Shrinking motorcycle sales are forcing manufacturers to think small.
In an effort to attract women, minorities and riders of smaller size to the sport, some of the industry’s biggest companies are building littler bikes.
Several will make their U.S. debut at the Progressive International Motorcycle Show, which opens Friday at the Long Beach Convention Center.
An estimated 50,000-plus attendees are expected to come to the show — 52,000 attended last year’s event — where most of the world’s motorcycle manufacturers, many apparel and aftermarket parts suppliers, and an expected 150 vendors will display the latest in bikes and regalia.
They are all struggling to remain relevant to the baby boomer consumers who have been their main constituents for the last four decades while making new customers out of millennial buyers who have not yet matured as a market force.
Jason Chinnock, chief executive of Ducati North America, said the old ways of designing and marketing may not be effective with the new generation.
"The idea that if you build it they will come – it's not true," Chinnock said.
Industry experts say the business is at a transition point — possibly a dangerous one — at which manufacturers, dealers and suppliers remain focused on older riders aging out of the sport while ignoring younger riders who don't yet have comparable spending power.
“We’re at a tipping point,” industry analyst Dr. Paul Leinberger told his audience of industry professionals at a recent Motorcycle Industry Council gathering. “You cannot keep doing what you’re doing.”
Some manufacturers are already reversing a years-long trend of offering increasingly bigger, faster, more powerful and more expensive machines. Partly in response to criticism that they don’t build motorcycles that are appropriate for female riders, smaller-sized riders and beginning riders, they’re highlighting the small stuff.
BMW will give U.S. customers a first look at its G 310 R and G 310 GS, scaled-down versions of existing bikes designed to attract younger riders. The R version will cost $4,750 and the GS slightly more. BMW will also be showing off its electric C-Evolution scooter. BMW has not set pricing for either bike.
Honda will similarly debut its CRF250L Rally, a merging of its small-bore CRF250L dual sport and its African Twin adventure bike. It will come standard with spoked wheels, a larger gas tank than the 250L and a windshield. It will be priced from $5,899 without ABS and $6,199 with.
Honda is also crowing about two small-bore “customs,” the retro, bobber-style Rebels. They will come in 300cc and 500cc sizes, both with available ABS. Like the Rally, they are designed for the beginning or intermediate rider who wants the look of a big bike without the big weight and big MSRP. The 300cc is tentatively priced at $4,399, the 500cc at $5,999.
Kawasaki is introducing a starter-sized version of its Versys touring bike. The Versys already comes in 650cc and 1000cc versions. Kawasaki is adding a 300cc option, fitted like the Honda with spoked wheels and a windscreen. It will start at about $5,399, or about $5,699 if fitted with ABS.
Suzuki too is coming to market with a downsized dual sport — though not showing it at the Long Beach event. The company is building a 250cc version of its successful V-Strom line, which like the Versys already comes in 650cc and 1000cc models. But the company will be showing off a scaled-down street bike — the GSX 250 R Katana. The price has not been announced.
Ducati has scaled down its 1200cc Multistrada and will now begin offering a 950cc version. It will start at $13,995 — cheaper than the big bike, but reportedly the same weight. The Italian company has also introduced a new, smaller-sized 797cc Monster, priced at $9,295 — reversing a trend that saw formerly midsize Monsters grow as big as 1200cc before they began moving back toward the beginner rider with this new machine.
KTM will be pushing an updated 390 Duke — the baby version of its much admired 1290 Super Duke — that costs $4,990.
“The smaller adventure bikes are exciting, and it’s such an exciting category, because it’s the dream trigger,” said Mark Hoyer, Cycle World’s editor in chief. “You see yourself riding off to exotic places on these bikes — even if you never do.”
The new bikes are all an iteration of a desperate need to bring new riders to a sport that saw its overall sales cut in half after the 2008 stock market crash and subsequent economic slowdown. Sales have climbed since then, but have still not reached pre-2008 levels.
“We are looking as strongly as we can to expand the market,” Honda spokesperson Jon Seidel said. “We’ve got to. We and the other manufacturers have to reach out to new consumers.”
The other major manufacturers will also be on hand, even those revealing no motorcycles not already seen. Harley-Davidson, Indian Motorcycle, Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Victory, Triumph, Royal Enfield and BRP, the makers of the Can-Am three-legged motorcycles, will have displays.
What they all have in common is the drive to attract new customers with smaller, less expensive machines, without abandoning the old customers who are still buying bigger, more expensive ones.
“All the manufacturers are trying hard to maintain their relationships with the moneyed buyer in the U.S., Europe and Japan by building high-tech, high-performance adventure bikes and sport bikes,” Cycle World’s Hoyer said. “But the exciting part of the market is that bike on the lower end of the spectrum.”
The Progressive International Motorcycle Show will be open to the public from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16 for adults, or $24 for multiple-day entry. Entrance is free to children 11 and younger, and discounts are available for groups of 20 or more.
Motorcyclists park free and are offered a free helmet and gear check. Licensed riders with proper gear will be offered free test rides on machines supplied by Harley-Davidson, Indian, Victory, Can Am, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. Host Progressive Insurance will be offering free coffee, boot shine and haircuts.
Other events include a stunt-riding performance and vintage bike show.