It’s not just luxury cars that have been immune to slowing auto sales in India. Superbikes are keeping them company. Top-end bikes, which include the likes of Suzuki’s Hayabusa, Honda’s CBR1000RR and Yamaha’s R1, are typically bikes with a large displacement of around 1,000cc that allows them to accelerate quickly and maintain speeds up to 300km per hour if road conditions permit. Since they cost Rs. 950,000-1,250,000 (US$ 19,000-25,000) they’re only bought by passionate bikers.
“While the market is niche, the future is promising,” says Sanjay Tripathi, head of product planning and brand management at the India unit of Yamaha Motor, the first to import superbikes in end-2007. A slowing economy has not hit sales, he says.
While manufacturers had initially estimated there was a market for 300 such bikes every year, sales have shown it’s closer to 450-475, according to Debsena Banerjee of Segment Y Automotive Intelligence, a Goa-based consultancy.
In the past, these bikes were brought into the country by importers on behalf of bikers. There are around 3,000 top-end motorcycles in the country, according to industry estimates, and some bikers find servicing them a problem. Despite declining auto sales in the country due to an economic slowdown, luxury car makers such as BMW India and Mercedes-Benz India have reported robust growth of around 40% and 14%, respectively, in the year to 31 March.
In contrast, sales at India’s top car maker Maruti Suzuki India grew just 1.45% in fiscal 2009, compared with 12% in the previous year. Pankaj Chadha, a director in the automotive practice at Ernst and Young, says the market for top-end motorcycles could be larger. “There isn’t enough promotional activity (being) done by manufacturers in India to promote high performance adventure bikes,” he says.
Still, India Yamaha Motor decision to prise open the market seems to be paying off. It was surprised by the response for its 1,000cc-plus R1 and MT01 models. In its first year of sales to December, it sold 107 motorcycles, almost double the 50-60 it had thought it would sell. The company has a dozen dealerships across India.
Quick to spot an opportunity, Suzuki Motorcycle India and Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India, both subsidiaries of Japanese auto manufacturers, also launched their best-selling models. And, Precision Motor India started importing Ducati motorcycles from last May, adding to the imports of luxury Porsche cars.
N.K. Rattan, head of sales and marketing at Honda Motorcycle, says he plans to sell at least 100 bikes in the first year of their launch. There are as many as 700 illegally imported bikes across India, according to DRI estimates Honda’s CBR1000RR and CB1000R go on sale later this month.
Suzuki, whose bikes are available at seven dealers across the country, has sold 51 of its Hayabusa and Intruder models in the four months since their launch. Mohammed Imaduddin Farooqui, a Suzuki Motorcycle dealer in Hyderabad, says he receives around 25 enquiries a day and expects sales to likely increase after the general election that ends on 13 May.
Precision, which sold 50 units last year, says it plans to set up India’s first Ducati sales and service outlet in Mumbai by September as the market is “holding up well”. The Streetfighter, a new model from Ducati, would debut in India later this year, according to Ashish Chordia, Precision’s chief executive.
In the next few months, bike sales are likely to receive a boost from an unexpected source. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, or DRI, has begun to crack down on superbikes imported without proper paperwork. To escape high levels of duties, currently 105%, on imported bikes, some import them dismantled, billing them as spare parts and paying a lower duty of 24%.
A DRI official, who declined to be identified, said his office had seized 80 bikes in Mumbai and Pune. DRI estimates there are as many as 700 illegally imported bikes across India. More raids are planned in a few months, the official said.