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Home > Business > Special


A revolution in the two-wheeler world

Shubhabrata Marmar in Mumbai | December 01, 2007

Motorcycles and motorcyclists are notorious for being conservative. That statement may seem wildly inaccurate, but if you look at the evolution of motorcycles, this is indeed the case. Every single major innovation seen on motorcycles - especially the ones that needed bikers to change their attitude - has more or less been sidelined.

Examples? BMW introduced new suspension formats (Para-lever for the rear and Tele-lever for the front), which had demonstrable benefits in terms of safety and dynamics, but they never gained a mainstream following. The same can be said of other motorcycles like the Bimota Tesi or the Yamaha GTS1000, both of which have effective hub-centre steering which again allowed for better handling, but proved commercially unsuccessful.

However, we are now in a very interesting time. It would appear that even motorcyclists are ready to take a long second look at what we are riding, and what we should be riding. As a result, there are machines on sale now that are half-way between motorcycles and scooters.

Further, traditional scooters are growing to sizes that would do bikes proud, and finally, our obsession with plastic-wrapped superbikes is giving way to more realistic and still enjoyable motorcycles. In the process, the traditional classification system of two-wheelers (in terms of displacement and formats) is breaking down. Let's look at the changes in detail.

Perhaps the most significant of them is the arrival of the automatic motorcycle. Aprilia, the Italian motorcycle manufacturer (now Piaggio owned), showed off the Mana 850 a few motor shows ago.

It looked more or less like a regular, sharply-styled naked motorcycle with a rather odd engine size. Nothing more, nothing less. But closer examination shows that there doesn't seem to be a gearshift lever at all. Yes, the Mana is an automatic.

But before I tell you more about the Mana, give me a moment with the Suzuki Burgman 650. The Burg' is Suzuki's largest scooter, and came with the first semi-manual transmission on offer. That means that you could leave the scooter in a Kinetic [Get Quote] Honda sort of automatic twist-go mode or use a two-way button to thumb your way up and down the gears.

Many scooter-owners seemed to like the motorcycle-like ability to control the scooter's CVT (continuously variable transmission), while  other motorcyclists entered the big scooter fold because manual control gave them the comfort level to enter the practical (and fast) world of scooters.

The Mana uses a transmission system that is more or less similar. Aprilia's explanation is that in city traffic, automatics work well. They handle the relatively small speed variations well and the big engines - like the 850cc V-twin in the Mana � make enough torque and power to comfortably overtake traffic.

You get the coolness of riding a naked motorcycle with the convenience of a scooter. But when the road opens up and corners loom, you can revert to manual control, flipping up and down the gears with a flick of a thumb. It's like having a smoother scooter to ride to the bottom of the twisties where you can leave the utility-mobile parked and take a super-handling motorcycle up the curves.

The thing is that as obvious as it sounds, this is an idea that would have got you laughed out of the pub less than five years ago. Automatic transmission on a motorcycle? They'd call you a wuss. That is a fact. Gilera released a much smaller bike called the DNA, which looked like a motorcycle, but was under the skin, a real scooter. DNA sales were never headline material.

And Aprilia isn't the only one thinking on these lines either. Honda's new DN-01, which is just beginning to go on sale now, has a similar transmission arrangement. Honda is dominant motorcycle player in most markets, so if they are serious about these new-fangled automatic motorcycles, there has got to be an audience demanding them, right?

But the Honda DN-01 is also busy blurring other lines. The DN-01 is in effect three or four motorcycles rolled into one. The ergonomic format is very cruiser like � pulled back bars, upright seating and forward placed footboards.

The styling is a combination of cruiser and scooter � swoopy bodywork and some chrome, but the package claims to be fairly sporty as well, rather than all-laid back. Maybe the DN is not a very attractive, er, two-wheeler, but even staunch motorcycle fans are willing to give the DN a whirl. The engine, once more, is a 700cc V-twin, which does not fit any of the pre-existing displacement categories.

About a decade ago, an American ex-racer called Dan Gurney had created the Alligator. This was a sportsbike that used the lower centre of gravity of a low-slung cruiser-like seating position for better handling. It never caught on. But with bikes like the DN-01 going into mass production, the Alligator may have a future.

Some of the displacement blurring is coming from racing, of course. MotoGP, the F1 of motorcycles, now uses 800cc machines, down from 990. It's an odd category, of course, but the bikes in 990cc form, were just too fast.

Similarly, manufacturers believe that the holy grail of sports motorcycles, 1000cc, is rapidly being considered too much. Suzuki has stuck with the 750cc sportsbike, and it would appear that in another five years' time, all the brands will re-converge there.

The only category where displacement standards are growing, actually, are cruisers, where 2000cc engines are now considered top of the line and massive 1500cc V-Twins are termed middle-weight.

And while motorcycle engine sizes are going downwards, scooters are growing. Five years ago, Business Standard Motoring rode a 500cc Yamaha T-Max scooter and we thought that it was a most outlandish thing to make such a large scooter.

This year, Kymco showed a 700cc scooter at the Milan show, Gilera, Piaggio, et al have 800cc machines and more are in the pipeline. It would appear that the scooter format is ready for near-200 kph machines. Cruising

European highways at near 150 kph speeds on a scooter actually sounds good. And obviously, many, many manufacturers suddenly seem to think so too.

One must also mention that since the three-wheeled Piaggio MP3, the usual notion that scooters should have two wheels is rapidly fading, with the European scooter community quite thrilled with the MP3. Again, the scooter trend, almost overnight, has changed from utility and swoopy bodywork, to giant engines and even two or threewheels.

At the far end of the motorcycle world is another trend � motorcycles designed for the real world, like the Yamaha MT-01 or MT-03, the new Ducati Hypermotard or even the KTM SuperDuke. You will notice, for one, that they are all naked. No need for faux aerodynamics at street speeds, right? And none of them claim to be track refugees or any such.

Their claim, simply, is the ability to deal with the real world and plant a smile on the rider's face at realistic, legal speeds. Their specification charts look absolutely pedestrian compared to the latest superbikes, but one can't say the same for their sales charts.

In fact, one could actually call them normal motorcycles. But they're hot right now. Almost as if, after years of buying racing bikes, the Europeans finally got tired of the surfeit of power, foetal ergonomics and discovered what they had forgotten � simple bikes that allow you to sit upright, have enough performance to keep you interested and have price tags that won't give your banker the willies.

Maybe motorcyclists are changing too, and in a few years from now, we won't be able to call them conservative, right?



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