By Neil Pascale
LAS VEGAS — American Suzuki Motor Corp. is hoping to counter a slow first quarter with an untraditional play in the game of street bike sales — a fourth-quarter blitz.
The company unveiled 14 new or significantly altered products at its annual dealer meeting on June 27-29, many of which will be available this fall or early winter for what figures to be a key quarter for dealers. After all, new unit sales reported by Motorcycle Industry Council manufacturers were down nearly 9 percent in the first quarter, meaning dealers might have to rely on a strong final quarter to equal last year’s revenue.
Suzuki officials first saw the slowdown early last fall, Mel Harris, the company’s vice president of motorcycle operations, told dealers during the event’s product unveiling.
“Our sales were great up until the end of August,” Harris said, noting at the time American Suzuki Motor Corp. was on track for a double-digit sales increase for 2006.
Then came a U.S. housing industry slump and higher gas prices cut consumers’ discretionary income. Instead of shopping for more gas-efficient two-wheelers, Harris said consumers seemed to adjust to the increased oil prices.
“2007 has been quite a challenge,” he said.
Fast forward nine months from the beginning of the slowdown and Suzuki is hoping its wave of new products can get consumers back into showrooms. Certainly the company is hitting a number of different segments with its new products, including different price points in the sport bike market as well as offerings in the off-road, cruiser and touring markets.
The 14 new or significantly improved products represent a number that company officials couldn’t remember outdoing previously and represent a dramatic increase over the last dealer meeting, held last September, when the company introduced three new products.
Harris called the elevated number of new products Suzuki’s attempt at giving dealers a “second selling season.” That will happen if Suzuki can get the new on-road product into showrooms this fall or early winter when street sales typically slide.
Suzuki is expecting to do just that with its 2008 Hayabusa, “the most anticipated delivery of the year for us,” said Glenn Hansen, American Suzuki Motor Corp.’s communications manager.
The delivery of the Hayabusa, which Suzuki says is the fastest mass-produced motorcycle in the world, is expected in October with a MSRP of $11,999.
“People have been waiting and waiting, and we delivered it,” Hansen said of the bike, which sports 195hp and updated styling and aerodynamics.
The Hayabusa, with the leading power-to-weight ratio in its class, figures to help Suzuki gain an even better grasp of the sport bike segment of 900cc and over. Last year, the company sold twice as many bikes in that segment as any one of its Japanese competitors, according to industry sources.
Suzuki’s sales success goes beyond the sports market, however. Harris told dealers that besides being the No. 1 Japanese retailer of licensable street bikes of 250cc and larger, Suzuki is also the top manufacturer among Japanese companies for units over 451ccs.
Plus, Rod Lopusnak, the company’s ATV operations manager, said Suzuki was the lone major manufacturer last year to maintain its quad sales volume in the United States. While the industry was down about 4 percent, Suzuki grew its sales by 1 percent. The other four major manufacturers, Lopusnak says, suffered sales losses of 47,000 units last year.
That’s not to say that all the new introduced products are in areas where Suzuki is the leading seller. In fact, one of its more high-profile introductions — the B-King — reaches a market that has been dominated by European manufacturers.
“We think we have the look down. We know we have the highest engine output for the class,” Hansen said of the B-King, which was originally a concept bike that Suzuki showed in 2001 at a Tokyo show. The B-King and its Hayabusa power plant — all 1344ccs — will be a limited-edition motorcycle that will be available in October with a MSRP of $12,899.
Another bike arena in which Suzuki hopes to improve its standing is in the motocross segment. Racing standout Ricky Carmichael helped design the company’s new RM-Z250 and 450 and was on hand in Las Vegas to show off the new 450, which the company says is the first in its category to have fuel injection.
“We still have great hope for calendar year 2007,” Hansen said, “partly because of the great new product we showed.”
By Neil Pascale