Doomsday scenarios surround us—the Mayan apocalypse, fiscal cliffs, peak oil, hypercanes, the credit crunch—and even motorcycling isn’t immune. Pessimists wring hands over the “death of the motorcycle industry,” especially in Japan, where seven-year-old sportbikes, missing model years, the end of exotic concepts, lackluster race support, and so many other examples that would have seemed unthinkable five years ago have become the new norm.
In the shadow of Japan’s implied indifference toward traditional Western consumers, European manufacturers have stepped in to fill this void. If Europe’s sophisticated sportbikes, über-luxury tourers, and robust adventure bikes lately seem more relevant, it’s because they are. While Japan focuses more effort on putting the developing world on two wheels, Europe continues to fill America’s desire for high-end recreational toys—and thanks to savvy leadership at Europe’s largest firms, they are doing this with smarter, faster, better-made motorcycles than ever before
There’s no death of the motorcycle industry here—only a rebirth, and with that a reorienting of priorities that sees Japan mostly heading in one direction, toward satisfying a need for mass-market transportation, and Europe mostly continuing to build premium products that, thanks to financial pressures affecting Japanese manufacturers, are now more price-competitive than ever before. Though this might seem like apocalyptic thinking to some, it seems very promising for the European motorcycle industry, and the European manufacturers have risen to the challenge by developing the most technologically advanced, capable, and desirable motorcycles yet. What follows are some highlights—and some things to look forward to—on the European front this year.
BMW’s S1000RR superbike has been tremendously successful, bringing an entirely new consume
Of all the European over-achievers, BMW stands out as edgy and cool after decades spent building bikes for old guys. This shift has helped it post record sales in the last few years. In fact, by the end of November 2012, BMW had surpassed its overall sales figures from 2011, posting single-month sales of 6749 units worldwide, bringing the year-to-date total to a staggering 100,289. As of mid-December, BMW was on track to exceed its overall sales record by a substantial margin.
Not only did the S1000RR radically alter customer perception and invite an entirely new rider into BMW dealerships, it has actually sold really well. “And now the U.S. is the number-one market in terms of volume for the S1000,” says BMW Motorrad USA’s vice president, Hans Blesse.
Asked if developing the RR was controversial inside BMW, Blesse says “Well, that’s a deep and dark story, but it was a question of, ‘Do we rest on our laurels, or do we look forward?’ The decision was obvious, we will look forward. We tried building endless variants of boxers, and we only managed to sell the same owner a new bike.” Unquestionably, the S1000 has altered the demographic inside BMW dealers, which also forced the company to do extensive research into the sportbike segment so that it would appear “authentic,” according to Blesse. Incidentally, we asked Blesse if BMW intends to move into other sportbike segments—there have been rumors of a three-cylinder version of the S1000RR—and his answer is unambiguous. “No, absolutely not.”
Where does BMW go from here? Blesse says that the company will continue to drive new technology into the core BMW lineup. “We have tremendous resources on the car side,” he says, “and we will use them.” Semi-active suspension, as seen on the HP4, will likely proliferate. But the company is also concerned about cost, so efficient manufacturing—including production outside of Berlin—will help keep prices down on volume models.
And then there’s Husqvarna. Varese, Italy-based Husky has also been on a sales tear with its line of dirtbikes, enduros, and streetfighters, which makes Blesse happy. “There are things we can do with Husqvarna that we can’t with BMW,” he says, referring to yet another new demographic. “We’re really excited about the possibilities,” is all Blesse will say regarding future product. Grinning like he knows a secret or two.