2021: A Turning Point for Electrifying UTV?

Polaris Ranger electric UTV developed in partnership with Zero Motorcycles
An electric Ranger is the first product from the Polaris partnership with Zero Motorcycles.

Polaris’ New Push to Electrify UTVs

Polaris’ announcement that they will be producing a new electric Ranger in collaboration with Zero Motorcycles is a strong indication that 2021 may be a turning point for the electrifying UTVs. They are the leading UTV manufacturer and already produces an electric Ranger but with traditional lead acid battery technology. There was a lithium ion battery equipped option at one time, but the model was prohibitively priced. The Ranger EV with a lithium battery pack cost approximately $10,000 higher than the lead acid version. This new Ranger EV is another step by Polaris as they increase investment towards electrifying UTVs and other powersports products.

At the end of 2019 the company created a new position, senior vice president of Electrification Strategy. Signaling the initiative’s importance, they filled it with the then president of Off Road, the company’s largest business division. In September, 2020 they announced a 10-year partnership with Zero Motorcycles as a cornerstone to their electrification strategy. Named rEV’d up, the strategy aims to offer electric vehicle options within each of its core product segments by 2025. Zero Motorcycles is one of the leading electric powertrain technology companies.

Polaris Has Extensive EV Experience

Polaris actually has quite a bit of experience in electric vehicles, but mostly outside of their powersports segments. Through the years the company has acquired GEM, Goupil, Brammo Electric Motorcycles and Taylor-Dunn, all manufacturers of electric vehicles. However, these companies are primarily active in markets that are more tangential to powersports. Polaris used the Brammo technology in the Ranger EV but not a motorcycle. Goupil produces light-duty commercial vehicles for the European market, GEM produces light-duty utility vehicles and transporters for college/corporate campuses and such, and Taylor-Dunn produces industrial utility vehicles. While these acquisitions were for commercial markets not powersports, Polaris gained a wealth of experience with electric vehicles. 

Volcon is a startup looking to electrify powersports.

Moving forward, these product lines can provide manufacturing volume and a broad product development base to further spread the cost of developing new electric powertrain technology. This could become a distinct advantage for Polaris that most of their competitors do not have. Can-Am, their leading powersports rival, is also moving into electrification, but is not active in other electric vehicle segments. Others, like Textron and Yamaha are major players in the golf car market. More interesting and potentially tougher competitors may be new entrants into the market like Texas-based Volcon Motors. This electric vehicle start-up has plans to introduce an all-terrain electric motorcycle in the Spring of 2021, a two-seat electric UTV later in 2021 and a four-seat UTV in 2022. Start-ups lack the financial resources, manufacturing expertise and distribution networks of established players but aren’t burdened by cultural legacies and management incentives tied to ICE based vehicles.

Electrifying UTVs is Challenging

Electrifying UTVs poses a unique challenge because of their size, performance requirements and usage profile. They need both power and range but still must remain reasonably priced. They need the power because, well, its powersports after all and a vehicle’s horsepower is a defining characteristic. Work oriented UTVs, especially for heavy duty work applications, need plenty of horsepower as well. Users want to make long trail rides without being stranded in the middle of nowhere, or be productive work throughout the work day. 

There is limited space for a battery pack in these very compact vehicles. In addition, a large sized battery pack will make the vehicles prohibitively expensive. It’s not surprising that they are starting with the lower priced Ranger. A small but efficient motor and small battery pack could keep prices low enough while still delivering better performance than the existing ICE engine in the Ranger. The new Ranger EV could also fit in nicely on college and corporate campuses or smaller farms/ranches where the range and work requirements would be not as demanding. 

High-end, off-road performance vehicles might be the next step. Already a premium market, they may be able to more readily absorb the additional expense of a large battery pack. These higher-end models could also serve to demonstrate the unique performance characteristics of an electric powertrain as well as gauge the interest of a customer base that likes the sound of ICE engines. An interesting aspect is that the performance customer is likely to wear out the rest of the vehicle before the advanced battery pack. Selling or leasing the battery pack separately from the rest of the vehicle may become an option. Approaching the UTV market from both ends may be the most likely strategy. Moving up the lower priced work-oriented UTVs and moving down from the highest priced, off-road performance UTVs, as electric powertrain technology improves and becomes more affordable. 

Marc Cesare, Smallvehicleresource.com

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