European and US 'Triumph' over Japanese
On any Saturday or Sunday, the traffic along our often spectacular country roads is swelled by large numbers of recreational Kiwi bikers enjoying some quality time astride their machines.
The bikes of these weekend warriors are usually expensive large-displacement machines, and the 600cc-plus segment of the New Zealand bike market is always a great measure of the nation's willingness and ability to engage in discretionary spending.
The segment is also the engine room of the motorcycle industry, as larger displacement bikes fetch higher prices, allowing dealers and distributors to enjoy increased margins.
Since 2009, sales of big bikes have been in decline, but American and European brands have been able to weather the downturn far better than their Japanese counterparts.
There is no better example of the trend away from big Japanese bikes than Suzuki, once the unchallenged 600cc-plus market leader.
The leading Japanese brand has seen sales of its big bikes fall from 1526 units in 2007 to just 428 last year.
Contrast this sales performance with that of British brand Triumph, which stole second place in the segment off Suzuki last year, and often outsold segment leader Harley-Davidson on a month-by-month basis.
Meanwhile, lower-volume Italian big-bike brands like Ducati have been able to triple their New Zealand sales over the past eight years, despite the premium prices asked and the handful of dealers that sell the bikes here.
BMW, which stunted its Kiwi bike sales when it shifted the management of its New Zealand motorcycle sales and distribution to Melbourne five years ago, was also on the comeback trail during 2011, and ended the year shut out from fifth place by Yamaha, the margin between the two brands just two units.
While three Japanese brands continued to occupy top five positions in the big bike sales race during 2011, the 600cc-plus buyer is increasingly attracted to the cachet and heritage of expensive European motorcycles rather than the value propositions of Asian brands.
The large Japanese motorcycle is traditionally sold to a blue-collar market, says Suzuki New Zealand motorcycle manager Simon Meade, and these are the people who have been hurt by this recession the most.
The big boom in New Zealand sales occurred when people could use the equity in their houses to buy expensive toys, and the market has been hit by the downturn in property values.
Meanwhile, enthusiasts have continued to show their support for the oldest brand names in the market - Harley-Davidson and Triumph.
Auckland motorcycle dealer Chris Haldane started 2012 without the Suzuki franchise after deciding to take on Victory motorcycles to partner the other big-bike brand in his showroom, Ducati.
"Our January sales completely blew away all our expectations, particularly the performance of Victory. We sold six Victorys (two were already pre-registered) in our first month of selling the bikes.
"We never sold six Suzuki cruisers in a month during our time with them. Victory is a much more attractive brand to the cruiser bike buyer, and I can't wait for [parent company] Polaris to roll out the new Indians."
Ducati, BMW, and Honda retailer Pat McLoughlan has noticed the trend towards European bikes more than most at his Lower Hutt dealership, Motormart.
"We're selling 10 European bikes for every Honda we sell. We can't get enough Ducati and BMW stock, while the Hondas sit on the showroom floor for months."
Currency is playing a strong role in the increasing popularity of European brands, as the depleted Euro, in contrast to the strong Japanese yen, makes it possible for a value-driven brand like Triumph to price its motorcycles in direct competition with Japanese products in New Zealand.
Haldane says: "Triumph is the brand that every New Zealand motorcycle dealer wants in their showroom right now."
Triumph New Zealand marketing manager Leigh Beckhaus says the British bike maker's business plan focused on expanding its model range at a time when Japanese manufacturers were cutting their spend on research and development.
The factory has identified the gaps in its model range and is moving quickly to fill them.
That New Zealand range now consists of 24 models, and will grow at a rate of one entirely new bike and two significant upgrades to existing models each year.
Beckhaus also believes the biggest factor behind Triumph overtaking Suzuki in the sales race during 2011 is one of branding.
"Both brands are focused on value and price their products aggressively, but the big difference between us and Suzuki is that we're also an aspirational brand."
Top 5 600+cc motorcycle brands 2007-2011
* Suzuki: 1526 sales
* Harley-Davidson: 861 sales
* Honda: 758 sales
* Triumph: 584 sales
* Kawasaki: 404 sales
* Suzuki: 1324 sales
* Harley-Davidson: 899 sales
* Triumph: 573 sales
* Honda: 528 sales
* Kawasaki: 375 sales
2009 (RECESSION DEEPENS)
* Suzuki: 833 sales
* Harley-Davidson: 825 sales
* Triumph: 466 sales
* Honda: 327 sales
* Kawasaki: 199 sales
2010 (ACC LEVY INCREASES)
* Harley-Davidson: 674 sales
* Suzuki: 545 sales
* Triumph: 470 sales
* Honda: 268 sales
* Yamaha: 162 sales
* Harley-Davidson: 551 sales
* Triumph: 461 sales
* Suzuki: 428 sales
* Honda: 240 sales
* Yamaha: 112 sales
* Source: New Zealand Motorcycle Registrations, Land Transport New Zealand