As motorcycles roar back, here are the best bikes to buy for summer

These 4 are excellent choices for your next socially distanced ride

By HANNAH ELLIOTT

CORONAVIRUSflattened the car industry beyond recognition. Its effect on the motorcycle market may be less severe.

Motorcycle sales in the first quarter of 2020 dropped 10.6% from that of 2019, compared to a 12% fall for cars, according to research firm Motorcycles Data. Some industry watchers are saying they actually feel optimistic about 2020 when it comes to motorcycle sales.

“There are good reasons for optimism,” Erik Pritchard, the head of the Motorcycle Industry Council, said during a videoconference call with dealers.

During the first four months of 2020, the larger group of all retail “powersports” sales (a group that combines motorcycle sales with those of such all-terrain vehicles as four-wheelers) in the US saw its best performance since 2016.

“The powersports industry is in a much more positive place than where we thought we’d be earlier this year, when the full impact of the pandemic began to come into focus.”

Jason Chinnock, the head of Ducati Motorcycles of North America, professes confidence as well. Speaking by phone call, Chinnock says Ducati’s flagship New York store delivered a 24% sales increase, year over year, for new motorcycle sales in April; dealers in California’s Orange County, Los Angeles (LA), and the Bay Area saw similar success.

The Zero SR/S utilises a motor with a futuristic
hum that serves only to amplify the nature around you (pic: Blommnerg)

In Florida, Ducati dealers in Sanford, Miami, and Pompano posted higher performance figures than in April 2019. Elsewhere, local dealers such as Kentucky Powersports (which tripled sales in April) and Minnesota-based East Central Sports (more dirt bike sales in April than ever before) reported record numbers.

April is historically one of the strongest months of the year for motorcycle sales, as warmer weather prompts consumers to start planning spring and summer riding. Multiple factors have led to the gains, among them the simple fact that consumers have been cooped up since early March and are longing for a way to escape the confines of home, while safely maintaining distance from others.

“If you’re looking for that escape, that release, that joy, then motorcycling is where you’re going to go,” says Chinnock.

Riding a motorcycle is less expensive, more efficient, and often faster than commuting by car. Covid-19 has caused consumers who may have waffled about getting on a motorbike to reassess the risk.

“For persons who might have thought before: ‘I don’t know about powersports, that could be dangerous’ — well, does your thinking change when you could go outside and can get sick and die from having been breathed on by the wrong person, or touched the wrong surface?” Pritchard says.

“You start thinking about whether there are some things you’ve been really wanting to do. When you’ve been stuck inside for the past few months, you are probably willing to do some new things, especially if the risk is something [you] can control, or at least help control by wearing protective gear.”

With that in mind, we are highlighting four exciting motorbikes for this summer that are new on the market. They include electric, Italian, dirt-bike-inspired, and channeling vintage cool. Each is worthy of consideration as you plan the best way to get out of the house while staying 6ft from your friends.

For the rider who wants to be cool: Ducati Scrambler Café Racer

The flat seat and easy gear shifts make the INT650 easy for get-on- and-go jaunts (pic: Bloomberg)

Some have argued that the 2020 Ducati Scrambler Café Racer is too easygoing to be a Ducati. They say it’s more stylistic than serious, an exercise in pandering to dilettantes, rather than an evolution of superior performance from this 126-year-old brand.

To which I say: That’s kind of the point, though it could be said in kinder terms.

The US$11,996 (RM51,344) Scrambler Café Racer is indeed designed specifically to be stylish. This need not be a demerit. Quite the contrary: Many of us love those uber-cool motorbikes from the 1960s and ‘70s that Ducati has excellently channelled here, with silver-ice matte graphics, a covered seat, low handlebars set at the ends and generally tidy proportions.

When I tested one recently in LA, I loved the 17-inch spoked wheels and “54” racing plate number hung on each side of the bike (a number that commemorates Bruno Spaggiari, an Italian moto racer from the 1950s); I loved that you can swap out the single round headlight marked with a big black X and the panels on the fuel tank to make the bike more your own.

Ducati made this six-speed, 803cc motorbike to appeal to a broad range of riders, including newer ones and hobbyists, weekend-only types and Ducati faithful who want a second, third, or fourth bike for fun.

The reason is simple: The motorcycle industry has been tanking since 2006. It’s imperative to recruit riders. The way to do that is to make motorcycles that are cool to look at and less likely to feel as if they might kill you. Companies that don’t adapt to the marketplace will die.

The Scrambler Café Racer is the result. It offers a more gradual power delivery when you squeeze the throttle than does a Ducati Monster, for instance, which will shoot out from under you on a hair-trigger. (I learned how to ride motorcycles on a Monster, which was quite the thrill — and with that hair-trigger probably not recommended.)

It comes with such easy ergonomics as a 31.7-inch seat height that felt low to my lanky frame, lowered handlebars and even a USB outlet hidden in the seat. It has handling that promotes stability, rather than just slicing roads like a jackknife — a characteristic I appreciated; most of my riding on this café racer was as it was intended, which is to say, cruising around neighbourhoods in Boyle Heights and LA’s downtown Arts District.

The 68hp engine will get you to 100mph (160kph) if you push it — but I found that the bike is happier cruising at 40mph to 50mph. Riding it was pure delight, as the Ducati gods surely intended. Who could argue with that?

For the rider who wants to be progressive: Zero SR/S

At US$19,995, the Zero SR/S is expensive for a motorcycle, especially one that requires its owners to take a deliberate step forward into the unknown. There have been plenty of critiques about electric motorcycles, circling mainly around the ideas that (1) since they don’t have the loud roar of engine tailpipes, they’re somehow less safe than motorcycles that do and (2) they’re not “real” motorcycles anyway, since they lack the gears, vibration, smell and general rumbling goodness of something that runs on oil and gas.

The one I rode recently in LA cost even more than its sticker price, closer to US$22,000, thanks to such upgrades as heated handlebars and a windscreen. (A bigger power tank adds a further US$2,895.) This is truly elite pricing ground for motorcycles, on par with more expensive items from BMW and Ducati.

Still, the Zero SR/S does have plenty of things you might find worthy of its price tag: Dynamic looks; a smooth, instant, powerful thrust of acceleration from the moment you twist the throttle; nearly 170 miles (274km) of driving range; and a motor with a futuristic hum that serves only to amplify the nature around you. It strips out all the distractions of riding a motorcycle so you can enjoy the sensation in its purest form. I loved it.

On a ride in the Elysian Heights near Dodgers Stadium in LA, I could hear birds chirping, leaves crackling and lawnmowers in the distance as I rolled around corners; I could smell the sweet fragrance of jacaranda in the breeze, rather than oil and petrol. The Zero SR/S achieved the uncanny feat of allowing me to feel total immersion in nature on a machine that usually actively blocks my senses from experiencing nature. It was a revelation of what motorcycle riding could be.

The Zero SR/S looks like a cross between a sportbike and a sport-tourer, with a single, air-cooled motor that produces 110hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. In normal driving in Eco mode, which is how I did much of my ride, the base model of the bike will get up to 161 miles of range in town; if you give it the beans, as our friends in England say, you’ll get roughly 82 miles on the highway at 70mph. The extra power tank boosts total range to 200 miles. Sport and Street modes tighten and quicken responses on the brakes and throttle; they lessen the considerable charge you get from the regenerative braking. Combined city and highway riding will even out around 100 miles of range.

As you might expect, the Zero SR/S comes with lots of technology packed into its instrument cluster, which is then linked to an iPhone app that measures range, battery life, miles ridden and so forth. The buttons on the front control screens are minimal; just one determines ride modes, and one acts as a starter and kill switch, as in standard motorcycles. (It even has a practical trunk of sorts near those instruments, a hatch (where the gas tank would be) that provides space for brown-bag lunches, say, or sunglasses, a hat and additional riding gloves.)

Some criticism: The brakes feel super touchy, rather than smooth, if you grab them too quickly, while Eco-mode riding means that the moment you loosen your hand on the throttle, the bike slows down. I found that I barely needed to touch the brakes at all; I just rolled off the throttle when I needed to slow.

Those quibbles are far from sufficient to derail my enthusiasm for the Zero SR/S. Those who can afford the exclusive price tag will find themselves among a very lucky group.

For the rider who wants daily value: Indian FTR Rally

If you come from the vein that might appreciate a Harley-Davidson but want to stand out a little more than that, consider the 2020 Indian FTR Rally. At US$13,499, it combines the heritage and brawny style of an established, respected motorcycle brand, while offering a fresh look and counterpoint perspective as to what that brand should be. There’s good value for money here.

The new FTR Rally comes emblazoned with the classic Indian Motorcycle logo and a red pinstripe, titanium smoke paint, and a premium rally console badge. I liked the cool Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tyres on aluminium spoke wheels and the upright handlebars set two inches higher than previous models for a more alert, at-the-ready riding feel.

I liked the look of its black trellis frame housing a 1203cc V-twin engine that gets 123hp and 87 lb-ft of torque. It delivers steady, progressive power and a generally mild response; it’s in the middle of the pack when it comes to responsiveness in steering, braking, and nimbleness, but it’s steady and strong.

This bike contains no-frills: No traction control, no LCD touchscreen, no ride modes. What’s more, the analogue gauge between the handlebars will polarise; a cool throwback to some, it may seem dated to others. (I didn’t have a problem with it.) The bike does offer a few modern conveniences, such as cruise control and USB charging.

The Indian FTR Rally will rattle a bit at higher speeds (cruising at 60mph is a happy spot), and it’ll go through petrol quicker than some of its lighter brethren. I found it happi- est cruising over LA River bridges, ducking down side streets, and then accelerating over the crest of each gently sloping incline.

For the rider who needs a reliable, powerful motorbike that is as happy on a highway commute as it is on city streets — and that could jump onto the dirt in a pinch, just in case — it delivers well, at a price that will make you smile.

For the rider who wants to be unique: Royal Enfield INT650

The 2020 Royal Enfield INT650 isn’t the smoothest, the fastest, or the most powerful of the motorcycles on the market today, as I had previously noted. But with the cool vintage feel of the Ducati Scrambler Café Racer at half the price, I find it among the most endearing. The US$5,799 INT650 comes with a four-stroke, air- and oil-cooled, 648cc-parallel-twin engine packed into a body taken from the military-style Royal Enfield Interceptors made in the 1960s.

At just 445lb, it feels light to ride, with steady handling and an easy balance around corners. The clutch is easy to press, the handlebars facile to manoeuvre and the braking uncomplicated and firm.

I liked how simple the flat seat felt, reflecting the Interceptor’s lack of emotional baggage.

I liked that the new Interceptor is a conversation piece to ride, too. I certainly got a lot of questions about it as I rode through LA and posted it on social media. Most people know the brand, but might not have seen a new Enfield in real life: In 2015, Royal Enfield surpassed even the behemoth Harley-Davidson in global motorcycle sales, but the brand sold just 3,500 motorbikes in the US last year.

The Interceptor is not a luxury item made from top quality components; it can feel thinly constructed, compared to jumping on a bike from BMW or Ducati. But for the price and the heritage, it’s a great entry into riding and a great addendum for those who want something for weekends.

I predict that in the near future, US sales number will rise. — Bloomberg