April 23, 2007 – Judging the importance of fuel economy

The idea that the vast majority of motorcycles are more fuel efficient than automobiles is nothing new. The question is should the industry be pushing that point in its marketing?
In fact, do motorcycle buyers even care about fuel economy?
That subject was addressed for the first time in the J.D. Power and Associates’ Motorcycle Competitive Information Study this year at the request of OEMs.
The response from consumers was mixed. About one-third of those surveyed said new motorcycles’ gas mileage was not important, while nearly one-half called it somewhat important. Little more than one-fifth of buyers designated it as very important.
Motorcycle manufacturers say fuel economy has become an issue that consumers ask about, but in most cases it’s still not their main focus.
“When they ask us about our motorcycles,” said Gary Gray, product manager of Victory Motorcycles in Medina, Minn., “fuel economy is not their first question. Usually it’s ‘what does it weigh, what’s the engine displacement, what does it cost?’ — then maybe they ask about the mileage.”
Glenn Hansen, communications manager for American Suzuki Motor Corp. in Brea, Calif., sees a similar trend.
“We certainly get asked about fuel economy at consumer shows and events, but it’s not the first or only question they ask,” he said. “They talk about other features first. They ask about seat height and displacement and price and power, and then, ‘Oh, how is the gas mileage?’ Fuel economy is helping sales a little bit, but it doesn’t seem to bring in new buyers. It inspires people to ride more and dust off that old bike in the garage.”
Jerry Lenz, general manager of Beaverton Honda-Yamaha-Suzuki in Tigard, Ore., said he does see a certain percentage of consumers who do buy motorcycles for their fuel economy.
“When fuel prices go up, we push the issue so the customer can justify what he wants to do,” Lenz said. “The ones really concerned about fuel mileage are the mid-range scooter buyers, as they usually buy them for commuting. We also carry cars, and when gas prices cool off, interest in them also drops.”
But for now, fuel mileage in cars is much more important to consumers than in motorcycles. The J.D. Power and Associates’ auto survey makes the statement “fuel economy is very important,” then asks survey takers to choose from a list of responses. Nearly 47 percent chose the response, “That’s exactly how I feel.”
No Standardized Test
Gray points out that the lack of a standardized test to figure out motorcycles’ mpg hasn’t helped fuel economy become a bigger marketing point to consumers.
“Americans don’t typically need a motorcycle, they want a motorcycle,” Gray said. “However, they might use the fuel mileage as the justification to their wife or husband. Our customer is more concerned about fuel range: how far can I go before I have to fill it again?
“Generation Y is more earth conscious than the Boomers or the Gen-Xers, but how do we communicate that since there is no standardized test? If the consumer wanted it, we as manufacturers would get together and come up with a standard.”
Suzuki’s Hansen added, “Fuel economy is not necessarily an easy item to use in print as a feature, as motorcycles have good fuel economy anyway. There are factory tests for it, but you know how much fuel economy varies depending on throttle use and terrain. Getting usable numbers is not easy, or getting a test that’s saleable and marketable. The same fuel economy testing and reporting as used in the automotive industry is not in place for the motorcycle industry.”
More Emphasis on Fuel Economy?
David Hamer, owner of Palm Beach Motorcycles in Palm Beach, Fla., said “one of the odd things is that most consumers have no idea of fuel economy when they purchase a bike. It’s not like a car, where it’s posted on the window.
“For the average consumer looking for a bike in the 600-750cc category, fuel economy never comes up during the conversation. When they want to buy watercraft, they want to know how many hours they can run it on a tank of gas, and for ATVs they want to know the fuel capacity.
“Where we see the most concern about fuel economy is with college students and the elderly who are buying scooters.”
And several companies manufacturing scooters have provided fuel economy figures.
“We currently use the LA-4 EPA emissions fuel economy data in our 2007 model scooter marketing materials,” said Kevin Foley, media relations manager for street motorcycles for the Yamaha Motor Corp. in Cypress, Calif. “With our C3 scooter getting up to 116 mpg and our Vino 125 getting more than 89 mpg, we feel the data is an effective marketing tool.”
Piaggio’s “Vespanomics” Web site points out that a Vespa scooter gets 72 miles per gallon, and that its fuel costs would be $390 for every 12,000 miles traveled. By comparison a Toyota Prius gets 55 mpg, which would cost $511 for the same distance. Or how about a 10 mpg Hummer with its $2,808 in fuel costs?
John Paolo Canton, public relations coordinator for Ducati North America, sees reasons for and against OEMs putting more emphasis on fuel economy.
“You have to break it down into types of bikes,” he said. “With recreational sport bikes, the typical consumer only cares about what’s got that extra bit of horsepower and handling. But someone in the market for a commuter bike will care much more about fuel mileage. Still, it’s never a bad selling point.”
Lenz agrees. “I think it would help,” he said. “Honda does a little with their 100-mpg deal. We show that what you save in gas by not driving a big car can just about make the payments on a bike. I run an ad that says the 50 gets 100 mpg. I just wish the motorcycle industry would supply fuel economy stickers for bikes. This would probably give us a bit of an edge.” psb

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