When the GFC hit the sportsbike market, no other manufacturer took as big a hit as Suzuki and it is yet to recover. It’s been a tumultuous period for the smallest of the Japanese bike manufacturers, especially in the United States where they had to abandon selling cars in 2012. But with Suzuki returning to MotoGP in 2015 are they on the comeback or will they continue with their decline into motorcycle obscurity?
Sales figures don’t show much to cheer for yet. In the United Kingdom, Suzuki struggles to get into the top 10 for sales on a regular monthly basis, usually only doing so when heavily discounting. It’s a similar story in the United States, Australia and most of Europe. In 2010, Suzuki had to close a whopping third of it’s UK dealerships due to poor sales and existing dealerships continue to struggle.
A look at Suzuki’s publicly available financial statements confirms the bad news. For the 2013 financial year, Suzuki’s motorcycle division actually made it’s first profit in six years, but only just. It turned around a loss of ¥11.9 billion ($106 million) in the previous fiscal year to make an operating profit of ¥100 million ($846,000). Unfortunately, that’s already been reversed in the two quarters to date for the 2014 financial year with an operating loss of ¥0.2 billion ($1.69 million) with sales down 10.9% for the first six months.
Thankfully, Suzuki is profitable from a consolidated view so there’s little chance that the company will cast away such a well known motorcycle brand anytime soon and there’s absolutely no evidence of that happening. But the question has to be asked, how long can Suzuki continue to allow it’s struggling motorcycle division continue to be a drag on it’s overall profitability? At some point even a conservative company like Suzuki has to make changes.
As it currently stands, the future doesn’t look incredibly promising. At the latest two motorcycle shows in Cologne and Milan this year, almost all the major manufacturers were out in force and bringing a host of new models. Kawasaki arguably stole the show with their supercharged Ninja’s, but Honda and Yamaha both displayed some exciting new models and concepts. Suzuki however merely dressed up a few existing models and added or removed some fairings.
All manufacturers do that, but the problem for Suzuki is they’re tarting up motorcycles that in some cases haven’t been properly updated in close to 7 years. That’s an eternity in the automotive industry, even for motorcycles which tend to have longer lifespans. Two ‘new’ models debuted recently were the Suzuki GSX- 1000F and GSX-S1000 – a sports tourer and a naked based on the GSX-R1000. There’s nothing really wrong with these bikes as such, but not only are they years behind the market with their release, they’re based on a design that was last overhauled in 2007.
Going through Suzuki’s product catalog is an exercise in the mundane. Only two models really stand out as being contenders for desirable bikes – the V-Strom (both 600 and 1000) and the GSX-R750. These are among the few models Suzuki has bothered upgrading in recent years. The V-Strom 650 got an upgrade in 2012 and it’s big brother in 2013. The GSX-R750 remains one of the best bikes in it’s class and was last updated in 2011.
A real symbol of Suzuki’s decline is the Hayabusa. Once probably the most famous sportsbike in the world, it still commands a loyal following but in all respects lags behind the current competition and it hasn’t been updated in any significant way since it’s initial release back in 1999.
So why with all this doom and gloom has Suzuki decided to return to MotoGP, a sport which will cost them anywhere up to $50 million to compete in? Hopefully it is a sign that Suzuki is getting serious about it’s motorcycle business, especially in the western markets. Suzuki’s MotoGP bike is completely new and features and also new inline 4 cylinder engine. The technology on the track will hopefully trickle down to new GSX-R1000’s and GSX-R600’s. But in the meantime, you’ll have to be content with aging machines that might be blessed with a new paint scheme.