Dec 23, 2010

Missed call

Two incidents on one day. Forewarned? Coincidence? Or just the usual, reality trying to scare the life out of you?

Incident one. In my housing society, the exit gate leads to a steep downward ramp clad in the slipperiest paver tiles known to man. This leads to the (scruffier, grippier) paver tiled road. I normally stop (as in feet down) at the head of the ramp - to check on traffic - before I head down and left and leave for work or whatever. Today I noticed a Honda City coming up the road slowly - heading in the direction I would once I made my turn. I nodded to the chap as a sort of, "Allow me to go first, please?" And crept down the curve once I saw his head bob downwards like he understood. Halfway down - hard to stop at this point - I realised that the Honda City'd picked up his pace. Whoa.

I quickly accelerated while leaning further to keep my line tight and to get the bike cleanly ahead of the car. In that moment, I looked into the car with a WTF-ish sort of thought. I realised that the man hadn't bobbed a yes, he was merely getting ready to text someone on his freaking cellphone. And now, in the midst of the SMS, he hadn't realised that he'd picked up the speed.

Incident two. This took place at a T-junction. I usually pass the top of the T from right to left. This can usually be done rapidly because no one appears to use the intersection to turn right across my path on to the vertical body of the T (heading downwards, as it were). The rare traffic the vertical part does see is traffic turning left in my direction of travel, and in the evening, traffic turning towards me (up the vertical body and right). Complex. I hope you understand the word imagery - I don't have the time to sit with a graphics software right now, apologies.

Anyway, so I'm crossing this place today and I see an autorickshaw coming up in the opposing lane (top of the T, heading left to right) with his indicator blinking. As is usual, he was drifting into my lane as a pre-cursor to actually turning. So far so good. I flashed him with my R15's twin headlamps to ensure he understood that I was going to go straight past him first. I saw him slow up and continue to inch into my part of the road as auto rickshaws are won't to do. But his slow-ness assured me that I wasn't going to be blocked, so I continued.

As I crossed the rick with about two feet of space between me and his front wheel, I saw a Pulsar hidden behind the rick. Rider and pillion, no lids and no clue. They weren't slowing either. Oh sh*t.

Nothing happened, thankfully. For two very good reasons. First, I was bang in the middle of the powerband as I usually ensure I am when I enter intersections - whether I'm on the throttle or not. In my peripheral vision I noticed two things - the rider's hand was not on the throttle - which meant his speed wouldn't change - it'd be near constant. Second, he was looking over his shoulder as he chatted with his pillion - so he wouldn't do anything - evasive or stupid. What happened next, then, was entirely up to me - not too bad a deal I think.

So I rolled on the throttle hard-hard-hard and the R15's indefatigable engine carried me past without a hitch. But not before my heart-rate accelerated rapidly. And I'm certain the clueless Pulsar-borne duo had their own oh-sh*t moment as well in there.

What did I learn? That I'd just gotten lazy and had two reality checks handed to me. In the first case, I should have waited until I was sure he nodded. Or simply done the ultra-safe thing - just waited for the City-man to pass by. I'd have been past him on the straight within moments anyway. In the second case, I should have remembered something that I read once. that is so obvious that it beggars belief when you think about how you never follow that simple instruction.

We, motorcyclists, scan for hazards constantly, right? The better ones among us smoothly identify and deal with these hazards in the normal course of things in a number of ways. Right? The thing I read somewhere - think it was Art Friedman at, but I'm not sure... The think I read somewhere was that reality never guarantees that a particular moment in time poses only one hazard.

In simple terms, you need to pay attention to the hazard to process and mitigate it. But that doesn't mean another or more hazards do not also exist in the same moment. That you need to learn to keep scanning for hazards even as you deal with one. This is harder than it appears on the face of it by a matter of scales - but it isn't optional.

But you live and learn, eh?

Dec 10, 2010

Hyosung's second advent

I went out and rode the two Hyosung bikes. The Indian distributor, newcomer Garware Motors, intends to launch the bikes by March-April 2011 with as many as ten dealers covering the major cities.

The Korean bikes may not have the aura and history of the Japanese or Italian bikes but that doesn't necessarily make them worse bikes. The GT650R's V-Twin is based on the Suzuki SV650. This pretty much determines the nature and feel of the powertrain.

It isn't an all-out sportsbike because it needs a more powerful, more highly-tuned engine to do that. You have to remember that when Ducati competed in the Supersport 600cc class against the Japanese online fours, it used the 749, a 750cc v-twin. The 650cc V-Twin, then, isn't going to set a racetrack on fire. If the track is in Europe that is. India is uncharted territory in the mid-displacement market. We have nothing in there and that means the first mover has the opportunity to set the tone for the market. Will Hyosung be first? Bajaj have now been threatening to unleash the Ninja 650, itself a 650 twin, in India. So this remains an open question.

In the real (Indian) world, the GT is fast enough, adept enough and turns heads. This it will do without fail until we see enough faired bikes to become jaded, er, more mature. The SV650 is a legend. Everything I've read about it says that it is a sparkling example of a motorcycle that brilliantly brings together a happy engine, an eager chassis in a rider-friendly motorcycle. It isn't a motorcycle you'll remember for all the time when you scared the pants off yourself. But you'll love it for the relentless string of thoroughly enjoyable riding experiences you will have with it.

This is where I think the Hyosung will fall a little short. It's handling is secure but not something you'll recount to friends. It looks neat, but it's not going to go on a poster. The engine sounds gruff and purposeful but not evocative. It's a great step up from our 220s but is a waypoint on to something else, not a stop. It should be reliable, but that is a should, not a will because I simply do not enough about the GT or Hyosung to say anything on the subject.

I should take a step back at this point and clarify that the GT650R slots into a category of under-rated but usually very likeably and realistic mid-displacement sportsbikes that play second-fiddle to the likes of the CBR600RR and the R6 is image and performance terms. They have their own charm - they remember that the street is where the sportsbikes tend to spend a majority of the time and being overtly committed to the racetrack - as the R6/CBR do - isn't something that makes for effortless daily riding.

I should also tell you something intrinsic to V-twins here. They're never going to be as smooth as inline-fours. I find it a little strange that we seem to desire big performance but are unwilling to pay its price. Stress an engine for performance and two natural outcomes result - vibration and lower economy. There's no getting away from this. But that's a whole different topic. The point simply is that the inline four hum, smoothness and the clear howl at revs is something V-Twins cannot do. If that's what you're looking for, the GT650 - and indeed any other V-Twin you care to name - will always feel vibey and sound agricultural at lower revs. When a V-Twin gets it right though - I have two blog posts simmering on this (soon, soon) - they're glorious. Every bit as evocative as the Europeans make them out be in their gleaming magazines.

Back to reality, then. Garware promises excellent service and proper spares supplies. Which should allay the fears of those who got their fingers singed in the Hyosung experience last time round. Most people buying the Hyosung will have a tremendous couple of years until they upgrade to something bigger. Only then will they gain the reference they need to put the GT in context.

The ST7 on the other hand, is just plain strange. For a format as well understood and easily grasped as the cruiser, the orient continues to have serious trouble troubling Harleys as the dominant cruiser brand. The Americans have been making cruisers for over a hundred years now and it would appear that the oriental obsession with moving forward hurts them in this niche. Where the Americans happily churn our motorcycles that look old when brand new, the others can't figure out how to do this.

The ST7 on the surface has all the right elements. Chrome? Giant handlebar? Forward pegs? Low seat? It's all there. And yet you will always know that parked next to a beatup dusty Sportster it'll look worse off. Why? Whoever can answer the question accurately and tangibly stands to make a giant pot of consultancy cash - from every manufacturer trying to get into the cruiser market. Inasmuch, the ST7 is as good a cruiser as anything that's come out of Japan. As usual the Korean grasp of styling is beginning to come good - but it isn't all there yet. They've got the bike substantially right, but there are bits where proportions or lines are mildly out of whack. But I did call the bike strange, and not because of the styling.

Part of the problem is the engine. The engine is a long-stroke version of the GT's V-Twin but with a 50-odd-cc displacement advantage. This means that despite the stroke, the torque-boosting tune, it remains too eager to rev. Performance is thoroughly enjoyable but the nature of it doesn't fit neatly. You end up bouncing off the rev-limiter when you should be cresting a tsunami sized wave of torque at ridiculously low revs. You begin to appreciate the performance and notice the incongruence of it vis-a-vis the format at the exact same moment. Uh oh.

Here's the thing. I think that while the informed enthusiast will probably by-pass these bikes, there will be enough takers for the first few years. In which time the Korean brand will find it's place. Will it become a Hyundai? Or will it remain in some sort of premium limbo we will have to see. Hyosung will plan to price the bikes aggressively. I understand the bikes are to be priced at under Rs 5 lakh for the GT and Rs 6.5-7 lakhs for the ST7. Is this aggressive enough? I'm not sure. A relative unknown brand like Hyosung, with some - and not all positive - history in India needs a peg to stand on. This will, initially, have to be price.

This is also dangerous because price is a game that recognizes no exclusivity or continuum. The high yen will deter the Japanese from lowering pricing beyond a point but what if the yen falls? Also, how big must the difference in price be for you to pick a Korean motorcycle over an equivalent Japanese motorcycle?

The Hyosung adventure part 2 will be a ferocious test of Garware Motors' resolve, vision and understanding of the Indian motorcycle market. The company has no recent history in the automotive business and are very much bright-eyed and bushy-tailed - and I mean this in the nicest, most encouraging way possible. Will this effervescence translate into a fast-moving target that the Japanese will have to constantly worry about? I hope so. But there's tough days ahead for this fledgling motorcycle company.

Nov 8, 2010

Twin = Double?

In response to this post, Julian asked if in the process of making a twin-cylinder as opposed to a single, "Wouldn't just the engine cost double? Not the whole bike?"

Well, the way it was explained to me was this. In pure material terms, obviously, the top the engine - valves etc, double. The middle of the engine, obviously doubles (pistons, bores, mounting studs etc). The crankshaft becomes a lot more complicated and nearly doubles in cost, if not in material. But more importantly, now you have to upgrade the chassis to handle the extra performance. This means that the tyre specification and size, rims, all the suspension, most of the frame has to be upgraded. Again, most of the time, this results in a nearly ground-up reworking rather than a simple make all tubes thicker kind of engineering. This, of course, presumes that the original motorcycle was not a platform. If it were a platform, then the ability to upgrade the frame would be built in - and cost less over the life of the platform. That last bit is a severely complex calculation that is beyond my ability to explain any further.

The upshot is that the twin cylinder engine might appear to be the simple addition of another bore-piston-valve set to the single. But that's the illusion. By the time you've finished re-engineering the product, you are looking at close to double the cost. Now consider the sale price. This will proportionally be higher. But remember that the single - since it is cheaper - will logically sell bigger numbers. This in turn allows smaller margins to justify the products since the volume will compensate and bring your the profit you need. But the twin is more expensive so it will naturally sell lower volumes. So the manufacturer, then, has to command bigger margins on that bike to make similar profit on that model. What results, I am given to understand, is nearly twice the price.

I must admit though, that it never occurred to me to ask if going to twin to triple or four will cause similar price rises but empirical evidence suggests that the big leap in price and complexity is from single to multi as opposed to twin to triple/four and hence the an inline-four is usually not twice the price of the single. Again, this is my conclusion and I could be wrong.

If there's any R&D engineers who are reading this, I would appreciate a clarification on that last bit.

Nov 4, 2010

Honda CBR250R is a big deal

So I did manage to ride the new Honda CBR250R. And I needed to put the bike in perspective and I thought that my long-ignored blog might be a nice place to do that. What say, eh?

As you already know, we've been crawling at an abysmal pace up the value ladder in the motorcycle market while the car guys seems to be able to sell whatever the hell they want to. What gives?

I've long suspected - with increasing confidence - that the Indian motorcycle buyers is value conscious to a crippling extent. And that he expects the motorcycle makers to add all the goodies - displacement, power, styling, comfort etc - at prices that literally boggle the mind.

If you allow me to digress and give you an instance, I was once at a motorcycle clinic where a (undisclosed) manufacturer was trying to understand what Indians want. The respondents were all bike enthusiasts, garage owners, bike modifiers and so forth. And the 10-odd gents came up with the demand for a 850cc V-Twin cruiser that should be on road for, oh, Rs 1.5 lakh.

Anyway, having gotten stuck at 223cc for a long time, things are finally moving again. This time, for real. Mahindra's 300cc Mojo is being readied. Hyosung will re-introduce the Comet, this time with the right engine, the 650cc engine. Bajaj-Kawasaki are working towards a low price point for the Ninja 650 and KTM is working towards the launch of what should be the 250cc Duke by Diwali next year - that last bit is my reading of the market, official word is that the 125cc Duke that is going to Europe is not coming to India. We'd never buy a 125cc at the price it will end up commanding.

Yamaha remains stupefyingly hard to read. They get the R15 and the FZ16 right. Then they hibernate for a whole two years before unleashing the weedy SZ-X. I'm hoping there's a R25 and a FZ25 in the works for next year. Else it's gonna be grim for my favourite performance motorcycle brand.

TVS is understood to be working on the 220cc version of the RTR. I'm hoping the Southern silence is because TVS has finally seen the light and are instead readying a RTR250. One can hope, right?

My point is that the Honda CBR250R is a great motorcycle. And not because of its performance or dynamics either.

Many of us felt that the R15 was too expensive. And it is an expensive - but outstanding - motorcycle, no contest. But Yamaha is having to get some of the higher tech bits from Indonesia from what I hear which makes a lower price tag hard to achieve.

The CBR is about to turn the premium segment performance and price equation on its head. By international standards it is an uncomplicated motorcycle. A simple single-cylinder engine with four-valves and two cams. Cooled by liquid and fueled by an injector. Stick said unit in a steel diamond frame, tack on appropriate front forks and de riguer linkage-type monoshock at the back and you have it. It even has - for Indian fat-tyre fans - a 110-section front and a 140 rear.

My short stint on board says the motorcycle is sorted. Engine doesn't vibe at all. You notice some vibes past 8000rpm but even those aren't worth complaining about. It sounds strong, is never stressed and it pulls hard enough to be interesting. It also doesn't sound wheezy like the Karizma and the CBZ do. As in, likeable. The thrust lasts all the way through the rev range, the six-speed gearbox is slick and the handling package is accurate, honest and neutral enough for newbies and experienced riders to emerge from their helmets with smiles on their sweaty mugs.

Unlike the R15, the performance isn't delivered with urgency. But it's unquestionably a heck of a lot faster. Also unlike the Yamaha, the ergonomics are closer to the sporty Ninja 250R than the committed R15. Which means you can ride on the street, long distances on the highway with equal ease. That last bit will be a great, great reason to buy the motorcycle in India. I don't think the pillion ergos - in addition - are crippling either. So if the rear perch proves comfortable enough when the launch happens, this will be a proper two-up tourer.

But the true greatness of the motorcycle lies in the pricing. With Honda likely to put down the base version - the one I would buy, minus the C-ABS system - at about Rs 1.3-1.45 lakh ex-showroom when the motorcycle launches here in the February-April 2011 window.

Let us assume for arguments sake that the final price comes out to be 1.45 lakh for the CBR250R. Suddenly the Karizma ZMR looks pale. 16PS for Rs ~90,000 when a full 10PS more, a far more shapely fairing et al is just Rs 60K more? The extra money in EMI terms would be a trifle.

R15? Again, 10PS more, a slightly milder styling ethos for a mere Rs ~30K or so more?

Ninja 250R? Why would you pay nearly twice as much for a motorcycle that makes just 7-8PS more? I have a good reason to actually prefer the Ninja but I will come back to that.

Now the unlaunched bikes. Mahindra's Mojo is likely to be a 25PS bike also. But the stated price is Rs 1.7 lakh. Uh-oh.

And the KTM Duke 250 - if I'm right - will be all-KTM from head to toe and will arrive at a CBR-matching price point, similar or better performance and dramatic styling.

The Comet 650 will come in at Rs 5 lakh odd. That's the Kawasaki Ninja 650's ballpark as well. Uh-oh.

My sole reason to buy the Ninja 250R is, of course, that it is a twin. Those of you lucky enough to still have RDs know that parallel twins are great engines in most cases. And that singles are the entry point to motorcycles. Nothing more. I know from my previous chats with R&D engineers that a twin cylinder engine typically tends to double the cost of making a motorcycle over an equivalent single-cylinder engine. So to me, the Ninja's double price isn't a surprise. If money was no object then the Ninja vs CBR debate would end in the green corner.

That the CBR looks like the VFR is also a minus point for me. The VFR isn't going down as a design classic anytime soon in my book.

The CBR is also great because I think it will sell well. And when it does, it will give other manufacturers more confidence in the motorcycle enthusiast. It will tell them that there are those of us who've seen past the whitewash that is appliance-grade motorcycling.

But words like great being conferred before the launch itself? Am I getting carried away? Maybe. But I'm also desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

Aug 25, 2010

The lament and the joy

The ruins of a wasted monsoon lie in my cabin at work. It's shocking. The carpet is worn but clean. There's not a wet patch on it. Not even the faint imprint of a wet motorcycle boot. I haven't grappled with the problem of hanging up wet kit to dry. My table has never been baptized by brown water dripping of my usually spotless lid either. This entire monsoon has been an utter disaster.

I duly dusted off my trusty DMS boots, pulled out my favorite waterproof gloves and that cheap set of waterproofs that are in their last rainy season before a new one is needed. To no avail.

It wouldn't be fair to say that I haven't been in the rain, mind you. A zillion showers have streamed off my visor this year and when I wasn't riding, I've enjoyed the heady rattle of rain on my windscreen as well. But this isn't enough.

I love commuting, you know that. I deeply, deeply enjoy commuting in the rain. It's a peculiar challenge that appeals to every one of OCD habits. I love the fact that my knowledge of the roads I am riding is used fully. I usually know what lies beneath the water on my commute. I don't slow for potholes as much as remember what's under the water and the blast through it, thrilled by the water splashing off.

I haven't been able to do that this season. I've just not been here.

That changed last night. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana played impossibly loudly in my head - the loudest, most intimate music system of them all. I restarted my Fazer after a month off it and made my home in a sparkling display - I'd like to believe - of superbly, smooth uninterrupted riding.

I realised that I miss being able to use parts of the road other users don't trust in this season. That rising up on the pegs to whizz over potholes with utter smoothness is a thrill all of its own. And that I deeply enjoy this. I'm often caught yelling cheery things to myself in the helmet as I do these things. That there are moments in there when I reach out and touch the innocent highs that you lose once your childhood is over.

But as of last night, the blue phase is past. The Fazer is fueled up and ready. And as am I.

In fact, today, I aim to turn up a cocktail party in full kit. Hopefully it will be splattered with muck and rain. I will nurse my iced water (slice of lime, please) until the key in the pocket glows red hot and it becomes time to head home.

And thank the lord I live far, far away from work. The monsoon will be here another 20-odd days. And by jove I intend to make full use of the days IO have left.

Apr 26, 2010

Kawasakis cometh

Finally. The last of the four big Japanese players has entered India. The Bajaj-Kawasaki relationship has, of late, worked better abroad for both than really in India. And in India, the almost complete disappearance of the Kawasaki and Bajaj's obvious ability to develop bikes has created a strange dynamic that is very much at odds with where the whole thing began in 1984.

Well, finally, they all seem to be heading in the direction they're supposed to. Rajiv Bajaj said at the media event that Bajaj will focus on its products - the Pulsar/Avenger bikes that will sustain the bottom of the ProBiking pyramid - a pragmatic, even shrewd choice. This doesn't mean that the rumoured twin-cylinder Pulsar isn't coming. It just means that Bajaj-Kawasaki-KTM are working towards offering the complete spectrum of motorcycles without stepping on each others toes. This is beneficial to all - initially. Once the big bike market gets going, then internal cannibalisation and so forth can happen. Again, historically, Bajaj is one of the few Indian bike makers who has not been afraid to let its own bikes take sales away from others in its own lineup.

What does this mean for you? The Ninja 250 has established two things - that big bikes will sell and the segment will continue to grow. And secondly, assembly operations can be made to work in India with significant duty savings. India Kawasaki Motors, the new company, will liaise with Bajaj who will assemble a growing number of CKDs at their Chakan facility. Some motorcycles - the 800cc plus ones - will come in as CBUs and directly complete with the likes of the R1 and the Fireblade.

However, the action will be in the sub-800cc segment where, for instance, a mid-displacement naked or cruiser could easily be assembled and be ready to roll out of the showrooms at prices from Rs 5 to 7 lakh - way lower than most other big bikes on the market.

Indian Kawasaki Motors is expected to have its first bike (Ninja 250 aside) in the market by June 2010, and they've said it will be a supersport. Kawasaki's range doesn't have too many of those - there's the ZX-6R, ZX-10R and ZX-14. Since assembly and CKD are the big words at this announcement, I have to assume that it will be the smaller bike. Although given the over 800cc status of both of the others, the 10 and the 14 would simply be easier to launch.

However, there are some other (non-supersport) Kawasakis that are truly of Indian interest. Take the Kawasaki's Versys based series of 650cc twins. Any and all of them would be great on Indian roads. They'd be fast enough, easy enough and desirable enough. Me? I've long held that the R6 would be my perfect Indian ride - very personal decision, that - and if Yamaha were not to be progressive enough, I certainly wouldn't mind riding a ZX-6R. How about you?

Better yet, this will probably end up forcing Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki to consider Indian assembly and homologation, something they've been very standoffish about so far.

Interesting times lie ahead.