Both the products and the news are surprising in the motorcycle business this year, as companies like Honda and Harley try unusual methods for getting younger consumers, or first-time consumers, to swing a leg over a bike.
Take Honda. One of the products that Honda's Torrance, Calif.-based U.S. sales arm is riding into showrooms this year is a 250cc, one-cylinder bike that the company hopes has the chutzpah, looks, and technology to take on Kawasaki's Ninja 250 and maybe bigger motorcycles. By today's standards, where it is perfectly natural for a starter sport bike to have north of 700 cc's under the seat (and even some scooters have larger displacement than that), 250 seems small. A lot of people think a bike should have a lot of power.
But Honda spokesperson Jon Seidel says the new CBR 250R motorcycle, a sleek sport bike, is designed to do pretty much everything that bigger-displacement bikes do. "You can tour with it, ride roads, or highways. And because it's only 359 pounds, it's much less intimidating for first-time riders than larger motorcycles." If so, it's also lighter than the Ninja 250's official curb weight of 375 pounds.
Seidel says the company is also doing something unusual with the bike: he says this is the first motorcycle in this class to have ABS, or anti-lock braking. He said the price, a tad north of $4,000 with ABS, is designed to bring in relatively new riders who aren't ready to plunk down more than $6,000 for a bigger bike.
Harley-Davidson, which is also bringing in new, younger riders with its Dark Custom line, will launch the Blackline FXS Softail this year. The company says the Dark Custom motorcycles have given it the highest share of street-bike owners between 18 and 35 years of age of any brand and any size of bike. Younger riders are critical to the brand's health, as its traditional owner base for big cruisers is primarily in the Baby Boomer demographic.
Mike Lowney, head of market outreach for the Milwaukee, Wisc.-based company, says Harley -- which launched a retro-style motorcycle called 48 last year -- is getting a boost from a cultural shift among some younger riders away from sport bikes and toward an aesthetic epitomized by naked bikes like Harley-Davidson's own retro Forty-Eight, which features a peanut gas tank and tractor-seat type saddle. "There's a move toward the post-WWII-type chopper," he says. "It's minimalist, grassroots, rogue -- not at all contrived."
Lowney says the company has 1.9 million fans on its 18-month-old Facebook page. Half of them are under 35. The company also just launched a Dark Custom microsite. He says the leading Harley-Davidson motorcycles among younger riders include the Iron 883, the Forty-Eight, and the Street Bob.
The company this year will focus on building relevancy among younger riders with targeted campaigns similar to last year's message that financing lets you get onto a Harley-Davidson for $6 a day.
"Attainability is the focus," says Lowney, who adds that the company will also do more experiential marketing this year. That tactic started last week with a party that took place on New York's West Side timed with the International Motorcycle Show in the city's Jacob Javits Center. Harley also hosted a party for influencers at Don Hill's club in the Greenwich Village, where the Blackline was displayed. "They were all over it," he says. The company also has its V-Rod Muscle motorcycle as Kato's other ride in the new Green Hornet film.
Last year the company sponsored the 20-city heavy-metal Mayhem Tour, and had products at SXSW and the giant four-day Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. "It's really a 'flashpoint' strategy," he says. "We like to bring Harley-Davidson to one big event, one geographic area over multiple days."