The US and European markets have been dominated by high performance, large displacement motorcycles for decades, with the entry-level into the sport often considered to be nothing more than a niche opportunity. But recent high-volume success of some humble, small capacity motorcycles, and the severe economic downturn has caused many to rethink this paradigm. MMW examines, the market's missing link.
The demographic group with the most influence on North America’s motorcycle industry are the Baby Boomers. When the Boomers were in their 20’s, they caused a surge in motorcycle sales by buying all the high-strung two-strokes and small displacement Japanese bikes then available. Peter Egan, the famed Cycle World columnist, is perhaps the most symbolic of his generation. He regularly writes romantically of his first new motorcycle, a Honda CB350, that he owned as a young man in the 1970’s. Like most Boomer bikers, those humble, cheap and accessible motorcycles were the key that allowed them to develop their passion and skills so that they could later upgrade to ever bigger and more expensive fare.
Today the Boomers are the driving force behind our industry sales, in particular big V twins. Even with the Great Recession, Boomers almost single handedly define the bikes available in US showrooms, and guide the product decision making in corporate boardrooms. They want more power, more features, more exclusivity and generally choose more conservative styles of bike that reflect their tastes and financial position. The average age of a buyer of a new motorcycle is pegged at 46, which is why so many attractive middle weight or niche bikes from the major brands are unavailable in North American showrooms. The wisdom says : there is no market for small, entry level motorcycles except for the most plain and basic. I believe, based on experience in Europe, that there is no market because we offer nothing to attract young riders.
According to the mainstream press, kids interested in motorcycling in urban America only want Hayabusas with stretched swingarms and a NOS kit, so there is no point in bringing in anything small and hot. Entry level at your friendly neighbourhood dealer means boring, old tech bikes like Suzuki’s 650 Savage or some other old nail. That is, until a few years ago when Honda brought us the Thai and Indonesian made CBR125, and Kawasaki brought in the new 250 and 650 Ninjas. Suddenly the littlest Ninja is the 5th best selling bike in America, ahead of any other sport model by a wide margin. In the UK, where biker peer pressure is much higher than here, particularly among sport riders, the little CBR was the best selling motorcycle for two years, period. The press and the purists both gave this 11hp whizzer the approving nod. It got a lot of new British biking.
Just because you can make monthly payments on an R1, but are so afraid to ride it fast that it sits in the garage most of the year, does not make you a motorcyclist. You may laugh at the guy (or girl) on the Ninja 250 or SV who rides in a rain suit late in the year, but they are the real thing. Three years from now they’ll be on your R1, and know how to handle it properly. They’ll also enjoy buying and riding high dollar bikes for decades to come, because they are confident, and have the skills to enjoy a much broader riding experience.
Absolute power might be the only cure for the hard core purist, but for most, just owning and riding a motorcycle is exciting enough. No one is completely fearless when they start out, so that 9 year old KLR with 29 hp is going to be plenty to get your heart racing. Why? Because it feels fast. And feel you can enjoy daily is a lot more attractive than talk about the Hayabusa with the chrome add-ons in your garage. Month after month of Boomer dominated press with yet another 180 hp superbike shootout is not particularly responsible messaging to youngsters, just like reviews of $35,000 cruisers is not getting new people on bikes.
Ducati’s best selling bike ever was the original 600 monster. Rated at between 48-52 hp, it was hardly earth shattering, but it looked and sounded ferocious, was easy to ride, and most importantly, it felt good. So what that the top speed wasn’t so high? Riding a Monster at 50mph was a grin inducing experience. The people it attracted ranged from newbies, to returners, to Boomers. Knowing that it didn’t cost much made it sweeter. Now what if you could buy a 250 with that kind of feel? What if a 400 could make you feel like a superhero without breaking the bank, or your neck?
What the US market needs are cheap, cheerful and just plain hot small bikes. In Europe, the champions of tomorrow get started mastering road craft on 4.5 hp scooters and gearbox street bikes (like the Yamaha TZR50) before graduating to 125cc hotties like the Aprilia RS125, and Yamaha YZF R-125. By the time they are getting their first professional jobs, the typical European has been riding on the street for up to 8 years. Over here, every great American motorcyclist begins on dirt, and every World Champion we ever produced cut his teeth in motocross. If you can handle a 250 lb, 40 hp motorcycle on rough ground then mastering wheel spin, power slides and trail braking on pavement is easy. The key to widening the market is not more power or more exclusivity, its getting our teens after the motocrosser, and new riders on road bikes so that skills, riding maturity and a lifelong love of motorcycling can continue.
Some think this is impossible because small displacement motors can’t handle the long distances of North America and highway speeds.
A modern 250 four stroke (Ninja 250) has the same top speed as a Harley 883, which no one will argue is insufficient for highway use. It also accelerates faster and turns more easily thanks to light weight and better balance. Obviously, the Ninja - 883 comparison is silly, because the person attracted to one won’t like the other, but the point is that new technology, small to medium displacement motorcycles are capable, and can be hugely attractive if offered in a variety of forms. In terms of durability, 150 - 250 cc Japanese motorcycles ply the highways of India and Asia often carrying heavy loads and on roads that make Baja tracks look like the Interstate. On average, these small engines can take over 40,000 miles without being opened up (with regular maintenance.
The main missing ingredient is raw motorcycle appeal. If a bike is good looking, handles well and reasonable in price, it sells. The entry-level fare available here is limited, but getting better. As we reported in The Return of the Standard, Honda’s CB300 Twister could be 2011’s answer to Peter Egan’s CB350, if Honda of America were to bring it here. Honda quality, contemporary design and a $3000 price tag would do more to boost motorcycling in the US than another product placement in a Hollywood movie. The good news is that these small, modern and fun bikes exist, but not here. It is only a matter of time and pressure before those Indian, Spanish, and South East Asian machines end up getting the spotlight they deserve, and into the hands of the deserving American public.
The Skeptic’s List of Hot Entry Level Motorcycles available in 2010
Rieju RS3 125 - Spain
Bajaj Pulsar 300 - India
Honda CB 300 Twister - Brazil
Honda Veradero 125 - Spain
Yamaha YZF R125 - Spain
Yamaha XJR 400 - Japan
Yamaha YZF R 15 - India
Kawasaki ZZR 400 - Japan
Suzuki GSR 400 - Japan