AFTER A POLARIZING recession, a market’s middle is often the last to recover. This year’s rebound in sportbike sales, for example, seems to be occurring primarily at the opposite ends of the spectrum — for example, the Honda CBR250R (photo, above)and the Ducati 1199 Panigale S, both of which are runaway successes.
Another high-end winner is the S 1000 RR (photo, below), which BMW updated for 2012 only two years after its debut. Euro brands have been on a lot of magazine covers lately because they’ve continued to innovate at a faster rate. Even low-volume Aprilia is getting a lot of positive press for the new Tuono V4 R, which the company is further promoting via a demo tour passing through several of its 127 U.S. dealers.
But the Japanese also are showing signs of recovery. Kawasaki led the way last year by totally revamping the ZX-10R — adding traction control and optional ABS — and by introducing the naked Ninja 1000. This year the other three Japanese OEMs tweak their liter bikes and Honda adds traction control to the VFR1200F. But Kawi, again, steals some of their thunder by completely redoing the ZX-14 with a bigger engine, traction control and power modes.
Much, in fact, is being said in the press about electronic rider aids. Yamaha’s YZF-R joins the Ninja competition this year in having traction control, but the Honda and Suzuki liter bikes still lack it (though the Gixxer does have power modes).
Dealers disagree about the sales importance of new technology. In general, they say rider aids do matter to technically minded customers (i.e., racers and MotoGP fans), but most buyers still respond primarily to aesthetics, sound and peer pressure. Suzuki retailers, for instance, seem more excited about the GSX-R1000’s return to a single muffler than about the refinements to the engine, brakes and suspension.
The Japanese for the 2012 model year make no changes to their 600cc bikes and have made only minor tweaks for several years. The notable exception is last year’s complete revamp of the GSX-R600 and 750.
It’s easy to see why liter bikes and the Euro brands have gotten more attention than the 600s. Until recently, the typically young people who buy 600s have had incredible trouble getting financed and insured. Older, more affluent people stopped replacing their bigger bikes at a slower rate.
Ron Seidner, owner of multiline Bert’s Mega Mall in Southern California, says Triumph and Ducati are winning conquest sales on his showroom because Euro and Japanese retail prices are moving toward each other. “Not that far back, the Japanese bikes were definitely always cheaper compared to the Europeans,” he said. “Now we’re starting to see that for a grand more, or even close to the same money, a lot of times a guy will decide, ‘Hey, I want something a little bit different, maybe not so mass-produced.’”
Of course, the Japanese have cut sportbike production way back, with Suzuki even forgoing the 2010 model year. This has contributed to a shortage of pre-owned sportbikes and may have driven up retail values, according to the price books.
One Honda dealer says auction values are so high that he doesn’t know how dealers make money. Another dealer, Scott Poupard, owner of Michigan used-bike powerhouse Monroe Motorsports, says he recently declined picking up a sportbike franchise. “Some of these used bikes are going for more than what you can net-net out of a brand-new one,” he notes. “So why would I?”
This story recently appeared in the Dealernews June 2012 issue.