Hyosung, United Motors, Vento, Kymco, And Zongshen - Who's Who - Asian Invasion

Who Are These Emergent Motorcycle Manufacturers, Where Did They Come From And How Might They Change The U.S. Motorcycle Market?

"What would it take to get you on a Hyosung today?"

Get used to hearing some unfamiliar names on your dealer's lips in the next few years. Hyosung and other East Asian motorcycle companies are preparing a full-fledged attack on the American motorcycle market, and they're at work on some serious machinery designed specifically for this task. Until now, the small-displacement motorcycles and scooters coming to us from China, Korea and Taiwan have mostly been low-rent knockoffs of successful Japanese products, distinguished by cheap prices and even cheaper materials, construction and build quality. Fine, perhaps, for ferrying live poultry to market in Chongqing, but hardly fit for a Starbucks run in Laguna Beach.

This reputation is quickly changing, though, as the economic reality of East Asia evolves. Companies are now pairing cheap, abundant labor and almost-unlimited manufacturing capacity with an ever-growing investment in research and development and quality control to produce higher-value, higher-technology products that are more competitive in the global marketplace. And nowhere is this shift more evident than in the motorcycle sector.

Even the best East Asian motorcycles today are still a few rungs below Japanese, European and American machines with regard to fit and finish-never mind styling that is often downright jarring to the Western eyeball-but this is quickly changing, too. These are large, successful and well-financed manufacturers who are pouring tens of millions of dollars into product development, often contracting with Western partners to create motorcycles that are even more desirable to export-market enthusiasts. Don't think they won't get where they need to be. When Honda's first motorcycles appeared in the 1950s, they were lamented as cheap copies of outdated foreign machines, until a steady commitment to R&D; catapulted that brand to the top of the industry. Also consider the recent success of Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia, now recognized for making legitimately high-quality, reliable cars at a lower cost than their Japanese, European or American competition. Can the Korean (and other East Asian) motorcycle manufacturers be far behind?

They're not. Hyosung already has its own in-house design institute, where it is currently at work on a clean-sheet 1000cc motorcycle designed specifically for the American market. Zongshen recently finished construction of a $100-million, state-of-the-art R&D; center in China. Vento assembles its U.S.-bound products at its own facility in Laredo, Texas, and operates a design center in San Diego, California.

These are serious steps by serious manufacturers who are dead set on owning a chunk of the American motorcycle market, so the question now is not if but rather when? The answer is coming sooner than you think, and once that time arrives, the five companies on the following pages will be the ones to watch.

Country of Origin: Korea, with additional manufacturing facilities in China
Year Established: 1978
Capital: $48 million
Annual Production: More than 200,000 units
Key Products: Motorcycles, scooters and ATVs
Web site: www.hyosungmotorsusa.com

Korea-based Hyosung Motors and Machinery is easily the best known of the East Asian manufacturers, with the largest and most complete line of full-sized motorcycles available in the U.S. Mostly powered by a proprietary 650cc V-twin, Hyosung's bikes are also the most relevant and interesting to American enthusiasts. Furthermore, the company has the most real-world experience with modern motorcycle manufacturing, thanks to a long-standing (since '79) technical alliance with Suzuki. Hyosung currently offers its 650cc V-twin in four variations: the naked GT650 and half-faired GT650S, plus the full-faired GT650R and futuristic GV650 cruiser tested on the preceding pages. In addition, Hyosung manufactures an air-cooled 250cc V-twin available in sportbike and cruiser configurations. Clearly having the most polished and ready-to-market products, Hyosung is aggressively targeting a total sales volume of $300 million by 2011.

United Motors
Country of Origin: Founded in Colombia, with additional manufacturing facilities and cooperation agreements with manufacturers in China, Taiwan and Korea. Design agency based in Miami, Florida.
Year Established: 1951
Capital: $20 million
Annual Production: More than 80,000 units
Key Products: Motorcycles, scooters and ATVs
Web site: www.umamerica.com

United Motors (UM) got its start in Colombia 50 years ago importing and distributing cars, trucks and heavy equipment from the U.S. and Japan into Latin America. Recognizing growing demand for motorcycle products worldwide, UM entered the powersports market in the early '90s by forging agreements with large motorcycle manufacturers in China and Taiwan to introduce those products to the Latin American market and, in '97, to the U.S. To date, UM has only offered small-displacement scooters and ATVs in this country, but starting this year it will offer a full line of 250cc and 650cc motorcycles (rebadged Hyosungs) as well. UM says this is Phase One of a Four-Phase strategy to establish a stand-alone motorcycle brand. Phase Two ('09) will see UM develop unique bodywork for the Hyosung products. Phase Three will comprise joint new-product development in different displacement ranges. And Phase Four will see Hyosung manufacture machines of UM's own design. As of January '07, UM is also a full voting member of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), further evidence of its commitment to the American market.

Country of Origin: Founded in Mexico, manufactured in China with assembly facilities in Laredo, Texas
Year Established: 1996
Capital: Undisclosed
Annual Production: More than 125,000 units
Key Products: Motorcycles, scooters and ATVs
Web site: www.vento.com

Taking a page straight out of the Honda playbook, Vento decided to address any issues regarding its products not living up to American expectations by relocating its design and assembly facilities to U.S. soil, where design and quality control are overseen by American employees. Vento products for the American market are designed at the company's product development center in San Diego, California, marketed by its office in Melbourne, Florida, and (using parts manufactured in China) assembled at the company's plant in Laredo, Texas. Although Vento's American offerings are primarily sporty scooters and kid-friendly ATVs, the firm does offer two entry-level 250cc cruisers: the V-Thunder XL and the Colt, which look disconcertingly like Harley-Davidsons from the Twilight Zone.

Country of Origin: Taiwan, with additional manufacturing facilities in China, Vietnam and Indonesia
Year Established: 1963
Capital: $177 million
Annual Production: More than 840,000 units
Key Products: Motorcycles, scooters, ATVs, generators, utility engines and other power equipment
Web site: www.kymcousa.com

If you've spent much time on a college campus, you're already familiar with Kymco because you've seen the company's budget-priced scooters everywhere. Kymco (Kwang Yang Motor Company) is the largest scooter manufacturer in Taiwan and has been selling products in the U.S. for more than 30 years. The company presently has some 600 dealers in this country, putting it in a very desirable position to make inroads into the American motorcycle market. To date, Kymco offers exactly one motorcycle for sale Stateside-the entry-level Venox 250 cruiser-but it makes a wide variety of 125cc and 150cc machines for foreign markets, including the almost modern-looking Quannon 125 sportbike. More impressive than Kymco's motorcycles are its large-displacement scooters, such as the Xciting 500. Kymco is further set apart from other East Asian manufacturers with regard to its investments in technology and engineering-the company is ISO-9001 accredited-and though it has not announced plans to develop larger-displacement motor-cycles at this time, Kymco USA has been taking steps to raise its profile by providing scooters and ATVs to the Corona Extra AMA Superbike team.

Country of Origin: China
Year Established: 1992
Capital: $500 million
Annual Production: More than 1 million units
Key Products: Motorcycles, scooters, ATVs and generators
Web site: www.zongshenamerica.com

Originally starting with a small motorcycle-repair shop in '82, entrepreneur Zuo Zongshen has, in the 25 years since, grown his business into one of China's three largest motorcycle manufacturers-and now, his next goal is expanding into the U.S. and Europe. Like Soichiro Honda did a half-century ago, Zongshen is launching this effort on the racetrack, and not without success. Team Zongshen, riding Suzuki GSX-R1000s, won the 2002 FIM Endurance World Championship, and-in addition to fielding Aprilias in the 250cc World Championship for the past few years-is presently at work on a proprietary MotoGP racer forecasted to debut in '08. Like Honda, Zongshen is relying on his company's racing involvement both as a means to develop new products (and engineering talent) and to raise the profile of the brand in export markets. Though the company's motorcycles so far have been relegated to 200cc and 250cc cruisers and sport-standards that look like reruns from the bad part of the '80s, the company has recently shown more modern-looking 650cc and 750cc V-twin concepts and has committed to bringing to market a 1000cc transverse-four superbike that it says will rival anything from the Japanese Big Four. With business offices in both Florida and California, Zongshen is clearly gearing up to do business in the U.S.