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“Industry Dominance”: What Exactly Does Honda Mean?

MD received a press release today from American Honda describing its “Performance First” theme for the motorcycle division — a theme that will be stressed in all Honda motorcycle advertising for the foreseeable future.

More importantly, this press release reminded me of Honda’s rather bold pledge at its dealer meeting last Fall in New Orleans. As today’s press release states “American Honda pledged a commitment to industry dominance at last September’s dealer convention in New Orleans.”

“Industry dominance”, come to think of it, is an incredibly bold statement by a traditionally conservative company. This “industry dominance” is to unfold, according to Honda, over the next three years with exciting new products. The first of these products are the CBR929RR open-class sportbike, the RC51 superbike, the aluminum-framed XR650R off-road bike, and the custom Shadow Sabre.

I started to think about the products Honda must deliver to make good on its pledge of industry dominance. Here is what I came up with, described by motorcycle category:

  1. An entirely new Gold Wing — The Honda Gold Wing is an icon in the touring world. Unchallenged for many years, Honda’s Gold Wing has only recently begun to lose magazine “shoot outs” against BMW’s new tourer. The BMW tourer is a bit more sporting, and handles better than the Gold Wing (surprisingly, because the Gold Wing handles quite well). There are rumors of an eight-cylinder Gold Wing displacing 2000cc. I’m not sure the Gold Wing needs any more torque or horsepower, and my personal vision of a dominant tourer combines performance (“Performance First”, remember?) including class-leading handling and acceleration, with the traditional Gold Wing virtues of comfort and smoothness.

  2. A Yamaha YZ400 beater — I think Honda must be all over this one like a wet blanket. In fact, I think every Japanese manufacturer is all over this one like a wet blanket. Yamaha had a real coup, here, and the other Japanese manufacturers have had more than two years to catch up. None of them have caught up yet, leaving that to the relatively small Austrian manufacturer, KTM. Honda’s four-stroke motocrosser better be awfully good, however, because everyone is reacting to the YZ400 and trying to better it. We can assume that Kawasaki and Suzuki will do so, so Honda better to so by a significant margin in order to “dominate” this class segment. By the way, electric starters weighing less than five pounds will be a must in this category — manufacturers without it will suffer significant lost sales.

  3. A new 600 — The CBR600F4 is an excellent motorcycle, and, depending on who you listen to, is already at the top of its class. In my opinion, it’s neck ‘n neck with Yamaha’s R6, depending upon whether your emphasis is on an all-around street bike or hard core sportbike. Nevertheless, Triumph and Suzuki will introduce all new 600s very soon. The details of Triumph’s 600 are already known, and Triumph claims its engine is definitely the class leader, while its ergonomics virtually mimic the comfortable F4. Suzuki, of course, will introduce a new 600 next year based on the new GSXR750 platform. Since the Suzuki GSXR750 already weighs substantially less than the F4, Suzuki’s 600 might approach 350 pounds in dry weight, and incorporate fuel injection (being the first Japanese manufacturer to do so in this category). I don’t think Honda can wait three years to introduce another 600. This category is just too competitive. What would a class-leading 600 from Honda be like? In my opinion, it would be less than 350 pounds dry weight, incorporate fuel injection (like Honda’s new 929RR), retain the excellent compromise Honda has incorporated in the F4 between a sporting riding position and general comfort and, of course, have class-leading horsepower and torque. It’s a tall order in this segment, but Honda has the engineering muscle to pull it off, and the CBR600F series has always been very important to Honda.

  4. A revised VFR800 Interceptor — The VFR800 Interceptor is an excellent motorcycle, and has been a class leader for many, many years. Lately, however, it has been strongly challenged by Triumph, Ducati, and others. Rumors indicate Yamaha is working on a very high performance sport tourer based on the R1. In my opinion, Honda needs to significantly update the VFR, but not change its essential character. The V-4 engine configuration obviously should not change, because it lends character to the bike and has a large, loyal following here and in Europe. I think Honda needs to increase the displacement of the VFR significantly (at least to 900cc) for two reasons. First of all, particularly in the U.S., buyers are fascinated by large displacement motorcycles, and want low-end and mid-range torque by the bucket full. Triumph has delivered this with its 955cc three cylinder motor, and Honda, in my opinion, is going to have to go in this direction with the VFR. Also, and this is a no brainer, Honda must offer integrated, hard luggage with the VFR. At the very least, Honda must tastefully integrate hard bag brackets (as Triumph has done), and offer color-matched hard bags as a factory option. This is one way the VFR can set itself apart from direct competition with the lighter sportbikes that are now seen as competition for sport tourers (including Kawasaki’s ZX-9R and ZX-6R — as well as Honda’s own CBR600F4).

  5. V-twin performance cruiser — Cruisers are no longer about style and vibration alone. Cruisers are now about performance, and, in keeping with Honda’s Performance First theme, Honda must come out with a big V-twin cruiser that handles, accelerates, and stops better than anything else in this market segment. If Honda isn’t working on this already, I would be shocked. Yamaha certainly is, and Honda is tired of being a follower.

  6. High performance street single — As you know, we love street singles, and we’re anxiously awaiting a performance bike in this category (not something like the beginner-biased Buell Blast). Again, if Honda can’t see this market segment coming, somebody like Yamaha will step up first (as it did with the YZ400). With all of the extremely compact, lightweight four-stroke singles being developed for motocross and off road bikes, someone will surely package this in a lightweight street chassis, and wake enthusiasts up to the incredible pleasure of riding a light weight street single. This is the essence of motorcycling, and with modern technology, and extremely low weight, bikes in this category could have surprising power-to-weight ratios to go along with the handling virtues of light weight. Is Honda bold enough to stake its claim to this segment first? Or will they make the mistake of waiting too long? If Honda really wants to be a leader, rather than a follower, they’ll attack this segment with a stunning machine.

  7. Performance bikes for shorter riders — Notice I didn’t say for “female riders”? Although women need lower seat heights (and they’re tired of having only cruisers to choose from), many men fit into this category as well. Sit on a 1960’s Triumph, and you’ll be shocked by how small it is. Did seat heights really have to get this tall? I still believe that Honda’s NT650 Hawk (sold in the U.S. between 1988 and 1990) is one of the best street bikes available for shorter riders (including women — my 5′ 3″ wife owns one and loves it). The fact of the matter is, the 650 Hawk is still loved by a large contingent, and its low seat height and low center of gravity enhanced its performance. Seat heights don’t need to be so tall, and Honda, once again, will need to lead in this segment with products that give variety and confidence to shorter riders. This is true of both street bikes and off-road bikes (have you sat on a full-sized, motocross or enduro bike lately — if you are under 5′ 8″, you may not be able to touch the ground).

  8. Ultraperformance — I almost hate to talk about this category, because, in some ways, it’s a little nutty. This is the land of the Hayabusa and the ZX-12R. Does Honda really need a bike that has a higher top speed than these two? Personally, I’m not holding my breath waiting for such a beast. But there surely is a market for it, and, for bragging rights alone, Honda probably will step into the fray. Since this category isn’t obsessed with light weight, Honda could simply take the lead by building a bike that handles competently and possesses a monster motor. Expect it.

Well, those are some of my thoughts prompted by today’s Honda press release. I just hope that Honda knows all of these market segments are moving targets, and that its competitors have shown that they, too, can be class leaders in engineering and design (particularly, of late, Yamaha). These competitors won’t be sitting still over the next three years, and they won’t necessarily be working on the tried-and-true categories of motorcycle — they’ll be inventing new categories to lead the market, not follow.