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.