It wasn’t that long ago when 600cc supersport machines were the cornerstone of the sportbike market. Although the 1000cc sportbikes were (and still are) the company flagships, the real battles were fought in the 600cc trenches, where R&D money was spent full-tilt as OEMs fought for performance superiority — which translated to increased sales. The reason? Sales for 600cc sportbikes vastly outnumbered the 1000cc category, in many cases by more than a 2:1 ratio.
It was a tough battlefield too, especially when eking out just one or two horsepower more was a tall order in a category where engines were basically putting out the horsepower per displacement equivalent of a Formula 1 engine. Frequent new model updates were the norm, with a couple of manufacturers on one or two occasions not even waiting for the already hyper-quick two-year upgrade time sequence, and releasing a revised model the following year! Needless to say, the excitement in the sportbike market usually revolved around the 600cc class as potential buyers salivated whenever the new model season arrived.
But after several decades of being the bread and butter of the sportbike market, 600cc supersport sales have now plummeted. And I’m not referring to the decrease in overall sales that can be attributed to the worldwide economic crisis in which we are still trying to climb out of. With several OEMs, the drop has been enough that literbike sales have actually surpassed 600cc sales in a few instances. What happened?
The reason is the bank industry’s drastically tightened money-lending policies after the mortgage shell game some of its members were playing finally caught up with them. When the economy was booming, banks were seemingly giving out loans to anyone with a heartbeat. With probably 99 percent of all bike purchases made via credit, many consumers found they could more easily afford the loan and insurance payments on a 600cc bike than a literbike. Led by the 600cc supersport class, sportbike sales continued to climb at a double-digit rate, even while the cruiser market sales started to sputter from its previous astronomical growth.
Once the economic crisis was in full swing, however, banks quickly tightened up their purse strings in order to survive. For quite a few years, even if you had near-perfect credit, you weren’t qualifying for a loan unless someone with excellent credit cosigned off on it.
Granted, the lending policies have loosened up by now — but not by much. Potential borrowers still must show an extensive (and clean) credit record, with plenty of collateral to give the bank some default security. And the vast majority of people in that position are older, more affluent buyers who want — and can afford the cost of owning — a $15K literbike (this also partially explains how many European manufacturers producing bikes on the higher end of the cost scale are announcing continued sales growth in a still-challenged economy).
The more difficult access to credit for the under-30 age market (the primary group responsible for 600cc supersport sales) in addition to the double-whammy faced by the Japanese OEMs of the yen/dollar mismatch — which has made their products more expensive, such as 600s now costing well over $11K — has surely impeded any meaningful recovery for that class of bikes. Many other motorcycle categories have shown signs of recovery…while 600cc supersport sales remain anemic.
That 600cc sales drop hasn’t been lost on the factories, either. While a lot of the justification behind the concentration of R&D on literbikes can be attributed to Superbike racing homologation reasons (ever-tightening rules are decreasing the amount of modifications, meaning the production package the racebikes are based upon becomes increasingly important), it’s no surprise that the only update of a 600cc supersport machine since 2009 has been the Suzuki GSX-R600 — and those updates were relatively minor. Meanwhile, the literbike class has seen numerous significantly upgraded models introduced, with more sure to come.
I’m not sure if easier means of purchasing a 600 supersport model would be the solution to the category’s current sales woes. It definitely needs an injection of excitement; with very few new models for several years, all the attention has been on the literbike class. Let’s hope that the OEMs decide to upgrade the 600 supersport class soon.