Dealer Expo 2010: Sokon 'Kei' Offers UTV Alternative

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Mike Lewis and Hal Ferrell are a couple of good ol’ boys from Mississippi who noticed that hunters wanted a 4x4 which no manufacturer was willing to build for them. They saw hunters customizing used mini trucks imported from Japan and China for backwoods transportation. The trucks had plenty of warts and problems, but they had cabs and heat and doors and roll-up windows.

“They had right-hand steering, no warranty, no parts, no service, no single sourcing, no dealers, the clearance was too low, and the cockpit was too small for Americans,” says Ferrell, president and CEO.

“But Bubba wanted it,” said CFO Lewis, “and Bubba bought it and fixed it up to suit his needs because that’s all that was available. But we knew that source would be gone as soon as the EPA tightened its regs. The consumer was speaking very loudly to the industry, but no one was listening. We thought we saw a niche there.”

Numbers were difficult to come by, but the pair knew that container loads of the small trucks (sometimes called keis) were being shipped in and sold by Mom and Pop operations across the country. That was about three years ago.

The pair jumped in, sourced a truck in China and launched a company called Mattrucks. They offered a prototype at the 2007 Dealer Expo and took deposits from about 50 dealers. Unfortunately, the first container load of eight prototypes was a disaster; the drive train was a mess and the Ferrell-Lewis team finally dropped the Chinese factory, refunded dealer deposits and rolled up the company.

Now they’re sourcing from DFM, a subsidiary of Chongqing Yuan Group, an established auto, truck and engine manufacturer. It produces more than 100,000 engines each year, and has an annual production capacity of 300,000 motorcycles and 100,000 minivans, according to its website. The 4WD truck being shown under the SARGE brand in Booth 5715 sports an 1100cc engine, has 45 hp, and a top speed of 25 mph, which classifies it as a low speed vehicle (LSV). It’s an off-road vehicle but it’s street legal, depending upon state and local regulations.

It weighs just over one ton and carries five passengers. It comes with a short bed (55 inches) or a long one (65 inches).

The SARGE will MSRP for about $14,500 and will be available this summer in time for the fall hunting market. That makes it price competitive with comparably equipped UTVs, Ferrell and Lewis believe. With its safety cab, heater, doors, windows, security and on-road capability, Ferrell and Lewis think the SARGE will appeal to older hunters as well as customers in construction, golf course management, ranching, farming and government.

“We see this as head-to-head competition with UTVs, depending upon use,” says Lewis. UTV sales were about 200,000 units last year.

Ferrell plans to add 50 dealers by this summer, and ultimately have an operating network of 500 U.S. dealers. It’s not a business opportunity for everyone, though. Floor planning won’t be available, so dealers will have to be well capitalized to fund the operation themselves.

– Joe Delmont