Director’s Chair: Suzuki’s Aspiration Problem
This week I handed over the keys to my 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000, a bike that has been a workhorse for me over the past two years, trading it in for a moto I think will suit my needs a little better (i.e, a bike that is shaft-driven). Before doing this, I took the ‘Strom on one final hurrah: a goodbye ride through the undulating curves of Brecon Beacons National Park to say “so long and thanks for all the good times.”
I’m the sort of all-the-feelings guy your grandfather thinks is ruining America, so I’ll admit I got a little weepy at this parting of ways. As I shed tears of melancholy delight, I thought about the people who wouldn’t understand such an emotional connection to a V-Strom. And that got me thinking about the people who make the V-Strom 1000, and an interesting problem they face as they navigate toward the future. But before I get into discussing that problem, let me back up a bit and walk you through my thought process.
My 2015 ‘Strom is the outgoing generation. Suzuki has overhauled the model for 2017 and the new bikes should be arriving at dealerships pretty soon (for reasons I don’t quite understand, the bike is a 2018 model in the United States). Or, they may have already arrived, depending on where in the world you’re reading this. I have not yet had a chance to ride the new generation, but I did get to see a few in the metal when they were revealed at the Intermot show in Cologne, Germany. To my eye they look almost exactly the same as the outgoing V-Strom 1000 models. Almost. There are a few cosmetic differences, and, unfortunately, those differences are not for the better. The changes appear to be the result of a cost-cutting exercise; the new ‘Stroms look cheaper than the ones they are replacing. And, of course, that’s because they are.
Things will vary from country to country, but I’ll use the UK market as an example. When the outgoing generation of V-Strom 1000 first hit dealerships back in 2014, Suzuki was asking £10,134 for a standard model (at the time, that would have been roughly equivalent to US $16,000). Add the Adventure package – handguards, panniers, engine bars, that cosmetic sump guard, and “bold” graphics – and the price ran north of £11,000.
The UK market, to put it lightly, reacted badly to this pricing. And almost instantly, Suzuki found itself having to offer all kinds of incentives – free accessories, 0-percent financing, and, ultimately, a lower asking price – to get the things out the door. By the time I bought my bike, less than a year after its first hitting dealerships, the asking price of my V-Strom 1000 Adventure model had plummeted to just £9,000, and the dealer was happy to throw in a free centerstand and heated grips, as well as 40 percent off the price of a TomTom Rider.
Having learned its lesson, the Japanese manufacturer is offering the new standard 2017 V-Strom 1000 in the United Kingdom for £9,500. That’s roughly £600 less than the bike cost three years ago; the bike now includes hand guards and sump “guard” as standard, and the value of the pound has plummeted in the interim years (thanks to Brexit). So, as I say, the new ‘Strom looks cheaper because it is. The market won’t support a more expensive “sports adventure tourer” from Suzuki.
(It should be noted that in the United States, the 2014 V-Strom 1000 Adventure was priced at $13,999 – a price that did not change in consecutive years. US pricing for the new model has not yet been announced)
That new lower price is ostensibly good news for someone shopping for a ‘Strom today, but spare a thought for those who invested in the model three years ago. My recently departed bike had been purchased via the aforementioned 0-percent financing. When I traded it in I learned I was roughly £400 in negative equity. Admittedly, that’s because I put a lot more miles on bikes than the average person. But what about the guy or gal who signed on back in 2014? The person who paid more than £11,000 for my £9,000 bike? The person who may have financed his or her bike at a rate up to 9-percent APR. I’m pretty sure if that person wanted to now sell his or her bike, perhaps to trade up for the new 2017 model, they would be in for a shock.
The speed with which incentives were offered and prices were slashed suggests there aren’t too many people in that situation, but there has to be at least a handful. And I’m willing to bet those folks are none too happy. They’ll probably hold a grudge against the Japanese manufacturer for the rest of their days. They’ll be the sort of people who work their grievance into every situation, regardless of relevance.
“Hey, Bob, where do you want to eat tonight?”
“Well, wherever we eat it will have to be cheap, because Suzuki screwed me over…”
Let it go, Bob.
On a side note, this sort of thing is one of the reasons Harley-Davidson bikes cost so much.
I see many of the emails y’all send to firstname.lastname@example.org and it seems that once a week we get a complaint from someone who thinks we’re covering up some kind of great pricing conspiracy being perpetrated by Harley-Davidson/BMW/Ducati/Triumph, et. al.
“Why don’t you talk about the fact that Harleys cost too much?” the person will lament.
The short answer is that Harleys don’t cost too much. Such is the nature of capitalism that the value of any given thing is partially determined by how much people are willing to pay for it. So, you may think the bikes cost too much, but your opinion is relative. In 2016, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was able to find more than 260,000 people worldwide who disagree with you. And, perhaps confusingly, one of the reasons those people met Harley’s asking price is the company’s stated unwillingness to lower it. Over the years, Harley-Davidson has said on several occasions it would not lower prices. Because imagine the damage that could cause.
I don’t have any stats on this, but I’m willing to bet that a solid majority of the 260,000+ folks who bought Harleys last year did so on finance. And a majority of the hundreds of thousands who bought Harleys the year before, and the year before, and so on. Within the last five years (i.e., the space of a 60-month loan), let’s imagine there were, oh, say, 500,000 people who bought Street Glides on finance. Imagine how they would react if Harley announced today it was slashing Street Glide prices to just $15,000, rather than the current MSRP of $20,999. Suddenly, many would find themselves in upside-down loans and they would be livid.
Harley folk being a particularly vocal group, they’d be infinitely worse than ol’ Suzuki Bob. They’d print up T-shirts, put anti-Harley bumper stickers on their pickups, and attend every bike rally they could for the sole purpose of talking down the MoCo until dragged kicking and screaming from the grounds.
So, why did Suzuki do such a thing in the UK and Europe? Well, because it had to. It was backed into a corner by lack of market demand and given the option of either angering a small amount of people by lowering the price, or suffering a big loss and probably having to abandon the V-Strom 1000 platform altogether. They chose the first option because, rightly, they believe in the platform. It’s clear that Suzuki sees the V-Strom 1000 and 650 as pillars – bikes upon which the company’s legacy will stand.
And why didn’t the market agree with Suzuki about the value of its bikes? There, we finally get to the problem I was talking about above...
This is only my opinion, and if you disagree I will not argue against you. Equally, I wholeheartedly believe Suzuki has all the tools it needs to change things. But right now, in this moment, I feel that Suzuki has no aspirational models. That is to say, I can think of no motorcycle in Suzuki’s current line-up that I can imagine a person would print out a picture of and tape to his or her wall. No motorcycle that a person looks at and and thinks: “Oh, one day! One day I’ll have that bike! And I’ll ride through town on that bike and everyone will see how cool and awesome I look on it!”
Don’t confuse what I’m saying here. Suzuki makes high-quality motorcycles. If you go out and buy one today, you can be assured of a solid, reliable machine. If you find yourself 4,000 miles away from home on a Suzuki, the only thing you need to worry about is what to have for dinner and at which hotel you want to spend the night; the Suzuki will be problem-free. It will have gotten you there, will get you home, and to all the points in between. Suzuki makes bikes that are really good, but not really desirable.
“Chris, you idiot,” you might say. “What about the new GSX-R1000? That thing is amazing!”
Well, again, I’m not going to fight you. And certainly I’ve seen a number of reviews claiming it is a 10-out-of-10 machine. I haven’t ridden it; I’m not really into sportbikes. And I’ve seen RideApart’s readership stats; y’all aren’t that interested in sportbikes either. Meanwhile, sales of sportbikes around the world would suggest we’re not alone in our apathy. The GSX-R1000 may be an incredible machine, but it is not one that speaks to people’s hearts. Not at the moment. As best I can see, the bikes people are excited about these days, that people are aspiring to own, are the retros/modern classics, big adventure machines, super nakeds, and – sales would suggest – cruisers.
Suzuki’s place these days seems to be as a manufacturer of really good alternatives to the bike you are dreaming about. Want a Honda Africa Twin but can’t quite meet the asking price? If you’re willing to make a few concessions in terms of off-road ability, the V-Strom 1000 is a really good alternative. Want a BMW S 1000 R without having to pay for the BMW name? With a few reasonable concessions to power and performance, the GSX-S1000 is a really good alternative. Want a Harley-Davidson Road King but can’t afford the princely sum? The C90 Boulevard is a really good alternative if you’re willing to forego resale value.
I recognize there may be some people who will read all this – probably Suzuki owners who bought their bikes outright – and say: “I don’t see what the problem is. I don’t buy a bike because it’s aspirational. It’s a bike, for the love of Pete; it’s supposed to get me from point A to point B. I don’t give a damn that some beard oil salesman hasn’t caused inflated prices by putting a Suzuki in his ad campaign. I don’t want to pay a premium on my bike just because some Starbucks-sponsored adventure warrior thinks it looks good with his $2,000 Klim suit. Suzuki makes good bikes at a good price and if that’s not trendy, I really don’t care.”
I doubt, though, that this is exactly how Suzuki wants to be seen. As a Suzuki owner (and as a former owner) it was never how I wanted the brand to be seen. It’s unfair. Because, my goodness, they can make some good bikes.
I rode that ‘Strom everywhere: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scotland, and on. I rode it to London dozens of times. I rode it on an Iron Butt ride last year; I hated almost every aspect of my Iron Butt experience but had zero complaints about the 'Strom’s ability to get me through it. I rode in temperatures ranging from 23F to 107F. I rode in torrential rain, freezing fog, gale-force winds, hailstorms, and everything between. And it never, never let me down. It always started, always performed without question or fault.
My lasting memory of the bike will probably be of a middle-of-the-night moment this past December. I had been at a press event in Spain, and the flight back to London, where I’d parked my bike, had hit delay after delay – to the point that I did not arrive until after midnight. From there, I faced a 150-mile ride home to Cardiff.
The night was cold, foggy, and drizzling; I was tired and hungry. Once I got beyond the orange street lights of London I was speeding through pitch darkness. There was nowhere to stop for a hot meal (apart from microwaved food at a gas station) and my heart ached to be home. At about 2am, in the most middle-of-nowhere sort of place one can find in Southern England, I found myself temporarily overwhelmed with how miserable I was. I got to the verge of throwing a little tantrum in my helmet when suddenly everything faded and I became aware of the V-Strom’s engine – the soft, unburdened drone of the bike’s 1037cc V-twin. There was something in that drone that seemed perpetual and that brought calm.
“I can carry on all night,” it seemed to murmur. “All day, all week, all month, all year – however long need be. We’ll get home; I’ll always get you home.”
It was a damned good bike, that Suzuki. It’s a shame more people don’t want one.