Imagine a convention of a bunch of labs, collies and German shepherds, where they were all told to sit and watch a bunch of lamb chops and chicken wings go by on a conveyor belt. And then, right after the hounds got used to that scene, as a surprise, the convention organizers very quickly ran a big, juicy T-bone steak down the line, right past the dogs’ noses, and then packed that steak into a truck and drove away.
It almost seems unfair, doesn’t it?
Now you know how some Arctic Cat dealers who specialize in UTV sales felt after seeing a Wildcat 50 flashed before their eyes at the February Arctic Cat Snowmobile Dealer Meeting in Las Vegas.
With little build up or fan fare, in the middle of a show that was focused on some exciting new snowmobile products, the Arctic Cat brain wizards unleashed a 50-inch Wildcat. The machine was quickly driven across a stage, then it disappeared behind a curtain and was never seen again.
Beyond that, dealers were stonewalled when they asked questions about the machine. What does it have for an engine? How much horsepower will it make? How much will it weigh? When exactly will it be available? And, most importantly, how will it compare to Polaris’ wildly successful 50-inch wide/trail legal RZR models?
All good questions, with no answers readily available. Our own calls to Arctic Cat were met with a similar stonewall.
“The press release is all the information we can give right now, I’m sorry,” said Kale Wainer, Arctic Cat’s communications manager.
That press release merely confirmed that Cat showed a 50-incher, and said “the new model will feature everything enthusiasts love about the Wildcat, including the styling, and will lead the trail category with an unmatched suspension and ride-in comfort. Combine this with an all-new twin-cylinder engine and consumers will have an unrivalled Wildcat riding experience.”
So, at least we know the engine is a new twin. Rumors flowed about that engine being a 700-class twin, but of course there was no confirmation. A loud and proud X model Wildcat featuring an aftermarket exhaust was also started at the show and packed away, but for the UTV crowd that lives outside of dune territory, the 50-incher was what created the most buzz, aside from the sleds.
We recently spoke with dealers in nine states to get their reaction to the unveiling, and most were optimistic, and unendingly curious.
A quick glimpse
While the UTV market has exploded in popularity in the last 10 years, Polaris has been able to completely own the “trail-legal” (50-inch wide) segment with the original Ranger RZR layout since the model was introduced early in 2007 as a 2008 model.
Many in the off-road recreation business and enthusiast communities have been waiting for somebody to respond. That made the tease of a Wildcat 50 on Feb. 26 all the more intriguing — and maddening at the same time.
“I was in the back of the room, and they drove it across the stage, drove it off and then changed the subject,” said Rich Rochmund of TA Motorsports in Francis Creek, Wis. “It didn’t stay up there for 30 seconds, and they didn’t elaborate on details.”
“It was kind of good to see what you’re going to see [in the future], but like anything, a tease is just a tease,” said Eric Kramer of Kramer’s Inc. in Sidney, Maine. “It would have been good to say, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is our production date.’”
“I kind of knew it was coming, because there were rumors floating around, so when it came across the stage I wasn’t that surprised,” said Jim Martin, manager of Clark’s Marine and Powersports in Colville, Wash. “It was pretty quick — they flew across the stage and turned the lights down so we couldn’t see it. Of course, everybody was asking about it later, but they weren’t telling us anything.”
While some dealers found the sneak peek exciting or interesting, Martin said he found the driveby to be a bit tormenting.
“We don’t even know what motor it has, they just said it’ll be early 2014 when they are going to come out with it,” Martin said. “I know they were trying to surprise people, but what are we supposed to tell customers when they come in and ask about it?”
OK, so the intro was quick and without detail, but if Arctic Cat’s goal was to create a buzz, the company succeeded. Message boards for UTV enthusiasts lit up with speculation about the engine or other details, Facebook and other social media carried cell phone camera photos and several dealers said their phones lit up with curious consumers. The dealers remained just as curious.
A broad market appeal
There’s no denying that Polaris 50-inch RZR models have been a runaway success in the powersports market and really helped define the recreational UTV market as separate from the more utilitarian side-by-sides. Yet while several companies have responded with bigger, wider, heavier side-by-sides to compete with Polaris’ bigger, wider RZR S and XP models (from Kawasaki Teryx to Can-Am Commanders to Arctic Cat’s super-sporty Wildcat models), Polaris has had a complete monopoly with the original 50-incher, which is legal on ATV trails in many areas due to its narrower width and sub-1,000-pound weight.
That’s why so many Cat dealers we spoke with were excited about this new machine.
“It’s the most obvious, undersolved issue in our industry,” said Jared Burt of Rexburg Motorsports in Rexburg, Idaho. “Polaris has to be grinning from ear to ear that they’ve been able to have it this long without any competition.”
Burt should know: He also sells Polaris products and has done very, very well with the original RZR.
“It’s a huge deal, it represents over 50 percent of our side-by-side sales, and we sell Polaris, Yamaha, Arctic Cat, Honda, Kawasaki and Can-Am,” Burt said. “The 50-inch width is a big deal in this area because of the trails we have around here. Right now, the customers options are a 570 Polaris RZR or an 800 RZR. They’ve been waiting for another option.”
More than just selling side-by-sides, Burt says the success of the RZR has helped Polaris switch ATV and snowmobile customers to their brand as well because of the strength of the RZR product.
“I know for a fact that they have acquired new customers that they didn’t have before, people that have crossed over to their snowmobiles and other products, because of their RZR,” Burt said. “It has driven profitability — it’s been significant.”
The 50-inch width is a big deal in eastern Washington as well, Martin said.
“I believe it will be popular but it depends on what motor it has in it and how it compares to the RZR, because the RZRs are pretty popular around here,” said Martin. “The 50-inchers are what sell around here.”
“I think it will help us out, definitely,” said Rochmund from Wisconsin. “It’s a big addition, due to the fact that the standard Wildcat is a fairly large unit, this will appeal to the customer that doesn’t want that big of a unit. You can legally ride the bigger units on most Wisconsin trails, but a lot of people just don’t want a machine that big.”
“I hear the [original] Wildcat is a great dessert machine, and in northern Maine it is definitely a possibility to ride in there, but in central Maine and around here, that 50 inch deal is a big deal for us,” said Kramer in Maine. “For my trade area, it’s definitely a unit that will sell well; the current Wildcat is too wide to ride here.”
Cat dealers we spoke with in the south and southeast were a bit more in the dark about the Wildcat 50, and they didn’t attend this dealer meeting due to its primary focus on snowmobiles. One dealership owner in Georgia said he was “intrigued, but still in the dark,” while another dealer in Alabama said he couldn’t comment until he knew more — or at least something.
Tom Rowland of Thomas Sno Sports in Ogilvie, Minn., said there are plenty of places in his part of the country to ride a regular Wildcat or other full-sized UTV, but the smaller 50-inch Wildcat may help convince consumers who are on the fence about switching over from an ATV.
“I don’t know if I personally have lost any riding opportunity with our current full width side-by-sides, but with that being said, lots of our customers either do have a challenge with our current width or a they have a perceived challenge,” Rowland said. “I have not personally driven a 50-inch RZR side-by-side, but it seems like two big old Minnesota adults in there are really going to fill it up. But if it means more riding opportunities, I think we’re going to sell it.”
For some dealers, the 50-inch width or the displacement isn’t as important as some other factors.
“The weight is a key deal for us here in New York,” said Rick Hardman of North Syracuse Lawn and Snow. “People like BRP don’t want to hear it at order time, but if it’s not under 1,000 pounds, you can’t register them here in the state of New York. That’s why RZRs are the only thing you see on the trails here. If Cat has one and it’s under 1,000 pounds, it will sell well in New York.”
Left with the rumor mill
With no confirmed information released by Arctic Cat, dealers and consumers are left to speculate about the new 50-inch Wildcat.
One North Dakota dealer told us he heard from a good source that the engine would be a 700 twin, which would place the new Arctic Cat directly between Polaris’ 570 and 800-class RZR models. Another rumor placed the powerplant at 550cc, although the Cat press release did mention it was a twin, and that would be a small displacement for a twin, by traditional Arctic Cat standards.
Burt from Rexburg Motorsports in Idaho is on to another rumor.
“Everybody knows [BRP has been] working on one,” Burt said. “I think we may see a Can-Am 50 inch on the ground before you see the Arctic Cat 50 on the ground … it’s going to get really interesting as Yamaha makes an announcement and maybe Honda, as those guys release their sport models, they may have something really interesting and really quick. The new Maverick has been really well received.”
Minnesota’s Rowland is merely looking forward to more new sport UTVs from Arctic Cat.
“They continue to see the Wildcat line and everything they put into it as being a huge source for growth, and that can only be good us dealers,” Rowland said.