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.
KTM closed out 2012 with a nice little boost: The president of KTM North America, Jon-Erik Burleson, was named AMA Motorcyclist of the Year. (Don’t worry, Malcolm, your Motorcyclist of the Century title is safe.) Jon-Erik is son of enduro legend Dick Burleson.
The company’s year started with a strong boost in sales, up 36 percent in the first half compared with the previous year. That’s worldwide, and fueled by the success of the 200 Duke sold in India. Selling more than 50,000 motorcycles in just half a year is quite an achievement for a company the size of KTM.
KTM’s push for the near future centers on the revitalized 690 Duke introduced this year at EICMA and, of course, the 1190 Adventure that will appear here in the third quarter of 2013 as a ’14 model. KTM has chosen to further separate the street-oriented and true-ADV versions of the bike with the rework, which should help sales against the BMW R1200GS. Success here in the States will depend on sustaining the brand’s strengths off road but also expanding its street and dual-sport reach. Currently, the company lists just 61 dealers selling street-only models. Given success with the Duke and the 1190 Adventure, it’s easy to see KTM further expanding in the U.S.
Ten years ago, when its line consisted of little more than a decade-old superbike platform (the 749/999) and a range of air-cooled standards with bones dating back even further, no one would have predicted that today Ducati would be one of the most dynamic and technologically advanced brands in the motorcycle industry. More than anyone else, Ducati has invested heavily over the past decade in new products and new technology. Now that investment is paying off with more success than the firm has ever enjoyed before. By constantly updating is core superbikes and nakeds, and at the same time ruthlessly increasing marketshare with new and unexpected models like the Diavel and latest Multistrada—and now this year, filling micro-niches with the Diavel Strada touring cruiser and Hyperstrada commuting motard—Ducati has successfully transformed itself into a full-line OEM building some of the most sophisticated and desirable motorcycles on the market.
New product like last year’s 1199 Panigale S superbike, with its radical Superquadro V-twin, electronically adjustable Öhlins suspension, and ultra-light “frameless” chassis, is proof of the bold development path Ducati is blazing, and the positive result that action is having on Ducati’s bottom line. It’s cutting-edge in every way, more sophisticated than anything out of Japan and with build quality to match, and it’s also Ducati’s best selling superbike ever, with a record-breaking 7500 sold in 2012. What economic slowdown?
Much of the credit for Ducati’s recent success is due directly to the leadership of general manager Claudio Domenicali. His strong drive to push technological bounds with daring product like the Panigale, his vision for market expansion with bikes like the Diavel and Multistrada—you can only sell so many superbikes, after all—and his efforts to increase and improve production by opening factories in Thailand and Brazil, have led directly to the proliferation—and subsequent profitability—of the Ducati brand over the past few years. Credit also goes to Investindustrial Holdings, who took control of Ducati following the Texas Pacific Group in 2005. Investindustrial poured enormous resources into new product R&D and racing. For the first time in many years Ducati has been able to operate from a position of structural and organizational security, and it has thrived under those conditions.
Expect Ducati’s success to continue. Early in 2012, Investindustrial sold the Italian motorcycle maker to German auto giant Audi for a reported $1.12 billion. After decades of unstable ownership and itinerant product development and availability, Ducati is now on solid ground with even greater financial support and management stability. Other manufacturers—European or otherwise—have cause for concern.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and as the fortunes of other European makers grow, Italy’s boutique brands like MV Agusta and Bimota are thriving, too. MV Agusta is doing particularly well, thanks largely to a proliferation of new product made possible by Harley-Davidson’s massive investment in updating that firm’s R&D and production.
In 2010, MV had a range of just three models (the sporty F4 and two four-cylinder Brutales), and had built just 2213 bikes the previous year. Sales have risen dramatically since then, on course to reach 7500 units in 2012. President Giovanni Castiglioni is for the first time anticipating a small profit in 2012, and with a host of new models including the Brutale 675 and 800 and the Rivale supermoto—named the “most beautiful bike” at EICMA 2012—Castiglioni is confident that sales will push beyond 10,500 units in 2013, and to more than 12,500 the following year. These are good times for the firm from Varese.
Rimini-based Bimota, meanwhile, revealed no fewer than five new bikes at EICMA 2012, led by the DB11 VLX superbike, powered by a 190-bhp, supercharged version of Ducati’s 11-degree Testastretta V-twin. Bimota has always struggled, and is the last company you’d expect to thrive during a global downturn. But given the recent success of MV and other historically challenged Italian brands, this might be Bimota’s moment to shine, too.
The company from Hinckley had a good 2011 in terms of sales, up 18% from the year before despite a still-soggy economy. In part, the sales came thanks to a growing dealer network but also because of a broad product base that includes classics and cruisers alongside category-defying sportbikes and, since 2011, a range of adventure-touring models. Sales of the Tiger 800 and 800XC have been strong, and the new Explorer has proven to be a credible BMW R1200GS competitor.
Triumph is staying on the gas, too. Recent upgrades to the Street Triple and the Daytona indicate that the company wants to stay ahead of any possible three-cylinder threat from Yamaha. And it’s fair to say that the luxury-touring Trophy shows that Triumph is willing to stand toe to toe with BMW in some very demanding segments.
Where most of the European manufacturers use exclusivity and/or high technological content to justify a substantial price margin over the Japanese competition, Triumph has skillfully managed to achieve comparatively low cost—the base Bonneville is still only $7699—without impacting brand value. And while the company hasn’t broken any new ground stylistically, it is moving rapidly toward higher technical content.
Piaggio—parent company of Aprilia, Moto Guzzi, and Vespa scooters—stands in stark contrast to Italy’s other motorcycle manufacturers. While firms like Ducati and MV Agusta seem motivated primarily by some (often overhyped) “passion” for racing and two-wheeled performance, Piaggio operates more along a traditionally Japanese business model, motivated mostly by sales figures and market trends. While Ducati stakes its claim on MotoGP racers and exclusive superbikes, Piaggio brands focus on decidedly more practical products. (Although it should be noted that Aprilia has won 40 roadracing World Championships, including the 2012 World Superbike Championship.)
These differences are reflected in Piaggio’s remarkably broad product array: Moto Guzzi cruisers and retros, Vespa scooters, and Aprilia’s ever-expanding line of sportbikes, standards, and adventure tourers. Few are as sexy or outright desirable as their home-country competition, but the performance, value, and build quality is equal or superior to anything coming out of Europe—or even Japan. Once the marketing catches up with the motorcycles—and, in the United States at least, once the distribution and dealer network grows to a functional size—Piaggio will be Italy’s next big success story. Recent improvements with the Moto Guzzi product line, as evidenced by the California cruiser that debuted to rave reviews, as well as the competent-looking Aprilia Caponord adventure tourer and the drop-dead-gorgeous Vespa 946 scooter, suggest the product is where it needs to be. Now the company just needs the market to catch on and catch up.
A significant part of Europe’s success in the U.S. has to do with demographics. Buyers eyeing BMWs and Ducatis tend to be wealthier, paying cash or living in a tax bracket where credit was still available even during the dark days of 2008-’09. Just the opposite happened with many of the Japanese brands. Particularly for younger sportbike buyers unlikely to be cash buyers, financing was an absolute requirement. As both independent and company-subsidized credit disappeared, so did this customer.