Like the auto business, the two-wheeled category, in recent years, has been putting an emphasis on less expensive machines with smaller-engine displacement, but that share some features with their bigger, more powerful brethren.
And like autos, the point is to give non-riders a less expensive gateway to the brand, and create lifelong loyal customers in the process. Ideally they will be loyal and move up the ladder to more advanced bikes. Just like cars. That was certainly evident at this year’s New York International Motorcycle show this month.
Ty van Hooydonk, director of communications for the Motorcycle Industry Council, says the demand is there. "It does present a value: you can save thousands [of dollars] going from four wheels to two by lowering maintenance and insurance costs while boosting mileage -- up to 75 mpg in some cases. So we are seeing a lot of two-car families going to one, plus a motorcycle or scooter."
The council, which gauges the industry by such statistics as the sale of new tires, is seeing a big spike in ridership, per van Hooydonk. "It comes down to economics for a lot of people." Indeed, Honda promotes its CBR250 with a video touting the bike as a fun way to commute: a young professional describes his three-mile daily ride.
Kawasaki's Ninja 300 and the CBR250 are prime examples of successful entry bikes, notes Robert Doyle, editor of MotoSavvy US. "The Ninja 300 has a parallel twin engine, which is very user-friendly, and the CBR250R has ABS, which is really an option on all these new, smaller bikes." And Honda, he notes, unveiled a new line of 500cc motorcycles at the show, as well. "They are not too big, and Honda will really put a focus on that line this year."
Jon Seidel, who handles communications for Honda's motorcycle division, says the brand is really adhering to a full-line focus it has always had. "There was a slogan back in the ’70s, 'From Mighty to Mini.' So we have high-end, very technical products, down to entry-level products for new riders. It's the way you keep a customer for life: you give them stepping-stone products; it works."
Maybe it's a stretch, but Seidel also says building Honda loyalty in one category builds it for others. "Hopefully, they'll love Honda products, experience them and say, 'You know what? We need to go take a look at that new Accord.' Or, ' I need a Honda lawnmower. And when the power goes out, let's have a Honda generator.' It's kind of an oversimplification but, truthfully, it works."
Greg Lasiewski, supervisor of communications at Kawasaki, says the late-model Ninja 250 was the largest-volume motorcycle, and a lot of it is based on price. “It’s a great entry bike because people who don't want to spend a lot of money have a way to get into motorcycles. When fuel prices were really spiking we couldn't keep them on the floor. When new riders want to get into motorcycles, most just not are not going to go spend $16,000 on a new motorcycle."