We sat down with the current President of Polaris off-road to discuss the state of the industry.
When the first Polaris Rangers rolled off the assembly lines back in 1999, current Polaris off-road vehicles President Steve Menneto was a district sales manager. At the time standard ATVs were all the rage and few saw the practicality of a utility side-by-side.
Sure, there had been a few attempts in the off-road powersports world at UTVs in the 70s and 80s, but none had really taken off and become mainstream. However, something about those first, clunky, 6x6 Rangers clicked with consumers and the rest was history. Now every major off-road manufacturer is in the UTV business, but in 99, Menneto admits that like many dealers, he didn't see the UTV explosion coming, especially given the popularity of standard ATVs at the time.
"No, I'll be honest, back in 99, when I was a sales guy pushing those side-by-sides, it was an uphill battle at that time and then it just flipped," Menneto told me with a laugh.
20+ Years of Ranger and more.
Menneto's love of powersports is a life-long one. He got his first dirtbike when he was 10 years old and his first snowmobile a few years after that. For years, he was a dealer of off-road products. When he got to Polaris, he slowly worked his way up the company ranks. Before 2019 he worked heavily in the company's on-road division, overseeing Slingshot and legendary brands like Victory and Indian Motorcycles for a decade before being promoted to president of off-road vehicles.
"We really brought that business of Indian up to where it is now, and competing on a global level," Menneto said.
Speaking to me and other members of the press at Polaris' 2021 ORV event where the company was showing off their new off-road inventory at their Wyoming, Minnesota test facility, Menneto elaborated more on just what a hard sell those early Rangers were.
"None of the dealers wanted it, they were like: 'There's nobody who's going to want these things,'" Menneto said. "If you kind of fast-forward until now, you look at side-by-side, and look at the size of that business, it's kind of funny how dealers were not happy about it at the time back in 1999."
However, Polaris has sold more than a million Rangers, all but ensuring the vehicle is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Menneto is not shy about touting Polaris Industries as the world leader of the off-road powersports world.
"We're number one now, we're going to be number one as we go forward and we're going to extend our gap," Menneto said. "It's all about making sure the riders are having fun and that they're more efficient at work or at play."
In 20 years, the Ranger and other side-by-sides may have changed drastically in design from other single-seat vehicles like the ever-popular Polaris Sportsman, but one constant has been consumers finding new purposes for the vehicles that the engineers could have never dreamed of previously.
"The biggest change has to be all the different uses of the vehicles," Menneto told me. "I was here back when the first Ranger was started back in 99, and you saw how that was put to work on the farms and so forth. A little bit of fun riding right? And now you see, from that start, to what you see in RZR and General, and just the fit and finish and HVAC on your Rangers right?"
He noted that the consumer who buys a brand-new RZR XP 1000 is someone just looking for pure fun while a buyer of a new Polaris General may be a hunter, farmer or overlanding enthusiast who wants a machine that is both helpful in the yard and fun for the family on the weekend.
"It's just so cool to see how people have really grabbed onto this lifestyle," Menneto said. "And we're trying to feed them the best we can with the best product experiences that we can."
Covid-19 and a surge in sales.
It is impossible to find anyone who has not been affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Polaris Industries are no exception. However, while many industries saw a downward trend in growth, outdoor industries like the powersports world have seen record high sales. Menetto said Polaris has seen a 75% surge in sales to customers brand-new to the powersports world. When they started breaking down the demographics for female riders and multi-cultural demographics, it was even more impressive, near 100% growth. It was a perfect storm of people wanting to get out of the house and finding totally new, Covid-safe hobbies through a new Turbo RZR or Ranger Crew cab.
"If you take that they had time, money, and the desire to be recreating with their families, it just came together as a great opportunity to retail units basically from the beginning of April," Menneto said. "We've never seen that to this degree in powersports."
Most of Polaris' staff has moved to working from home. Factory personnel have been working extensively to keep up with demand, albeit with some drastic changes to prevent an outbreak of the virus in this critical facilities. Through it all, Menneto stressed the safety of employees first.
"The essential employees that are working in the plants, we're all following Covid protocol, we've changed the lines to make sure they're safe," Menneto said. "We have contact tracing to ensure our employees are safe."
Their dedication to safety in the time of a pandemic was even obvious at the press event as my temperature was taken before even entering the grounds and staff on hand all wore bright blue Polaris face masks through the duration of the event.
"We're trying to do the best we can, it has not reared its head too bad right now, and we are being able to deal with it," Menneto said. "We are trying to catch up to the craziness that we have experienced over the last four months, but that's taken a lot of inventory out of our dealers."
Technology and the future of ORV.
While some old-school off-roaders may scoff at the idea of more technology, Polaris embraces it and many of the new models are loaded to the gills with advanced features. Maybe we're getting soft in what we like from off-road vehicles, but during our test ride, there was a night-and-day difference in handling on a Sportsman 450 H.O. without power steering and a Sportsman 570 with it. Vehicles like the Polaris RZR have tons of fancy tech like Polaris' Ride Command system that shows not just trail maps, but also where all your buddies are so you cannot get lost ever again. One engineer recalled to me how he and his buddy got separated in New Mexico and were able to quickly find one another again thanks to this system. Menneto notes that Polaris watches technology closely, notably what the auto industry and what companies like Apple and Samsung are doing with the latest smartphone technology.
"You kind of take all that external scanning and you bring it into our space and try to create things that make it nicer for the consumer to use our products, have a better experience and so on," Menneto said.
Some of that influence is obvious with Ride Command, the digital gauges and numerous comfort features the company is implementing. During my test ride of the 2021 RZR, the engineer recommended hitting a switch during the ride to switch from "sport" to "comfort" mode on the suspension. While most experienced riders are probably going to prefer sport mode, the impact of these little adjustments could do wonders for new riders. The difference was immediate and like night and day in the smoothness of the ride over the bumpy terrain Polaris has at their test facility.
Other features, like the air conditioning of the Ranger XP 1000 Northstar model I drove in a test run, may not appeal to all riders, but it sure made the warm cab much cooler and comfortable to ride around in on a hot day. For anyone who has to be outdoors all day, it's worth the extra cash. In all, Polaris had more than 50 machines at the event and it was clear from my walk-around that the idea was to have something for everyone in the future.
"I think you're going to find multiple trends," Menneto said. "I think there is a space for people who are going to want to get bigger, faster, wider, for that space. I also think there's going to be a heck of a lot more comfort, there's going to be people looking for comfort and technology and how do I make the experience pleasurable?"
If that experience with Ranger throughout the lifespan of the product has taught Menneto anything, it's that you never know what will be the "next big thing" in off-road.
"In the next 10 to 20 years, I think you're going to see more directions that we haven't even thought of yet that are going to come for off-road vehicles, so that's what we're excited about," Menneto said.
We couldn't agree more. See the Polaris website for more information on their 2021 lineups.