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John Deere aims to grow Gator RSX line

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Tom Kaiser, Senior Editor
May 6, 2013
Filed under Features, Top Stories

Nine months after launch, Deere planning additional RSX models

Even though John Deere created the UTV category back in 1987 with its unusual AMT 600 runabout and now offers one of the broadest lineups in the category, the company continues its efforts to break out of its utilitarian image with sportier UTVs aimed at the heart of the off-road market, including the recreation-biased RSX850i introduced last summer. With positive reviews from the consumer media, and internal statistics showing the model bringing in new customers to the brand, John Deere is poised to compete head-on with Arctic Cat, Can-Am, Kawasaki, Polaris and the rest of the players in the still-growing sport side-by-side market.

Many enthusiasts equate the Polaris Ranger or Yamaha Rhino with the start of the side-by-side industry, yet John Deere paved the way with its three- and four-wheeled utility vehicles originally designed for work on farms, job sites and large-acreage residences many years before the first Ranger or Rhino.

As side-by-sides became sportier, Deere kept pace with its Gator XUV line introduced in 2007. In the five years that followed, the RZR and its many variants hit the scene, along with a host of high- and ultra-high-performance models that have drastically transformed the industry.

To stay in the game, John Deere followed suit in 2012 with the introduction of the sport-not-utility-focused RSX. As it continues to build the company’s reputation in the performance off-road market, John Deere plans to expand its RSX lineup with further models to continue chasing the segment’s highly profitable customers.

A whole new Gator

A Piaggio-sourced V-twin powers the RSX850i, which puts out 62 hp and gives the vehicle a competitive top speed of 53 mph. Other features include liquid cooling, aggressive styling, a locking limited-slip differential, continuously variable transmission, double A-arm suspension with coil-over shocks and anti-sway bars, nine inches of suspension travel and, because it’s still a Deere, a dumping rear bed. The base RSX starts at $12,999, the Trail edition is priced at $14,000, and the top-dog Sport is listed at $15,499 — economy car pricing that’s in line with the upper end of the sport UTV market.

John Deere’s sport-focused RSX850i could help it take share in a UTV market that is expected to maintain growth.

John Deere’s sport-focused RSX850i could help it take share in a UTV market that is expected to maintain growth.

“Power and speed were critical,” said David Gigandet, marketing manager of Deere’s Gator utility vehicle line, who was a part of the project’s initial development before switching to the marketing side of the fence. “It’s our first vehicle that was not first a utility vehicle with recreational capabilities; it’s a recreational vehicle with utility capabilities.”

The RSX shares a chassis with the previously introduced, midsize XUV 550 crossover with which it also shares front-end styling, basic dimensions and certain interior touch points. Gigandet said platform sharing made introducing an overtly sporty variant an easier sell to John Deere’s management.

“We were already working on the RSX while we were getting near the launch for the 825i [in 2011],” Gigandet said. “We had convinced the company that we needed to work on both of them, so we were putting capital and product development dollars for R&D for the RSX back then, and what made the RSX for the company really a go … was the success of the [XUV] 825i.”

Selling Deere’s hierarchy on the RSX project was likely made easier with the recession-defying growth in sport side-by-sides in the last five years. As more models hit the scene, the company could either stay on the sidelines and watch its core customers purchase models from competing brands, or step up to the plate with its own sportster. After the decision was made to compete, the engineering team focused on handling, top speed, go-anywhere suspension performance, aggressive styling and a cockpit designed to be the destination for a day of adventure, rather than the means to reach another activity — like hunting or fishing — which was a focus of the preceding XUV crossovers.

As it has with its other, more-utilitarian UTV models, John Deere looked to an outside supplier to provide an engine for the RSX. It settled on a V-twin from Piaggio’s motorcycle line. The engine satisfied goals of quietness, smooth operation, high torque output and a high-revving characteristic that is a key to any sport side-by-side.

“We knew we needed to find a supplier we weren’t working with before to have a machine capable of high performance,” Gigandet said. “We found the right partner with [Piaggio], because they know high performance and top speed and high horsepower outputs.”

Great expectations

Like the XUV before it, part of the mission for the RSX is recapturing a larger part of the market that John Deere feels entitled to given its history and breadth in the side-by-side market. While it’s been on the market for less than a year and it’s too early to call it a success, the company is pleased with early indicators showing the model bringing in conquest customers from other brands, as well as appeasing its core customers from its traditional agricultural and work realms.

“It’s a challenge when you make a completely new vehicle, which part of it is obviously to cater to our core customer base … and capture new customers that may not otherwise shop in a John Deere dealership, because we now have this kind of product in our Gator portfolio,” Gigandet said.

Aside from pulling in new customers, the sporty ways of the RSX are designed to appeal to customers in different geographic areas, particularly along the West Coast, the heart of the American side-by-side market.

“We expect that when we get more data that we’ll hopefully see this product does better for us in the West than our other machines, and helps us pick up more business out there,” he added.

John Deere’s entry into the sport UTV segment should help the company gain customers in the western U.S., a company official said.

John Deere’s entry into the sport UTV segment should help the company gain customers in the western U.S., a company official said.

While Polaris leads the sport UTV market with its broad lineup of RZRs, Deere expects the crossover XUV line to continue leading its own sales charts, although ongoing trends in the market make it possible that the RSX could someday become the top-selling Gator. Like the company does with most of its models, Deere has plans for additional RSX models that are more distinct than the current base, Trail and Sport versions.

“Usually when we build programs, we develop multi-year plans for their lifecycle, and we definitely have plans to continue to fulfill our portfolio,” said Gigandet. “We have new model plans for our portfolio in multiple families, including the RSX for the near-term and longer term.”

While more, sportier RSX versions are on the way, Gigandet said the company isn’t planning to challenge the highest performance leaders of the category, like the Polaris RZR XP or Arctic Cat Wildcat. As the company expects continued growth, especially on the recreational side of the UTV market, he added that anything is possible in the future.

“We still see some solid 5-percent growth rates for the industry over the next several years,” he said. “We’re seeing potential for growth this year that’s very solid, not double digits like we’ve seen in the recent past, but certainly mid-single digits over this year, next year and maybe … 4-5 percent the next several years out.”

Industry regulations looming

Details remain elusive, but there’s a growing consensus that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is readying new performance standards for the UTV industry. While some worry about the impact new regulations may have on the still-growing industry — with still-raw memories of the recent lead law debacle — John Deere welcomes the commission’s involvement and stands ready to comply with new standards expected for the 2014 model year.

“There are new standards that are coming online … that have been developed through ROHVA (Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association) and ANSI (American National Standards Institute) … so there will be changes to some of our products in the near-term to meet new standards that are developed for this industry,” Gigandet said. “They’re voluntary, but we will meet them, and we’ve been at the forefront in trying to get involved with the development of standards, because I think we felt we were already surpassing standards that others weren’t.”

Some undoubtedly do not share the company’s laissez-faire attitude, but John Deere remains optimistic about the market’s future, doesn’t feel the government is planning radical changes and sees intervention as an expected step in a still-developing industry.

“We consider this a growing industry, unlike some of the other industry we have, which is a good thing for John Deere to be in a spot now that our portfolio is so much broader,” Gigandet said.

 

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