What does the Honda Fireblade, the Red-crowned Crane, Suzuki GSXR 1000, Bonin flying fox and Iriomote Cat all have in common? They are all on the endangered species list in Japan.
Recently both Honda and Suzuki have announced and put on a press launch for their new Superbikes for 2017. Reading between the lines of the reports these are improvements on previous machines and would not normally be anything to write home about if its was not the job of the journalists to do so. Initial reports suggest the GSXR is the better of the two and the Fireblade has lost its heat. But what has gone wrong?
To explain we will start with the Yamaha R1. Yamaha appear to be re-inventing the R1 from the ground up every 5 years or so. The 2015 R1 is not comparable to the 2014 and likewise the 2009 is not comparable to the 2008. With a new cross plane engine, re-styling and rider modes in 2009 and the unrecognisable six axis tech, 600cc size, track focused ride, full colour dash and accompanying app to change all suspension and rider modes the 2015 was a leap forward from the 2014 offering.
Yamaha launched the new R1 in 2015 and have not launched another model since. Frankly, the shock taste of the new R1 is still fresh two years later. They have not sugar coated minimal improvements at launches every couple of years. They are largely laying dormant with the press and building the next great thing for 2020 at HQ. It builds excited and holds control of product design. They can watch from the sidelines for a few years and deliver a knock out punch when they see fit.
The R1, starting out in 1998, is of a younger linage than both the GSXR and the Fireblade but currently is a selling and riding success. In 1998 the ‘Blade had been burning fuel between riders legs for 7 years. Yamaha played their hand with precision timing when they knew they had the right weapon to de-thrown a king.
In this respect Honda and Suzuki are not only taking that knock out punch every five years but are then reacting to a changing Superbike market that other manufactures have already cornered. Yamaha’s 2015 R1 was aimed at the offerings from Ducati and BMW as opposed the ‘Blade or GSXR as they no longer posed a threat. Therefore the buying public are left waiting for Honda and Suzuki’s reaction. We know they have made great Superbikes but can they keep up with the current expectation of buyer?
Its disappointing that the wheels, swingarm, frame, engine and rear sets are the same (though tweaked) on the 2008 Fireblade as they are on the 2017. It’s a shame that an in-line four engine is what is in the frame. For over ten years now it has been rumoured that Honda are realising an ‘affordable’ v4 Superbike. They do have a V4 platform on which to build but are not doing it. I say put the ‘Blade on hold and focus all efforts on making a stonking great Aprilla beating monster of a bike and get rid of the Fireblade name. Start a fresh with a new powerhouse machine. Honda if you are reading – my suggestion is the ‘Firefour’.
I am not sure what Suzuki has to offer that the other manufactures are not. They are shoe horning themselves in the market because they used to hold the coveted un-official prize of the king of the superbikes. Not to say the 2017 GSXR is bad but is it enough?
One example, though this does not explain Yamahas decision-making, could be linked to the Japanese mantra of evolution over revolution. But at this rate what will be of the ‘Blade and GSXR in 5-10 years time? Again my suggestion is to get rid of them. Knock it on the head and be done. I know it will be hard to let go of your ‘Flagship’ motorcycle but if that ship is burning then do you want to stay aboard.
An example to reassure Honda and Suzuki would be Triumph. Recently there have been notable gaps on the showroom floor with little explanation from Hinkley. Most notable is the 675 Daytona. Starting out in 2006 Triumph have been very hush hush about this machine over the last two years. They appear to have taken a back seat with the Daytona. Possibly to watch the market, to focus on other models which are selling better or taking their sweet time to develop a ground up new Supersport motorcycle.
This could not have been an easy decision. The Triumph Daytona continues to be a class leading Supersport machine but for the last couple of years has not been developed. They are still available to buy but the picture on the website is from 2014. They have not been making subtle changes to the bike and re-selling it as 3% extra this or lighter that. They have just quietly said that they are not updating it. It still exists but currently is in a state of limbo.
On the British news motorcycle website (MCN) there are rumours that production will soon cease of the Triumph Trophy. Another recent drop is the Speed Triple. No longer making the naked version but using the engine in a more lucrative adventure class (Tiger Sport 1050).
These are examples of a company making good decisions that keep the brand invigorated and fresh. They do not appear blinded by some greater power of brand awareness. They are just clear on the market, where it is, where it is going and how they will grow. In light of this they have also invested heavily in the swelling adventure and classic sectors. They are offering alternatives to all the lost machines instead of dragging an old model along for the sake of it.
If you cant have the Trophy then have the Explorer. If you cant have the Daytona have the Street Triple. If you cant have the Speed Triple have the Tiger sport. New names, new bikes and new branding leads to a developing and interesting company as opposed to just waiting for the next GSXR because the 2005 one was so great.
Similarly Yamaha made another brave leap with their MT series. Knocking the much beloved Fazer on the head was the right choice to make and now look what has come from it. If we were presented with never ending updated Fazers what would the buying public be thinking and saying about Yamaha?
One of the largest examples of bold decision-making and killing old dogs would be Polaris cutting Victory to focus on the Indian brand. A shame but a smart, calculated and exciting move. If Polaris can continue on without Victory then I am sure Honda and Suzuki can carry on without the Fireblade and GSXR respectively. RIP.
Suzuki made one significant change by not making the SV650 for two years and instead made the Gladius. We hardly had time to morn and remember all those great track days, commuting runs and first bike near misses when the SV’s returned in 2016. So when it was released understandably people were annoyed to discover that Suzuki had just got cold feet and came back with another SV instead of anything else. Humph.
I have cherry picked a list of bikes that are currently on sale in the UK that demonstrates my point.
BMW – S1000rr, R nine T, GS 1200
Honda – Fireblade, Goldwing, Pan European, VFR
KTM – Super duke 1200r, Super Adventure s, SMC 690
Suzuki – Hayabusa, V-Strom, GSXR 1000
Triumph – Tiger, Speed Triple, Street twin
Yamaha – R1, MT
Ducati – Multistrada, 959, Monster,
I have tried to pick flagship models from each brand in a particular sector. Broadly speaking the models from BMW, Ducati and Triumph have changed dramatically – if not in name then in the actual model itself. Whereas, Honda and Suzuki have languishing models that impressed 10, 15, 20 years ago and are now offering basically the same motorcycle or a less successful version of.
Honda appears to be the worst offender. They need to get rid of the Goldwing (the CTX 1300, is not cutting it), the Pan European (a 2002 model still on sale for £15000, yeah right!), The Fireblade (change it radically or re-brand a new sports bike) and the CB 500 (people always need reliable cheap transport but the MT -03 and MT -07 do also exist).
Even Kawasaki are doing more. One example would be the evolution from the ER 5, to the ER 6 and now the Z650. Each model moved the game on enough that the new model was warranted and the old discarded.
Conversely, Suzuki has just had a launch for the V-Strom 650. Lets be honest it has not changed enough to warrant a re-launch. It is much of a much-ness of the bike that was realised 18-24 months ago. Which is not a problem but launching it and selling it as such does not wash. It might be better to develop for a few years and launch a new bike when you have a new bike, just an idea.
There is a balance between building high quality reliable well-developed bikes and innovation. Suzuki and Honda are strong in the former and currently lacking in the latter.
In a similar vain to ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ there is no doubting that the Japanese motorcycles have provided us with +50 years of reliable exciting motorcycling. They have shown us how to make motorcycles that start and do not leak. Demonstrated efficiency and customer service. However, now the “Big four’ has relocated from Japan to Europe. Is it possible that Triumph, BMW, KTM and Ducati instead of Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda are now forging the path ahead.
Picking apart the product list from these euro brands is more satisfying than picking from the Japanese brands. British manufactures, at a time, were not able to keep up with the advance machines coming out of Japan. Now having been handed the ‘how to build a great motorcycle’ baton from the Japanese the European brands have taken the baton and ran off with the damn thing.
All Japanese brands still make fantastic machines that would be hard to argue but if you have £13000 – £17,000 burning in your pocket for a new Superbike would you buy a Ducati 1299, BMW S1000rr, GSXR, Fireblade, Aprilla RSV4, R1, ZX10r or (as a wild card) KTM Superduke 1290? I know which ones stand out to me and which ones do not.