600 Supersport: A Class Of The Past? | MEGAPHONE

More is more: Traditional 600 Supersports are disappearing, replaced by bikes that offer something extra, like Triumph’s Daytona 675R and Kawasaki’s 636cc Ninja ZX-6R. 

Long ago, in an economy far, far away—say, 2008—the 600 Supersport class was a hotbed of technical advancement and sales activity. Exciting new products rolled out almost constantly as manufacturers fought for victories on the track and in magazine comparisons, driving buzz and inspiring purchases. Today the 600cc sportbike market segment barely has a pulse.

Data from the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) graphically illustrate how U.S. motorcycle sales simply fell off a cliff. After holding around 900,000 to 1.1 million units (that’s everything: street, off-road, dual-purpose, and scooters) from 2001 through 2008, sales plummeted to half that in 2009 and have flat-lined around 400,000 ever since. As in the national economy overall, there are scattered signs of an encouraging but slow recovery.

The recovery is coming first to the higher end of the market. Harley-Davidson and Ducati sales are up significantly, and big bikes in general are showing more life than the market average. Most purchasers of new motorcycles buy on credit, especially those paying five figures for modern streetbikes. And credit is only beginning to creep back into the consumer marketplace. Today, loans are available only to someone who is an excellent credit risk: closer to 45 than 25, with a high credit score based on years of unmissed mortgage and credit-card payments, and a history of steady and gainful employment. And what kind of motorcycle is that person probably interested in? A Harley-Davidson or other American big twin? A BMW touring bike? If this credit-eligible rider’s tastes run to sport bikes, he’s likely shopping in the liter class, with European brands trending towards the top of the list.

Insurance can be another expensive hurdle. Progressive Insurance sees 35 as the “tipping point,” with riders younger than that more often choosing 600s and older ones leaning toward 1000s. And the younger rider naturally represents a higher risk and thus pays higher premiums.

While all these financial headwinds may gradually improve as the economy continues its slow comeback, there’s no assurance it will happen quickly enough to sustain the 600 market segment as we have known it.

Certainly, the frenzied arms race appears over; no manufacturer can invest engineering resources to keep trimming weight, upping power output, and offering more sophisticated suspension componentry, without the near-term prospect of sales revenue. For now, that prospect is non-existent for a 600cc Supersport.

Advanced design and technology lets a modern race-replica sportbike perform the way it does, and there’s little reason for a 600 to be cheaper to develop and build than its 1000cc stablemates. Same number of parts, under similar stresses, creating a package that bridges the same performance challenges of racetrack lap time and public-road civility, yet the 600 has to sell for thousands less than the bigger-displacement bike. That’s a tough business proposition.

Note that Kawasaki has (again) gone to the “cheater” 636cc displacement for its latest ZX6R, acknowledging perhaps that for a given level of performance, more engine capacity in a milder state of tune makes for a sweeter-riding bike, especially on the street. (And now it’s legal for AMA racing, too.)

So what’s in store for the 600cc Supersport category? With some luck, manufacturers might be able to skate along with packages already developed and partially paid for while their audience’s credit-worthiness inches back. (Example: Honda’s “new” 2013 CBR600RR.) Meanwhile, we may find ourselves increasingly discussing numbers like 500, 636, 675, 700, and looking to entirely new kinds of motorcycle to serve our sporting needs at prices we can afford.

In any case, the best, hottest, and headiest days of the track-focused 600cc sportbike have probably passed.