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Special report: Are 600cc sportsbikes dead and buried?

Plummeting sales, high prices and a lack of development. Can anything save the supersports 600?

Special report: Are 600cc sportsbikes dead and buried?

 

YOU DON’T have to reach far back into the history books to see that 600cc supersports bikes once made up the hottest market segment of all. Supplies could barely keep up with demand and manufacturers were engaged in an all-out war to create the most high-tech and desirable 600cc machine on the market.

The battle became so intense that a little over a decade ago Yamaha was even fitting its R6 with misreading rev-counters, giving the impression its bike screamed higher than any of the competition. The 2006 model’s 17,500rpm red line seemed incredible, and it turned out to be exactly that; not credible. The real rev limit was around the 16,000rpm mark, with the counter over-reading and giving the impression that the bike’s technology must have been a step or two ahead of its apparently lower-revving rivals.

That might have been stepping over the line, but 600s were often early adopters of new technology. When Yamaha introduced the motorcycle world to fly-by-wire throttles, the R6 was the first bike to get them. When Honda wanted to show us that ABS would work on a sports bike, it was the CBR600RR that gained the kit before anything else.

But a few years on it’s hard to imagine getting anything very new with a 600cc supersports machine. Aside from the occasional tuck and tweak, every mainstream contender on the market is based on an old design, lacking the modern technology that’s increasingly becoming available even on cheaper, lower-performance bikes. If you want cornering ABS, IMU-assisted traction control or a host of other new tech that’s proliferated in other parts of the market, don’t go looking towards the 600cc supersport class to satisfy your desires.

Chicken or egg?

For a graphic illustration of the way the bottom has fallen out of the market for supersports bikes, you need only look at the UK sales figures in the class.

For years British riders had a love affair with 600s. They fulfilled our national tendency to lean towards sports bikes over other machines, but came with a lower price and a dash of added practicality when compared to full-on superbike-class offerings. But over the last decade or so, we’ve simply stopped buying them.

Back in 2006, at the very height of the battle for 600cc supremacy, the Honda CBR600RR, Yamaha R6, Suzuki GSX-R600, Kawasaki ZX-6R and then-new Triumph Daytona 675 accounted for some 8105 sales in the UK alone.

In 2017, the same models – plus the newer MV Agusta F3 675 – could muster only 716 UK registrations. That’s a 91% drop, and the picture here is widely reflected in other markets, too.

With numbers like that it’s no surprise that companies haven’t been rushing to pour their hard-earned R&D funds into their supersports machines over the last few years. The Yamaha R6 was visually revamped (again) for 2017 but the last time it could really claim to be ‘all-new’ was back in 2006. Suzuki’s GSX-R600 hasn’t really been touched since 2011 and its last complete overhaul was more than a decade ago.

Similarly the Kawasaki ZX-6R was last give a more than skin-deep revamp back in 2009. Honda has dropped the CBR600RR in Europe altogether, having not given it any big mechanical changes since 2007, and similarly the Triumph Daytona 675 has been laid to rest. You can still buy an MV Agusta F3 675 but just eight were registered in the UK last year. Unsurprisingly, everyone who’s not limited by racing regulations buys the 800cc version, which is really in a different class altogether.

There’s a circular argument to be had as to whether the falling fortunes of the class is the result of buyers losing interest or manufacturers failing to develop their bikes. Have we stopped buying them because there’s nothing new on the market, or is there nothing new being developed because there’s no interest from customers?

The figures show that sales started to decline a little even before the financial crisis hit in 2008/9, but that definitely had an impact. In fact, it was a triple-whammy for the Japanese firms that are the backbone of the class. Cash-strapped customers couldn’t afford the bikes, falling sales meant that R&D expenditure needed to be cut and – the icing on the cake – the Japanese Yen didn’t drop in value like the currencies of their main export markets, which carved an even deeper furrow into their margins.

A deeper issue

But even a dozen years ago, when we were at peak-supersports in terms of sales and the bikes themselves were still at the bleeding edge of technology, the writing was on the wall. While 600s were selling strongly, their profit margins were wafer thin and shrinking with every piece of new technology they adopted.

In fact, 600s weren’t the first machines to suffer this problem. The same fate befell the jewel-like 250cc and 400cc four-cylinder machines that were popular, particularly in Japan, in the 80s and 90s. The simple fact is that a four-cylinder sports bike, whether it’s a 250, a 400, a 600 or a 1000cc machine, has around the same number of components. And when there’s fierce competition between rival manufacturers, the battle for supremacy means there’s diminishing scope to use cheap parts or materials to cut back on costs.

The same applies to R&D expenditure; it’s just as pricey to develop a small sports bike as a large one.

But when it comes to selling them, there’s no way to put a 1000cc superbike price tag on a 600cc supersports machine. We might say that we’d like to see cornering ABS, EMU-operated stability control and all the other gizmos associated with the latest crop of superbikes applied to an all-new 600cc machine, but while there’s no question such a bike would be a stunner, people would still throw their hands up in horror if they were asked to spend £15,000 on buying one.

In the past, lower performance requirements, laxer emissions rules and less technology meant costs were lower and, combined with massive numbers of sales, the result was that the 600cc supersport bike still made good financial sense, even if the margins were slim. Today it’s much harder to make the numbers add up.

Comments

Rogerborg's picture

One of the most underwhelming experiences of my biking career was getting off my F800GS and test riding the legendary CBR600F in a bid to stave off middle age.

Super smooth engine, but a pointless riding position for the road (no, I will not learn to fit the bike, the bike should fit me), and shockingly gutless. At the point where the power kicked in, I was already running out of road on which to enjoy it.

On a weekend, on a track, or that mythical stretch of well surfaced twisties with no traffic and perfect forwards visibility, I can see the fun in keeping them up in the Fun Band - while ignoring the fuel gauge. But on real roads? I honestly got more license friendly giggles from thrashing the nuts off a cheap little Ninja 250 and exploiting every bit of its performance through every gear, so that's what I added to my garage instead for having juvenile larks.

As a do everything, everyday "city" bike with a bit of "racing" on the weekends, you can do much better these days than a sports 600. I mean, you *could* get Kate Upton round to do your dishes, and I'm sure she'd scrub them clean enough, but it's not what she's *for*.

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