The Big Show | COOK'S CORNER

Kawasaki talks numbers

Kawasaki did either a brave or a foolhardy thing by inviting a stack of motojournalists to its 2014 US dealer meeting, where it pulled the wraps off its '14 lineup . Usually manufacturers keep us walled off from the general public—no sense letting company brass or their terribly valuable dealers learning just what kind of baboons we really are. Normally we don't resist too much; there's a reputation to uphold after all. Held in steamy San Diego, the Team Green event brought representatives from its 1,176 dealers to see what's new for the upcoming model year and to hear executives' take on the state of the nation. It's a combination business-update meeting and cheerleading session with smoke, pulsing music, and the promise of better times ahead.

That sounds cynical. I was actually impressed with the candor of Kawasaki's management. They admit the recovery has taken longer than anyone could have predicted and, somewhat indirectly, conceded that efforts to grow the brand and drive sales in a soggy market might have come at the expense of the dealers. There's no question it's a difficult business environment. In several segments, sales are down and not rebounding quickly, effective financing is hard to come by, and some of the older ways of selling powersports product don't work in today's totally connected world.

For example, Kawasaki announced at the show that it will continue semi-monthly ordering for new product, a process implemented 18 months ago. Before, there was one large order at the beginning of the year with an opportunity later in the season for "fill in" orders. It's long been a conundrum: How can you predict the sales potential of a new model like the Ninja 300 and order the right amount early in the year? Obviously, dealers know their own markets, but we've all been surprised at a certain motorcycle's sales or lack thereof.

Incidentally, I heard from a couple of dealer friends that the smallest Ninja has been a knockout, easily ramping up from the already good pace of the 250. "I just can't get enough," one general manager told me. "It's been a fantastic bike for us. I could have sold twice my allotment." In theory, the chance to order six times a year will allow the retail channels to respond to changes in the marketplace and minimize oversupply, which is something Kawasaki admitted its dealers have been facing all too often.

Still, things are looking up for Kawasaki. While industry-wide sales figures were down by 3.6 percent in 2012 (to 928,000 units industry wide), according to the figures Kawasaki presented, predictions are for 2013 to finish 1.8 percent up, at about 945,000 units total. In the nearer term, Kawasaki reports that the powersports industry is up 5.7 percent from April 1 to July 31, with the biggest gains coming from side-by-side ATVs (up 9.1 percent). Motorcycles were up 5.2 percent. Kawasaki's aiming for a total market share of around 10 percent and is already at 9.9 percent for those four months.

Part of the presentation was given by Richard Beattie, a high-powered auto exec who joined Kawasaki as its chief marketing and sales officer in May. Beattie comes from Jaguar, Land Rover, and Mazda. His angle is simple: Kawasaki is a premium brand with a powerful identity among enthusiasts. It is not a brand that requires dramatic sales incentives—"cash on the hood," as he calls it—to meet sales goals. "We have to get away from that," he says, referring to the incentive programs.

One exit path from incentives is to improve the value of the basic product, which Kawasaki did within the 2014 lineup. The new Ninja 1000 ABS comes in with important updates (and slick, dealer-installed optional hard bags) at an MSRP $100 lower than last year's. One of our favorite Kawasakis, the Versys, gets ABS standard this year for the same $7,999 charged in '13. Finally, the company decoupled availability of ABS on the Ninja 300 from the Special Edition graphics package, reducing the true cost of that safety feature. Baby steps, sure, but movement in the right direction for Team Green.