Sales are up! The motorcycle industry in America is actually experiencing an upsurge, especially in dirt bikes and side-by-sides. Dirt bike sales are up over 50% for the first six months of 2020, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s retail sales reporting. Sales of street bikes are mostly flat but […]
Sales are up! The motorcycle industry in America is actually experiencing an upsurge, especially in dirt bikes and side-by-sides. Dirt bike sales are up over 50% for the first six months of 2020, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council’s retail sales reporting. Sales of street bikes are mostly flat but are still significant. There are around 450,000 or so new motorcycles sold in the U.S. per year. This is good news, especially since just a few years ago the industry was pretty bleak, taking seemingly forever to crawl out of the recession of 2008-2009-etc.
You could credit the most recent months’ sales increase in dirt bikes to a bunch of Americans cooped up inside for months and months, desperate to get out and ride. Regardless, let’s look longer-term here. What will save the motorcycle industry long term? I say, automatic transmissions. And electric motorcycles. Maybe both. Take a look.
Honda is way ahead of any other bike-maker when it comes to automatics, or more precisely, DCT dual-clutch transmissions, which is a quick-shifting variant of the automatic. In any case, you don’t have to operate a clutch or even change your throttle position to shift gears. The motorcycle does that for you. On the Hondas you are even given the choice of shifting with a pair of buttons on the left-hand grip. Or you can buy a manual. But the straight-up DCT transmission doesn’t require any input from the rider other than a twist of the throttle. I gotta think that feature will have a tremendous appeal to both older buyers and when it comes to luring in new riders of all ages.
“Currently we offer three on-road motorcycles with a DCT option: Africa Twin, Gold Wing, and NC750,” said Honda Motorcycles’ Colin Miller, who points out that Honda has DCT transmissions in many of its SXS and ATVs as well. “The DCT transmission actually originally debuted on one of our ATVs in 2009.”
And it’s a big seller.
“We have sold over 20,000 DCT transmission motorcycles since the VFR1200 came out in 2010 (that model has since been discontinued). Overall sales don’t show a huge percentage of the total motorcycles but when you look at the models that do have the DCT option you start to see the picture. Since the DCT debuted on the Gold Wing, well over 50% of sales have been DCT. As for DCT on the other two models that offer it, roughly one third of the Africa Twins and one fourth of the NC750s are sold with it.”
Word is getting out about the shiftless option.
“A lot of customers really prefer that,” said Giovanni Perez, a customer care specialist at Bert’s Mega Mall in Covina, California, one of the largest motorcycle dealers in the country. “It makes it easier at the stop light, especially on hills.”
Perez has a reason to appreciate the DCT on Hondas.
“I honestly dig this technology on this clutch because I’m missing my left arm (he lost it in the Army in Afghanistan). Customers are specifically looking for that DCT. They’re real specific. They know them from the high-end supercars, like Ferrari runs them in all their cars. Most popular is the NC750 DCT; they want a lighter bike, they don’t want the clutch.”
Electric motorcycles are by design very similar to DCT bikes in that there is no clutch to operate on an electric motorcycle, you just twist the throttle and go.
“In 2019 sales (of Zero motorcycles) grew up near 1,500 in the U.S. and for the first time over 1,000 in Europe,” said MotorCyclesData.com about the Zero electric motorcycle.
Iconic bike maker Harley-Davidson has pinned a lot of hopes on the all-electric (and shiftless) LiveWire model.
“The LiveWire does not have a clutch so there is no shifting,” said Harley spokesperson Jennifer Hoyer. “It’s one part of the reason consumers are drawn to the overall performance of LiveWire: its ease of ride, its instant speed, the quick charge and range.”
I have ridden both the LiveWire and several Zero electric bikes and have enjoyed them all, particularly the way the regenerative braking functions to slow the bike entering corners in the same way downshifting does that on a conventional, shifter bike.
But I also got another chance to ride the new Honda Gold Wing with the DCT recently. Not that I’m getting older—I just turned 61—but I really grew to appreciate the comfort and ease of movement the Gold Wing’s DCT transmission offered. As you may recall from the new model’s introduction in Autoweek two years ago, the new ’Wing is powered by a new 1,833cc (1.8-liter) liquid-cooled flat-six. Honda doesn’t release power figures but intelligent guesses have put it at 125 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. That is formidable for a bike that weighs around 800 pounds, depending on how you load it up.
My test bike was fully loaded, “Loaded up like your living room floor on Christmas morning,” I wrote in my notes: parking brake, four-speaker stereo, reverse, heated grips, heated front and rear seats and infotainment that looks like what you’d find on a car. You can raise and lower the windscreen electrically. There are folding mirrors. Three luggage compartments (none of which would hold my full-face helmet, btw).
Riding around town was a little like piloting the starship Enterprise. So comfortable. It took a little while to stop ghost-shifting the ghost-clutch, because it wasn’t there, but once I broke myself of that habit, it was pure cruise control (another feature, cruise control on a motorcycle!). You can see why retired couples saddle up with these and head out to look for America.
It couldn’t be all things to all riders. I never got to where I felt comfortable pushing it hard on a twisty mountain road, though I did see a trio of them at the very top of Angeles Crest Highway whose riders looked to be having a fine day’s ride. It’s a cruiser bike, not a sport bike or even a sport touring bike.
I put over 700 miles on it in the time I had it and enjoyed almost all of them. It’s the kind of motorcycle that is so comfortable it just makes you want to get on it and ride in no particular direction for no particular reason. While I might choose a sport tourer, I can certainly see the appeal of this Gold Wing to a large and growing audience, as all those baby boomers retire into their more comfortable riding years. And the DCT transmission can only help with that.
“Motorcycle customers didn’t ask specifically for automatics early on, but the market has always moved towards better products and experiences,” said Honda’s Colin Miller. “New models and new features have always moved the sales needle. Honda’s Dual Clutch Technology had been in place for many years on ATVs and Honda saw the opportunity to innovate in the two-wheel market to fulfill this unstated need. Just like electric start on dirt bikes overcame early resistance from traditionalists and took some time to become a standard feature, DCT technology has gained market acceptance and we have seen increasing demand. We expect demand to continue to increase and will offer DCT on future products to continue to meet the market need. We expect that manual transmissions will probably be the majority of sales for the foreseeable future, but DCT will continue to expand its share and help to meet changing customer needs.”
Other motorcycle manufacturers are also thinking about innovations.
“We see the trend to be more about the move from internal combustion engines to electric-powered motorcycles and scooters,” said Garrett Kai of Suzuki. “The next decade will see many changes in transportation. With electric motors as the drivetrain, they are mostly automatic with no shifting while riding. Another possible trend could be performance model electric motorcycles that have manual clutches and transmissions which offer a more traditional riding and shifting experience and more of a performance feel.”
Some lifetime bikers are ready to make the leap to DCTs or automatics.
“As a car guy, you’ve seen the decline of manual transmissions,” said Ty Van Hooydonk, of the Motorcycle Industry Council. “Hell, every Ferrari I’ve driven had paddle shifters and I don’t think they make any more cars in Maranello with that gated shifter. Would more automatics on motorcycles, not just scooters, open up the market? You’d think. I’ve ridden the new Gold Wing and it’s the first one, thanks to its more sporting nature, relatively speaking, that I could actually see owning. And if I bought one, I would pick the DCT model, no doubt. So what does that say?”
It says automatics, DCTs and maybe even shiftless electric bikes are the future. Or at least a growing part of it.
Now let’s go ride!
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