Back to Basics: Don't Call Them Standards!

By Aaron Frank, Photography by BMW, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha

Before these days of on-board lap timers and variable drive modes, back when gas cost 40 cents per gallon and most bikes started with a kick, there was basically one type of motorcycle. These were the so-called "Universal Japanese Motorcycles"-simple, versatile bikes capable of everything from canyon carving to commuting to riding cross-country. But as years passed and motorcycles transformed from utilitarian transportation to recreational playthings, they became more and more specialized. Soon, a well-rounded motorcyclist required a garageful of different bikes.

That was fine when artificially in-flated home equity and a steady diet of cheap credit encouraged conspicuous consumption. But now that bubble has burst and simple, practical, do-it-all motorbikes are on the verge of a comeback. Suzuki's Bandit 1250-the closest thing to a modern UJM-returns in 2011 after a three-year hiatus from the States. American Honda introduced just two new street models this year, one of which is the CB1000R-an upright, undressed sportbike. Yamaha is now offering its mid-sized, naked FZ8 to U.S. bike buyers for the first time, too.

Shifting economic realities partially explain this trend. "In this current economic downturn, there is increasing interest in bikes that are multi-purpose," says Kevin Foley, Yamaha's media relations manager for street motorcycles. "In the past, maybe that same customer could afford to buy a handful of different bikes that were narrowly focused on a specific performance target. Now, he can only have one bike."

This new breed of bare-bones bikes is relatively inexpensive: MSRP for the FZ8 is just $8490, while the CB1000R retails for $10,999-a few grand cheaper than a similar-displacement superbike. Naked bikes are almost always cheaper to insure and operate as well. These derivative models also save the OEMs money, drastically reducing product-development costs. In a year like this, when there are precious few new models to talk about, pre-existing products from overseas markets create buzz.

There's also a demographic component. As the median age of American motorcycle buyers continues its distressing march upward, demand increases for bikes that offer entertaining performance in more humane packages. "As baby boomers and other riders look to have a high-performance motorcycle with a comfortable riding position, I think you'll see more demand for a bike like the CB1000R," says Jon Seidel, American Honda's street motorcycle PR rep.

Just don't call these new-generation UJMs "standards." That term is considered the kiss of death by manufacturers and dealers alike. Even as these machines celebrate such unsexy features as upright ergonomics, accessible performance and reasonable pricing, the manufacturers still go to great lengths to present them as anything but Plain Jane. Some, like Kawasaki's Z1000, are pitched as highly stylized streetfighters, while others like the CB1000R cling tightly to their sporting roots, positioned as stripped-down superbikes. Even non-specialized bikes require some sort of special attribute, it seems. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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