MINNEAPOLIS -- Except for the sound of tires rolling on the ground, the latest generation of Polaris all-terrain vehicles moves almost silently across a snowy field.
Powered by an electric battery instead of a gasoline engine, the new Ranger EV (for electric vehicle) is in sharp contrast to its noisy predecessors, sounding more like an electric golf cart cruising down a fairway. Also missing is the exhaust generated by a gas engine.
The midsize, two-seat vehicle is aimed at a green audience that likes quiet as well as a rechargeable energy source. It has the longest range and largest battery pack of any midsize ATV in production today.
Whether it will convert critics who contend that all-terrain vehicles can be disruptive to the environment is up in the air.
But for now, the vehicle is being marketed to hunters who don't want to scare away their prey, farmers and ranchers who don't want to disrupt their animals and homeowners with multi-acre lots who want to haul cargo without disrupting their neighborhood.
A modified version of the EV is also aimed at the U.S. military, which is in the market for vehicles that are both fuel-efficient and can be used at low speeds on and off the road.
Polaris received notice last month from the U.S. General Services Administration that it has approval to sell the low-speed electric vehicle to government agencies, including its most likely customer, the Defense Department.
The company has begun to accept government orders, but declined to give details. No large-scale contracts have been announced.
It's too soon to say what the EV could mean to the financial bottom line at Polaris, and company executives are keeping projections close to the vest. But ATVs are by far Polaris' largest market segment, accounting for two-thirds of sales, well ahead of snowmobiles, motorcycles and equipment and clothing accessories.
Any sales bump couldn't come soon enough for the Medina, Minn.-based company. Total sales at Polaris last year were $1.6 billion, down from $1.9 billion in 2008. Company executives recently told Wall Street analysts that they expected sales to be down double-digits again in 2010 as consumer credit remains tight.
Throughout the recession, consumers have been paring back on all but necessities.
But the company has made tweaks to its business model, paring back production, even offering less expensive ATVs to appeal to the recession consumer.
Sales of off-road vehicles were down 22 percent to 24 percent last year.