EICMA Milan Show-Stoppers!

European brands steal the spotlight

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Putter Power Media

International trade shows aren't necessarily the best place for spotting business trends. Usually favoring the "show" aspect squarely over "trade," manufacturers reveal their latest products in a highly artificial atmosphere carefully contrived to give onlookers the impression they are hip and ahead of the fashion curve. Nightclub lighting, thumpin' beats and an army of partially undressed moto-models can make even the most milquetoast commuter bike look sexy and revolutionary. Squint past the glitz and glam, however, and you get a more accurate idea of where any given manufacturer is headed in the coming year. What can we expect, then, after analyzing last fall's annual EICMA motorcycle expo in Milan?

Insurgent European manufacturers such as BMW, Ducati and Triumph will remain on the gas into 2011, while the Big Four Japanese OEMs, still crippled by sluggish big-bike sales worldwide, will keep riding the brakes. Euro-firms continue to invest in all-new platforms as exemplified by Ducati's Diavel power-cruiser, BMW's K1600 mega-tourer and Triumph's Tiger adventure-tourer. This aggressive strategy serves these smaller companies exceedingly well. Not only did they create a lot of buzz-and floor traffic-at the show, but these three brands have been ruthlessly gobbling market share for two seasons running as the Japanese limit product development to reduce operating costs while riding out the economic recession.

The view from EICMA's show floor tells us to expect more of the same. With the exception of Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-10R-officially revealed a few weeks earlier at the Intermot show in Cologne, Germany-Japanese manufacturers primarily showed updates of old models that reflected more imagination than capital investment. Suzuki's "all-new" GSX-R600 and 750 sportbikes, for example, were comprehensively revised, but changes were so minor that they reportedly required no new tooling.

Two 2011 models from Honda took this strategy even further, putting new bodies on pre-existing chassis to create "all-new" machines at minimal cost. Honda's long-running CB600F Hornet gets cloaked in a full-fairing to create the CBR600F. More imaginative-if not more impressive-is Honda's Crossrunner, which re-purposes the VFR800 Interceptor to create an ersatz adventure-tourer, complete with upright ergonomics and off-road-inspired styling. Penny-pinching development aside, both bikes look like perfectly practical, functional rides-which is probably why neither will be offered for sale in the USA.

This hyper-conservative development strategy saves cubic dollars in the short term, but could cost the Japanese manufacturers long-term as they cede valuable market share to the more aggressive European brands. Lineups comprised mostly of recycled products and ideas-like electronically enhanced superbikes and heavy-duty adventure-tourers, machines that BMW and Ducati have been building for years-only reinforce the perception that the European makers are leading the way while the Japanese are lagging behind.

Though the larger motorcycle industry might still be waiting on a sales recovery, EICMA show attendance suggested that, in Europe at least, enthusiast involvement remains strong. More than 500,000 visitors streamed through the Fiera Milano turnstiles during the four days the show was open to the public, breaking previous attendance records. Now it's up to the manufacturers-European and Japanese alike-to stoke that enthusiasm by building motorcycles worth getting excited about.

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