Industry debates model year elimination

MAPLE GROVE, Minn. – Three outboard builders have stopped using model year designations on their engines, but two others are still weighing their options, a situation that has sparked some confusion and concern in the marketplace.

For Yamaha Marine Group, this is nothing new. The company launched this practice beginning with what would have been its 2006 model year product. For Mercury Marine and Honda Marine, though, the decision is fresh, having begun with what would have been the 2007 model year.

“We’ve done so to ensure our dealers and boat builder partners need no longer worry about whether they have the correct model and year in inventory, as the same model designation will be maintained until the next iteration of that particular motor and/or model is introduced to the market,” explained Honda Marine National Sales Manager Michael E. Rickey in a statement the company prepared for this article.

Consumers to feel the impact?

That reasoning – which seems to be shared by others that have eliminated the model year – is exactly what concerns BRP Outboard Engines Vice President Roch Lambert.

“What’s in it for the consumer?” he asked in a recent interview. “The industry is so often inward looking without looking at what the consumer needs.”

Lambert, who said BRP has been investigating the issue for several years, sees more challenges than benefits for both the industry and consumers. He said there are a lot of unanswered questions such as when new technologies would be introduced, how consumers and dealers would determine what models fit under retail promotions, and how financing and resale would be impacted.

“I think having the consumer in mind is the key priority here,” said Lambert. “We will accommodate the wholesale side as much as we can without hurting the consumer side.”

In fact, BRP is looking into alternatives to model year elimination that would “make everyone comfortable and happy and yet would not impact consumers in a negative way,” he said. What exactly those alternatives may be he declined to elaborate on, however.

Suzuki is also still looking into the effect such a decision would have on its business.

“We are studying the future impact of no model year in relation to meeting the CARB [California Air Resources Board] and US EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] standard, including the label requirements,” commented Larry Vandiver, X. “We are also still studying the impact and demands of the market as to this matter.”

No going back

Despite what some would perceive as challenges, Mercury Marine is confident in its decision — one it considers permanent, according to Jack Malone, vice president of Dealer Sales.

Consumers actually have more information now, he commented. The EPA, which dictates the time frame during which an engine of a particular model year can be produced, allows for a two-year period from Jan. 2 of the prior year to Dec. 31 of the model year, according to Malone. In other words, an engine with a 2006 model year could have been built any time from January 2005 to December 2006.

Since the launch of its post-2006 model year engines at the end of May, Mercury – like some of its peers – has begun putting the month and year the engine was manufactured on a serial number plate on the outside of the engine – a much more accurate indicator than model year, Malone said.

“We felt strongly we needed to put it on the outside so it didn’t appear we were hiding anything,” he said. However, he added that the company hasn’t heard of much confusion from consumers.

“The average consumer walks in, whether it’s a sterndrive boat or an outboard, to buy a package,” he stated. “Most people don’t ask what year an outboard is.”

Because of the dominance of boat/engine packaging, trade-ins are typically valued based on the year of the boat, not the engine, Malone added.

He also pointed out that manufacturers are now able to release new technologies as soon as they are ready for the marketplace, instead of waiting for a new model year, which also benefits consumers. With that said, new models will most likely be introduced less frequently now, only when manufacturers make substantial changes to a motor.

The extent to which the elimination of model year will have a negative consumer impact is debatable. Certainly, the mystery of determining engine model years was a hot topic on consumer boating forums before these decisions were made. There’s no doubt this will add to the confusion – at least temporarily. But these forums – largely populated by do-it-yourselfers looking to repair their own engines – don’t necessarily represent the mainstream, though one might argue they represent some of the most dedicated boaters.

Some dealers confused

If anyone has been confused by these changes, it’s the dealer body, it seems. Certainly, as Lambert pointed out, the new system requires dealers to more closely monitor each engine’s date of manufacture.

Malone admitted that some dealers have been confused by the changes, particularly in states like Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, New Mexico, Indiana and South Carolina in which consumers are asked to register their outboard in addition to their boat.

These are among the issues still being worked out, he said. But both Yamaha and Mercury provide consumers in those states with Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin documentation that now will carry a month and year of production rather than a model year.

The manufacturers have been working with the states, finance companies and other affected agencies and companies to educate them about the changes made. Both Yamaha and Mercury, for example, have made model year FAQs available on their Web sites.

Ultimately, Malone expects all outboard builders to eliminate the model year due to pressure from consumers and the industry.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe it was best for the dealer, builder and consumer,” he concluded.

So far, BRP and Suzuki don’t seem to have been impacted by sticking to their model year policy, however. Both cite recent increases in sales.

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