The year 2013 showed continued recovery for most segments of the small, task-oriented vehicle industry. Not spectacular but a good positive trend. This is my end-of-year review of the industry pace-setters in 2013 and what should grow in 2014.

Salient Benchmarks in 2013

The STOV industry saw a continued series of crossover products, meaning companies reaching out into (for them) not traditional markets and meeting the challenges of dealer networks selling to a broader scope of customers. Some examples:
• John Deere’s XUD line of UTVs;
• E-Z-GO’s extension of Cushman products into a broader commercial base;
• Polaris’s acquisition of GEM, forming the basis of an electric powered product line;
• Introduction of electric powered vehicles by several manufacturers into commercial markets.

No doubt there are plans afoot in several other major manufacturers to expand product lines into new markets.  For some it is a question of getting past a moribund segment (e.g., golf) to achieve some level of growth and for others a means to sustain relatively high growth (e.g., powersports).

Price Trends on Positive Trajectory

Managements in companies producing golf car-type vehicles and those manufacturing traditional heavy duty work vehicles have to be green with envy (and this type of “green” gets no subsidies) when they view the growth in units and in price points enjoyed by the off-road UTV segment. Our research at Small Vehicle Resource, LLC indicates that 25% of the revenue growth over the past five years in the off-road market has been due to price increases—and this in the midst of the worst economic environment since the Great Depression.  What enabled this to happen?
Certainly, the grassroots popularity of the UTV product was and continues to be a major factor. The 20+ to 30+ crowd (primarily males, of course) loves this product! This does not, however, fully explain why companies in this STOV segment could continue to raise prices in the face of a bad economy. The explanation, I believe, lies in the on-going product upgrades that companies put into their product lines. Better performance and durability were benefits their key demographics were willing to pay for.

Taking this model and imposing it on the broad segment, which I characterize as “golf car-type” vehicles, may seem like planting an orange tree and expecting apples to grow from it. But I don’t think so. Here are some attributes, found in some models, but still relatively limited, which, in fact, do fetch high prices—by this I mean $10,000 on up:
• On road access;
• Comfort and safety features (e.g., GEM’s, stylish, highbacked bucket seats);
• Automotive style interiors (Columbia Par Car Eagle, for example);
• Personal electronics;
• Stylistic innovations;
• Off-road capabilities;
• Hybrid drive train eliminating distance anxiety
No one vehicle has, or will be designed to have, all these features, but different combinations of these features can be put together to suit given demographics or operating environments—and as a result bring higher prices.

Importance of Style

It has been difficult for the LSV or PTV to escape the derisive description, “glorified golf car”. At the same time no one mistakes a UTV for a golf car, nor describes it as a “watered-down pick-up”. It is not difficult to see why. So far, the LSVs do, in fact, look like golf cars, while the UTV looks nothing like a golf car or a pick-up truck.

Manufacturers of golf car type vehicles, as well as their dealers are very nuts and bolts oriented.  Not many are concerned with a “look” that will grab the public’s attention. It is left up to publicists to use grandiose descriptions that, unfortunately, one glance dispels. In fact, style, per se, has largely been provided by accessory manufacturers, with lift kits and decorative wheels. Yet, look at the automotive industry. Style has always been a huge part of the sell.
Insofar as style is concerned, manufacturers of golf car type vehicles should aim for a radical disassociation from the golf car image.

Pace Setters in 2013 and 2014

Here are my top selections for products that set the pace in 2013 and will provide momentum for the industry in 2014.
1) The E-Z-GO 2Five: Break-the-mold styling and a standard AC powered drivetrain puts the 2Five in the lead for LSV certified gated community use;
2) Hybrid technologies: HuntVe, Bad Boy Buggies, and American SportWorks—all are currently aimed at the hunter segment, but the drivetrain approach will fit into many other markets;
3) Columbia Par Car Eagle LSV: Combination of bucket seats, interior comfort features, and styling flair;
4) GEM e4: Model is at least three years old but still comes closest to a sophisticated interior comfort and option package that is akin to automotive standards;
5) Star Electric Vehicles People Mover BN48: With options such as an AC drive, a Sirius Radio and CD player with iPod hook-up, plus high-backed seats for comfort and safety, the BN48 is a close second to—some would say even better than—the e4.

These selections are also highlighted on www.smallvehicleresource.com, where you can log in and voice your own opinion.