Motorcycling trends for 2017 - what we'll be riding next year (and why!)

2017 Kawasaki Z650

Now that the dust has settled on the autumn motorcycle show season, it’s clear to see that several trends are appearing that could well define the bikes we ride in 2017. 

Although it’s easy to point the finger at our fickle tastes and fashions as particular technologies, designs or market sectors swing in and out of popularity, in fact there are multiple causes for the way the bike market moves.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a legislative shake-up that’s having far-reaching effects. The introduction of Euro4 emissions limits mean manufacturers have had to revamp their model ranges and include technology that lends itself to additional updates.

The tech developed to reduce emissions, or to allow ABS to be adopted by all bikes over 125cc, has had knock-on consequences, many of them positive. The computing power of many bikes has had to rise to embrace the legalities, along with the number of sensors they have to feed data back to that computer, but a side-effect is that tech that used to be reserved for top-end models can be added with just a few lines of code. So we’re suddenly seeing scooters with traction control, superbikes with cruise control and multiple engine maps on virtually everything. No manufacturer wants their bikes to be left behind in the rush for more gadgets.

So legislation has led to technology, which in turn creates fashion.

Fashion alone remains a strong force, though, and the worldwide nature of the bike market means that even fashions abroad can affect the bikes on sale in the UK.

Here are the key trends for 2017 and the driving forces behind them.

Suzuki VStrom 250

Small adventure bikes

If you were to name the single motorcycling trend of the last decade it would be hard to look past the rise of the big adventure tourer. Whether it’s down to the sheer all-round competence of such bikes or the huge worldwide audience that Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round series achieved back in the early 2000s, the category that’s defined by BMW’s R1200 GS seems to be an unstoppable force. 

So in some ways it’s surprising that small-capacity adventure bikes have taken so long to reach prominence. Yes, they have existed before (Honda Varadero 125, anyone?) but never on 2017’s scale.

For 2017 baby adventure models are the clearest of trends. Whether it’s Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300, Suzuki’s DL250 V-Strom (pictured), Honda’s more off-road-biased CRF250 Rally or BMW’s own take on the theme, the G310 GS, there’s a flood of options out there for riders who want to live the adventure bike dream without taking on a 1000cc-plus leviathan.

More left-field entrants to the same market could arguably include Royal Enfield’s 400cc Himalayan, previously on sale only in India but due to reach these shores during 2017.

It’s the Royal Enfield’s migratory pattern that actually hints at the real reason behind this spate of bikes. While there’s probably some demand for them in Europe, we’re not really their target audience. Instead they’ve been developed with enormous potential Asian and Indian markets in mind, and European sales are something of an afterthought.

But fashions spread, and if they’re fun, practical and well-priced there’s little reason that riders over here, perhaps hoping to step-up to larger ADVs in future, will take the bait.

There remains one notable absentee, though. KTM, despite having an Indian manufacturing partner in the form of Bajaj, an unrivalled background in adventure bikes and an existing model – the 390 Duke – that would easily lend an engine to a small adventure model. They haven't shown their hand yet, although spy shots have emerged that suggest a 390 Adventure is on the cards.

Honda Fireblade SP2

Homologation specials

It’s never been easier to pinpoint the precise genesis of a trend than with 2017’s sudden influx of limited-production, homologation-special superbikes.

It’s that ever-present paradox of production-based racing. Craft a rulebook to create a series that illustrates the on-track abilities of showroom models and manufacturers will fill their showrooms with thinly-veiled race bikes.

It happened with the introduction of world superbike racing in the late Eighties, with legends like the RC30 and OW01, and homologation specials remained a theme throughout the Nineties and into the early 2000s. Remember ‘production’ racers like the Petronas FP1, for instance?

The rule-makers killed such machines when the 1000cc race regulations came in, thanks to demands that thousands of bikes be made before they’d be race-certified. But with declining sports bike sales, the minimum production numbers have gradually reduced. The target now sits at just 500, and firms can pre-emptively homologate before they’ve even made that many. In fact they’ve got two years to reach the minimum.

Once you’re talking about making just 250 bikes per year, we’re back in true homologation special territory. And that’s just what’s emerged.

The only limitation that today’s specials must meet that their predecessors avoided is a price cap. The production version of anything competing in world superbikes can’t cost more than €40,000. That’s still quite a lot to play with, though…

So for 2017 we get the Honda CBR1000RR SP2 (pictured above), the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10RR, the Suzuki GSX-R1000R and of course there’s still the Ducati Panigale R and the Yamaha R1-M that were already on a similar course.

Just as was the case with their ancestors, 20 years or more ago, the latest generation’s key features are often ones that won’t really show their benefits until race kits are fitted. Stuff like reshaped combustion chambers, strengthened bottom ends and adjustable chassis geometry aren’t really likely to make a difference on your daily commute, but once unleashed with hot camshafts and special engine maps they’ll add up to big power gains.

At the end of the day, which of the specials goes down in history and becomes an appreciating asset will depend largely on their race performance. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…

Superleggera

Carbon fibre

You might have thought that high-end homologation specials would be at the top of the superbike tree, but the price cap imposed by world superbikes has actually opened a new niche for crazy-money machines with performance above and beyond that of the works race machines.

Ducati, always a master of the exotica field, and relative newcomer BMW are the key players here, with a brace of carbon fibre beauties.

In fact, these bikes demonstrate two new trends. One is the emergence of a new top tier of motorcycle, bikes that sit so far above mere superbikes that they really need a new name. Uberbikes? No, that’s surely a two-wheeled taxi service that’s yet to be exploited. Hyperbikes, then? Whatever they’re called, they’re a class of machines that have price tags that look like mortgage statements.

Some might call it a perfect illustration of the growing wealth gap. After all, a quarter of a century ago Honda couldn’t find enough buyers for its super-exotic NR750. These days they’re oversubscribed with customers for the RC213V-S. There have never been so many billionaires in the world and there are literally millions of millionaires who could easily afford these trinkets.

But the new Ducati 1299 Superleggera (pictured) and BMW HP4 RACE also mark a new technical trend in their use of structural carbon fibre.

Carbon has been traditionally eyed with suspicion in motorcycling. Fine for lightweight body panels, engineers have shunned it for structural parts. ‘Too stiff!’ some cry. When Ducati built its carbon-chassis Desmosecidi GP9 in 2009, it was often criticised for failing to live up to the performance of its predecessor. But in retrospect it was a race-winner. Its handling problems weren’t solved by moving to an aluminium chassis, suggesting the carbon frame might not have been at fault.

The real problem for carbon in racing is that teams can already meet minimum weight limits while using steel or aluminium frames, so the expensive, exotic and unfamiliar material doesn’t offer a big benefit.  On a road bike like the 1299 Superleggera, though, it provides a new route to jaw-dropping numbers, with a MotoGP-style power-to-weight ratio.

The HP4 RACE follows a similar route, again using carbon for the frame, wheels, swingarm and pretty much everything else. Numbers for the bike are still a secret, but it’s due on sale before the year is out.

The real importance of these bikes is that they represent a breach in the dam. Once carbon fibre mass-manufacturing techniques are mastered, it’s only going to be a matter of time before these billionaires’ specials lead to affordable superbikes that give similar weight benefits.

So when we look back at 2017 in a few years’ time, this fad for silly-priced toys might turn out to be the most important trend of all.

IMUs

The term IMU is still a relatively new one, but it’s fast becoming a familiar bit of shorthand. Standing for Inertial Measurement Unit, an IMU is the basis of the most high-tech of modern traction control, stability control and cornering ABS systems.

Using a combination of accelerometers and gyros in a small electronic box of tricks, it can measure the way a bike is moving – its roll, yaw, pitch and lateral acceleration – and feed that information back to the main on-board computer. Allied to additional readings from speed sensors, throttle position sensors and dozens of other sources, it means that the computer can compare the bike’s behaviour to pre-programmed maps and limits and work out the best way to provide the rider with help. Whether it’s by modulating the power or by altering the braking force and distribution, the overall system now stands a chance of saving situations that would have been guaranteed crashes just a few years ago.

The reason for the technology’s sudden spread – in 2016 it was limited to just a few superbikes, but for 2017 it’s on lots of others as well – is that German giant Bosch has a near-monopoly when it comes to supplying ABS and traction control kit. Manufacturers can affectively buy a Bosch system, including an IMU, off-the-shelf and adapt it to their own bike. They may add their own acronyms for the technology, but underneath it’s almost all the same stuff, regardless what bike you choose.

As with all areas of electronics technology, the spread is fast because the hardware cost is relatively low. IMUs are likely to become ubiquitous over the next few years.

Triumph Street Scrambler

Retro scramblers

Whether it’s the Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled, the Husqvarna Svartpilen, BMW’s R nineT Urban GS or Triumph’s Street Scrambler (pictured above) there’s no question that manufacturers are putting an increasing number of their eggs into the retro basket, with the ‘scrambler’ theme being the favourite extension alongside the usual naked and café racer options.

It feels like we’ve been here before. Around a decade ago there was another push towards retro scramblers, kicking off with the Voxan Scrambler, followed by the original Triumph Scrambler and later stuff like the Moto Morini Scrambler. That revival never quite hit the momentum that many expected, but the huge success of Ducati’s Scrambler in 2015 and 2016 sales meant that manufacturers are jumping back at that part of the market.

Will the latest crop prove to be the massive success that’s hoped for, or is it a hipster beard too far? We’ll know soon enough.

Yamaha TMAX

Euro4 and its results

While it would be stretching things to suggest that the fitment of now-mandatory ABS brakes and Euro4 emissions gubbins to bikes is a ‘trend’ the systems have led to a wide adoption of technologies that used to be exclusively used on expensive models.

Take, for instance, electronic throttles. They’ve been around for more than a decade, having debuted on the 2006 Yamaha YZF-R6, but Euro4 emissions requirements are easier to hit if you’ve got a servo-controlled throttle instead of a direct connection twixt twistgrip and butterfly. So they’re appearing all over the place. And with them comes a load of other toys.

For instance, traction control becomes easier to implement with electronic throttles, and cruise control needs only a bit of code and an extra button or two. So such things are spreading fast.

Similarly, riding modes – altering throttle response or even peak power output to suit different conditions – are incredibly easy to add once the fly-by-wire hardware is in place. So why not add it and get an extra selling point for minimal expense? 

The fact that the 2017 Yamaha TMAX scooter (pictured), in the top DX spec, gets traction control, riding modes and cruise control as standard illustrates the point. It’s a situation where manufacturers have been forced in a certain direction with legislation, but are turning it to their advantage by making the technology that’s intended to do boring things like reduce emissions perform a second, more saleable task.

Death of the supersports bike. And maybe its resurrection, too!

We covered the likely demise of the 600cc supersport class as long ago as May and while back then no manufacturer would admit it was killing its 600cc sports models, it was clear that a combination of slow sales and difficulties in meeting the latest emissions laws added up to writing on the wall for many of them.

The reality of 2017 is that the CBR600RR is dead and buried, and while you’ll still be able to buy a GSX-R600, Daytona 675 or ZX-6R, as they are being sold under end-of-series rules that allow small numbers of old-stock machines to be cleared from supply chains. None of them meets Euro4.

Yamaha stands out as the sole firm to be offering a truly modern 600cc supersports machine, complete with all the latest electronic gadgetry, in 2017 in the form of the newly-revamped R6.

How has it managed it while the others find it so difficult to both achieve Euro4 certification and to justify the cost involved? That will be interesting to discover. But it’s the first time a mainstream Japanese firm has offered a supersports 600 that meets all the modern expectations in terms of tech, so there’s an outside chance that it could turn into a surprise sales success.

If it does, will we see Yamaha’s rivals rushing to jump back onto the bandwagon? It’s way too early to be sure, but you can bet that the FIM and Dorna, for whom the Supersport World Championship and CBR600-powered Moto2 series are key elements, are hoping that a revival is in the pipeline.

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