State of the Art?

By: John Arens

Much of the journalism concerning the ATV market of today is concerned with new models, coverage of ATV competition and ATV events, and product testing. Little of it is concerned with the business side of the industry however, and for good reasons. Analysis of business practices rarely makes friends for the journalist, however, articles written strictly to make friends usually aren’t worth reading. Besides, it’s much more fun to test new models! As a result, the ATV consumer of today is given a great deal of data about every model the factory can churn out, but very little about just what the ATV manufacturers of 1999 have done in the past and are currently doing to advance ATVing for the future. This lack of information is common to all sectors of the ATV industry, but particularly true for the sport and performance sector, which has long been treated as a pariah by the manufacturers.

The ATV market of today is a booming business. In fact, today there are eight different companies offering adult sized ATV’s to the public and even a few more that produce mini ATV’s for younger riders. Interest and acceptance of ATV’s by the public is very good, and sales are at an all time high in all categories. ATV’s can be found throughout the country whether on the farm, trail, or track, and they’ve found their own niche in the culture. Despite this, there continues to be an underlying trend amongst several of the manufacturers that we find reprehensible. Most of the ATV manufacturers of today do not support the sport sector of ATVing, or any sector for that matter. This problem is not confined to merely a lack of involvement in any organized activity or competition, but also encompasses model development as well. Once a new model is introduced, the consumer can hardly look forward to little more than decal changes as major development from year to year. Although they may dispute this, we can think of a long list of models that have basically remained unchanged for a very long time. In some cases more than a decade!

Model development and support of organized competitions is not something the manufacturers are unfamiliar with however. In fact, all of the ATV manufacturers of today are currently supporting some type of motorsport, be it motorcycle or snowmobile, and model development in those categories can hardly be called stale. Those riders can fully expect the latest in technology on nearly every model in the showroom, and factory semis shuttle across the country while mechanics and million dollar riders are jetted to the next event. Maybe these models have higher sales numbers than ATVs you say? Not even close!   ATV sales have far outdistanced their motorized cousins, and are now well ahead of motorcycle sales, and in fact, many dealers have come to rely on ATV sales to keep their doors open. Sadly though, despite the larger ATV sales figures the support shown by ATV consumers has not gone toward ATV development and new models or race support. Although the ATV consumers have supported the manufacturers to record levels, the manufacturers have gleefully cashed the checks like a scalper at game seven of the World Series, and funneled the money into the latest teenage wonder with the rainbow hair and eighth grade education. We can think of no other industry that has so systematically and so blatantly looted one customer group to subsidize the excesses of another! Need some examples? Here’s how they stack up.

The Japanese:
This category is where the real offenders are. Watch any supercross or road race event on ESPN, and see how many commercials feature ATVs. ATVs are everywhere, but we’ve yet to see a commercial featuring a CR. When they go back to the show however, there’s the factory teams compliments of the ATV customer. The factories don’t like us pointing this out to them. In fact, one even hung up on us for mentioning it and asking why it was this way!

We have to hand it to Kawasaki. They are fielding a team this season, and hopefully this is an indication of renewed support for their ATV customers. It does seem a bit strange however that despite this new team effort they didn’t include anything about it in their latest Good Times publication they send out each spring, but they proudly announced the availability of motors for go-kart racers. Hopefully they’re building a performance model the public can get excited about buying, because right now nobody is chanting “I wanna be like Mike!” (Penland)
Talk about dropping the ball! Suzuki invented the quad, built some pretty good performance models, and then disappeared faster than Jimmy Hoffa. It’s too bad really; the LT 250 and the LT 500 were pretty good models that could have been great with a little development. Did they use themselves up on the LT 80?
Yamaha has produced some of the vilest efforts yet in the ATV market, and they support all kinds of motorsports teams except  ATVs. Yamaha also goes to great lengths in new model development in both the motorcycle and snowmobile market, with one of their most recent and brilliant wonders being the YZF 400 motocross bike. As for ATVs, Yamaha remains unsurpassed and the undisputed king of stale technology and “bold new graphics”. For reasons unknown outside corporate headquarters, the Yamaha ATV group has a penchant for coming up with brilliant model ideas, but then the schizophrenic demons come out of the grave and they totally blow one aspect of the design. For example, drum brakes, chain adjustment, etc. Yamaha has at this time one huge asset capable of redeeming every sin of the past however: the YZF 400 four-stroke motor. This motor simply begs to be put in an all-new chassis design, and the ATV customers of today are begging for it as well! It could without a doubt totally redefine the performance category in its’ current form. All it needs is a well handling chassis to set it in, and sales of this model would go through the roof! In fact, several of the top ATV motocross racers have not waited for the factory – they have already performed the transplant, and the results are staggering. The two best things Yamaha could do is hire a current after market chassis manufacturer to consult on the chassis design, and field a full on race team to attack the AMA GNCs, GNCCs and the Pace Off-Roads. This race team would assure a deep and lasting first impression of just how awesome this new ATV would be. With the combination of the new ATV and the powerful race team marketing campaign, there is no doubt that Yamaha would lead in market share. Just get the factory ready for some series overtime! If Yamaha blows this one, they better hang it up and stick to pianos and golf carts.
Honda played perhaps the cruelest trick of all on the sport / performance enthusiast. After developing what is hands down the best ATV ever in the category, (the TRX 250R) they left the consumer jilted at the altar and then disappeared for ten years. The introduction of the 400 EX was a big step back towards reunification however, and we certainly hope this is only the first in a line of many for this category. In the past, Honda has been the benchmark for development in both quality and design, and for good reason. Both their motorcycle and ATV lines have proven themselves over time, yet they continue to offer their ATV customers technology they wouldn’t consider using in their motorcycle line. It’s time to bring the two lines together, at least in the sport / performance category! After all, the ATVs far outsell the motorcycles! Despite the wonders of the engineering group, Honda also is one of the most guilty when it comes to redistribution of the funds from one customer group to support another. Honda is very active in supporting the motorcycle crowd on the supercross and road race circuits at the expense of their ATV customers, despite the fact that after a recent ESPN interview with the road race team, more than one of the riders was found to be nearly illiterate. It was almost an embarrassment for them, and left us wondering why they wouldn’t support a few of the top ATV riders. After all, the number one rider in the country (Tim Farr) is a mechanical engineer, and obviously very well educated and well spoken, as are the rest of the top riders in the country! An entirely different world from the road race wonder who is better off with his helmet on.
The Americans:
The American ATV companies all suffer from the same malady. Their test riders are all primarily snowmobile test riders, and most of them are what we would term “well seasoned”. The wide, comfy seat tells the story! Despite the fact that many of the hottest riders in the country live in the Midwest, the American companies continue to rely on riders that can only be of a limited ability. Here’s a hint; find somebody that actually stands up and rides aggressively. Doug Gust lives in Wisconsin, and he’s one of the best ever to swing a leg over a quad!

Polaris makes some of the finest snowmobile and watercraft available, even offering race sleds easily capable of breaking into triple digit speeds right off the showroom floor, or hitting the snowcross circuit, and they continue to support and aggressively develop high performance models for that sport. Polaris also supports a NASCAR Winston Cup team, and even features ATVs in commercials with their car. All the while, Polaris proclaims that they are committed to the sport category, but regardless of how many times they proclaim it, floorboards, racks, automatic transmissions, and belt drives are NOT the hottest thing for a sport ATV. Despite all their other forms of promotion, we have yet to see Polaris step up to the plate and support their customers at an AMA Grand National Championship Series or a Grand National Cross Country event. For a company named after the Northern star known for guidance, they seem unable to find their way toward the performance ATV enthusiast like they do the snowmobile group. Snowed in maybe?

Arctic Cat    
Arctic Cat is another company that has been active with the snowcross crowd, and they currently build very high performance snowmobiles. Despite this fact, their proudest moment in ATVing remains their much heralded “rocker shifter”. Although Brando may have appreciated one, we would expect to see something far beyond their current ATV offerings.

The Canadians and Europeans:
Both of the entrants in this group are rather new to the ATV market, and we feel both have the potential to raise the bar in the performance sector. Hopefully they’ll both take their own road with regard to this category, and not be content to follow the trail of others.
We applaud the initial efforts of Husaberg. They didn’t try to develop a model for the already overcrowded utility category, but instead set their sights clearly on the sport sector, and their initial model was a 600cc brute! Husaberg has a reputation for making some very trick motorcycles bristling with very high quality components, and we would expect to see these appear on their quad offerings as well. Great start, but you would own the market if you had started 2 years earlier!
Last year Bombardier introduced their first ATV. Despite the fall through design being the only model capable of running over both feet at the same time, this company has potential! We would love to see a yellow four-wheeled cousin to the awesome MXZ snowmobile, and they have the motor experience to do it. In fact, Bombardier has access to the Rotax line of motors, including a 250cc motor that has successfully been fitted to an ATV chassis in the past by a few smaller companies. It’s what the sport rider has been begging for! Hire a few great Canadian racers for development, and take the puck to the net!

No more excuses
The manufacturers don’t appreciate us pointing out facts like those above, and yes we’ve heard all the arguments before. It’s true that the consent decree entered into by the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and the ATV manufacturers ten years ago was a hindrance to the development of the sport / performance category. However, since the inception of that decree, the injury rate for ATV riders has rapidly and steadily decreased, even to a level below that of almost every high school sport, despite sales for all ATV’s at record levels. It’s also a fact that the original decree expired over a year ago, and many of the manufacturers are now only using it as an excuse to cover their own less than stellar efforts. It’s ironic really. The factories aren’t afraid to set a 14 year old on 60hp 250cc dirt bike or produce a sled capable of 125 mph, yet when it comes to ATV’s they simply cannot make enough excuses. Well we’ve heard them long enough, and it’s time to start treating the ATV customer with the same respect that the other customer groups enjoy. Be it through both better model development and through competition support, it’s time for the ATV manufacturers to begin supporting the customers that have for so long been supporting them.
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