Power, control and safety: The year's best motorcycle tech and what to expect in 2016
The past year saw scores of new motorcycles introduced and some new technological trends gain ground. From turbo-charged commuters to overpowered race specials and from electronic safety equipment to smartphone integration, motorcycle technology in 2015 had something for every taste.
A major driving force in the motorcycle industry is European legislation. As a new set of emission standards comes gradually into play during the next 365 days, manufacturers are coming up with ways to keep their engines' specs within legal boundaries without sacrificing too much power – and this seems to entail the demise of the air-cooled engine. Rare examples like Moto Guzzi's V7 and V9 or Ducati's Scrambler simply prove that liquid cooling can only be avoided when horsepower is not the dominant selling point. On the other hand, Triumph and BMW have already broken new ground with liquid-cooled versions of the boxer and the in-line twin engines.
The never-ending quest for road safety also motivates the motorcycle industry, as electronic support systems keep on propagating to more two-wheelers. Features like traction control or selectable ignition mapping – once reserved only for race-worthy superbikes – can be found today even in scooters like Piaggio's Beverly 350 i.e.
Finally, the global financial crisis that has stunted motorcycle production for several years, in combination with the expansion towards Asia's emerging markets, has prompted manufacturers to reconsider their modus operandi. Small capacity engines and fuel efficiency have become part of every major factory's standard vocabulary in a quest to address the market needs of countries like India and China, where millions of potential buyers consider a 300 cc engine to be a big unit. At the same time, low running costs have become a major selling point in Western markets, a cause served efficiently by such smaller engines.
Here's a look at the main technological trends of the motorcycle industry that have emerged in 2015, and a glimpse of what to expect in the coming years.
Forced induction systems
Turbo and superchargers have not been associated with motorcycle engines for many years, despite the fact that they are widely used in cars. One of the biggest advantages of two-wheelers – low weight – means that power is usually more than enough for a thrilling result without having to resort to forced induction solutions.
Kawasaki changed this with the introduction of its H2/H2R supercharged superbikes. These models are not meant for the masses, retaining their high-powered exclusivity for those lucky few with pockets deep enough to support their taste. Neither H2 model can claim to be faster than a conventional superbike other than in a straight line, but this hasn't taken anything away from the legendary status they already enjoy. The reason is very simple: they reintroduced non-atmospheric engines in mass production after several decades.
The future though is not all about absolute power, though. At the recent Tokyo Motor Show, Suzuki's XE7 motor was kept quietly in a glass display, with a small inscription reading: "Under development, turbo-charged engine for motorcycles, in-line twin, DOHC, 4-valve." That was it. No press release, no rumors, no information.
Suzuki had unveiled the Recursion concept model at the same venue in 2013. The 588 cc twin-cylinder engine with a turbo charger made the connection with the XE7 more or less inescapable. Some more digging in the web reveals a patent that Suzuki filed in USA earlier in 2015 for a similar turbo charged engine, with the only notable difference being the position of the intercooler. Instead of laying it behind the engine block as in the patent drawings, the Tokyo exhibit features the intercooler above the cylinder heads. What doesn't change is the central concept: a mid-capacity engine that targets output figures up to 100 hp. Turbo charging is applied to beef up its midrange torque, combining usable power with fuel economy, since one doesn't have to rev the engine high in the hunt for power.
Kawasaki is on the same path, unveiling the Spirit Charger concept bike powered by a new four-cylinder in-line Balanced Supercharged Engine at the Tokyo Motor Show. Although very few details have been revealed, practically every relating statement includes the words "increased fuel economy." Apparently this is how Kawasaki will start cashing in on the fame and glory of the 300-hp H2R beast. If we were to place a bet, we'd lay our money on a mid-capacity project that uses supercharging in the same manner as Suzuki intends for its turbo.
Forced induction is making a comeback in motorcycle production and this time it'll be neither for show, nor for racing. It will be all about practicality and fuel efficiency.
Ever since the World Superbike Championship (WSBK) rights were acquired by Dorna Sports – the Spanish company that also runs MotoGP – all the talk has been about reducing costs. Despite optimistic motorcycle sales figures in Europe with positive rates for the first time after several negative years, the racing world continues to bleed sponsorship money.
The WSBK Championship is changing fast, as the top Superbike and Supersport classes gradually converge with the relative Superstock categories, translating to less tuning and modification freedom for race teams. For the manufacturers the workaround is the incorporation of more race equipment in the production models that are homologated for the WSBK Championship.
During the last few years this pattern is evident, as all the latest superbikes feature an impressive arsenal of electronic systems ranging from quick shifters to numerous electronic controls. Adjustable geometry features are also emerging, while the power output of the latest generation of superbikes is simply mind-boggling. All the latest road-legal superbikes such as the Kawasaki ZX-10R, Ducati Panigale, BMW S1000RR, Yamaha R1M and Aprilia RSV4 range around the 200-hp mark, and Aprilia just unveiled the new RSV4 R-FW (Factory Works) series, with a range of track-only models that can deliver in excess of 230 hp!
We have a lot to look forward to in the near future, as more factories gear up for their own new extreme superbikes. Suzuki has already previewed its new GSX-R1000 with variable valve timing, expected to be officially unveiled as a 2017 production model. Honda has kept silent so far, yet we have every reason to expect a similar move from the largest motorcycle manufacturer of the planet in 2017. Will it be an RCV-based V4 or a brand new in-line four CBR? We can't tell yet, but we can be sure it will produce obscene amounts of power, up to par with the competition. Word has it that BMW and Ducati may also be preparing new superbikes in the lead up to a very hot 2017 model season.
Small capacity engines
When BMW announced the 2016 G 310 R, we had to dig back to 1966 in order to uncover the last time the Germans produced a low capacity motorcycle engine. Then it was the R27, the last of a venerable series of 250 cc singles.
Now it's the result of a collaboration between BMW Motorrad and India's TVS that's aiming for an affordable entry-level motorcycle that targets strong sales on both edges of the rainbow. BMW sees in the G 310 R a potential success in western markets, both as a learner bike and as an economical commuter, but it also seeks the key to unlocking Asian markets, where the average Bavarian boxer twin is as unreachable as a Bentley to the typical middle-class American or European customer.
All the Japanese factories have had models in this capacity class for years, so now it's up to the European and American companies to contest this market segment. Harley-Davidson has already taken the first step with its 500 cc Street, while KTM has invested in a wide Duke family, with the smaller models of 125, 200 and 390 cc built in India by its partner, Bajaj.
In 2015 Ducati undersized the Scrambler to 400 cc, Benelli has a 320 and a 500 cc model family on offer, while Triumph is said to be working on a 300 cc model. Also Royal Enfield is about to introduce its new 410 cc engine at the Indian Auto Expo in February, starting with an adventure model that will be called the Himalayan.
The 300 to 500 cc class is set to become very interesting in the next few years.
Just when we thought we had seen it all, two concepts from EICMA – the Honda City Adventure and the Vertigo Ursus – attempted to introduce a new market segment.
In typical Honda fashion, the City Adventure concept comes with no information regarding its nature, other than what we can guess. That'd be an automatic transmission, a typical scooterish riding position, practical amenities such as underseat cargo space and some basic off-road capabilities. Unconfirmed rumors put an Integra frame and 750 cc twin underneath the plastic body.
But there's a far more interesting twist to this story. At the Motorcycle Live show in Birmingham, a Honda representative revealed that the City Adventure concept is probably heading for production in 2017.
A similar concept model was revealed by Vertigo, a new Spanish company that specializes in trial bikes and has claimed a stake at fame through the cooperation with a certain Mr. Dougie Lampkin, holder of no less than 12 World Trial Championships.
The Ursus concept bike may have gone under the radar at EICMA, but according to Vertigo it is not just a show bike, looking at mass production down the road. The basic concept is similar to that of Honda's City Adventure, a scooter-like automatic vehicle with a selection of engines ranging from 125 to 600 cc and thoughts of a two-wheel drive version.
Adventure motorcycles enjoy great popularity all over the world, so we shouldn't be surprised that the scooter world may also investigate its adventurous side. With both these concept models heading for production, a new segment is in the making.
Less than two years ago this was a novel technology introduced through the cooperation of BMW Motorrad and Bosch as an optional package for the S1000RR superbike. In 2015 several superbikes have adopted Bosch's cornering ABS, often under different names such as lean-sensitive, angle-sensitive or simply race ABS, but in essence it is the same system.
Using data collected from a variety of sensors, the central processing unit calculates the optimal amount of pressure to be exerted on the brake pads, as well as the ideal distribution of braking force between front and rear brake, allowing for the rider to apply full pressure on the brake levers even under full lean in the center of a corner. What would definitely constitute a recipe for lowside disaster can now be a very safe procedure for any rider, regardless of his or her level of riding expertise.
It probably isn't race worthy yet, otherwise we'd have already seen it in superbike racing, as apparently flirting with the limit is a process still best served by the racer's ultimate sensor – the human brain. There's no question though that it will be a very valuable asset in road-going motorcycles, where emergency mid-corner braking can unfold to a very unpleasant and often dangerous situation.
For this reason Bosch's cornering ABS in 2015 has propagated to several other motorcycle segments, including the likes of KTM Adventure and Super Duke, Ducati Multistrada and BMW S 1000 XR. As the system becomes more affordable, we should expect to see it in more models, as it can benefit even the slowest of motorcycles.
As is usually the case, the first motorcycles with the ability of coupling with smartphone applications were superbikes. A well know recent example would be Yamaha's latest R1, which allows the rider to perform a multitude of tasks straight from his smartphone or tablet via bluetooth.
This trend has spilled over to smaller motorcycles and in 2015 we witnessed a new system from the Piaggio Group. The new Multimedia Platform is optionally available for several new models that were unveiled at EICMA by Piaggio, Aprilia, Moto Guzzi and Vespa. In Piaggio's case the app does not serve to setup the bike, offering its services as an alternate dashboard with some extra features, like recording route data or even marking the bike's last parking place.
Yamaha recently introduced its My Garage app, where one can customize and order a Yamaha motorcycle online. It comes in three different versions, each for the MT, Supersport and Sport Heritage model family.
This trend will undoubtedly grow in 2016, at least as a supplementary gadget in line with the latest connectivity technology.
The one we missed: Electric Vehicles
The next revolution will undoubtedly revolve around electric mobility, albeit through a process that evolves at a very slow rate. If the recent EICMA showed us anything, it was the big manufacturers' reluctance in adopting electric powertrains. The greatest yearly international motorcycle exhibition was the typical gasoline-burning feast that European and Asian manufacturers show every intention to cling on to.
There are some very good reasons for this, the prime one being that battery technology is not yet able to offer range and refueling times that could actually compete with the internal combustion engine. An electric touring motorcycle isn't a realistic prospect for the time being, as the range on offer by most current systems in the market only makes for expensive commuter bikes. The electric revolution is intrinsically tied to the evolution of electric power systems.
Victory did in fact announce a (rebadged Brammo) electric road bike, the Empulse TT, but didn't even display it in Milan, bringing only the TT Zero electric racer at a distant corner of its booth, away from the major new models that attracted all the publicity.
Harley-Davidson's LiveWire project has been displayed it at motorcycle shows and offered for demo rides, but the company doesn't appear to be ready to start producing and marketing it. According to the company's CEO, Matt Levatich, it is deemed too expensive, its range is too small and will probably not be produced until the next generation of batteries hits the market.
As far as the major European manufacturers are concerned, BMW and KTM lead the way. BMW produces the electric C-evolution scooter and sells it in select markets around the world, while recently it announced the experimental eRR superbike concept – though without any evident intention for production as of yet.
KTM on the other hand, has invested in the Freeride electric range with a motocross, an enduro and a road-legal supermoto model. The familiar limitations of very small range and relatively high price, mean that these are practically expensive toys.
The rest of the Europeans have yet to display any interest in electric motorcycles – with the exception of Piaggio's hybrid Mp3 three-wheeler. The same can be said for the Japanese factories that have been churning out electric scooter concepts by the dozens all though the last decade, but no production model has ever come out of this process. As for bigger motorcycles, there's no word from Japan either.
As the world slowly realizes the need for independence from fossil fuels, American manufacturers of electric motorcycles like Zero have a significant head start with several commercial models already in the market. There's no doubt it is just a matter of time before others join in – but it doesn't really look like it will happen very soon.