The text message came in at dinnertime, just about a month ago. I normally try to keep my phone off – or at least out of reach – when at the dinner table, but it so happened to be sitting right next to me this night. “Did you hear?” the message began. “There’s a memo going around Kawasaki saying 2022 will be the last year.” I choked down my food and snatched up the phone. What? I typed. Are you serious? After a long pause and an icy glare from my wife, the reply came: “Yeah, it’ll be on Kawasaki’s 50th anniversary. They’re going to make a big deal of it at [World Finals] and then…that’s it. They’re out. No more JetSkis.”
Shocked with what I had just read, I closed out the screen, the phone flicking to black. I dumbly put it down and went back to having dinner with the family. The words they’re out kept clacking inside of my mind like the teeth of gears failing to mesh. That night we exchanged quips about what we thought could save the brand or what we would do if we were in charge, but as is with all conversations like these, it was pointless. I felt like I had just received word that a good friend was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The doctor had issued a “get your affairs in order” timeline and there was little else that could be done.
Is No News Really Good News?
With all of the new products pouring out of Sea-Doo and Yamaha this past August, it’s easy for the dyed-in-the-wool Kawasaki loyalist to feel a little left out. Yes, the build up leading to the new 2017 SX-R reveal was some pretty big news and shined a favorable light on the brand. But that’s really been it – that is, since the 2014 refresh of the Ultra 1498cc powerplant, bringing it up to 310-horsepower. Released simultaneously was Kawasaki’s smartly-executed Jetsounds speaker-and-head unit package. Yet, the industry’s first factory sound system has remained the sole property of the top-of-the-line 310LX JetSki since.
Upgrades to the Ultra JetSki have been consistent, upgrading every 2-3 years, increasing the ever attractive horsepower number with each step. Yet, 2019 marks 12 years since the platform’s introduction in 2007. Considering that Sea-Doo and Yamaha maintain a 8-to-9 year life cycle, the added 4 years can feel like an eternity to some. And not to belabor the point, but the STX-15F is now 16-years-old. Then again, there’s quite a bit for Kawasaki loyals to boast about. There have been no claims of cracked or splitting hulls, intake grates or ride plates tearing from their mounts, failing fuel systems or snapping timing chains. By all observations, there are little to no mechanical failures to speak of.
It’s just that the Kawasaki lineup of JetSkis can feel a little…stale. Worse of all, the data backs up the claim: Although increasing by 11-percent in new product sales in 2018, Kawasaki’s growth couldn’t outpace the growth by its two competitors, resulting in a half-point loss in total market share – from 6-percent to 5.5. This steady decline in market share over the years has been felt by dealerships, who have reduced their annual buys or ceased flooring Kawasakis altogether. In private discussion with two key Floridian dealers, representatives noted a lack of incentive programs and a palatable absence of features on the craft themselves as major deterrents for customers. Both dealers joked that while current model sales were staid, deeply discounted, unsold units from the previous year always moved.
So What Does Sell?
Unlike the previous years following the financial crash of 2009, 2018 showed the personal watercraft industry what people are truly interested in when “times are good.” Going off of the numbers presented to The Watercraft Journal for late July 2018 (concluding the end of the third financial quarter), the Top 3 selling personal watercraft models were the 2018 Yamaha VX Cruiser HO, the 2018 Sea-Doo Spark 3-seater (“3-up”), and the 2018 Yamaha GP1800. Besides the Spark, both Yamahas MSRP well above $11,000 – not to mention one of those being a supercharged, performance-oriented race craft. Add to this the revelation that Yamaha and Sea-Doo both are enjoying massive gains in first-time buyer purchases, and we’ve got some marketable data to work with.
Beginning with the most obvious, Sea-Doo’s Spark is squarely responsible for opening up the Rec-Lite segment. Looking to access a younger, first-time audience, the Spark was the trailblazer into a market that otherwise didn’t exist. Yamaha followed three years later with the EX runabout, and likewise, has seen major gains in the younger and first-time-buyer demographic. Both manufacturers offer their Rec-Lite entries with easy-to-operate braking and reverse systems, a bevy of optional accessories, colors and attachments, and moreover, both the Spark and EX are demonstrably affordable (ranging between $5,199 and $9,299). While long-time customers are great, the future is appealing to new, first-time buyers.
Waitaminute! Slam on The Brakes!
So what is Kawasaki to do if anything at all? Frankly, I had my ideas and most of which required very little in development cost. But like so many times before, it looks like I’m wrong. Just as the text message that started this essay, a phone call just before the end of the year radically flipped everything on its head. “I was fishing off of Dana Point and saw two guys in black wetsuits riding a weird jet ski,” my eyewitness began. “They were the only ones out there because it was so cold. I recognized both Kanamori and Fuzzy. As they loaded up the ski into a truck, I saw it was a little runabout – like a Spark. It must’ve been a prototype.”
Let’s read that again: two of Kawasaki’s best minds – Minuro Kanamori and Craig “Fuzzy” Boyd – were spotted testing a possible prototype Rec-Lite entry runabout. Unfortunately, my source couldn’t snap a picture in time. Now before we fire up the rumor mill any further, it does bear noting that the racks in Kawasaki’s warehouse are full of prototype vehicles that will never see the light of day. That being said, the logic of developing a Rec-Lite entry doesn’t jive with the aforementioned “doomsday notice.” Why spend the money in shaping and testing a new runabout if you’re 3 years from closing up shop? The math didn’t add up – and I’m happy it didn’t.
Here’s the kicker, I knew Kawasaki was already up to something – I just didn’t know when. Years back, during our exclusive press introduction to the 2017 SX-R JetSki, then Kawasaki Product Manager Dave Oventhal hinted towards Kawasaki’s attention on the Spark as well as developing an on-water braking/reverse system. This was back in April of 2017, some 18 months ago. In the interim, Sea-Doo released the Trixx (and now Trixx 3-up), and Yamaha its new EXR giving Kawasaki quite a bit of catching up to do if they wish to compete with the other two Rec-Lite entries.
Hope Springs Eternal
Now, the biggest outlier for us in contemplating a possible Rec-Lite runabout from Kawasaki was where the engine could come from. It’s no secret that the SX-R borrows heavily not just from the STX-15F but from a wide swathe of Kawasaki’s parts bin. What would go into this unit? The current 1498cc is simply too big, too heavy and admittedly, and too powerful (at 160-horsepower) for a proper Rec-Lite entry. Rather, a naturally-aspirated 998cc, 112-pound 4-cylinder four-stroke shared between the H2 and H2R superbikes seems like a good idea – except that it’s making 140-horsepower as-is.
The likeliest candidate may also be one that hasn’t been considered until now. Kawasaki also has a DOHC 812cc liquid-cooled 4-stroke, 3-cylinder making 47-horsepower and 47 foot-pounds of torque at 5,500rpm – a number well below the entry-level Spark. But a supercharger can quickly bump that to 90-horsepower. Similar to Yamaha, we also expect Kawasaki’s Rec-Lite unit to also be made from traditional SMC fiberglass. That places the unit above the Spark and its PolyTec composite hull and deck in total weight, but lends itself to a lower, more stable ride.
Of course, this is entirely conjecture given that I know little to zero hard information concerning this would-be Spark-fighter but we’re happy to see Kawasaki still in the fight. As the American dollar continues to build strength, fuel prices continue to decline and lower taxes continue to let working Joes keep more of the money they earn, the personal watercraft industry will continue to thrive – and that means more opportunity for Kawasaki to wrestle back some of that market share through new and exciting product. I don’t know when it’ll happen, but I’m encouraged by the idea of new JetSki models hitting showroom floors. Best of all, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.