The end is nigh? Is it game over for sports 600s?

Author: Ben Purvis Posted: 10 May 2016

Honda CBR600F 'steelie' started the trend

If you were to draw up a list of the most important bikes ever to reach production it’s inevitable that within the first handful you’d find the Honda CBR600F.

It wasn’t the first 600cc sports bike. It wasn’t the lightest, fastest or the most powerful. It was never the most extreme. But it spent years as the most popular 600cc machine out there and for much of its life was the best-selling bike in the UK.

Right from the 1987 appearance of the first ‘jelly mould’ CBR to point where the final, aluminium-frame version was replaced by the much more aggressive CBR600RR in 2003, it was a constant fixture in best-sellers lists and with it came a host of similarly capable rivals from Honda’s Japanese rivals. Between them they dominated the British bike market as well as many others.

But those days are long gone, and now the humble 600 supersports bike might be heading the way of the dinosaurs. With a supersports market that already looks to be in terminal decline, the imposition of new type approval across Europe from the start of 2017 could well be the incoming asteroid that finally wipes them out of new bike showrooms.

The bare figures are grim reading. Back in 2003, the entire British bike market saw sales of 160,900 new machines of which 22,900 were in the 401-600cc class. That’s 14.2% of all new bikes. Only two capacity groups achieved higher numbers back then, the 1-50cc class made up of mopeds (another category that’s almost disappeared today) and the 51-150cc group dominated by learner-legal 125s. And of those 22,900 sales in the 401-600cc class in 2003, more than 10,400 were CBR600s, GSX-R600s, R6s, ZX-6Rs or Daytona 600s.

Fast forward to 2015 and the equivalent numbers are pitifully tiny. The overall number of new bikes registered in 2015 as 123,400 – some way down on 2003’s figure but significantly better than any year since the financial crisis bit in 2008 – but the 401cc-600cc class made up a mere 4800 of them. That’s just 3.9 percent of the market.

If we look specifically at sales of 600-class supersports bikes the picture is worse still. In 2015, registrations of the CBR600, ZX-6R/ZX-636R, GSX-R600, R6 and Daytona 675 – the main players in the supersports class – could only struggle to 1198. That’s less than 1% of the new bike market and a total that not long ago would have been embarrassingly low for a single supersports model. In recession-gripped 2008 each of the Japanese supersports 600s managed British market registrations of over 1100, and back in 2003 they each easily topped 2000. Now they struggle to achieve even a tenth of that.

To put it another way, not long ago we’d have expected all the supersports 600s to be among the country’s top 10 best-selling bikes. Now even if we combine them the resulting figure isn’t high enough to make that list.

The figures alone wouldn’t bode well for the future of these machines, but the impending Regulation (EU) 68/2013 brings an added urgency to the problem. Setting out a new framework for type-approval of motorcycles in Europe including new emissions limits (both noise and exhaust) and adding extra requirements like mandatory ABS and on-board diagnostics, it means many older models need significant investment and redesigning to remain on sale. It’s in force for newly-introduced models already and will be extended to apply to all new bikes sold from 1/1/2017.

With such low sales in this country – and we remain one of the world’s leading markets for sports bikes – the big question is whether manufacturers will see any value in redesigning their supersports bikes to meet the new rules. If the sums don’t add up and the bikes can’t be made to meet the new rules there’s little option but to remove them from sale. 

Current CBR600RRWhat the manufacturers say

We’ve put the same questions to each of the four Japanese supersports bike firms. First we asked whether or not their supersports 600s meet the new European rules, and then whether they intend to keep offering machines in that part of the market in 2017 and beyond.

For the first question, we already knew that the answer for most was ‘no.’ When it comes to Suzuki’s GSX-R600 and Yamaha’s R6, it’s clear that they aren’t in line with the new Euro regulation because they have no ABS option. For Honda and Kawasaki it’s less obvious, since ABS is available on both the ZX-6R and CBR600RR, but we know from the age of their machines that they were developed before the exact details of the new European rules were set in stone.

Yamaha’s Jeff Turner said: “As you are probably aware the YZF-R6 does not currently have ABS so this would have to be added to comply with Euro 4 regs not to mention the development needed to meet new emission levels.”

He was less forthcoming about whether or not these modifications will be made, saying: “It’s too early to confirm any information yet about 2017 models.”

Of all the current 600s, Kawasaki’s ZX-6R is the most recently-revamped and as such should have the best chance of meeting the next-gen regulations without significant updates. Kawasaki sales manager Craig Watson wasn’t giving much away. He said: “Kawasaki watches the evolution of the motorcycle market throughout Europe very closely and is committed to have a range of motorcycles available that will continue to meet customer demand into the future. We expect the Ninja ZX-6R to be available for those that wish to purchase it for the foreseeable future. Thereafter its continuation in the Kawasaki model range will be dependent upon there being sufficient demand to justify continued development.”

Honda’s David Rogers hinted that there’s still a future for the CBR600RR beyond the introduction of the new European rules, saying: “You're right to note that the current model does not meet Euro4.  However, the CBR600RR remains in the Honda line-up and we look forward to learning of future plans for the model.”

There is a provision in the new European rules to allow small numbers of non-compliant bikes to be sold even after the regulations come into force. Called derogation, they’re intended to allow excess stock to be sold off, and can be used for up to two years – although numbers are extremely limited. Of all the manufacturers, Suzuki is the only one to state outright that it intends to use the provision.

Suzuki GB’s general manager, Paul de Lusignan, said: “The current GSX-R600 is Euro 3 compliant, and it will form part of our model lineup into 2017. This is because manufacturers can apply for a period of derogation of up to two years, which can allow existing models to be sold past 1 January 2017.”

As far as the future is concerned, he said: “For us, the 600 market is still very popular, with the GSX-R600 selling strongly last year. In fact, last year the market grew for us, with GSX-R600 sales up by nearly 13% from 2014, which shows that there is still an appetite for supersport 600s if the package is right.”

What’s happened to the 600s market?

So why have we fallen out of love with the 600? As usual, there’s no single factor to be blamed but a combination of reasons have led to the class falling from favour.

First we have the lack of development. Most of the current machines in the 600 class date back to the last decade, and as such lack a lot of the latest ideas that have become commonplace in larger superbikes and even in more mundane machines. Not only that, but there’s an element of chicken-and-egg at play here, since newly-launched bikes always tend to sell better than old ones.

Yamaha’s Jeff Turner said: “Recent model developments have focussed on the larger sportsbikes while the 600 Supersport bikes have not changed much in recent years. Again the introduction of a new model like the YZF-R1 clearly demonstrates the increase in sales that a new model arrival generates.”

As well as getting more technology, the developments in 1000cc superbikes have also seen them coming closer to 600s in terms of weight and size, diminishing another of the traditional advantages of the middleweight machines. Simultaneously, buyers are tending to get older, suggesting they’re more likely to opt for superbikes, not least since they’re more likely to be able to afford them and to pay the insurance premiums. The price difference between superbikes and 600s has also been eroded, particularly when it’s seen in terms of monthly PCP payments rather than an outright purchase price.

While a newly-designed 600 would be able to address some of these issues – trickle-down technology means they’d be lighter and smaller than the existing machines as well as getting more of the technological toys we expect these days – such bikes wouldn’t be much cheaper to build than a superbike, meaning a price advantage wouldn’t be easily reclaimed.

At Honda, David Rogers suggests that variety is what’s leading to the decline in supersports sales. He said: “The fast-growing popularity of the adventure bike scene has, naturally, drawn people from sport bikes to try bikes of varying styles.  People want to broaden their riding experiences, hence the popularity of models such as the NC750X and CB500X, as well as the huge interest in Africa Twin.”

Triumph Street Triple - outselling the Daytona 675

The glass is half-full

The future for supersports 600s as we know them looks pretty bleak – but that isn’t necessarily the right perspective to approach the issue from.

Six hundreds might be dinosaurs on the verge of an extinction-level event in the form of the new Euro type-approval regulations, but the dinosaurs were already evolving down a dead-end road and they didn’t leave an empty planet behind them. Instead a huge variety of more adaptable species developed to fill the gap they left.

Similarly, bikes are constantly evolving to suit the desires of the buying public.

The real glory era of the 600 was years ago when the old steel-framed CBR600F ruled the class. It offered competitive sports bike power and handling but also threw in a hefty dose of practicality. It could be used in comfort for commuting and touring, but also took track days in its stride. As supersports bikes have become ever more closely focussed towards that on-track competitiveness they’ve lost sight of the practicality that made that old CBR so appealing.

So what’s selling now? Checking out the popular bikes of the last year or two, it’s clear that while supersports models fall by the wayside, the machines that are popular are those that manage a broader spread of ability. Yamaha’s MT-09 and MT-07, for instance, both managed huge sales last year. The Honda CBR650F – the closest thing in spirit to that old 1987 CBR600 – was the firm’s best-seller above 125cc, and its naked version, the CB650F, was close behind. Triumph’s Daytona 675 sales were pitiful but its more practical sister, the Street Triple, was hugely popular last year.

All these bikes offer a similar combination of performance, affordability and practicality that you’d only have been able to find on a supersports 600 machine back in the 1990s or late 80s.

The suggestion is that riders tastes haven’t actually changed that much, it’s just that the bikes able to fulfil their desires have become more varied. Many of today’s popular adventure bikes have performance that’s close to that of the dominant 600s of the 90s, as well as offering far better handling than their wallowing ancestors and retaining the advantages of comfort and a great vision from their lofty riding positions. We’re having our cake and eating it.

And it’s not as though the classic 600s from the supersports heyday have gone anywhere. They’re still among the most popular bikes on the road.

If we ignore the small percentage of people actually buying new bikes and look instead at the crop of machines currently in use, the picture for supersports models is much happier. Using government figures for bikes with valid tax – and hence MOTs and insurance – we know that there are some 1,230,800 bikes in use on UK roads, and their average age is 13.7 years.

Yep, the typical bike out there dates back to 2002, when 600s were still massively popular. So it’s no surprise that a lot of them are still in use. In total, while CBR600s, R6s, GSX-R600s, ZX-6Rs and Daytona 675s only achieved a smidgeon over 1000 sales in 2015, the same bikes and their predecessors account for around 50,000 of the models currently in use in the UK. So while they make up well under 1% of new bike sales, they still represent more than 4% of the bikes actually in use on our roads. For at least the last decade, the CBR600 has been the single most common bike on British roads (only superseded last year by the BMW R1200GS) and when combined with 600s from Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki the class as a whole still accounts for the largest single group of bikes in use.

What's more they are still hugely popular as track and race bikes, with vast numbers still in circulation, so even if they do disappear from showrooms in the future, supersports 600s will still play a huge role in motorcycling for many years to come.