Polaris Launches the Escalade of Off-Road Vehicles
Driving deep into the woods to haul home a deer carcass is much better with armrests and some AC/DC tunes.
That’s the product thesis behind a line of off-road vehicles, the General, unveiled this morning by Polaris Industries, the Medina, Minn., maker of Indian motorcycles and a range of snow machines. Polaris is basically marketing its new toy as the Cadillac Escalade of off-road vehicles, knobby-tired trail wagons that look like giant golf carts.
Polaris already makes a line of these rigs, dubbed RZR, for adrenaline junkies and a more pragmatic model, the Ranger, for farmers and ranchers who need to tow things and haul feed. The new offering – priced from $16,000 to $19,900 – is designed to sit in between those two and attract a new range of customers. The rough target is people who own a few acres of land but aren’t speed freaks and don’t do a lot of hard labor.
“This is going to catch the industry off guard a little bit,” said David Longren, head of Polaris’s off-road-vehicle business. “It definitely has a potential to impact the fourth quarter.”
Powered by a 100-horsepower engine, the General has two seats in a fully enclosed cabin that has a stereo, storage bins, heating, an adjustable steering wheel, and cup holders, of course. On the outside, it has luminous headlights, beefy windshield wipers, and locks, just like an Escalade.
When orders start coming in this week, Polaris expects almost two-thirds of General buyers will be entirely new to off-road vehicles. “One of the things we heard loud and clear from our dealers was a need for an SUV of the segment,” Longren said. “It’s clear that there’s an emerging market in this space.”
In the business world, this rig won’t turn many heads. Investors will be far more focused on the new Indian motorcycle Polaris will unveil tomorrow in Italy. Expanding its market-share fight with Harley-Davidson, that’s the sexier narrative. The four-wheel buggies, however, are a far more critical and promising business for Polaris. For one thing, Harley doesn’t make them. Polaris controls almost half of the market, far more than its next-closest competitor, according to CEO Scott Wine.
Secondly, it’s still a young and growing market, while motorcycle demand has been fairly mature for decades. Polaris says that demand for the off-road segment at large in the past five years has grown by 7 percent a year on average. In that same period, U.S. motorcycle registrations have had an annual growth rate of only 1 percent, according to Harley-Davidson data.
Polaris says its off-road vehicles are as profitable as or more profitable than anything else it makes. And last year it collected $2.9 billion from off-road vehicles, roughly two of every three revenue dollars. That's pretty much the size and scope of Tesla's business last year, albeit with far more profit.
Honestly, these things are kind of silly. Arguably, they aren’t as fun to drive as a motorcycle, and those who enjoy the outdoors generally prefer to, well, be outdoors, not shuttered in a pod of aluminum and plastic. It’s discretionary spending in every way. But here’s the thing: people love these rigs.
My college roommate lives on a few acres in rural Wisconsin. He’s a pulmonary physician with four daughters 1 under the age of 10, so he’s long on smarts and short on sanity. When he walked into a Polaris dealer a few months ago and saw a burly Ranger sitting there, he simply reached for his wallet. This guy has some money, but he doesn’t go on fancy vacations and would be hard pressed to find a lavish restaurant within 50 miles. A motorcycle was out of the question (see: daughters). The clincher: The rig was kitted out with tank treads. You know, for the snow.