With several new models at Milan's motorbike show, the industry is optimistic after a sales collapse.
Motorcycle makers teeter back from the brink
Traditionally, no matter how grim things look, putting on a show will set them to rights.
The world's motorcycle industry will be hoping that EICMA, Milan's 69th International Motorcycle show, can deliver on its promise because the industry badly needs a boost. Sales have begun to recover in Europe, particularly in the above-500cc segment of the market, but the gains are patchy and not nearly solid enough to suggest that the recent disastrous collapse in motorcycle sales is over.
EICMA itself certainly gave cause for optimism. Milan may have seemed like a European show but its importance goes well beyond Europe. This is where the entire motorcycle industry comes every year to strut its stuff. If you aren't in Milan, you aren't serious. But many are serious, as some 1,200 exhibitors occupying more than 135,000 square metres of display space catering to more than half a million visitors at the modern exhibition centre on the outskirts of Milan show. Not only that - motorcycle media from all over the globe reach the rest of the motorcycling world with stories like this.
As so often, especially in motorcycling, the magic that guarantees success is innovation. The Europeans have absorbed that lesson, and brands such as BMW, Ducati and Triumph are riding the waves that they themselves have created.
BMW has thoroughly refreshed its model range since the downturn with bikes such as the S 1000 RR and the K 1600s; Ducati has conquered a completely new segment of the market with the Diavel; and Triumph has built on its strengths in muscle bikes and added innovative and effective dual sports machines. And that's all before EICMA even opened its gates last weekend.
They are not resting on their laurels, either. All three have also introduced brand-new (and highly desirable) bikes at the show.
Ducati has once again produced the star of the show, this time with the 1199 Panigale. Its big-bore, short-stroke Superquadro engine is all new if you ignore the 90 degree angle of its twin cylinders and the desmodromic valve actuation, the only items carried over from the existing range. Ducati calls it revolutionary, and it's hard to argue - especially when you consider maximum power output of 195PS and 132Nm of torque.
Ducati also presented a bike that is going to be rather more accessible than the Panigale, both in price and performance. The "little" Streetfighter 848, a naked bike with a more realistic performance envelope than the neck-snapping Streetfighter S, is already high on many wish lists.
BMW focused its EICMA efforts very sharply on the pair of maxi scooters designed to take on the incumbent Suzuki Burgman 650. To make sure that the scooters got all the attention, BMW had already announced its other news well before the show, this being the model changes to the S 1000 RR - new running gear and engine electronics - and the introduction of the special edition G 650 GS Sertão.
Both the C600 Sport and the C650GT are powered by the same new 647cc parallel twin engine - it's hard to understand why one is called a 600 and the other a 650 - and they should add some interest to the growing maxi scooter segment of the market.
We didn't even get to see the new electric scooter from BMW. Along with the liquid-cooled boxer bikes, it will apparently not break cover until the Cologne show near the end of 2012.
The Bavarians also own Husqvarna, and have decided to push the brand, which was once more or less restricted to off-road bikes, into the much more profitable mainstream of road motorcycles. The result of that push was on the stand in Milan: the Husqvarna Nuda 900 and 900 R.
Equipped with powerful liquid-cooled twin-cylinder engines and styled like enduro bikes on steroids the Husqvarnas were well received.
Aprilia was oddly reticent at EICMA. The touring version of the Dorsoduro that many of us had been hoping to see didn't break cover, although there was a new 750 version of the popular streetfighter. The one bit of big - in more ways than one - news was the SRV850, the world's most powerful scooter with a v-twin engine that produces a seriously impressive 75PS and 56Nm. It's not entirely new, being based on the existing Gilera GP800, but it does look very smart with its family resemblance to Aprilia's RSV4.
Honda's new 670cc Integra, a kind of cross between a bike and a scooter, does its best to appeal to everyone with lightweight, extremely economical running and the double clutch transmission from the VFR1200 which makes it easy to ride as either an automatic or a manual. Honda also introduced a pair of motorcycles with the same engine and (optionally) transmission, the NC700S naked bike and the NC700X dual sports. Think a bit of dirt road capability for the latter.
The long-awaited big dual sports bike from Honda, the 1200cc V4 Crosstourer, makes a rather more macho statement with the same transmission as well as a single-sided swingarm and long suspension travel. Add a relaxed, upright riding position and less weight than some of the other big dual sports bikes, like BMW's R 1200 GS, and the bike clearly has appeal.
Yamaha offered very little that hasn't been seen before except for a very tough-looking new TMAX, and Suzuki pretty much relied on the recently released and updated DL650, rather than showing much that was new.
Kawasaki showed a new, bigger Versys with a 1000cc engine and styling that is inescapably reminiscent of Ducati's Multistrada. There's always room for another dual sports bike, it seems. And there is always room for a styling upgrade to the classic-looking W800 twin, rapidly becoming a design icon and now sporting a bit of black and gold to make it stand out even more.
Of course, Kawasaki wouldn't be Kawasaki if there wasn't some muscle on display. In this case it was the new ZZ-R1400, offering the fastest acceleration of any production motorcycle due to its increased torque and midrange - as well as even more top-end power.
Which leaves one of the clearest winners of the past year. Triumph has done spectacularly well both by playing on its existing strengths with the Street and Speed Triple muscle bikes and by opening up a new front with the well-received 800cc dual sports Tigers. The extremely smart new Speed Triple R will build on one side of that success, but it's a completely new bike that attracted all the attention.
Triumph has called the new dual sport 1200 Tiger the Explorer, an outstandingly British kind of name when you think about it. The engine is still a triple, but final drive is by shaft and the bike offers everything that an explorer could want, including a strong steel frame, single-sided swingarm and a 19in front wheel.
Add electronic goodies such as a (switchable) ABS, traction control, ride by wire throttle and cruise control and you have a serious contender against BMW's established R 1200 GS - Adventure or not.
And EICMA clearly pointed to an electric future for motorcycling. Both Husqvarna and KTM showed electric bike prototypes, and US brand Polaris is investing in several companies developing electric vehicles. That seems to be the direction to watch; perhaps it will be what takes the industry back into boom times.