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Q&A with Kawasaki’s product planning director – October 16, 2006

October 16, 2006
Filed under Features

Patrick Kelly, Kawasaki’s director of product planning and research, discussed a range of subjects with Powersports Business at the company’s annual new product show in Anaheim. The following is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
PSB: This is probably like asking a parent to pick their favorite child, but of the nine new products, what really excites you?
Kelly: It’s hard for me to not get really excited about the 2007 Ultra 250X. That’s because it’s the highest-powered product in the powersports industry. My roots with Kawasaki go back to the Jet Ski business, so it’s definitely got a warm spot in my heart. That’s kind of why we introduced it last today. This is really a statement machine for where we are in the powersports business.
PSB: It often takes 21/2 years to 3 years to develop new product for the market. Was that the case with the Ultra 250X?
Kelly: That’s probably a pretty accurate timeline. It might have been a little bit tighter than that. A lot of that is testing and evaluation. With watercraft, there’s so much testing involved… There’s definitely science to (watercraft hull design), but a lot of it is still just art. It’s a matter of changing this and testing it, changing it and testing it. The testing process is very, very long.
PSB: Two to three years ago, when the Ultra 250X was being developed, the PWC market was pretty flat. So why was Kawasaki intent on putting such a big investment in a flat market?
Kelly: You’re right, when we started working on this, the watercraft business was certainly not in its healthiest position. But the rate of decline, even then, had slowed considerably and it seemed to be flattening out. Plus, we knew that even though the market was small, if you had a good product, you could sell a good number of them. So we really weren’t afraid because we knew even at the level the market was in, if we had the right product, we could easily meet our sales target. Plus, we did feel strongly that the market was going to turnaround. We do anticipate it will pick up slow and steady in the coming years. A lot of the negative detractors from the PWC industry have quieted down. We’ve addressed everything that anybody ever said bad about watercraft in terms of emission and noise. So the time is right, I think.
PSB: One of the nine new products shown was the 2007 Vulcan 900 Custom cruiser. Where is Kawasaki in the cruiser market, which is a very crowded and competitive market? And where do you want to be with this new custom cruiser?
Kelly: The cruiser market is pretty competitive in both the big bore class cruiser and the mid-class criusers. We brought out the two 900s last year, the 900 Classic and Classic LT. We had very good success with those models. They definitely did what we anticipated them to do, which is to grab a very big piece of the mid-size cruiser market. But we also know the buyer for the custom style, which we introduced today, is a little bit different buyer. So we felt we could bring that model in and capture more market without losing any of our volume on the Classic, Classic LT models.
The big bore cruiser market is crowded. It’s competitive. It’s had some growth this year, but it’s not on fire like some of other segments. We feel like the Baby Boomers that drive that cruiser market are getting older. We think some of them are going to get out of the market, some of them are going to go to more of the touring-oriented market. But nonetheless, it’s still a huge segment. It’s the biggest segment of the industry. So that big-bore cruiser market is pretty important to us. I think product-wise we have some good products there, but we probably will be looking more to improve our standing in that market as well.
PSB: Honda and Yamaha have recently come out with power steering for ATVs. Is Kawasaki going to do the same?
Kelly: We can’t really say what we’re doing product development-wise, but I will say we also have a big Mule business. Some of our resources, at times, are directed to UV (utility vehicle) production, rather than ATV. So power steering is definitely something we see on the horizon. One of the things that’s a challenge for all the manufacturers … is weight. All the Japanese OEMs abide to a weight standard. For us to put it on the appropriate model, it would have caused us to have a huge engineering challenge with weight because those models are right at the limit already. So it’s not just simply a matter of adding power steering, it’s a matter of removing enough weight elsewhere so you can add the power steering and still be at the same weight. So it’s definitely a challenge.
PSB: Dealer reaction to the new product has been very positive, but it also, at times, came with the caveat of “it’s long overdue.” How do you react to that?
Kelly: I’d say we have a 250 hp watercraft. We have a Concours that has variable valve timing. I don’t know too many other OEMs that are using variable valve timing. I don’t know any of them that are using tire pressure sensors and a Smart Key Card. So I think that’s a matter of perspective. Actually, that reaction somewhat surprises me because, frankly, over the last few years we have been on the gas. We’ve brought out more new products and better products than our competitors have brought. And we’ve had extreme success with them in the marketplace. So there is some degree of catching up to do, I guess … It doesn’t do much good to come out with power steering on your ATV if you’re still selling a 20-year-old Concours or you’re still selling watercraft that aren’t the latest, greatest things. So it’s just a matter of priorities. But like I said, I think we’ve had more than our share of innovation, particularly this year with the stuff we brought out. psb

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