Dealer Expo 2009, Part II: The Bikes
February 23, 2009
In Part I of our Dealer Expo coverage, we mentioned there really wasn’t much new to see at DealerExpo, and fewer importers and distributors than usual. In Part II (you are here), we’ll look at a few of the more popular distributors, and a few newer importers looking to make a a bigger impact.
Genuine Scooter Company has been marketing the Buddy as “Scooter of the Year” for a few years now, prompting a funny thread on Modern Buddy, wondering where this designation came from. It’s probably just marketing hyperbole, but if they need a quote, it’s coming right up: Love or hate the Buddy, it certainly made a big impact on the scooter market over the last two years, putting a serious dent in Honda, Yamaha, and Vespa sales. Genuine knows the American scooter market better than anyone else, and they’ve built a great community of dealers and customers that any other manufacturer would love to have. Sure, there are better scooters available, but for our money, the humble, ubiquitous Buddy is the scooter of the year for 2007 and 2008. Sadly, with all the new scooterists Genuine has attracted, they just don’t have a follow-up bike to offer intermediate scooterists looking for more horsepower and a more ‘mature’ (for lack of a better word) riding experience. The Blur is gone, the Stella isn’t for everyone, and the new-bike rumors continue to circulate, but we suspect Genuine will be losing some Buddy fans to the SYM HD200 and various Kymcos and Vespas this summer.
Genuine’s 150 Buddy Internationals are attractive scooters, but offer only a modest performance bump from the 125, with a frame, suspension and brakes designed for a 125. This season, Genuine’s Black Jack will squeeze a bit more performance from the platform. The Black Jack is a 150cc Buddy in matte black paint with several factory-installed NCY perfomance parts, including upgraded front brake, rear shock, and CVT. An included exhaust can be installed by the dealer after purchase. The exhaust does not void the warranty but may not be permitted in certain jurisdictions (though, we imagine, most buyers will be willing to accept the risk of citation.) The bike looks great, especially the red-trimmed solo seat, but the style’s not for everyone, and even with the upgrades, folks looking to upgrade from a “regular” Buddy 125 or 150 are going to see it as no substitute for a bigger bike.
Otherwise, the Buddy line remains the same (the EcoBuddy was put on hold), aside from a handsome new Buddy 125 in white (in addition to the several colors available last year.) The Roughhouse, Rattler, and Stella fill out the line, unchanged. Genuine always has a flurry of rumors surrounding it, especially regarding the “new” Stella, but they’re not talking. It’s also a bit disappointing that no Genuine bikes (which, aside from the Stella, are made by PGO in Taiwan) feature fuel injection, especially considering that many of their competitors do offer EFI, (and Taiwan requires it on all new bikes this year.) Jacking up the price for EFI is a hard sell to the typical Buddy buyer, but it’d be cheaper than a carb cleaning every spring.
Judging by the dealer buzz and talk on the internet, if anyone is closing in on Genuine (from below, anyway), it’s probably SYM. Carter Brothers, SYM’s US importer, seem to be taking notes from Genuine and getting more and more involved in the scooter market and culture. They’re heavily marketing the fact that two SYM HD200s won the Cannonball Run last year with zero issues, and they hired a ‘scene’ insider, Steve Guzmán, who you know from The Scooter Scoop, to help out with sales. You may also remember Steve from Italjet’s somewhat-embarrassing display at last years’ Dealer Expo, luckily that trial by fire gave him some industry experience and led him to his more promising current gig. Now that we have a friend on the inside, we can tell you, it’s “ESS-WHY-EM”, not “SIM.” But we’re going to keep calling them “Sim” anyway.
(UPDATE: Steve was let go shortly after the show, which to some degree tarnishes my opinion of Carter Brothers, though I still think highly of SYM’s product. –ed.)
Aside from the much-lauded HD200, SYM (“Sim!”) launched a few other bikes in 2008, and benefitted from the shortage of Buddies and Kymcos last summer. The Vespa-ish bike that was hyped at Dealer Expo last year as the “Vogue,” was released later in the year as the Fiddle II. The Fiddle II was designed specifically for the U.S. market, a sign that SYM is takng America seriously. Where Genuine lacks a cradle-to-grave lineup, SYM offers a few 50cc models (Mio, JetEuro, Symply) and a variety of mid-sized bikes ranging up to 300cc (the CityCom). Unlike Kymco, who by some accounts rushed some bigger-displacement bikes to market (and is set to launch a 700cc bike!), SYM seems content with that peak for the moment, and if 300cc is good enough for Vespa, it’s good enough for us, Barcaloungers be damned.
Of course the big news at SYM’s booth was the much-anticipated SYMBA, the Honda-Cub-styled motorbike displayed as a prototype last year as the “WowWow.” Last year, we got kicked out of the SYM booth for shooting a photo of it, this year, Steve was more than happy to tell us all about it. It will be available in red/white, black/white, and blue/white, featuring a 101.4cc 4-stroke 4-speed semiautomatic engine. The SYMBA was definitely the talk of the show, they nailed the styling, the quality looks good, and it’s expected at dealers before summer. Looks aren’t everything, and it remains to be seen how a 100cc bike with a top speed just short of 50mph will do in the U.S., but with the slowly-growing increase in moped sales over the past couple years, and the beloved and familiar Cub/Passport design, dealers seemed to think they’d have no problem selling them.
Less-hyped but even closer to our heart was SYM’s Wolf Classic 150 motorcycle. While not due to U.S. shores until later in 2009, it was love at first sight for us. Sadly, we’re not sure who else would be interested in a Taiwanese 150cc cafe racer, especially one riddled with chinese writing and goofy Engrish slogans. The same bike is available in some other markets, where it’s been repainted and rebadged in an effort to make it more hip, but we’re hoping SYM doesn’t change a thing for the U.S. market. Dealers and journos were inexplicably loving all over it, despite their inability to explain what any of us would do with it. How many friends do you have with Honda CB160s? How many of them actually ride them? Still, at a show with few new bikes and even fewer outright surprises, the Wolf was looking pretty great.
Flyscooter also had a Honda Cub-styled bike on display, and though it was Chinese-made and wouldn’t be ready for the U.S. for several months, it was a bit more true to the vintage Cub design (by “true,” we mean “a knockoff,” Chinese manufacturer DYK even brands it as a “Super Cub,” which wouldn’t, uh, fly here.) With a lower price and solid quality control, it could be a lower-cost option to the SYMBA.
We met Daniel Pak of Flyscooter at Dealer Expo last year, and though we didn’t think much of the product (more or less the same ZNen “chrome V” and Honda Joker knockoffs we found at every other booth), we were impressed with Daniel’s attitude, commitment to quality control, and Flyscooter’s solid branding and marketing. Late last year, Flyscooter became the exclusive importer for Taiwan-based CPI, which will hopefully be a beneficial situation for both companies, as CPI’s former importers never seemed capable of making much of a dent in the U.S. market. Along with a variety of decent-looking Aragon and Formula scooters, CPI also offers the fairly-hot-looking GTR automatic motorcycle, with a 169 or 250i engine, and a six-speed KTM-”inspired” SM250 supermoto.
Tucked in the back of the booth was the Bravo, the first Vespa LX clone we’ve seen. Upon closer inspection, everything but the wheels and tires were fabricated from fiberglass. CPI is developing the bike with a 50cc 2-stroke engine and a 125-cc 4-stroke, and we forgot to ask if it’d feature the LX’s steel monocoque chassis, or if it’d be a tube frame with plastic bodywork, which brings us to the most-anticipated and most-talked-about bike of the show, though that was at a different booth.
Ah, the Venti. Sadly, I didn’t take many pictures, but Ron did. Amazingly, for all we speculated about it before the show (here, here,, and here), there’s not really too much more to say. I heard many dealers share their opinions about it, and the consensus seems to be “It is what it is.” and “I bet I could sell a lot of those.”
To be honest, it looked pretty much like a Vespa, from ten feet away. A closer look revealed that it was, as we suspected, a modern tube frame with an automatic 150cc GY-6-style engine and bolted-on plastic bodywork. An upskirt photo revealed a lot of open space under those cowls. Sitting on the bike was an interesting experience, though, it really felt like a real Vespa, with the same ergonomics, light weight, lack of storage, springy seat, and divey front end as a 1965 Vespa 150. Amazingly, this bike might actually offer a riding experience just as awkward as the real thing!
Yes, it’s true Vespa had a few words with the importer, but Paul Burnett of Hammerhead Off-Road tells us it was fairly amicable. Vespa took issue with some of their marketing language, and wanted to ensure that the product was easily distinguishable from a Vespa (for instance, they insisted the Venti not feature an analog speedometer).
Burnett also pointed out that it’s a first prototype and several changes would be made. Our suggestion to jettison the dangerous fake-ABS and cheapo chinese tires were warmly taken into consideration. Several dealers pointed out that the horn was mounted upside down (the Chinese builders presumably didn’t recognize it as a “V.” The legshield trim was painted on, but that and other ‘chrome’ parts will allegedly be upgraded in production. Most of the Vespa fanatics that looked it over had serious reservations about the stability of the plastic bodywork at speed, but it was a fair bit sturdier than we expected. Overall, Hammerhead doesn’t seem to have any illusions about what they’re doing. They’re not looking to please vintage Vespa fanatics, they’re looking to make a low-cost superficial replica of a Vespa, and again, “It is what it is.”
Hammerhead is also the U.S. importer for Adly scooters, and Burnett mentioned that Hammerhead approached Adly about producing these new Vespas, and Adly wasn’t interested. The manufacturer of the Venti is the Chinese maker of Hammerhead’s ATVs, who built the Venti prototype based on Hammerhead’s specifications.
The last manufacturer worth noting is Taiwan Golden Bee. For the last two years at Dealer Expo, Phil Waters and I spent hours telling Cobra Powersports, TGB’s importer, that they should look into better branding and marketing. TGB makes good bikes on par quality-wise with Kymco, SYM, and PGO (Genuine), but while the others do a great job marketing their bikes, TGB and Cobra always seemed a step behind. Last year was especially troubling, as Cobra was set to launch a separate line of generic chinese-manufactured bikes under the meaningless “Peirspeed” name, which would be carried across their range of Sachs-branded bikes as well.
This year, it got worse, as even the TGBs in Cobra’s lineup were branded as Peirspeeds, and TGB had set up their own booth right next door. Stanley Sha of TGB told us that TGB was no longer working with Cobra, and were re-establishing the brand and importing it themselves. The booth featured a new TGB logo and a few prototype bikes, such as the gold-and-blue Octane, which was one of the weirder color combinations we’ve ever seen on a scooter. Sha seemed eager for suggestions on how to penetrate our market, and we directed him to look at SYM, Kymco, and Genuine. While Genuine had their act together from the start, and Kymco caught on pretty quickly, SYM is just starting to really understand the American market. Sadly, Cobra still just doesn’t seem to get it, and we fear that TGB might have an even harder time on their own, which is a shame because the bikes are reliable and well-made, and just need a good makeover. Amazingly, in the next booth, Cobra was still marketing their TGB lineup (as Peirspeeds) and denying that their relationship with TGB had changed, insisting that TGB was only planning on selling bikes that Cobra wasn’t importing, despite (mostly) the same bikes appearing in both booths. We’ll see how that pans out. If TGB wants to Steve-Guzmán us, our consulting fees are surprisingly reasonable.
Part I of this series featured an overview of the show and some accessories dealers. PART III, will compare electric bikes from Vectrix, Ultra Motor, and E-Volt, and PART IV will discuss the Taiwan Symposium.