OEM focuses on innovation to attract buyers
As spring broke, and ATVs were finally getting fired back up in the snowbelt states and in other regions across the U.S., Arctic Cat was looking hopefully into the upcoming ATV season.
For the Minnesota-based company, 2015 brings excitement, as its all-new XR lineup is expected to draw consumer enthusiasm and sales this year.
Arctic Cat’s all-new XR sport utility ATVs were introduced at the company’s dealer meeting in September. The 2015 models include those in the 550-700cc range. They have a new chassis, bodywork and a SpeedRack II accessories system, along with an engine sound reduction system, a new LED/halogen lighting system and three trim packages.
Arctic Cat also focused heavily on ergonomics with the XR, increasing rider comfort with easier steering, revised suspension geometry and a more comfortable rider position.
“We used to sit sort of like you were on a motorcycle, but now those people are a little bit older; they want that comfort and stability of being on there,” Tracy Crocker, vice president and general manager of Arctic Cat’s Global ATV Business, told Powersports Business.
Though it wasn’t marketed as a key differentiator, customers have also been attracted to the improved turning radius Arctic Cat brought to the XR.
“We’re getting feedback on the turning radius because it’s part work, part play,” Crocker said. “You’re out there moving things around, and particularly on the ag side — or if you’re hunting and on narrow trails — the riders really like that turning radius, the ability to get in and around things.”
As ATV riders are continuing to add accessories, such as storage units and rack extensions, to their units, Arctic Cat’s new SpeedRack system has also been a hit.
“I think we fell behind the power curve here in the last several years as related to the easy-on, easy-off accessories. We still had a metal rack,” Crocker said. “We went to a plastic rack and then we’ve got bars that are built into it, and we’ve got this quick-attach easy-on, easy-off
[SpeedRack] with a proprietary way of locking it. So it used to take minutes; it’s now seconds, literally seconds. And the stability and security of that is another thing that is different for us than the competition.”
Arctic Cat’s ATV sales growth was below the industry average in calendar 2014, Crocker said, but the company knew it was in part because it was preparing for the XR launch. This year, it expects to see better results.
“It was a setup year; it’s one of those years where we didn’t have a lot of new ATV news coming out, but we made up for it at the show,” he reported. “And now as we’re coming into riding season, we’re just starting to see that kind of come to fruition based on consumer and dealer reaction.”
Crocker admits he has been watching the ATV segment closely, as some in the industry were concerned a few years ago that side-by-sides could’ve cannibalized ATVs to the point where ATVs became irrelevant. But as industry ATV sales have picked back up slightly since 2011, he sees a future for the segment.
“After three years of watching it sort of going back and forth and seeing how consumers have responded to new ATV innovation in the marketplace and the industry, whether it’s from us or somebody else, they are aware; they are smart buyers. And I think they see when a vehicle changes how it rides and what it can do. Not to the degree of a side-by-side, I wouldn’t compare it to that, where people are measuring things like horsepower down to the single digit; it doesn’t have that sort of following. But it’s still enough where you say, ‘This is a viable market, and it’s going to continue to be a big part of powersports,’” he explained.
One of the keys to sustaining a strong ATV segment is continued innovation from the OEMs, Crocker said. Consumers realize when they’re on the same platform as they were several years ago, and they’ll turn away if they’re not seeing anything new or exciting on the market, he added.
“If ATV still continues to find ways to make itself relevant — which I think is going to come in innovation, like things like the SpeedRack and what you can do with the vehicle versus a side-by-side — I think it will be relevant for many years to come,” Crocker said.
However, the company has learned through focus groups that updates don’t always have to come from performance. Studies have shown that customers appreciate the look of an ATV, even though they’re bound to get dirty and beat up quickly. Crocker reported that pickup truck styling receives positive feedback overall.
“I was surprised in our focus groups, when we were developing the XR, how important the look of the ATV is. Because when you see ATVs, they’re beat up pretty fast,” he said, adding, “So that’s good because that means you can do things to it; you can invest in it, and they’re going to appreciate it.”
As Arctic Cat has seen its customers age, averaging in the mid-40s, the company has paid more attention to features like ergonomics, nimbleness and power, not for the sake of power, but to get the job done. With a smaller group of ATV customers in the market as compared to the mid-2000s, price has also become an extremely important factor. Pricing a unit even $200 out of the range of competitors in some ATV classes could drive a customer away, Crocker has learned.
“Because there are a lot of good competitors in a tight space that’s not growing, which is expected, MSRP or price elasticity starts to become an issue, so if you get too far outside of the range, you’re not in the game anymore,” he reported.
Strength in the ATV segment
Despite the hurdles that have come in the ATV segment as of late, Arctic Cat has continued to move forward with ATV, as evidenced by its commitment to the XR platform and across its broad range.
“We do well in youth, both the 90 and the 150. And then our smaller cc, call it 300-450, has got a nice little niche. The market — and the industry, as you know — is kind of a 500-700cc market, and I would say if we have an opportunity, that is probably where we have the biggest opportunity in terms of growth versus competition,” Crocker said. “We also do very well in TRVs. The TRV business is dying out a little bit related to trail and smaller-width units, but still, it’s a sizeable 10,000-plus, 12,000-plus units per year, predominantly in the Northeast.”
Not only did Arctic Cat introduce the XR platform for 2015, but it also brought to market a new TRV 1000 XT EPS with more powerful engine performance. Pushing hard on the throttle continues to draw customers to the brand.
“We’ve found that the way our ATVs handle and everything else attracts customers,” Crocker said. “We have a good reputation and a good dealer base, and it’s done well for us.”