Motorcycles: New Directions

Exceptional Values in Standard, Cruiser, Dual-Sport/Adventure, Sport & Touring Models

New motorcycle models are scarce, but you’ll find that manufacturers are producing more variations of existing models. Plus, safety technology has been added to both updated and new models.

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It’s been 8 years since the economy went into free fall, but the motorcycle business still hasn’t recovered fully. The industry sold 382,000 on-road motorcycles in 2014, according to Motorcycle Industry Council. That’s a 3.7 percent increase from 2013, but the number is far short of the 1.1 million motorcycles that were sold at the industry’s 2007 peak.

What that means for riders: Fewer new models from which to choose exist than in previous model years. Instead, manufacturers increased the amount of variation to carry-over models by adding wind screens and saddlebags to produce touring models or by adding safety features, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS). Further, the largely flat motorcycle sales figures from the past 3 years mean that prices increased only modestly over that period.

The industry is in the process of remaking itself. You’ll notice that models have been influenced by a demographic shift, as the sport’s bread-and-butter buyers—baby boomers—grow older. All of the dealers, motorcycle manufacturers and industry observers with whom we spoke agree: Younger riders don’t have the same desire for horsepower and ever-larger engines that older riders have, and the younger riders are more cost-conscious. “Our long-term strategy is ensuring our core customers get to ride longer, and we continue to bring new customers into the sport,” says Jennifer Hoyer of Harley-Davidson Motor.

Consequently, the price that’s on most models, even with significant updates, increased far less than 10 percent from 2012 to 2015. Because manufacturers shifted focus to the lower end of the market, you’ll notice small price increases even on entry-level models. For example, the Honda CBR250R increased 5 percent, and the Kawasaki Versys 650 increased 4 percent, despite adding ABS as standard equipment.

Finally, both novice and veteran riders can expect more models that have stability controls and suspension modes that adjust automatically or do so with the press of a button.

UNDER CONTROL. More motorcycles than ever before include ABS as standard equipment or as an option. All manufacturers have ABS available on some models, and it’s available in all motorcycle styles. You can purchase entry-level motorcycles that have ABS in every category. You can spend as little as $4,700 for a sport motorcycle that has ABS and about $8,000 for a model in the cruiser, dual-sport/adventure, standard and touring categories for that feature. Two manufacturers, Harley-Davidson and Honda, make this technology available for their entire lineup, either as a standard feature or an option. At Harley-Davidson, which began to provide ABS as an option on its touring models in 2009, the system is part of a $1,195 security package; you can’t buy it separately. Honda, which introduced models that have ABS in 2009 on two of its sport motorcycles, now makes it available for as low as $500 on every motorcycle, except for one model that has an engine that’s smaller than 250 cc.

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The newest advancement in ABS—cornering anti-lock brakes, or cornering ABS, which also are called lean-sensitive anti-lock brakes—is now available on three models from three manufacturers: the Ducati Multistrada S ($19,695), the KTM Super Adventure ($20,499) and the Yamaha YZF-R1 ($16,490). The manufacturers tell us that this technology gives you the ability to slow a motorcycle effectively even when it leans into a turn. Normal anti-lock brakes are effective only when a motorcycle heads straight.

These models debuted overseas and were due to go on sale in the United States in March or April 2015. We hadn’t ridden one at press time, but the innovation has drawn praise. The technology “knows how far you’re leaning and how rapidly, so you can stand on the rear brake and squeeze the front brake for all you’re worth, and it will not activate the brakes more than it can handle,” says Ty van Hooydonk of Motorcycles.org, who rode the KTM model that has this feature. In other words, the brakes won’t activate to the point that they lock up and cause the motorcycle to skid. (Motorcycles.org stresses safe, smart motorcycle riding.)

The old rule in motorcycling, he says, is that when you were leaned over, you didn’t want to apply a lot of brake, if any, for risk of losing control of the motorcycle. Even models that have conventional ABS can cause a rider to lose control of the motorcycle when they lean.

“If you’re leaning the bike and apply too much brake, you could be overloading the tires, because it doesn’t know how far you’re leaning,” van Hooydonk says.

Using wheel-speed sensors, conventional ABS systems sense when one wheel is about to stop spinning, or lock, because the brakes were applied too suddenly. The wheel sensors send that information to the engine control unit (ECU), which controls the anti-lock brakes, and limits the brakes by pulsing them to slow the wheels more gradually. As a result, the rider more easily maintains steering control, and his/her stability improves when the motorcycle is upright.

Cornering ABS applies the brakes at a level that’s safe for the motorcycle’s lean angle. Cornering ABS uses the additional information that’s provided by an inertial measurement unit (IMU). Experts tell us that the IMU’s accelerometers and gyroscope measure speed and lateral (side to side) movement data to allow the IMU to sense how far and how rapidly the motorcycle leans.

Industry analysts say IMUs are a game changer for motorcycles. Although their application is limited to high-end, performance-oriented sport and adventure touring models, as IMUs are adopted more widely, the number of models that use cornering ABS will increase. Most analysts believe that cornering ABS eventually will replace conventional ABS.

IN TUNE. The usefulness of IMUs goes beyond braking. It used to be that if you wanted to tune your suspension, you did it with tools or, more recently, the twist of a knob. However, four models now employ an IMU that detects the speed of suspension travel and uses that information to decide how far the suspension should travel—how much a shock absorber or fork moves based on road conditions. The accelerometers detect how quickly the shock and fork react and relay the information to the ECU, which retunes and adjusts the ride accordingly. This means that when you ride over gravel, the technology softens the suspension automatically, or when you ride over smooth pavement, the system stiffens.

Kevin Cameron, who is the technical editor at Cycle World magazine, says that, because IMUs will proliferate on motorcycles, they now can be incorporated “at moderate cost.”

IMU technology also allows the 2015 Multistrada 1200 S to provide wheelie control to maximize acceleration. Cameron tried this and found it to be effective. “There are a lot of young people on motorcycles who want to do wheelies, but wheelie control on bikes has a switch, so riders can do what they need,” he says. Also possible: models that are equipped with an LED headlight that swivels into turns. Multistrada’s two unique IMU-based functions add $2,000 to the base model Multistrada 1200 ($17,695).

Every expert and manufacturer with whom we spoke agrees with Cameron about the likely proliferation of IMUs. It seems that the broadest adoption will start with higher priced European motorcycles that cater to more-experienced riders who are willing to spend more for such technologies. (Higher priced models can absorb the cost of research and development more easily than midrange or economy models can.)

Although IMU technology, so far, is scarce for motorcycles, models that have ride-by-wire throttles have become widespread. These models use electronics to interpret the mechanical input of throttle movement. As a result, they enable multiple performance and ride modes, which better match horsepower and traction control to how a motorcycle is ridden. The technology was found in a limited number of models before the motorcycle market bottomed out 8 years ago.

A handful of 2015 models that start at $8,190 now are equipped with ride-by-wire technology. How much that costs is blurred by manufacturers’ bundling of the feature with other improvements. For example, the Yamaha YZF-R6 costs $10,990 with ride-by-wire technology. That’s down from $11,299 in 2006, when it represented a $3,900 price hike from the 2005 version, which didn’t have the ride-by-wire capability.

Sue Carpenter is the motorcycle and auto critic for the Orange County Register and KPCC-FM. She has ridden motorcycles for 23 years and reviewed them since 2006. She also was a motorcycle safety instructor. 

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