Preparing to Wave 600cc Sport Bikes Good-Bye?

The title may sound alarming… and maybe we should be alarmed, even if there’s no need for panic, whatsoever. But honestly, it looks like the middleweight sport bikes have a real problem and their future is somehow uncertain.
I’ve talked to more fellows in the motorcycle business at EICMA 2014 and each time middleweight motorcycles have come into the discussion, they all almost sighed. Joseph Machler, product manager for BMW’s S series was the one who brought me some generic figures to help me understand why zie Germans have no plans to deliver a supersport class S-machine.

Machler said that the 2006 figures for the 600cc sport bike market were somewhere north of the 120,000 mark, which of course meant a pretty lucrative class. Eight years later, the figures for these bikes barely stood up for 28,000 units sold… and this spells trouble.

BMW said they don’t have plans for the 600cc-ish class, Erik Buell Racing have stated that there is no interest in the segment, either. When asked whether Kawasaki is considering adding forced induction to their middleweight sport bikes, an official smiled back and said that this is most likely never going to happen, as the company’s efforts are heading for other directions.

I then went to talk to Yamaha, as the house of Iwata had brought the all-new R-series machines. The 2015 R1 was all new, just like its racing-focused R1M, while the R3 was a completely new presence in the field, altogether. The R6 was almost shy, having nothing to brag about, no new story to tell. And neither were Honda’s supersport machines something to write home about. The motorcycling world is changing…

The financial crisis which engulfed the world economy was only one of the reasons for the poor motorcycle sales during these last years. However, this affected most of the manufacturers, maybe with a lesser impact in the small-displacement segment. These small bikes were anyway significantly cheaper and have only become more attractive in the low cash-flow environment, with the more expensive ones facing lower sales.

In Europe, the 600cc bikes received another blow, with the A2 license regulations. I will write a more detailed article on the new EU driving license system, but for the current piece the key element is that the A2 limits introduce a peculiar situation.Breaking things into small, easy-to-understand bits, before a rider becomes fully licensed and can hop on whatever bike he or she wants, learner and A1 permits must be obtained. For A2, the rider has to be at least 19, and the bike he or she will be tested on must be in the 22 and 47 hp range, with a specific 0.26 hp/kg power-to-weight ratio.

Even more, A2-compliant bikes can be obtained by restricting more powerful bikes, but their maximum peak power could not exceed double the A2 limit. 94 horsepower, that is. As I mention this, things should start to become clearer. A lot of 600cc machines have power figures which exceed the A2-compliant restriction limit.

After 2 years of A2 riding, a new rider can lawfully operate any motorcycle on public road but… If he or she has been riding an under 47-hp sport bike, it’s hard to believe that the first bike picked in the dealership is going to be a 600er. Some of these fellows will indeed take things gradually and hop aboard a supersport-class bike prior to going liter-class or even above.

If speed and adrenaline are the two things these fellows are after, it’s fairly easy to understand that they will go for the biggest, most powerful, fastest machine they can afford, new or pre-owned. And this behavior kind of shifts focus from the 600ers on to the superbikes.

Back in the day, the new rider limitations were not enforced too strictly, and making if from the beginner course to the saddle of a Honda CBR600R was not at all a rare thing. Riders in the emerging markets have been a good driving force for this class, but as road safety regulations are becoming more widespread across Europe, the customers’ preferences start shifting.

Discussing with industry guys, I learned that the 600cc bikes are becoming increasingly popular in markets such as Brazil and Asia, places where even now, a 350-400cc bike is looked at as a big one. With the sales decline in the traditional markets, we might get to see 600cc sport bikes becoming a rarer presence.

So far, all the manufacturers I’ve talked to are eyeing the small-displacement class, in a way trying to follow closely the market shift. Since 600cc sport bikes are no longer a lucrative direction, switching over to the under-47-hp machines seems like a logical move. Business grows with new customers, and since they are only allowed to ride bikes in a certain segment, not providing them with the needed choices is anti-business.

Going out of business is no longer such shocking news, unfortunately, and the latest shutdown comes from Germany, where Horex called it quits over poor sales, insolvency and all the rest. Of course, big manufacturers have a huge financial buffer, based on the very dimension of their operations, but the stockholders will definitely not be happy when they see the lower earnings their participations bring after some wrong marketing and strategic product decisions.

While the future of the 600cc sport class is impossible to foresee, at this very moment it looks like the big manufacturers aren’t exactly using their best efforts to upgrade the segment. Anyway, it’s going to be pretty interesting to see how things roll out…
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