To woo a generation that’s increasingly uninterested in owning a car, motorcycle manufactures are investing in new and expanded lines of middleweight motorcycles, pitching them as cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and unquestionably cool ways to get from A to B. Honda Motor (HMC) has been particularly aggressive, with three new models that start at $5,799 and claim up to 65 miles per gallon—67 percent more than a Honda Civic.
Traditionally, American motorcycle riders have preferred big cruisers, powerful touring bikes, and high-performance sport bikes. Harley-Davidson’s (HOG) popular Fat Boy starts at $17,699 (if you want it in black; colored models start at $18,099). BMW’s (BMW:GR) best-selling bike is the 525-pound R 1200 GS, which has a $14,950 price tag.
These types of high-end machines can be too intimidating for new riders, casual enthusiasts, or anyone getting back on a bike after several years away from the sport (including baby boomers eager to revive their inner Dennis Hopper). High sticker prices and insurance premiums are part of the equation, but more practical issues such as seat height, ergonomics, and weight are important, too. Nothing is more embarrassing than dropping an $18,000, 725-lb. Harley as you maneuver off the dealer’s lot.
With the industry struggling to regain market share—U.S. motorcycle sales in 2012 totaled just 450,000, down from 1.1 million in 2005—Honda is eager to lure a wide demographic of riders, including younger buyers. “The younger buyer is saying, ‘I don’t care about all the plastic, aerodynamics, and everything like that. I want something I can park on the street, and if it gets bumped over, I can pick it up and move on,’” says Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Industry Council.
Rivals including Kawasaki (7012:JP), Suzuki Motor (7269:JP), and even Harley-Davidson are aiming for this market as well. Harley recently announced its Street 500, a completely new model based on its popular V-Twin Revolution engine, available this spring. Kawasaki in 2012 refreshed its lineup, with an all-new Ninja 300, an entry-level sport bike, featuring the same caliber of styling reserved for its high-end models.
Experienced riders may turn up their noses. This kind of bike can prove underpowered for serious track days, lack the comfort needed for cross-country trips, or simply disappoint during any hard-core “adventure” riding. But such critics are missing the point. Motor Cyclist named Honda’s CB500F “Best Bang for the Buck” in 2013, saying: “We sometimes forget that not everyone is into motorcycling for an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride. For some, transportation is the main goal. Others are just happy to be outside. We get it. And so does Honda.”