California’s wine country provides ideal backdrop for work, play
Sitting inside a well-appointed hotel in Paso Robles, Calif., the media launch of the Kawasaki Mule Pro-FX and Pro-FXT Ranch Edition was still a day away. Yet key players in the development of the Mule Pro-FX platform from Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan had just entered the lobby and were grinning ear-to-ear. The group had just returned from an afternoon of shopping at some outdoor- and powersports-industry retailers, and had gained a much better understanding of the side-by-side marketplace.
Minoru Kanamori is a jack-of-all-trades for Kawasaki Motors Corp., technically the R&D liaison in the U.S. who works with Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan. He served as tour guide for three of Kawasaki’s distinguished guests from Japan at the media launch, including the development leader for the Mule Pro-FX platform, the engine mechanics lead and the chassis engineer.
Needless to say, this launch was already setting the bar high, as it’s a rarity for a Japanese OEM to include such high-level staff members on a media ride. The assembled media members from the farm, ag, enthusiast and equine media learned more about at potential uses of the Mule during dinner at Turley Wine Cellars.
The following day, we were off to the Ancient Peaks Winery and Ranch on the grounds of the historic Santa Margarita Ranch. As we would find while driving the 2016 Mule Pro-FX, traversing only a sliver of the 14,000 acres provided a sneak peak at some of the most pristine land imaginable. That the dry, arid climate was less than 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean was hard to comprehend.
It was much easier to understand the appeal of the Mule Pro-FX to the crossover utility/rec market.
“We looked at what opportunities were out there, and this product essentially is tailored for the utility market as well as the recreation market,” said Kevin Mann, 4-wheel product manager for Kawasaki Motors Corp. “It fits a lot of different customer segments — farmers, hunters, recreation, trail riding, government, estates, commercial, industrial, constriction — this will fit everybody.”
With a focus on comfort, durability, capability and power, the Mule Pro-FX has a distinctly North American flair to it.
“This Mule is the voice of the American customer,” said Mann, formerly of Kubota. “We took our customer input and put it into the product to satisfy the American market. The visibility is incredible.”
And while designers initially came up with styling that trended to the sporty or aggressive side, consumer research told Kawasaki: Not so fast!
“The more we went back to talk to our customers, the more they told us they like Mule. They like the essence, and they want to carry the history and heritage of the product in the styling. They don’t want to lose it. So we maintained that and listened to our customers, and ended up with styling that fits their demands: reliable, rugged, functional, stable, tough, simple and strong. It gives them a sense of confidence.”
Mann said the age demographic for the Mule Pro-FX is in the range of high-40s to low-60s, who will appreciate the low-to-medium-range torque being produced by the 812cc, 3-cylinder Chery engine with digital fuel injection. The machine tops out at 45 mph, which served us well as we enjoyed wide-open trails on the property at Santa Margarita Ranch. The low-end torque was noticeable and helpful on some steep uphill climbs, and the engine braking was a similar asset while heading down the other side of the climb.
“That low- and mid-range — that’s where the machine is being used 90 percent of the time, 0 to 15 mph,” Mann said.
The Chery-manufactured engine is known for its reliability in the Asian auto market.
“Kawasaki was able to make some refinements and customizations to the engine, so it’s not a stock Chery engine,” Mann said. “We’ve certainly made a lot of upgrades and changes to it that make it appeal more and work better in the utility vehicle environment.”
The Kawasaki-designed CVT’s ratios provide a responsive feel when accelerating, even at low RPMs. Potential customers also will appreciate the fact that it has the largest cargo bed in its class at 20 square feet, which Mann noted is six times the size of the leading competitor.
The Mule Pro-FX and Pro-FXT Ranch Edition will be manufactured at the Kawasaki plant in Lincoln, Neb.
R&D staffers Brian Butler and Loran Fortik have spent a decade at the Lincoln facility, and the ATV/UTV R&D team has tripled in size since their arrival. The 2.2 million-square-foot facility employs 2,000, with 80 percent of the products being made there serving the U.S. market.
“The Mule Pro is our flagship vehicle, and we use the best equipment out there to build them,” Fortik said. “We’re installing a new fiber laser, which will replace four old laser machines. We’ll actually have more capacity with this one new machine than we did with the four old machines. A Mule Pro weld line is also a new line for us. We use our own Kawasaki robots to do the welding, which is a tremendous help for quality control. And of course the Mule Pro assembly line is all new for us. We’ve implemented all of the new technologies we’ve gained from the other four assembly lines in Lincoln.”
Butler noted that the average tenure at the Lincoln factory is 15 years, with some having 35 years of experience. A handful of those building the Mule Pro line have been at the factory since it opened its doors 40 years ago.
“One of the things I like best about working at Kawasaki in Lincoln is the people we have there,” Fortik said. “We all have a passion for these products we’re building.”
The original Multi-Use Light Equipment vehicle launched in 1988, with the most recent iteration — the Mule Pro-FXT and its available two rows of seating being revealed as a 2015 model.
“A lot of dealers asked why we released the FXT first. And the reason is that it provided the greatest competitive advantage for us,” Mann said. “We felt that our trans [T] feature is the best out there in the market. You can convert from one-row seating to two rows in less than a minute. It’s simple.”
The Mule Pro-FX model, however, figures to capitalize on its single-row seating, albeit with the same chassis platform, with independent suspension, rear disk brakes and optional power steering.
“This is our biggest market, and the most important one for future growth,” Mann said.
Diesel models — the 2016 Mule Pro-DX and Pro-DXT — will be unveiled later this year.
“In 2014 we had 13 different model combinations,” Mann said. “We’ve doubled that in the last year with 26 different model variants. That demonstrates our commitment to grow in the utility vehicle business.”
Before we headed off to our final excursion of the day at J. Dusi Winery, we put our finishing touches on the Mule Pro-FX model by making yet another memory. Earlier in the day, some us saw a black bear scurrying its way up the mountainous terrain. Now, we were preparing to embark on a captivating Zipline Canopy Tour, another of the amenities offered at the Santa Margarita Ranch. The five ziplines spanned more than 4,500 combined feet, with the newest side-by-sides to the marketplace awaiting below.
It was a memorable introduction to what will likely become a favorite product for Kawasaki dealers.