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Side-by-sides, go-karts on steriods, are booming

June 10, 2016

Four-wheeled off-road vehicles known as “side-by-sides” represent the fastest-growing segment of the powersports industry.

Once principally a dull but practical work tool used by farmers and ranchers, the rugged machines have become a leisure activity for families and outdoor enthusiasts.

They already vastly outsell off-road dirt bikes and dual-purpose motorcycles. They may soon outsell all motorcycles.

An annual study by influential trade publication Powersports Business estimates that single-vehicle sales of side-by-sides will exceed 500,000 globally this year, with about 400,000 of them sold in the U.S. — more than double the annual sales of five years ago, and within easy striking distance of the estimated 480,000 motorcycles sold domestically last year.

“It’s been going like gangbusters,” said Scott Newby, an off-road vehicle specialist at Yamaha. “Every manufacturer is trying to expand the market.”

The industry leaders are powersports giant Polaris and agricultural equipment maker John Deere, which between them account for almost 60% of all SXSs sold.

But coming up behind them, and aggressively programming new machines into the market, are Can Am, Arctic Cat and Yamaha, with about 9% each, followed by Kubota, Kawasaki and Honda.

Liz Keener, editor at Powersports Business, said the 2016 SXS offerings include more than 230 different makes and models, between the utility, trail and sports vehicles.

“Every manufacturer is committed to this segment,” said Sean McFillin, a Honda assistant powersports marketing manager. “This is where the growth is — the one area in our industry that is growing.”

Their vehicles vary widely, and include squat, basic two-seaters, option-laden four- and even five-seaters with ample storage, and high-speed, sand-spitting racing machines.

The customer base varies widely too. Joining the traditional agricultural users are hunters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts who want to wander into rugged terrain carrying coolers and camping supplies.

They and the increasing numbers of family users are drawn, those representatives say, largely by the vehicles’ social aspect.

Motorcycles and ATVs, the traditional off-road vehicles, are generally single-person affairs. Riders hit the trail in groups, but the ride is still an individual adventure.

Side-by-sides typically carry more than one person, plus cargo, and they sit … side by side.

“A couple of years ago, if you bought an off-road vehicle, it was for one person, and if you went riding it was you and your buddies,” said Craig Scanlon, vice president for the off-road division at Polaris. “If you go now, it’s the husband and the wife and the children. It’s a lifestyle choice for the whole family.”

“The family aspect draws people to side-by-sides,” Keener said, “because everyone is sharing the same experience.”

Side-by-sides also appeal, especially to people with limited off-road experience, because of ease of operation.

Unlike motorcycles and ATVs, which are equipped with handlebars, hand throttles, hand brakes and foot shifters, a side-by-side operates like a car, Keener said — with a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals and an automobile-style seat.

“You’re not learning from scratch,” Keener said. “A side-by-side feels easier to drive if you know how to drive a car.”

They also present a more affordable option for ranchers and hobby farmers, who appear to be replacing pickup trucks with side-by-sides that cost less, get better fuel economy, require less space for parking and are cheaper to insure.

At a Honda-sponsored riding event held in March at an off-highway vehicle park near Gorman, several riders new to side-by-sides got the chance to experiment with the company’s Pioneer 700-4 and Pioneer 1000-5.

Both are burly, big-footed vehicles that operate in two- and four-wheel-drive mode. With a steel frame body wrapped around a powerful dual-clutch engine, the side-by-sides are lightweight and capable of performing well in deep sand, over rocky water crossings and up steep inclines.

“They’re a lot more fun than I thought they’d be,” said Stacie B. London, an experienced motorcyclist who races vintage two-wheelers in road race and flat-track competitions.

“I’m buying one,” said Roger Riddell, a veteran dirt biker – he helped make the “On Any Sunday” movie series – and off-road racer. “They’d be perfect for my place on Catalina.”

The 700-4s, which start at $11,899, can seat four people, manage rugged terrain and have a top speed of 37 miles per hour. Like other side-by-sides, they’re not legal on public streets except in Arizona and parts of Utah.

The 1000-5s, which start at $16,199, can seat five and are equally sturdy, with top speeds of 60 mph. (Honda also sells a two-seat Pioneer 500 that retails from $8,499.)

Both can be used to tow other vehicles and are designed to be customized. Seats fold up to accommodate more passengers or down to store more equipment. Options include windshields, rainproof roofs, camouflage paint, cargo racks, beefed-up bumpers and specialty add-ons like a snowplow.

The personalization plan is working, Honda’s McFillin said: The average Pioneer sale includes $2,000 in accessories, over and above the MSRP.

Several company spokespersons noted that, increasingly, SXS buyers are not switching over from motorcycles or ATVs or adding a new off-road vehicle to their collection of snowmobiles or personal watercraft.

They’re new to powersports altogether. In 2015, Yamaha’s Newby said, 63% of his company’s SXS sales were to first-time buyers who had never owned any other off-road vehicle.

The rise in side-by-sides is producing something of a boomlet in an industry that saw sales plummet after the 2008 financial crisis and struggle since then to recover.

Motorcycle sales for 2014 were up a scant 3.8% over 2013, according to the trade group Motorcycle Industry Council, but still represented less than half of the 1.02 million vehicles sold in 2006.

Powersports companies typically don’t break out sales by model, so it’s difficult to calculate the value of the boomlet.

Although the least expensive side-by-sides sold in the U.S. start at less than $10,000, the average retail value of those sold through the middle of 2015, Powersports Business said, was roughly $13,000 per vehicle.

Follow me on Twitter @misterfleming

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