2010 Tokyo Motor Show

Honda's VFR1200F is the sole high-performance highlight, as "mobility vehicles" supercede motorcycles

There are dark days ahead for performance motorcycle enthusiasts, if the outlook from this year's Tokyo Motor Show is any indication. For Japanese manufacturers at least, motorcycles are taking a back seat to so-called "mobility devices"-an umbrella term for scooters, electric bicycles and other gadgets (like Honda's bizarre, U3-X motorized unicycle) that provide cheap, convenient, eco-friendly transportation. Call it the anti-adrenaline era. Scooters and electric bicycles dominated Yamaha's display, with the Crossplane R1 and the Vmax shoved off in the margins. Suzuki's display didn't include even a single GSX-R; except for the revised Bandit 1250 and new, 400cc versions of the Gladius and Boulevard cruiser (for the Japanese market), the only other two-wheeled conveyance was a prototype hydrogen fuel-cell scooter. Good 'ole Harley-Davidson was the only manufacturer that showed an all-carbon-powered product line-for better or worse. Here's the story:

Honda CEO Takanobu Ito explained this shift toward more practical products by highlighting the importance of commuter motorcycles to Honda's bottom line. According to Ito, Honda sold 15 million motorcycles worldwide in 2008-14 million of which he classified as commuter machines. Ito reported that Honda's high-end, high-performance motorcycle segment has been severely affected by the current economic downturn (even more than its automotive business), making commuter products more crucial than ever before. Despite huge losses in high-end sales (down by more than 50 percent in some markets), Honda's unit sales have remained equal to last year thanks to continued growth of low-priced commuter product sales especially in the Asian and South American markets.

Ito said Honda's primary focus is now "personal mobility," with increased emphasis on simple, user-friendly transportation. Ito also placed a huge emphasis on alternative power, introducing Honda's "HELLO" program: a clumsy acronym for the Honda Electric Mobility Loop. The HELLO product initiative includes a variety of electric and electric/gas hybrid cars and scooters that promise to greatly reduce CO2 emissions. The most intriguing of these was an EV Cub prototype, an all-electric commuter scooter with retro-inspired styling that recalls the iconic Super Cubs of the past.

Proper motorcycles definitely seemed like an afterthought at Honda's presentation. The company showed just two new models: the VFR1200F (which we will ride two days from now, at Sugo Circuit) and the retro-throwback CB1100. Ito noted that the median age of Honda's big bike buyers is nearing the late forties. These riders want two things: bikes that are easier to ride, and bikes that are simpler in concept, like the good old days. The new VFR, with its revolutionary Dual Clutch Automatic transmission, promises to be easier to ride. The air-cooled CB1100, on the other hand, recalls the glory days of the simple UJMs (universal Japanese motorcycles) that many riders in their late forties grew up riding. Unfortunately, nostalgia-minded boomers in America (and Europe, for that matter) will have to admire the CB1100 from afar: that model will only be offered in Brazil and Australia in 2010.

You had to look closely to even find the motorcycles at Suzuki's display, which was dominated by an endless array of compact, sub-compact, and sub-sub-compact automobiles, without a single GSX-R in sight. Suzuki showed only three new motorcycles: smaller, 400cc versions of the Gladius standard and Boulevard cruiser, manufactured for the domestic Japanese market, along with a freshened-up Bandit 1250 ABS (yet to be confirmed or denied for the American market). The only two-wheeled product featured on Suzuki's main stage was a prototype Burgman scooter powered by an Intelligent Energy-designed high-pressure, hydrogen fuel cell. Suzuki points out that this is the first fuel cell compact enough to fit into a conventional scooter (or motorcycle) package.

Yamaha is another manufacturer that drastically downplayed its big-bore motorcycle offerings in favor of eco-friendly scooter and bicycle-based concepts, all supporting its new "Smart Power" corporate theme. Yamaha says big bike demand is suffering in '09 and likely won't recover for a few years, so the company is switching its focus to mobility (there's that word again...) to pick up the slack. Center stage at Yamaha was a giant "Plugged" display, featuring four electric concepts-the EC-f and EC-03 scooters and a pair of PAS electric bicycles. Yamaha also showed a cut-away version of its HV-X prototype, a gas/electric hybrid vehicle with a motorcycle/scooter hybrid styling. We were more interested in an artwork called "The Lord of YAMAHA Adventures," a stylized representation a Super Tenere adventure-tourer crafted from shaped canvas panels, with the engine internals and other mechanical systems exposed to form a sculpture celebrating (quite ironically, given the context of this year's show) the glory of internal combustion.

God bless America-and stalwart Harley-Davidson, specifically-for waving the gas-chugging, carbon-spewing internal combustion flag via the various candy-colored, chrome-plated retro barges that dominated its display. Interestingly, the entire Buell product line was on display here as well. Perhaps Tokyo didn't get the memo?