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Motorcycle sales are down. Will electric bikes help fix that?
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Motorcycle sales are down. Will electric bikes help fix that?

Motorcycle sales are down. Will electric bikes help fix that?

The Suzuki V-Strom 800 will debut at the Toronto Motorcycle Show, which runs from Feb. 17-19, at the Enercare Centre at Exhibition Place.Handout

There’ll be dozens of new motorcycles on display this weekend at the manufacturer-led Toronto Motorcycle Show, and next weekend at the Montreal Motorcycle Show, but will they be a tough sell in Canada?

The market for motorcycles in Canada never quite recovered after the heady days of the early 2000s. Back then, Canadians bought more than 80,000 new motorcycles every year, peaking in 2008 when almost 90,000 new bikes were sold. After the global financial crisis gutted annual sales – falling to 49,000 in 2011 – they slowly recovered to about 60,000, held back mostly by the high cost of insurance. It wasn’t until the pandemic that sales surged by an extra 10 per cent each year. Stuck-at-home riders bought dirt bikes, and then bought street bikes to celebrate their new freedom to travel, and to commute with independence. More than 72,000 new motorcycles and scooters were sold in 2021.

Sales are dropping again, though, down to just over 66,000 in 2022. The Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council of Canada (MMIC) blames the same supply chain issues that have affected automobile manufacturing. As well, high insurance rates and the need for new riders to be tested in person for their motorcycle licences are still obstacles to ownership.

“[A rebound will] move slowly initially and gain momentum, but the motorcycle industry is strong,” MMIC spokesman Dave Grummett says. “People are seeing the benefits, whether it’s for getting out into the country and getting bugs in your teeth, or travelling economically downtown. There’s lots of potential.”

The industry is not what it used to be, however. Electric motorcycles are starting to be noticed, and while few people are buying them – they’re expensive and have limited range compared to cars and trucks – they are inevitable. While motorcycles are not part of the federal government’s mandate for new vehicles sold in Canada to be 100-per-cent electric by 2035, “we all know it’s going to come in one form or another,” Grummett says.

Harley-Davidson was the first traditional motorcycle maker to introduce an electric bike, with the $37,250 Livewire in 2018. It has since created a new subsidiary just to sell electric motorcycles, and its chief executive officer said recently that the company will eventually stop building its iconic gas-powered V-twins.

“We are thinking: ‘How do we evolve if you think really long term,’ as this will not be an overnight transition,” Jochen Zeitz told design magazine Dezeen. “It takes decades, right? … We have to think about the transition, and preparing for that transition is why LiveWire was born.”

Electric Livewire sales have been slow, however, even with significant price drops. The powerful Livewire One now costs about $30,000, with a maximum range of 235 kilometres. A smaller model designed for city use will be released later this year, but last year, Harley reported fewer than 600 Livewire units shipped, let alone actually sold.

Honda will be the next major manufacturer to produce electric motorcycles, promising three mid-sized “fun bike” models for North America by 2025. It will produce many more for the rest of the world, especially the massive commuter-bike regions of India and Southeast Asia, and is also working with other makers, including Yamaha, KTM and Piaggio, to produce a standardized battery that can be quickly swapped at public vending stations. This will be important for apartment dwellers and people who cannot easily charge batteries at home.

Honda’s fun bikes will be “focusing on the time-honoured joy of riding,” Yoshishige Nomura, the company’s managing officer, said in a press conference last year. He also announced there will be more than 10 new electric models around the globe by 2025. “Honda aims to sell one million electric models within five years, and by 2030, 3.5 million units per year, which will be 15 per cent of total sales,” he said.

Solid-state batteries are expected to make a big difference to electric motorcycles, increasing their range while reducing their size, and Honda hopes to produce its first solid-state-powered production units later this decade. Until then, the lithium-ion batteries used in cars today are so heavy that they could double the weight of a motorcycle to provide the same range as its gas-powered model. Consequently, short-distance urban scooters are a popular option for electrification.

BMW already sells larger electric scooters in Canada, still intended for city use, and while it routinely demonstrates concept electric motorcycles at shows, it has made no comment on introducing a production electric bike. It certainly won’t do so at the Toronto or Montreal Motorcycle Shows this month: BMW will not be there, nor will Ducati or Kawasaki.

“We’re not able to guarantee the experience Kawasaki fans expect and deserve at these shows due to supply chain timing,” says Jacob Black, marketing and brand strategist for Canadian Kawasaki Motors Inc. “We hope to return in 2024 with a fleet of new and exciting Kawasaki models to show off.”

Before the pandemic, there were other motorcycle shows run by the manufacturers in Canada, but only Toronto and Montreal have returned in 2023. Organizers say the shows in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Quebec will return in 2024.

Most established bike makers will be at this month’s shows, however, including Canadian maker Can-Am, which recently announced a new line of electric bikes; its first two, the Origin and Pulse, will be available next year.

The commuter appeal of motorcycles and scooters faces stiff competition from off-shore makers that sell low-speed electric bicycles, many of them styled to look like motorcycles and which do not need special licences or even insurance to operate.

“Basically, if you’ve got the money to buy a [shipping] container, you can build a brand,” says Grummett. “It’s completely unregulated. Our companies have to have the ability to do a recall – if there’s a bad weld or a bad brake caliper, we have to have the ability to track the vehicle and do recalls, but something like that, it’s buyer beware.”

They’re not true motorcycles, however, and the two shows this month want to promote and reinforce the pleasure of riding a motorcycle in a safe and responsible way. There will be on-bike practical clinics to introduce the techniques of riding to both adults and children, as well as displays from riding schools, clubs and charity rides. And both vintage and new motorcycles. Lots of motorcycles.