What if you build the motorcycle people want and they still don’t buy it?

Yamaha Star Eluder

What if you build a perfectly good motorcycle that’s just what people say they want, and then they refuse to buy it anyway? Photo by Drew Ruiz.

I’ve always said that any company that perfectly aims its marketing strategy at me is doomed to failure. Why? Because I’m a lousy consumer. I don’t really like buying stuff. Left to my own, I am a little eccentric about minimizing stuff rather than adding it.

Of course that doesn’t apply to motorcycles. In that case, I like to have one for each specific riding task I do. Still, once again, I’d say that any motorcycle company that builds a perfect motorcycle for me is likely building a future sales flop. That’s because I’m also an atypical motorcycle consumer. Most people want something quite different from what I want.

Spinning off of this idea, I’ve seen two new motorcycles introduced to the press in the last two weeks that represent two versions of the motorcycle manufacturers’ dilemma, when it comes to appealing to various kinds of consumers. What if you build what people say they want and they still don’t buy it? What if you build what you know your company needs to build, but it doesn’t boost sales? I think the Yamaha Star Eluder and the new Honda Gold Wing may turn out to be examples of these conundrums.Both are touring bikes, but obviously the stakes are higher with Honda’s flagship, the Gold Wing than with the new Yamaha. Let’s start with the Yamaha Star Eluder, which I wrote about over at RevZilla last week after attending the press launch. I suspect the Eluder will be the example of a bike a company builds because it’s what consumers say they want, but then those consumers refuse to buy it anyway.

The Eluder is the Venture touring bike Yamaha introduced last year but without the top box, passenger backrest and a few other features, such as the electric assist for backing the motorcycle into parking spots. The incongruity of both the Venture and Eluder is their mix of high-tech features with an engine that screams “traditional,” the opposite of modern and technologically advanced. The Venture and Eluder are powered by a new version of Yamaha’s air- and oil-cooled 1,854 cc V-twin that has perhaps the lowest redline, at 4,750 rpm, that I’ve yet experienced on two wheels. Meanwhile, the infotainment system looks like something out of a nice car and the bike is laden with tech such as linked, anti-lock brakes, traction control, rider modes, ride-by-wire throttle and cruise control.

Yamaha Star Eluder V-twin engine

The Yamaha Star Eluder: All the electronic goodies you’d expect in 2018 and an engine that’s meant to remind you of 1958. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Why not fit the new touring bikes with an engine that has a high-tech image to match the rest of the bike, perhaps something reflecting Yamaha’s history of V-four touring engines? When I pressed them on the seeming contradiction, the Yamaha guys swore they had reams of market data from interviewing and surveying current touring riders. “The vast majority said they wanted an air-cooled V-twin,” said Dan Ruesch of Yamaha motorcycle product planning. That message was repeated more than once.

Now, it could be that the “we had to build a V-twin by popular demand” story is just a cover and the real reason for the engine choice had to do with cost. But if we take Yamaha’s statements at face value, I can easily imagine a bunch of Harley-Davidson Electra Glide riders surveyed by Yamaha insisting that a touring motorcycle needs an air-cooled V-twin engine. So Yamaha built a good one. But those riders, motivated by brand loyalty or peer pressure, will still buy a Harley, or maybe an Indian, rather than the Yamaha. Meanwhile, touring riders who want something that feels as smooth and sophisticated in the engine bay as it looks on the touch screen will gravitate toward the six-cylinder BMW K 1600 B or the new Gold Wing.

If I’m right, Yamaha will have listened to consumers who led them to a sales flop. Meanwhile, my story at RevZilla already has several comments from readers who wish the Eluder had a Yamaha-traditional V-four instead of a Harley-traditional V-twin.

2018 Honda Gold Wing

The 2018 Honda Gold Wing. Honda photo.

The new Honda Gold Wing: I like it; I won’t buy it

Then we have the new Honda Gold Wing, which is one more motorcycle that I think may become an example of a product the manufacturers knew they had to build, but ultimately falls short of hopes and expectations.

Let me just say that to me, personally, this is by far the most appealing Gold Wing Honda has ever built. It’s the only Gold Wing I could ever imagine really wanting to ride — not just to satisfy my curiosity, as back in 2001 when I first got a chance to take my wife on a weekend ride on the GL1800, but I mean wanting to ride because I think it would be a fun way, maybe even the best way, to complete a given journey. Of course the big problem for Honda is that although I am far more interested in this Gold Wing than any that came before it, there’s still no chance in hell I’d buy one.

Just as Harley-Davidson is struggling with the problem of its core customers dying off and not being replaced fast enough, the Gold Wing clientele is aging out of riding, too. To revive sales of its flagship tourer, Honda has to expand the range of riders who might buy one. In addition to the retired couple taking long and leisurely trips, Honda also needs younger professionals who have the cash to buy a Gold Wing but want something more modern and fun to ride than the old model. So in the first major makeover in 17 years, Honda made the Gold Wing sportier and almost 90 pounds lighter.

selfie in front of Gold Wings

Young riders taking a selfie in front of their Gold Wings? This promotional shot shows what Honda is hoping for. But will it happen? Honda photo.

I love the looks of the new Gold Wing. I can live with the considerably reduced luggage capacity. But I’ll still never buy one, and how many people in the target audience, at least a decade younger than I am, will spend a minimum of $23,500 for a bike that still has a whiff of “old man” stigma, no matter how jaunty the cut of its fairing? Meanwhile, I’ve already seen the letters to the editor in the touring magazines complaining about how the reduced luggage capacity is a touring sacrilege. Sure, I could pack almost all the clothes I own into an older Gold Wing, but there are plenty of hard-core Wingers who felt the need to pull a color-matched trailer with them everywhere, for more storage capacity than a Civic. Are there enough of those fictional selfie-taking people in the photo above to offset the loss of the kitchen-sink travelers?

I actually feel sorry for manufacturers who have to meet these conflicting goals of attracting new and younger customers (increasing percentages of whom don’t even get a driver’s license, much less go to the trouble of learning to ride a dangerous, smelly motorcycle) while not alienating their existing customers, who at best might buy just one more motorcycle before hanging it up. Of course nobody has it worse and nobody has been grappling with it longer than Harley-Davidson, which has known for decades that it faced a looming demographic problem and had to diversify its customer base beyond Baby Boomer white males. Yet everything Harley has done, from the V-Rod to the Buell Blast to the recent Street 750, has brought the company as much scorn as it has sales success.

Time will reveal whether the Venture and Eluder will be a success, and whether the revised Gold Wing will win new customers. I think the Honda has a slightly better chance. After all, all those Wingers whining over the luggage capacity can get their custom trailers repainted a lot easier than Eluder owners can retrofit a V-four.


One Response to “What if you build the motorcycle people want and they still don’t buy it?”

  1. LG says:

    I also think the new GoldWing is a great improvement but in looks and is going in the right direction in performance but id still buy something like an FJR instead. I guess that just shows that just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come.