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New bike season is just about over, now that INTERMOT, EICMA, AIMExpo, and IMS Long Beach trade shows are behind us.
We could still see some new models and concepts debut later this year in Japan, and there is always the possibility of something interesting showing up at the IMS New York show, but those are less popular venues for new bike releases.
In that case then, we can start making some conjecture about the bikes that debuted this year, many of them for the 2017 model year. Let’s start with the best of the best — I am of course talking about the new Honda Rebel models. No? Not the bike you were expecting?
Sure, these unassuming 300cc and 500cc street bikes don’t have the same sex appeal as some of the more wild machines we saw in Germany and Italy, but make no mistake, the revamped Honda Rebel is the most important new bike we have seen debut this year. Let me explain.
Regular Asphalt & Rubber readers should have by now caught onto the fact that I am a sport bike guy. I’m like a two-wheeled Ricky Bobby. So when bikes like the Ducati 1299 Superleggera, BMW HP4 Race, and KTM 790 Duke prototype debut at EICMA, they leave me feeling a bit weak in the knees.
These are extraordinary machines, and we should be thankful that they even exist, to begin with. But what about motorcycles for the other 99%? Better yet, what about bikes for the other 50%?
In my last A&R Pro article, I brought up more than a few times how Harley-Davidson accounts for one of every two new motorcycles sold in the United States. The cruiser segment is slightly larger than this of course, by the time you add in the cruiser sales from Indian, Victory, Triumph, and the Japanese brands.
For as much as A&R readers might look down on the cruiser collective, they are more of this industry than we are. Every time we talk about this “industry as a whole”, we should pause to consider the fact “this industry” only barely includes us. Truthfully, we need to consider this a house divided.
So, when a company like Honda makes a small-displacement cruiser model, in the approachable 300cc and 500cc displacement categories, it is going to have a big affect on bringing new riders into the sport.
This statement counts double once you realize that the Bar & Shield brand doesn’t really concern itself in this space, unless you count the Harley-Davidson Street 500 as a motorcycle. I don’t.
As with Selling Cigarettes, Get Them While They’re Young
Big Red plays in this space of course because companies like Honda have already seen the success of small-displacement models like the CB300F and CBR300R in the now hot 300cc category. They are believers in grabbing customers while they are in their formative years…just like Big Tobacco did with 9-year-olds.
In fact, if you look at the motorcycle sales data for the United States over the past decade or so, you will see the 250cc Kawasaki Ninja 250R is one of the nation’s top-selling bikes, if not the top-selling bike during some years.
Don’t call it a come back, small-displacement bikes have been here all along – serving as our industry’s gateway drug to a two-wheeled lifestyle.
As such, the 250cc category, which has now morphed into the 300cc category for the USA and Europe, is a key selling segment with would-be American motorcyclists. The 500cc category is critical too, with the two segments serving as dual-channel of entry into the two-wheeled world for new riders.
If you don’t believe me, take a ride down to your local MSF training site or similar new-rider school, and take a survey of what kind of machines they use.
If your local class is like any of the ones I have visited, there should still be more than a few of the older Honda Rebel 250s in the lineup. This should make sense, if you think about it. Would all the riders that learned on a Honda Rebel please stand up?
If sales numbers predict new riders, then half of the students in a new-rider course should be future cruiser owners. The demand for these machines works backwards through the ranks, so it would also then make sense then for site managers to stock a healthy amount of similarly styled machines to suit their students’ leanings and future desires.
Motorcycling in the United States is very much an aspirational endeavor after all, and while we as experienced motorcyclists might not look at the Honda Rebel 300, and draw an immediate link to the Honda Sabre or similar cruiser; we need to take ourselves back to when you were a new rider, when a Rebel was just a step away from something bigger and better.
Hip, But Not Hipster
This is why I am not sure what Honda was thinking with the marketing of the new Honda Rebel. In the bevy of photos we posted about the Rebel’s debut, I intentionally left out a number of shots that were just too over-the-top hipster for me — mostly because they just didn’t make sense for the bike, and thus didn’t make sense for the post.
I also don’t get the choice of an older-looking male model at the controls, like he even remotely represents who is going to be buying these bikes.
Yes, there is a renaissance right now with 20-something riders and the cruiser aesthetic, which is part of a larger movement of young motorcyclists who are looking for cheap and “authentic” motorcycles to ride.
Don’t confuse the styling of the new Honda Rebel as following this trend though, Big Red has merely updated its machines to use a common engine platform and refreshed the styling to make it look more modern. This is where Honda’s vanilla tastes are actually an asset.
As much as the Honda Rebel is an appeal to younger and newer riders, it isn’t really an appeal to the post-authentic crowd…even though they may be a desired near-term target with this set of machinery, and there is ample overlap in that Venn diagram.
This is because if there is one thing that can be said about Honda, it is that the Japanese brand thinks big picture and long-term. If you need proof of this, consider then that the outgoing 250cc Rebel model stood essentially unchanged for over 30 years.
While I doubt that Honda will let its Rebel 300cc and 500cc models languish for quite that long of a duration, it is fair to expect that this design will remain relatively the same for years to come – well after the fashion trend we see now has petered out (I would argue, it is already on its way out, to be clear).
If you are a younger adult, maybe new to riding, it is entirely fathomable to think that your children could be swinging a leg over the same Rebel model as we see here…possibly even as a new bike off the dealership floor. That is a powerful concept to consider.
Honor in the Dollar
Out of all the bikes that we have seen this year, how many can we expect to see as-is in five years’ time? Maybe a few, especially if we have another Great Recession like we did just recently…that certainly helps to freeze new model designs.
But even if sales continue to be strong, it is not unreasonable to think that the Honda Rebel 300 and Honda Rebel 500 models will still be churned out with regularity from Japan, or wherever production is to take place, for many years, if not decades to come.
So now, what other recently debuted bike from the trade shows will we still see in 10 years’ time? I can think of no other.
This is how Honda can justify a price tag of $4,399 for the Rebel 300, because over the course of a decade, the tooling costs go to zero and thus the per-unit cost to build such a bike becomes remarkably affordable.
Affordability is a huge factor here. So much so, I probably should have lead with that argument, rather than finished with it.
Millennials are proof that the younger generations to come will have to handle more debt than their parents did, with 20-something students already coming out of school with massive repayment amounts.
This is not phenomena that is going away anytime soon, especially as the United States continues to shift to a service-based economy, where a college degree is a forsaken requirement that comes with a five, sometimes six-figure price tag.
There is a barrier then for those who can finance a motorcycle, and those who have to buy with cash. While the latter group is limited by how much they can save from scrimping for months, the prior gauges major purchases by the finance payment amount.
More simply, when you are buying on credit, there really isn’t a difference between a $4,000 and $5,000 motorcycle (less than $20/month at today’s current rates), but for those without access to credit, that extra thousand dollars is a step 25% grade to climb.
When we talk about the growing economic divide in this country, it is pertinent to consider how that same divide plays in the motorcycles industry, because it is readily present in the buyers who walk through a dealership’s doors, whether we acknowledge this or not, as an industry.
Models like the Honda Rebel therefore insulate motorcycling from becoming an elitist pursuit (a good topic for another A&R Pro story). As Martha Stewart says, this is a good thing.
All of these factors combine to position the Honda Rebel as the new model that will make the biggest impact on the motorcycle industry over the course of the bike’s lifespan.
It might not drip carbon fiber, it might not have radical styling, it might not have the latest whistles and bells electronics, but it will touch the lives of more motorcyclists than any other bike we have seen debut this year, or any other year of recent memory.
It will bring more new riders into our industry, helping grow our sport and passion, for literally generations to come. It will train new riders, it will flood Craigslist too.
It will create an entry point into motorcycling for those who aren’t well-heeled, and who have to save a portion of their paycheck each month to buy a major purchase. It might even cure world hunger…ok, maybe not, but it is worth a shot at least right?
If that doesn’t make the new Honda Rebel the bike of 2016, then I don’t know what does.
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