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Small is beautiful

By Mario

We took a look last year at how the focus of manufacturers was shifting from traditional markets and traditional categories. There have been some interesting consequences.

Sometimes changes in the motorcycle scene are like lapping tides. They come and go in a definite but barely perceptible rhythm. Other times, it’s a surging rush. Right now, we appear to be inundated with all manner of small capacity machines that are far more than learner bikes or utilitarian transport.

How come? A perfect collision between the design smarts of the established manufacturers and improving standards in low-cost manufacturing countries. Once, a bike made in India or China would have been thought only suitable for unrefined third-world transport. Not now. Machines like the KTM 390 Duke, launched last year and made in India, have contended for ‘Bike of the Year’ awards in international magazines.

And there’s more lightweight, small-capacity fun on the way. BMW signed a deal with Indian manufacturer TVS last year, prompting expectations for a range of sub-500cc machines with a 300 naked first off the blocks. 

It’s all something of a revolution. But the clues were there years ago when the Japanese manufacturers started worldwide distribution of bikes–gasp!–not made in Japan.

Honda began exporting the Thai-made CBR125R nearly a decade ago, and it was a big hit in European markets with 125cc learner rules. Yamaha played top trumps with the gorgeous Italian designed and made YZF-R125.  But it was the Honda that was most revealing, in the acceptability of a small capacity bike, made in a developing country, to (supposedly discerning) European consumers.

Honda CBR125R

Genesis? The styling of Honda’s CBR125R has come on since its 2004 launch but the bike is essentially the same.

What followed was a cascade of events. Kawasaki’s launch of the Thai-made and properly desirable Ninja 250R (now a 300). Triumph opening a factory in Thailand for components. Honda’s shift from its long-standing JV with Hero in India to establish its own subsidiary.  KTM and Bajaj developing the 125, 200 and now 390 Duke. Yamaha’s launch of the R25 concept at the recent Tokyo motorcycle show, shown in these official pictures and caught testing in these spy shots from Indonesia.

Even Harley got in on the act with a 500 and a 750 made in India.

The idea of a wave of lower capacity single or twin-cylinder bikes, made in developing countries, might not have sounded that exciting. But the reality is. We’ll be reviewing many of these new bikes in detail, so check back soon or sign up for alerts in the Ride Forever newsletter. 

Photography credits: Schedl R. (KTM), Honda corp.