Europe is currently going bonkers over large-capacity, luxury motorscooters, thanks to the launch of a host of new twin-cylinder models from Aprilia, BMW, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha.
Possessing expansive bodywork, plush rider accommodation and powerful engines, this new breed of super-scooter is a massive step up in sophistication from the keep-it-simple design of the original Vespa.
However, the extra refinement, comfort and performance of these super-scooters comes at increased cost, which is why many of New Zealand's motorcycle distributors are questioning whether there'll be a market for them here.
Check out the super scooters. Click on the gallery at left.
Some of that reticence is due to the sales history of maxi-scooters in this country.
For several years Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha all had a crack at converting Kiwi bikers to the joys of large-capacity, feet-forward vehicles with practical luggage storage solutions and commuter-friendly automatic powertrains that were gentle on fuel. Models like the Yamaha T-Max, Honda Silver Wing and Suzuki Burgman 650 established a toehold in the local bike market, but only the Burgman won a permanent place in New Zealand showrooms thanks to its enduring popularity with pension-age bikers. The Burgman 650 currently accounts for just 30 of Suzuki's annual roadbike sales and a big inhibitor to further sales is the $15,750 ($16,500 with ABS brakes) price of the model.
''The 650 inhabits a part of the bike market that doesn't really exist,'' says Suzuki NZ marketing manager Tom Peck. ''People who buy the 250 or 400 Burgman models use their scooters mainly in town and don't recognise the need to go higher in the range, even though the 650 goes really well on the open road.
''We do sell a few to older motorcyclists who can't ride their motorcycle any more.''
Contrast this grey-haired demographic with the hip, young, urban professionals who are likely to buy a super-scooter in Europe to get around London, Paris, Rome or Copenhagen, and explore the surrounding countryside of those cities in the weekends. For the latter, the new Aprilia SRV850 is quite literally mana from heaven. Based on the automatic Aprilia Mana motorcycle, the SRV uses the same 56kW (76bhp) 90-degree V-twin engine to set a new engine performance benchmark for scooters. It then backs that up with an aluminium-spar chassis capable of keeping a sportsbike in sight on a winding stretch of road. Capable of 45-degree lean angles in both left and right-hand corners, the SRV850 also has a crankshaft that rotates in the opposite direction to the 16' front and 15' rear wheels to reduce steering inertia - just like that of a MotoGP racebike. The SRV's serious stopping power comes from the Brembo Serie Oro (gold series) catalogue, with twin discs and twin-piston calipers up front and a single disc/twin piston caliper at the rear. The SRV850 will reach the market here in September and is likely to be priced around the $17,000 mark.
BMW's new 650cc maxi-scooters tone down the Aprilia's sportiness just a little to gain extra practicality and user-friendliness. Two versions have been launched in Europe - the C600 Sport and the C650 GT - the former representing a lighter, sportier alternative to the better-equipped and more extravagantly-faired GT. Both use a 647cc parallel twin engine that develops 51kW (69bhp) at 7500rpm and 66Nm of torque. Like the Aprilia SRV850, BMW decided the final delivery of torque to the rear wheels of the Sport and GT was best handled by an enclosed drive chain, rather than the belt-drive of a lighter scooter. It is quite likely just one of the C600/650 models will be sold here, with a decision to be announced early in 2013. If the call goes the way of the Sport, expect it to be priced in the $18,000 region, while opting for the GT is likely to add another grand or two. One of the best new features of the C600/650 is the way the floor of the lockable underseat storage area can be dropped when the bike is parked to accommodate full-face helmets.
While BMW has yet to make up its mind about the C600/650 twins, Blue Wing Honda has decided not to import the new Integra super-scooter. The Honda motorcycle distributor will import two versions of the NC700 motorcycle instead, both of which share the same 700cc parallel-twin engine of the Integra. Essentially one half of an inline-four from the Honda Jazz hatchback, the 35kW (49bhp) engine is optimised for fuel economy and is capable of delivering 3.7-litre/100km (76mpg) fuel use figures. The NC700S is already available in New Zealand for $11,995 and the higher-riding, quirkier-looking NC700X is soon to arrive, priced at $12,495.
Blue Wing Honda spokesman Ritchie Christopher says the Integra would have been more expensive and the market for super-scooters is too small here. Maybe a new critical mass will be reached when the SRV850, BMW C600 and a revitalised Yamaha T-Max join the stalwart Burgman 650 in a rapid expansion of the sector. Then maxi-scooters might finally achieve the credibility they deserve here.