Is BMW the World’s New Leading Motorcycle Maker?

From the July, 2011 issue of Motorcyclist

By Alan Cathcart

BMW is on the gas, developing innovative new models, growing exponentially and generally leaving the rest of the recession-racked motor-cycle industry in the dust. The F800GS jump-started the mid-sized enduro market in 2008, the best-selling S1000RR now dominates the superbike segment (nearly 25 percent of global sportbike sales in 2010 went to BMW), and the new K1600GT appears ready to revolutionize luxury touring. Taking business risks has really paid off: BMW Motorrad production is now back to pre-recession numbers, with 2010 global sales up 12.3 percent (to 98,047 motorcycles), out-performing the car division in profitability.

And this is just the beginning. In an exclusive interview during the K1600GT launch in South Africa, BMW Motorrad president Hendrik von Kuenheim candidly and comprehensively detailed plans for BMW’s coming decade, including expansion into the scooter, cruiser and even electric-bike markets. Von Kuenheim intends to make BMW the world’s most vital and vibrant motorcycle manufacturer. With the major Japanese OEMs in a holding pattern due to the downturned economy and the recent earthquake and tsunami, there’s never been a better time for BMW to make this move.

After showing a superbike-styled Concept C maxi-scooter at the 2010 EICMA Expo, BMW is slated to enter the “Urban Commuter” market later this year with two models targeted at Yamaha’s best-selling T-Max. One is sport-oriented; the other built for comfort. Both will offer the most storage capacity of any scooter. “The classic motorcycle market will always exist for us,” von Kuenheim says, “but Urban Commuter products will be a substantial part of our business in the future.”

Once the scooter program is up and running, von Kuenheim says BMW will focus its efforts on “something fun”—most likely a cruiser, reaching a market that BMW hasn’t participated in since discontinuing the R1200C in 2004. Cruisers accounted for 37 percent of all motorcycle sales over 500cc worldwide in 2010, and “stable risk levels” make this market especially attractive to BMW. The firm will definitely enter the cruiser market in “mid-term future,” von Kuenheim says, but is still evaluating concepts. “Do you go the conventional approach and do a V-twin?” he asks. “Or a Boxer again? Or maybe a huge, multi-cylinder inline? This is the challenge.”

BMW is also committed to electric-drive technology, and anticipates being the first major motorcycle manufacturer to market an e-bike. “Within three years, BMW will become the premier provider of electric vehicles,” von Kuenheim says. “The company is fully committed to this, and there will be spin-offs for the motorcycle division,” likely as part of the company’s new Urban Commuter range. BMW is also experimenting with diesel-powered motorcycles using its benchmark, clean-burning automotive technology. “Why not build a diesel motorcycle? von Kuenheim asks. “BMW has the technology.”

Unfortunately, a much-anticipated middleweight sportbike is no longer on the table. “We have the three-cylinder, 675cc supersport prototype running, but there is no market right now,” von Kuenheim says. “Look at the statistics and you’ll see that the supersport 600 market has totally disappeared. If we see that market making a comeback, we’ll have to think again. But until then, nothing is planned.”

Thankfully for the faithful, BMW has no intentions of abandoning its traditional lines—though von Kuenheim wouldn’t confirm or deny a water-cooled Boxer in the future. Another factor that won’t change is a commitment to maintaining production in Germany. Though von Kuenheim has traveled to India several times in the past year, and the company already operates offshore production facilities in Brazil and in conjunction with Kymco in China, he says that German production remains central to the core values of the brand.

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