One issue that is clear as day, however, is that the Quadski's girth not only limits where it can be ridden on land, it also makes trailering a necessity since its width and length make it too big for most pickup truck beds.
Then again, it doesn't seem like Gibbs intends to replace conventional ATVs and jet skis – it's looking to create an entirely different experience when it comes to powersports. As it is, until the price comes down a fair bit, the Quadski may end up playing a bigger role in the yachting industry, or perhaps as a great tool for well-heeled beach-area police departments and lifeguard operations. We can also see it doing well in hourly rental scenarios, where its novelty value could be a big trump card. Regardless of who buys the Gibbs Quadski, they're sure to find endless entertainment in the simple joy of riding from land into the water and vice-versa. It's surreal, seamless... and it never gets old.