New Yamaha Hybrid


It was only a matter of time before motorcycling got a hybrid vehicle, and apparently that time has arrived.  Yamaha and Toyota are working on a motorcycle that reports indicate will bear the imaginative name “Prius”.

Yamaha Prius Hybrid Motorcycle
Yamaha Prius Hybrid Motorcycle

The “Prius” will be powered by a 250cc single-cylinder gas motor, as well as an electric power plant.  The gas engine will either power the drivetrain, or recharge the batteries, as needed.

From the pictures, it also looks like more of a scooter than a motorcycle, but this is the first low-emissions vehicle that doesn’t appear to be crippled with an electric-only engine with a short range.

Also, judging from the photo, it appears to have a shaft drive and an automatic transmission. So, I guess the final verdict on this is that it’s a hybrid scooter, rather than a hybrid motorcycle.

But, it’s probably only a matter of time until we see more of these.

It’s Official: Harley’s Going to India


There’s been lot’s of buzz about this, but Harley-Davidson has made it official:  The Motor Compnay will expand into india in 2010.  Clearly, they’re hoping to recoup some of their losses from the disastrous decline of sales in the the US Motorcycle market.  According to HD’s press release:

“India is important to our long-term vision of being a truly global company,” said Harley-Davidson Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell. “We are committed to India for the long term, and we are focused right now on establishing a strong foundation.”

India is the second-largest motorcycle market in the world, with sales dominated by small, inexpensive bikes used as basic transportation. However, India’s rapidly growing economy, rising middle class and significant investment in construction of new highways have opened the door to leisure motorcycle riding.

Whether it will have opened the door wide enough for Harley to make some sales there is still an open question, since the move is not without risk.

First, despite its recent economic growth, India is a desperately poor country.  To the extent that more people can afford to ride motorcycles there, they are riding inexpensive, sub 650cc bikes, not large, expensive Harley-Davidsons.  As I’ve mentioned before, Harley simply doesn’t have a motorcycle that can fit the bill for a developing country, namely a small, inexpensive motorcycle.

On top of that, India is a severely protectionist country, with a 105% import duty on motorcycles.  That means a $10,000 Sportster becomes a $20,000 Sportster in India.  I’m not sure how many units they’re going to sell in a country where the annual average income is $1,100.

Third, India, being a desperately poor country, has an infrastructure to match, i.e., roads in horrifically bad repair, which are not the best placed to be ploughing along on a 600-pound+ motorcycle.

Harley’s main competitor there will also be homegrown firms like India’s Royal Enfield motorcycles, who make little 125cc and 250cc thumpers.  Royal Enfield has, in fact, done very well, and has seen huge sales growth in India.

But, then again, they aren’t asking people to give them 20 years worth of income for a motorcycle.

One also notes that Suzuki and honda are already in India.  The difference being that they are both manufacturing motorcycles there, and thus avoiding import duties.  They are also concentrating on entry level (sub 125cc) motorcycles, and standard 125cc-250cc motorcycles.  Suzuki recently announced that their entry-level motorcycle operations are expected to break even this year.

Norton Goes For a Record


Norton Motorcycles, the iconic British motorcycle brand recently resurrected by Stuart Garner, packed up their rotary-engined NRV588 racing motorcycle and left Britain today.  Their destination: The Bonneville Salt Flats, right here in the US of A, where Garner himself will attempt to pilot the bike to a land speed record.

If Garner is successful, the NRV588 will set the world land speed record for a rotary motorcycle.

And, speaking of the NRV, Norton has a road-going edition of this racer in the works.  It’s no where near as pretty as a 1991 Commander F1, but, it’ll probably be a whole lot faster.  They are being hand-built in Norton’s Donington Park factory, even as I write this.

The Norton NRV588, ready to be packed off to the Salt Flats earlier today.
The Norton NRV588, ready to be packed off to the Salt Flats earlier today.

Oh, and since I mentioned it…

1991 Norton Commander F1 John Player Special
1991 Norton Commander F1 John Player Special

I think there’s 55 of these left in the whole world.

Japan Outsources Motorcycle Production


According to Bloomberg, Kawasaki will be switching motorcycle production out of Japan, to Thailand.  The first production shift will be medium and large motorcycles as early as this year..  It seems that Kawasaki may also be joined there by Honda, which is also considering shifting production of medium-sized motorcycles to that country.

This will mark the first time a Japanese manufacturer has begun production for export in a developing country.  The company cites lower labor costs for the move.

2010 Roehr 1250sc First Ride


Motorcycle USA has posted the results of Executive Editor Steve Atlas’ first ride of the new Roehr 1250sc sportbike.  I’ve written about the Roehr’s technical specs and general background before, but this is the first time I’ve seen an independent write-up of it.

MCUSA has a lot to say about the bike, some of it good:

[I]n the world of B-roads and canyon passes the Roehr is right at home. It works reasonably well at the track but without a doubt, the power and the unorthodox way in which it’s produced, is more suited for street riding…

This type of power delivery is exactly what is needed to make it a fun and entertaining sportbike on the street. And while Walter [Roehr] himself can tell me how great that engine is and the potential it has until he’s blue in the face, it’s hard to get your head around it until you actually ride the thing. And after riding it on the roads, there’s no question the supercharged V-Twin philosophy works very well.

Some of it bad:

It handles very similar to the 1198 though it simply doesn’t have the gearing to keep pace with its Italian counterpart. Initial power is on par but it runs-out quickly as we were often hitting the rev-limiter while finding that happy medium between getting a good drive and battling to keep traction from the stock Diablo Corsa tires…The problem is that the engine hits redline before ten-grand so there’s not much margin for error when connecting corners on the track because it builds quickly.

Although it seems like a handful on the track, the ergos seem built for track days.

Seating position and ergonomics feel very much like a Tamburini-era Ducati. The reach to the bars is a bit stretched out, the tank is long and skinny, the riding position is aggressive and the cockpit itself is reminiscent of the Italian Twins.

To be fair, this isn’t a bike designed for the track.  So, despite the sportbike looks and ergonomics, it’s really a street bike, and from what the write-up indicates, it’s not really designed for the track.  Obviously it can be done, as the reviewer did here, but the Roehr apparently isn’t really at home there, as the reviewer repeatedly assures us.

So, if it wasn’t designed for the track, why the tortuous Italian ergonomics?  Who wants to ride on the street stretched out over the gas tank?  And if it’s not designed for the track, then why have the fully-adjustable–and expensive–Öhlins setup?

Reading over the review, it seems like this bike is neither fish nor fowl.  It’s got all this race-spec stuff jammed on a bike that has a power-cruiser engine with a redline at 9500 RPM.  It has massive–nearly 100lb-ft–street-usable torque, but you’re forced to tuck like Valentino Rossi just to take a spin to the corner store.

Then there’s the price.  At $42,000, it’s not going to be a high volume selling item.  For about half the price, you could get a Ducati that will smoke it like a cheap cigar.

So who’s going to buy it?  And why?  I mean, it has a great engine for a sport-tourer, but not a sportbike.  It’s got great sport-bike/track ergonomics, but not a very suitable powerplant.  From what I can tell, riding it on the street will quickly get tiring and uncomfortable, and when it hits the track, a 193HP CBR will eat it for lunch.  It may be exactly the bike Mr. Roehr wants to ride, but I don’t see it as a good competitor with either street or sport bikes at it’s price, so I have to wonder, who else besides him wants to ride it?

It seems like an interesting bike, but, at the end of the day, it also seems like the answer to a question that no one asked.

i, n the world of B-roads and canyon passes the Roehr is right at home. It works reasonably well at the track but without a doubt, the power and the unorthodox way in which it’s produced, is more suited for street riding. Very few production motorcycles utilize forced-induction so this wasn’t something I was used to. In fact, it was the first sportbike of this kind I’ve ever ridden.

Thankfully, it’s well engineered and the ‘scary hit of power’ commonly associated with other forced-induction-powered bikes just doesn’t exist on the Roehr. But, that’s not to say it isn’t fast. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Power comes on from low rpm smoothly and gets the American-made 1250 moving with some serious steam. As one can see from the dyno chart it makes 167.5-hp at the rear wheel, which is nothing to scoff at on any level.

Harley Davidson’s Marketing Failure: Round 2


Several days ago, I wrote a post on Harley-Davidson’s ongoing strategic marketing failure.  That post has garnered quite a lot of attention in certain quarters.  Today I had an email exchange about it with motorcycle industry analyst and guru Don Brown.

My previous post addressed how the MoCo was failing in its marketing, but not why.  Mr. Brown provided me with some historical context that may illuminate the roots of this problem.

The trouble with Harley, in my opinion, is that they can’t shake loose from their memory of the terrible reaction of many of their customer base – mainly the older baby boomers who hated anything that smacked of being of modern technology.

Since their near-death experience and the resistance of their core customers to technological innovation in the 80s, it seems like the company’s version of “protecting the brand” has become never to do anything different, or innovative.Well, that does bring back some memories, such as the Nova 800 project, a concept for a water-cooled V-4 bike.  It went nowhere, of course, although the company spent a pile of money on it, and actually produced three of them.

But it puts the company’s current fear of tarnishing the brand in historical perspective.  They are rabid about doing whatever is necessary to protect the brand, as they see it.   A few weeks ago, I was reading one of the industry media web sites–unfortunately, I forget which one–and they asked a HD representative about a rumor concerning the possibility of a water-cooled V-4 powerplant.  The rep said bluntly, “Harley-Davidson makes V-Twin motorcycles”.

Since their near-death experience and the resistance of their core customers to technological innovation in the 80s, it seems like the company’s version of “protecting the brand” has become never to do anything different, or innovative.  They play to the same customer base. They refuse to change their styling beyond shifting what bit of chrome goes where from year to year. And then they do make a change, it consists of occasionally adding non-threating bits of technology like vibration absorbing engine-mounts, incrementally larger engines, or hidden changes to the frame or suspension.

And, of course, to cut motorcycle production any time it appears an inventory may build up, in order to keep supply artificially low, and the prices high.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of conservatism in the short run.  At times–and the 80s seem to have been one of those times for HD–it may even be necessary.  But the danger of doing that sort of thing, if it goes on too long, is that it begins to fix itself in the corporate culture.  Once an excessive conservatism embeds itself in a firm’s culture, the brand ceases to be an powerful asset to be used in leveraging innovative new products.  Instead, it turns into a treasure to be hoarded.

Once an excessive conservatism embeds itself in a firm’s culture, the brand ceases to be an powerful asset to be used in leveraging innovative new products.  Instead, it turns into a treasure to be hoarded.But that is never a long-term strategy for success for any brand.  Markets change.  Customers change. Tastes change. Competitive landscapes change.

Eventually, the brand suffers, because as the market changes, the brand gradually becomes associated with old, outmoded tastes.  The brand loses its power to attract new customers, because they think, “That was the stuff my dad liked, back in the day.”  That almost automatically means, “I like different stuff,” to the newer customers in the market.

This is precisely what has happened to Harley-Davidson.  A corporate mania for brand conservatism has led to a situation in which amazing technologies are available for nearly every motorcycle…except Harley-Davidson.  Most GenX or GenY customers won’t even look at a Harley-Davidson.  They see the brand they same way they see their parents: old and slow.

That’s true literally as well as figuratively.  The Harley-Davidson Sportster, about as light and as fast a motorcycle as Harley makes in stock form, runs a 13-second quarter mile.  A 900 pound Gold Wing does it in 12 seconds. A Shadow Spirit 750 does it even faster.

The end result is a brand whose products cost more and perform worse than the competition’s.

A Harley Davidson customer transplanted from 1970 could walk into a Harley-Davidson dealer today, and literally see nothing that would frighten or confuse him.It’s not just the consumer market that’s changed either.  The competitive landscape is radically different, too.  Harley-Davidson today makes essentially the same motorcycles it’s been making for 50 years.  Except for, perhaps, the V-Rod, a Harley Davidson customer transplanted from 1970 could walk into a Harley-Davidson dealer today, and literally see nothing different that would frighten or confuse him.

But what’s even worse, from a competitive point of view, is that he would also see no bike that a young, beginning rider would feel comfortable purchasing.  The Sportster has an engine of the same displacement that and FLH had in 1970.  It weighs nearly 600 pounds.  Even if the average 20 year-old could afford it, it is still an intimidating beast to young new–or female–rider. My wife can’t even pick up any Harley except the Nighster. And she finds it frighteningly heavy even then.  She almost can’t even touch the floor with her toes on any other model. That’s not a good thing, when 14% of motorcyclists are now women.

That’s emphatically not true, however, if you walk into any dealer of Big Four motorcycles. A first time rider has an amazing range of choices there, from a sporty Ninja 250, to a Boulevard S40.  Yamaha dealers will happily sit a young rider on a V-Star 250, and, for less than $4,000, send him off riding happily into motorcycling world on an easy to ride, light, little cruiser.

And when they do so, they have an excellent chance of sitting him on a V-Star 650 a couple of years later.  Or if he or she decides that a need for speed has to be satisfied, why, there’s a pretty little R6, sitting right over there.  The Big Four grab beginning riders right out of the box, putting the youngsters astride a little Rebel, and they keep them right up until they take that last ride into the sunset on their Gold Wing.

Harley-Davidson, on the other hand, still acts as if it’s 1968, and, once you’ve exhausted the possibilities available on a BSA 500 or Triumph Bonneville, you have to buy a Harley if you want a big bike, because no one else makes one.  But in 2009, you can get the full motorcycling experience–commuting, touring, naked street-fighters, or race bred literbikes–without ever having to change brand loyalty even once.

The Big Four grab beginning riders right out of the box, putting the youngsters astride a little Rebel, and they keep them right up until they take that last ride into the sunset on their Gold Wing.Harley-Davidson has no entry-level motorcycles, so they can’t grab the young 20 year-old looking for a good first bike.  Instead, their task is to try and convince a seasoned rider, who has a pre-existing brand loyalty, to change that loyalty to Harley-Davidson.  And that rider not only has experience with his preferred brand, but knows that his preferred brand makes similar motorcycles, at a lower cost.

That’s a tall order.  Based on HD’s aging demographic, it doesn’t seem like the MoCo is capable of fulfilling it at present. They’ve abandoned the young rider demographic, and in so doing, they’ve let their competitors grab the younger riders and begin building brand loyalty from the very start of their customers’ riding careers.

Unless Harley-Davidson is willing to expand its horizons, it  is in danger of becoming a much smaller maker of what are essentially high-priced boutique bikes…much like the brand they recently acquired, MV Agusta.  I would hate to see that happen, but absent some serious changes in their corporate mindset, that appears to be the road on which they are traveling.

Those BMW Guys Get All the Nice Stuff


BMW and Garmin have released a new motorcycle navigation device for BMW motorcycles, the BMW Navigator IV. It sounds very nice.

With a new slim design and custom BMW four-button mount cradle, the BMW Navigator IV includes a bright widescreen 4.3 inch display and waterproof design, configurable fields and display, stereo Bluetooth for hands-free calling, turn-by-turn directions and lane assist features with lane guidance and junction view.

 BMW Motorrad Navigator IV
BMW Motorrad Navigator IV

Of course, it’s specifically designed to be used while wearing gloves, too. It’s also got a lane assist feature that guides you through multiple lanes, and even displays road signs on the screen that look like the actual signs you see over the highway.

And, since it’s a BMW device, plan on shelling out about $1,000 for it, too.

BMWs are really the Swiss Army Knives of motorcycles.  BMW riders get spoken, turn by turn navigation through their Bluetooth-linked helmets.  Meanwhile, a gentleman such as myself, who rides an FJR, has to carry around paper maps like an animal.

Ducati Execs Do the Right Thing


It’s no secret that the recent worldwide economic downturn has seriously affected motorcycle sales, sending them plunging by a third.  Now here in the United States, it’s become a common thing to see executives at big firms take huge bonuses, even when the company isn’t doing so hot.  The most egregious example of this was when failed insurer AIG took billions of dollars in Federal money for a bailout of the company, then promptly paid off millions and millions in executive bonuses with it.

Apparently, things are different in Italy, where senior executives at Ducati, faced with slumping sales, did the right thing.

Senior executives at Ducati have taken a 10 per cent cut in their pay and will not receive any bonuses because of the decline, while [Ducati CEO] Mr [Gabriele] Del Torchio said he had taken a 20 per cent pay cut.

Let’s leave aside any legalistic or other arguments about whether the executives should be compensated or not.  At the end of the day, when you’re cutting production, and laying off staff, it seems only right that the pain should be shared by everyone else in the company, all the way to the top.

Kudos to Ducati for setting an example of shared sacrifice.

Fit to Ride?


Harley-Davidson has come up with a good idea, and it’s one that really should be implemented as widely as possible.  The MoCo will be implementing the Harley-Davidson Fit Shops at dealers all over the country.

Dealership Fit Shop specialists work with current and prospective Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners to help customize the suspension, seat, handlebars and/or foot controls to meet their riding preferences. New riders may not realize all the customizations that can be made to a bike to make it a one-of-a-kind ride based on build and preference, while long-time riders may not know about the latest customization options. Any Harley-Davidson model can be customized to fit most riders.

Most motorcycles can be fit precisely to a rider, but most riders don’t do so.  Most modern motorcycles have fully adjustable suspensions, and the idea is to dial in the suspension to match the rider’s weight, riding style, etc.  Dialing in the suspension to fit the rider makes the motorcycle handle and ride better.  But, all too many riders accept the factory stock settings, and ride off into the sunset, occasionally issuing complaints about how their bike wallows in the corners or whatever.

By taking stock of all the customization options, and having a trained specialist help each purchaser to dial in the bike’s settings to fit the individual rider, you end up with a more satisfied customer, who’s happier with his motorcycle’s comfort, ride, and handling.

And who knows, you may end up with a rider who is a little better educated about his bike.

Kudo’s to Harley for taking a step forward that dealers of other motorcycles would be wise to copy. Not only does it help make for a more satisfied customer, it also has positive implications for motorcycle safety.  Big Four dealers should take a look at doing something similar.  It would be a big help to their customers.

More on the New Honda VFR


Our cousins in the UK at Motorcycle news report that the new Honda V-4 bike has a lot more to it that previously thought.  There’s apparently a lot of innovation in this new bike.

First up is the variable cylinder use.  Instead of running in a V-4 and V-Twin profiles, the engine can also run as a triple.  The ECU will select the use of two, three or four cylinders based on engine demand, and throttle input. So, the rider will get smoother transitions between the different cylinder use profiles, which should translate out to a broader range of usable power for the rider.

When in two or three-cylinder mode, instead of the non-working pistons being air springs, they will actually be running in vacuum. So, instead of losing power on the upstroke of the dead cylinder, the empty cylinder will actually serve as a vacuum assist for expanding the active cylinder during its power stroke. So, on net, you get a power increase for the working cylinders.

In addition, the engine, being a V-4, will inherently have the same crossplane effect that Yamaha has used to such rave reviews in its R1 sportbike.

Moving from the engine to the gearbox, the new bike will utilize a double clutch system, similar to the ones used by Porsche.  The rider will be able to select three modes: Drive, Manual and Sport.

Drive mode will put the bike in charge of all the shifting.  It’s essentially an automatic transmission for the motorcycle, and the emphasis will be on economy, with the ECU doing short-shifting to keep the bike in two- or three-cylinder mode.

Manual mode will put the rider in charge of shifting, but the twin-clutch set up will be used to anticipate the next gear change, so the rider can shift as smoothly and quickly as a race bike with a quickshifter.

Sport mode will once again put the ECU in charge of shifting.  But this mode is designed to run to the redline in every gear, giving you peak HP–which is rumored to approach 200HP–and torque as much as possible, and allowing you to concentrate on steering the bike, cranking the throttle, and moving your butt cheeks back and forth to hang off as necessary.

And this new bike is just the beginning.  Apparently, Honda has plans to build a whole new series of bikes based on this technology.  This first bike will replace the VFR and, apparently, the ST1300/Pan-European.  But beyond that, Honda is going to give us lots of biking goodness based on the new V-4 platform.

The only remaining question is whether or not we will see this bike in the 2010 model year or not.  If we are, we’ll probably learn about it in the next 60 days.  If it performs as Honda expects, then something like like this has the potential to be a game-changer in terms of what a rider should expect from a motorcycle.

I am really interested in taking a look at this bike.

Another BMW Rumor


I‘ve been seeing this pop up for the last few days.  Oberdan Bezzi is an Italian motorcycle designer.  Sometimes his notions of what a future bike model would look like are just that: notions.  But, he is a guy who has some hooks into the major bike shops in Europe, so, sometimes, he’s spot on.

Oberdan Bezzi's BMW GS12500R Concept.
Oberdan Bezzi's BMW R12500GS Concept.

In this particular case, the rumor is that BMW is working on a 12500cc successor to the current 1200cc boxer in their R-Series bikes.  It would give the bike maybe, what, 10-15 more ponies, and an extra lb-ft or two?  And, it would keep in tradition with past incremental shifts for the R-Bikes, from the 110 to 1150, to 1200.  maybe it;s shave a few punds of weight off, too.  I dunno.

If I was BMW, though, I’m not sure why I would.  Instead, I think the move towards the HP2 boxer engine, with the dual overhead cams would be a better move.  They already get 130HP out of that engine.

Of course, if you bumped up that engine to 1250cc, you’d probably get to 140+ HP out of it in the HP2 series.

And, lets’ not forget my previous trip down BMW rumor lane, which is that there will be a 1300cc HP2 boxer, and it will go into the RT and GS.

BMW Is Serious About Sportbikes


BMW recently announced that the new S1000RR superbike would be available for sale to the public in January, at a price that makes it very competitive with Japan’s Big 4.  Now, it appears that this was part of an intentional strategy to go after the Japanese market share in liter-bikes. And they’re confident enough in the new bike to predict a 20% increase in sales–even in this shaky economy–and to let the Japanese know that the Bavarians are taking aim at them.

“We are going to take the Japanese head-on,” said Pieter de Waal, vice president of the company’s U.S. motorcycle operations, at an event last week in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.

The motorcycle’s introduction puts BMW into a niche — informally known as “crotch rockets” — dominated by Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha Motor Co. and the Kawasaki brand owned by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. The four Japan-based companies have 88 percent of U.S. market share in the superbike category, De Waal said. BMW’s offering will be priced at $13,800, close to the four most popular competing motorcycles.

While it’s always good to see Germans in a buoyantly confident mood, some observers say, “Not so fast”.

“For BMW, which has always had a reputation of being a very high-priced motorcycle, it’s certainly a lot closer to the Japanese bikes in price,” said David Edwards, Cycle World magazine’s editor in chief. “That may be for some people a reason to consider it, especially if its performance lives up to expectations. But I don’t think you are going to see a mass exodus of Japanese sportbike riders going to BMW.”

2010 BMW S1000RR Superbike
2010 BMW S1000RR Superbike

Perhaps, but a lot of the liter-bike guys are crazy for motorcycle racing, and if BMWs race version can show up the Japanese bikes on the track, it can’t do anything but help their sales. And releasing the bike for public sale here in the US allows them to meet the homologation rules for AMA Superbike, so I’d bet very good money that we’ll see a BMW race team hitting the tracks next season.  If you really want to take on the Japanese–and the Italians, by the way–that’s the way to do it.

Although, having said that, Buell proved a few weeks ago that, while the AMA may have rules about homologation, they aren’t, you know, fanatics about them.