Small Motorcycles Increase Entry-Level Sales

Small displacement bikes might be the key to big sales.

KTM 390 Duke
KTM 390 Duke

The U.S. motorcycle market peaked in 2005-6, when high home values and easy credit conspired to help drive sales
 of 1.1 million new bikes. But following the banking crisis and
 economic meltdown of 2008, that number has fallen precipitously, to 450,000 total sales in 2011—a drop of nearly 60 percent.

It hurts, but manufacturers wonder if a new crop of small motorcycles might be the key to better sales. One good sign: The median age of motorcycle owners has started coming down. In 2008, it peaked at 43. A year later, it was 40. And although final figures are not yet available, the Motorcycle Industry Council says it will likely drop again for 2012. “Generation Y, those folks 33 and younger, are coming into their buying years,” explains Tim Buche, MIC president, who adds that Gen Y will likely surpass Baby Boomers in number this year. That’s significant, because the MIC says more than one of every three motorcycle owners in the U.S. is a Boomer, a person born between 1946 and 1964.

This has led to what Buche calls a "market reassessment," which finds manufacturers building new small motorcycles for first-time buyers who have been spurred by today's reduced insurance costs, readily available financing and relatively expensive gasoline. Look at the six motorcycles in the March 2013 issue's comparison tests to see examples of such bikes. Moreover, it's no surprise to learn that the best-selling Honda for 2012 was the CBR250R, while the top Kawasaki was the Ninja 250R.

KTM 390 Duke
KTM 390 Duke Studio

Okay, it’s a little bigger than a 250, but the KTM 390 Duke can still be considered a small motorcycle we look forward to riding. And based on news we learned at the Long Beach show in December, it’s likely on its way to the U.S. for 2014, with a price that KTM North America hopes to keep at $5000. This naked, based on the compact, sporty chassis of the 125/200 Duke, is powered by a new, liquid-cooled, 373cc Single that puts out 44 horsepower at 9500 rpm. With a claimed dry weight of only 307 pounds, the 390 Duke will certainly be quick and agile yet still able to be ridden by someone with a European A2 license, which is good for bikes of up to 400cc. Built by KTM shareholder Bajaj in India, the bike may be available as a fully faired model, as well.

Buche says that, following the 2008 financial debacle, many first-time buyers turned to the used-bike market, which hurt OEMs but actually benefitted aftermarket sellers and service shops. Now, though, as these buyers begin seeking newer,
 better and more dependable bikes, ones suitable for long-distance trips, Buche says the manufacturers are well prepared with a slew of new bikes at price points that many can afford, which is part of a dedicated effort to increase the overall pool of motorcyclists.

Ten years ago, the entry point for a rider was typically a 600cc sportbike that was outrageously expensive to insure. Now, given lower insurance premiums and 
pricey fuel, motorcycles have become an even more viable transportation alternative. And the new small-displacement machines are not slugs; they keep up with traffic just fine while providing the fun and recreation we all crave. Although it can be argued that small dual-sport bikes of 10 years ago were pretty basic machines, today’s versions, at 20 paces, look just like what Ryan Dungey and Chad Reed are racing on the track. More importantly, with their fuel injection, improved suspension and low prices, they’re attracting not just first-time Gen Y members but also a fair share of experienced riders who might simply be looking for some easy, high-mpg maneuverability around town.

“The 250s of today offer everything you’d want,” sums up Buche, who 
describes today’s market as a “new normal” period in which manufacturers have responded to the market by building a variety of bikes, large and small, for 
riders of all types and incomes.

Suzuki GW250
Suzuki GW250 Studio

Suzuki took the wraps off the GW250 at the Long Beach show. It’s a significant new entry-level bike, a somewhat naked standard with a riding position that’s not too sporty, not too traditional. The engine is a fuel-injected, long-stroke, liquid-cooled, 248cc parallel-Twin, counterbalanced for smoothness. Claimed output is 26 hp at 8500 rpm, with 17.8 foot.-pounds of peak torque arriving at 7000 rpm. Fitted with a semi-double-cradle chassis, six-speed gearbox and LCD instruments, the 401-pound-curb-weight GW250 is a bit on the heavy side, but it looks to be a fuel-efficient and entertaining around-town ride. Available in one color: black.