In November I spoke with John Stockman, Director of GEM about the new 2016 line of GEM vehicles. I wanted to follow-up that article with a dealer’s perspective of the GEM line now that it has been in the market. To that end I spoke with Andy Kaplan of Dominion Utility Vehicles of Bedford, Virginia, which carries the GEM line along with Gravely and Brutus utility vehicles. Polaris manufactures all three of these brands.
I first contacted Kaplan for the original article to get his initial reaction to the GEM line. At that time he noted that the new doors and multiple door options were the most significant changes to the line stating,
The redesigned doors are far and away the most significant improvement. The hard doors on the prior models had frequent hardware problems, did not offer reliable protection from water intrusion, did not open wide enough, were not available for the 6 passenger model and interfered with outward vision. All of these issues have been addressed in this redesign. This is a Hallelujah! moment for our customers and for our technicians.
Kaplan’s prediction has been borne out by his customer’s reactions and he adds that the line has “…definitely lived up to expectations…. I’ve sold many more than I ever sold in the winter.” The new doors, which now are easily removable, lockable, have roll up windows and open wider, have been well received by his customers. From a marketing point of view the doors also provide a point of differentiation in the market. Compared to a golf car, a GEM with hard doors positions the GEM as much more car like and cannot be easily replicated for a golf car. Kaplan sees the GEM as a vehicle that is currently occupying it’s own niche in the market, a step below a car but much better than a golf car. Golf car based vehicles offer competition but they compete on price at the expense of many features that provide a car like feel.
According to Kaplan, the other most important change to the vehicle is the increased legroom, headroom and generally spacious feel in the vehicle cabin. At 6’6” Kaplan had a difficult time entering, exiting and feeling comfortable in the previous versions of the GEM. Now the ample space is immediately noticeable to customers and provides a whole different feel to the vehicle that is “…spacious to the point of luxurious…” states Kaplan. Moving the batteries from under the seat to the rear of the vehicle created additional cabin space. This also has the added benefit of creating storage space in the vehicle cabin. Combined with the additional space are a “…more car like dash and car like controls…” remarked Kaplan. If you put all these new features – new doors, more space, and new controls – they all help to create a more car like feel to the GEM. The optional power steering only adds to the feel.
While Kaplan personally preferred the iconic rounded front of the original GEM to the new frontal design of the 2016 GEM, his customers have had a positive response. A few have commented on the “modern” look of the vehicle. In fact, in several cases this has been an important factor in the customer’s buying decision. For example, he recently sold three vehicles to a hospital, in part, because the vehicle projected a suitable image.
GEM introduced their Smart Power concept when they launched their new 2016 models. The idea of Smart Power is to offer a range of battery types and charging options to better match the battery capacity and charging needs of specific vehicle applications. The battery options include flooded lead acid, standard maintenance free AGM, distance maintenance free AGM and two different sized lithium ion packs. Besides the standard charger there are two fast charging options.
To date Kaplan notes that most of his customers choose the long distance AGM, as they err on the side of having extra battery capacity. He rarely recommends the flooded lead acid unless price is a critical issue because customers frequently have trouble following the watering regimen to properly maintain the battery pack. He has yet to sell a lithium battery pack, which provides a 75 to 100 mile range depending on the model. These cost in the range of $8,000 to $10,000 and his customers, typically colleges using vehicles for maintenance, security or people moving, just don’t have the need for that type of range. Similarly the extra fast charging options at $3,000 are not that compelling from a value standpoint given that the standard smart charger can recharge the battery pack to 70% in about one hour. These high priced battery and charger options will likely be reserved for very specialized applications.
While overall Kaplan is very positive and excited about the GEM line he noted a few minor improvements he would like to see in the future. One would be to add a hinge to the front panel or hood section so it is easier to lift up, put back and latch. Another would be larger outside rear view mirrors for when there is a wide load on the utility vehicle. A third would be to improve access to the batteries, which can be difficult to reach when there is an attachment on the rear of the vehicle such as a carrier. For colleges and universities on tighter budgets, he would like to see a turf tire option for driving across the grass that doesn’t require the more expensive aluminum wheels, which cost $700 to $800. In terms of new models to add to the line, he believes an eight-passenger model and a heavier duty eL XD with an extra 300 to 500 lbs in payload could find some traction in his market.
The one model that Kaplan has not received much feedback yet is the eL XD, a utility vehicle model. Although, he is excited about the new options and accessories like the recessed bed, integrated ramp, toolboxes, ladder rack, and others, this time of year is typically a slower sales period for the utility vehicle and vehicles in general. Furthermore, the trade shows where he has been displaying the vehicles to date have been more geared to the people mover market segment than the utility vehicle segment.
He has been selling many more four and six passenger vehicles then he ever expected during a normally slow period. Kaplan attributes this to both the excitement the new model line is generating among customers, as well as GEMs now being on the state-purchasing contract for Virginia for electric utility vehicles. He expects sales of eL XD, his most popular model in the past, to be strong going forward with the appeal of the new options and accessories. Combined with the rest of the GEM line he predicts his GEM sales will double this year. He has also experienced increased cross selling between brands such as the Brutus. While selling a GEM to one department, such as a university police department, he often finds another department that needs a heavy-duty utility vehicle like the Brutus. In conclusion, Kaplan has found great initial success with the 2016 GEMs and is expecting more for the rest of the year.