Polaris Industries was all-in this year at the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally. Jay Leno led the company's first Veterans Charity Ride-to-Sturgis. And there in South Dakota, Polaris also became the first large manufacturer in the industry to unveil a full-size electric motorcycle — the Victory Empulse TT.
The battery-powered bike took 25 engineers, designers and marketers one year and millions of dollars to develop. It is in production now and will be in dealerships countrywide by December.
Polaris took 15 of the bikes earlier this month to the 75th annual gathering in Sturgis, S.D. With 700,000 attendees, it is the largest motorcycle event in the country.
Hundreds of toughened bikers took test drives on the beasts.
"It was kind of funny. We had all these hard-core, gas-and-oil bikers who normally say, 'I don't want to ride no … electric thing,' " said Steve Menneto, vice president of Indian and Victory, the Polaris motorcycle businesses. "But the Empulse was the busiest bike demonstrated in our space just because it was so new and people thought it was just so cool."
With Empulse, Polaris beat both Harley Davidson and Yamaha to market. Both of those companies are expected to have a full-sized electric motorcycle in production by 2018. While Polaris got a jump on large competitors, it is not the first to cross the starting line. Small manufacturers such as Zero, Alta Motors, Lightning Motorcycles, Mission Motorcycles — and the Brammo company Polaris just bought — all make e-motorcycles.
But all their efforts combined made just a tiny market. Colorado-based Navigant Research estimates that only 2,500 e-motorcycles will sell this year in the United States.
"The industry is very small right now," said Navigant industry analyst Ryan Citron. "Having one of the big manufacturers like Polaris entering the market is pretty huge. They have much bigger promotional budget and factories."
Menneto said Polaris is committed to becoming a contender in the field.
"We want to be the leader in the electric bike market. We want a significant share in [this] business," Menneto said.
Empulse TT is a sport bike featuring a Brammo engine and drive train, aluminum frame, adjustable suspension and a top recommended speed of 110 miles per hour. It travels 60 to 100 miles on one charge, depending on how aggressively it's ridden and the battery setting selected.
On the plus side, the bike can plug into the same 110- to 220-volt outlet needed by a kitchen toaster. Once charged, it can zoom from zero to 60 in 4 seconds.
The downside for highway travelers is that the bike can't dash across country without frequent stops for charging. And it can take three hours to fully recharge. Battery life and distance remain the challenges of the electric bike industry, Citron said.
Still, the market is growing. Navigant predicts global sales of electric scooters and motorcycles will rise from 1.2 million this year to 1.5 million by 2024, with help from the United States and Asia.
Polaris isn't expecting big sales right away. Instead, the Medina company, which is better known for its all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, believes Empulse TT will appeal to the breed of enthusiasts looking to add the Tesla of the motorcycle world to their collection.
"This is not for someone who is just into A-to-B transportation," Menneto conceded. "We are going after the customer who is looking for new, cool technology. It will be a fun factor where they can get exhilarated and [ride in] short-range areas."
Despite being electric, the Empulse TT is fast — and will retail for a hefty $19,999. It reached 147 miles per hour and finished in third place during a recent competition in England, Menneto said.
Polaris has invested millions in electric bike maker Brammo since 2011, and in January bought the last chunk of the Oregon company. The Empulse is a hybrid, using Brammo's powertrain but Victory's body, brakes and overall design.
Polaris first entered the motorcycle manufacturing game in 1998 with the introduction of the Victory cruiser, which is made in Osceola, Wis., and Spirit Lake, Iowa. In one year, its motorcycle sales had grown to 4 percent of corporate revenue, or $52 million. It reached $81 million in sales by 2010.
In 2011, Polaris bought the beleaguered Indian motorcycle company and spent the next three years and millions of dollars reintroducing and advertising that brand across the United States. It introduced its first line of new Indian designs with much fanfare in 2014. Last year, total motorcycle sales hit $358 million with Indian growth leading the way.
For a spell, the Victory brand appeared to take a back seat to Indian. But the excitement over the Empulse TT may just change that, Menneto said. "We're excited."