The Five Most Important Motorcycles from 2018

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This is it, the final countdown. The new year is already starting its first hours in other parts of the world, and we won’t have long to wait until 2019 is upon us here in the United States of America.

So, allow us to squeak in just one more “2018 in review” type of story, as I wanted to share with our readers the most important motorcycles that we saw this year – and also got to ride.

The list is an interesting one, as not only is it comprised of a number of machines that lead their segments, but also we picked motorcycles whose debuts carried gravitas for the industry.

As such, these are the motorcycles that defined 2018 model year, and now we only have a matter of hours to begin seeing the bikes that will shape 2019 for motorcyclists.

1. Panigale V4 S

It is hard to write a bad word about the Ducati Panigale V4 S…my review on the machine can tell you as much. It is really good…I mean – really, really good. Straight up, it is our superbike pick of the year.

Sure, the Ducati Panigale V4 S gets to enjoy an extra 104cc over its competition, but if you are really concerned about racing, then the Panigale V4 R is now at your disposal.

The fact that Ducati can pack that cheater-displacement into a bike that is still on the lighter end of the superbike spectrum speaks to the Italian company’s engineering prowess.

This year, we had the chance to ride the Panigale V4 S on three continents, at three very different race tracks (Valencia, Kyalami, and PIR), and the Ducati never disappointed. It simply is the best superbike on the market, especially when money is no object.

Superlatives aside though, it should be obvious why the Ducati Panigale V4 S is at the top of our list for 2018, as the V4-powered machine marks a huge shift for Ducati.

Gone are the days of the Italian v-twin superbike. In fact, I am pretty sure this year marked the very last time that we will ever see a true v-twin superbike from the Ducati brand. Let that statement sink in for a minute.

Ducati has built its brand around several key ingredients: a 90° v-twin engine layout, the trellis frame chassis, desmodromic valves, and dry clutches. And now, only one of those four attributes remain with the Panigale V4 S.

As you can imagine then, much was riding on the Panigale V4 S when it debuted, and much will ride on the Panigale V4 R as it goes racing in the WorldSBK paddock this coming year. 

Ducati’s gamble has so far paid off (though sales are a bit weaker than expected), but the reality of the bike’s measure will be when it is put to its sole purpose, and that is to win the World Superbike Championship.

2. Honda CRF450L

Whenever an OEM invites us to a dirt bike launch, I like to remind them of the website’s name, and that it is called “Asphalt & Rubber” for a reason. With the Honda CRF450L press invite came, my response was no different.

But, I’m not sure that Honda invited A&R to come evaluate a dirt bike – I think they were looking for the street biker’s perspective on this dual-sport machine. 

This is because the dual-sport market is a tough line to walk. If you make the motorcycle too off-road biased, then the dual-sport is miserable for street duty, at which point you might as well just buy an enduro.

Too street-focused though, and you are limited on where you can explore off-road…if you even want to get the tires dirty at all.

Big Red arguably got that formula wrong when it built the Honda CRF250L, making a machine that many reviewers complained was too soft for real off-road riding. So, how would the Honda CRF450L stack up? Very well, was the consensus.

The really big news about the Honda CRF450L though is what it means for the US motorcycle market, as it is the only 450cc dual-sport from the Japanese OEMs on sale here. If you include the very pricey, KTM 450 EXC-F Six Days model, then you have named all the bikes in the entire segment for the USA.

Talking to the other dirt bike brands, they will tell you excuses about how there is no market for a 450cc dual-sport, and that developing such a machine would be too expensive to justify at the volume expected.

We call bullshit on this argument, and the Honda CRF450L is our proof (cue: drop mic).

Well-mannered on the street, more than capable in the dirt, and fairly affordable and easy to own and maintain, the Honda CRF450L ticks all the right boxes in our chart for a good dual-sport.

With Big Red teasing the idea of a CRF450L-based rally version as well, we say bring it on – the more the merrier. It’s not like dual-sport riders have a ton of options in the market, after all. 

3. KTM 790 Duke

For the past couple of months, I have had the luxury of having the KTM 790 Duke in my garage.

With it, I like to play a fun game with motorcyclists I meet, where I list off all the features that come on this peppy sport bike (cornering ABS, IMU-assisted traction control, TFT dash, wheelie control, etc), and then ask them to guess the price.

The result is usually a number that is many thousands more than the KTM 790 Duke’s $10,500 price tag.

While our final thoughts on the machine will be out in the coming days, the short version is that the 2018 KTM 790 Duke is perhaps the best bang-for-the-buck in the motorcycle industry. It’s fun to ride too.

What really makes the 790 Duke so important though is what it means for KTM and the Austrian company’s street bike lineup. Sure, the 1290 models get the headlines, but it is the 790 lineup that is going to steal the show.

These affordable middleweight motorcycles don’t skimp on the high-tech features that bigger bikes tend to offer, which is going to be the new reality for street bike manufacturers, and KTM is leading that charge.

As such, there can be little surprise that KTM is seeing strong sales numbers in the United States (and is just about the only brand that can say that with a straight face), which is due primarily to the company’s on-road machines.

Make no mistake, KTM has made the difficult transition from being an off-road only brand, to a full house of motorcycles.

The orange brand dominates the off-road sector, and now with a bike like the 790 Duke, how long do we think it will take for KTM to takeover the on-road sector? Chewy.

4. Honda Gold Wing Tour

Would you be surprised to learn that the new Honda Gold Wing was the most-read review on Asphalt & Rubber this year? It certainly surprised me, but then again…maybe it shouldn’t have.

The Honda Gold Wing is in a league of its own, and it defines the touring segment. Now in its sixth generation of design, the Honda Gold Wing (or should we say the Honda Gold Wing Tour) is the latest installment of this two-wheeled opus since the 2001 model year).

The new Honda Gold Wing is sleeker, lighter, and more high-tech than its predecessor, and it is also a Gold Wing that has been built for a new generation of rider.

Honda hit the mark in that regard, and that continues to be thought that my brain comes to each time I think about the new Wing.

I am not the target demographic for this machine, not by a good 10 years or so, but even I found the new Honda Gold Wing Tour to be intriguing when I rode it in Texas, at the beginning of 2018.

The Honda Gold Wing is one of the best-selling motorcycles in the United States, and its cult following from “Wingers” is a masterstroke for Honda. I have said it before, but I will say it again: the Gold Wing is Honda’s best weapon for stealing sales from Harley-Davidson…if only the Japanese brand had more bikes like that in its quiver.

5. Alta Motors Redshift MXR

I am not sure if I ordered the motorcycles on this list accurately, as it feels strange to list the Alta Motors Redshift MXR last on our tally here. It feels like under-selling the importance of this electric motorcycle.

We have been following the story of Alta Motors since the company’s inception – in fact, we were the first to ride the company’s supermoto prototype way back in 2011 – and to see it mature into the Redshift MXR has been intriguing to watch.

The Alta Redshift MXR is the first electric motorcycle to give the status quo a real run for its money, but don’t take my word for it.

When Alta called us to ride the new MXR this year, I chose to send another rider to the launch, one who had less contact with Alta, and certainly has more off-road chops than I.

That man was Pikes Peak record-holder Carlin Dunne, and he came back more than impressed with the Redshift MXR.

The performance of the Redshift MXR is on par with the best from the Japanese and European brands. But, what sweetens the deal is the fact that Alta moved its price positioning in 2018 to be very aggressive against those same machines.

Bringing the price and performance of electric motorcycles up to the standard set by thermic models, Alta Motors made waves with the MXR. Unsurprisingly, sales for the machine started to take off this year, which makes the company’s subsequent closure only that much more difficult to fathom.

Whether this story picks up next year is perhaps the biggest question mark for 2019. Stay tuned.