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.