Karts, or “go-karts” and “mini buggies” as they are commonly referred to, are fighting through an identity crisis.
Modeled after full-sized dune buggies, the popular, smaller off-road vehicles are in the midst of a transitional phase that ATVs once had to conquer: the consumer perception that these vehicles are more than just toys, but legitimate off-highway vehicles that employ sophisticated engineering and technology.
Also like ATVs, the kart industry includes the more-established manufacturers and an onslaught of knockoffs that look like the original, but at a much lower price point.
The kart industry last rode the mainstream wave back in the ’90s when Honda sold the popular Odyssey and Pilot off-road vehicles. When Honda stopped producing its karts, it opened the door for a group of smaller, American-based companies and a barge full of Chinese imports to make their mark.
While these lesser-known entries were not as popular in the mainstream as the Honda offerings, they were significantly less expensive. Making the newer generation of post-Odyssey and Pilot karts more appealing to consumers was the fact they could be found not only in powersport dealerships, but also in mainstream retailers like Sam’s Club, BJ’s and Pep Boys.
Even with Honda out of the picture, long-standing kart companies like Manco, Carter Brothers, Blade Powersports, Dazon, TJ Powersports, Kinroad, Kasea, Joyner and Tomberlin still faced competition from Chinese importers.
A new kart owner could easily be misled into thinking they were getting the same product at a much cheaper price because some imports had copycat marketing and branding of the more established brands. But closer inspection showed many knockoffs had tubes that were welded on only two sides, drum brakes existing where discs may on higher quality karts, and suspension parts that were nothing more than an undersprung shock, whereas full hydraulic shocks were found on higher-priced offerings.
The majority of post-sale issues included mufflers breaking, cheap tires wearing quickly, front A arm bushings and chain tensioners prematurely wearing out, engine mount welds breaking, poor electrical connections and non-existent post-sale parts and support.
Jeff Platzer, Manco Powersports’ national sales manager, says new kart offerings have grown beyond toy image and quality in the mind of the consumer. He said the industry also is attracting back some of the customers lost by the failings of the cheaper karts.
“The dealer and the consumer are now seeing there is a far greater choice out there when it comes to where they will spend their dollars,” Platzer said, “particularly as it relates to choosing between an entry-level ATV and a kart.”
Here’s a look at two of the industry’s larger kart companies. Efforts at reaching other kart companies were not successful. (Note: Former longtime OHV and kart manufacturer Yerf-Dog has gone out of business.)
Started in 1967 by Bill Hatlem, Manco manufacturers its karts in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Platzer said Manco’s sale numbers are confidential, but they do see cyclical changes in the kart industry, both in sales volume and in different price categories depending on vendors and what price category they choose to buy in. “We compete in all price categories,” he said, “and there's no doubt that the higher end has shown a lot of growth with the advancements in suspensions and other features.”
Manco is actively looking for new dealer prospects. There is a minimum opening order, but there is not a set dollar amount, Platzer said. There are 18 kart models ranging in MSRP from $599 to $3,299 for models that include reverse transmissions, independent suspension, hydraulic discs and Subaru commercial grade engines, a relationship Manco is confident will help customers choose them over the competition.
“(The) exclusive relationship with Subaru gives us a very high-quality, commercial grade engine with an industry-high, three-year warranty,” he said. “Add to that an extremely large service network of over 3,000 service centers nationwide.”
With more than 1.5 million karts built to date and 700 dealerships, international distribution and a new plant in China, a company spokesperson said Carter Bros. is in high gear to occupy the top rank once held by Honda.
Joy Sirmon, the manufacturer’s marketing and advertising coordinator, said the kart scene is growing, but there is a misperception among the public about what a kart actually is.
“I think a lot of people are stuck with the old kart design in their minds,” Sirmon said. “Karts have changed from what we grew up with: the basic frame with nothing more than a seat and lawnmower engine. Now karts look more like a dune buggy. It goes off road, and rides better and safer.”
Sirmon says one draw to Carter Brothers’ karts, which range in MSRP from $800 to $4,000 and includes its top of the line, liquid cooled four-stroke 20hp Interceptor GTR 250cc model, is a safety issue. “Many people look at ATVs as being unsafe; they want off-roading to be safer for their children.”
In addition to seat belts, a lower center of gravity and larger displacement motors, Sirmon says it’s the accessories that are drawing more mainstream buyers.
Drivers can now listen to their MP3 player via onboard speakers. PSB
Copyright 2006 Powersports Business