Big Demand for Small Displacement Engines

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DEALERS EVERYWHERE report having run out of scooter stock halfway through the summer. Although maxi scooters — units 400cc and up — are gaining adherents, the majority of scoots sold fall in the 50cc to 250cc category. Here's another recent dealer trend: customers who are looking for street-legal small displacement urban runabouts but who are turned off by the thought of sliding atop a scooter. There aren't many other options out there for those folks. Or, are there?

Kawasaki scored big with its redesigned 2008 Ninja 250R — the OEM's top selling sportbike, as well as the second best-selling sportbike in the country — and KYMCO USA says retail sales of the Venox 250 for the first six months of 2008 were up 50 percent compared to the same period last year. But aside from those two units, there's been relatively little communicated or marketed about the other small displacement bikes available. Kawasaki's sub-500cc on-road lineup, aside from the Ninja 250R, includes three other models: Honda offers three, Yamaha offers four, and Suzuki offers five.

It's a decent sized selection, but not quite the lineup these major OEMs offer in Asia, Europe, India and South America, where motorcycles are used mostly as vehicles for intra-city commuting rather than recreation, and manufacturers have an even larger selection of small displacements on tap. For instance, in Europe, Honda's small displacement lineup also includes nine models of 125cc motorcycle, Yamaha's line includes five 125s and three 250s, Suzuki offers three street-legal 125s, KYMCO sells both the Venox and a 125cc sportbike, and the Piaggio Group's Derbi brand actually specializes in small displacement on-road bikes.

So what's hindering the leading OEMs from bringing a more diverse selection of small displacement models to the U.S.?

"We're always looking for opportunities to bring new products in," says a spokesperson for Honda. "Especially small displacement products, with the gas prices in the position they are in."

"We are constantly evaluating global products for this market and will continue to study," states Yamaha.

"This is not a simple question and there are many things to consider," said one OEM representative who commented on condition of anonymity (for both himself and his employer). "Sales numbers are only one. Retail cost, performance, parts, availability of a U.S. spec version, emissions, etc. are some of the other criteria a company needs to examine."

"The main reason you don't see them here is cost," says another OEM rep, who also asked to remain unidentified. "I don't think there is any doubt in the company that we couldn't sell a ton of 125s, but the issues come down to pricing and things like that. Being able to bring a bike in at the right quantity for the right amount of money is really difficult to do at this time. But there's so many new riders entering the sport now, this is a perfect opportunity to bring an entry-level motorcycle in that would fit their needs. So, believe me, if we feel there's market potential and we can bring in the right amount of units for the right cost, we're going to do it."

Check out www.dealernews.com this month to read more about our analysis into the small displacement motorcycle market, and what OEMs plan to do to satisfy increasing consumer demand here in the states. Then, if you have a thought you'd like to share, e-mail us at editors@dealernews.com.

Guido Ebert Senior Editor gebert@dealernews.com.