Okay, I’ll come clean: Suzuki isn’t going out of business. At least not totally. Its small SUVs, so popular in the European market, aren’t going anywhere. Ditto for hundreds of thousands of scooters it sells throughout the Far East. And it most certainly isn’t going to abandon the domestic “kei” microcar segment in which it flourishes, nor let anything interfere with its dominance of the Indian market, where Maruti Suzuki sells an incredible 45 per cent of all the cars in the country.
But it may very well soon leave a segment it once dominated: the world of full-sized sporting motorcycles. Oh, its current lineup will play out for as long as it can keep meeting emissions and noise standards. But I really do think that the once and (not likely) future king of superbikes — Suzuki’s iconic GSX-Rs fairly invented the modern sportbike — is slowly winding down its full-sized motorcycle production, with an eye to get out of the business entirely. Once it’s squeezed every ounce of profit it can out of its aging motorcycle fleet, of course.
And it’s just not the surprise announcement this past May 2 that the 2020 world champion was pulling out of MotoGP that has tongues wagging. Nope, what’s really set the apple cart tumbling is not that Suzuki is leaving racing, but rather how it’s leaving.
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For those not following motorcycle racing, MotoGP is the two-wheeled equivalent of Formula One. And, just like Formula One — indeed, all racing series — teams and sponsors come and go with the ebbs and flows of business and marketing needs. In fact, Suzuki has abandoned ship before, also bowing out of MotoGP at the end of the 2011 season, only to rejoin four years later, the company once again considering MotoGP’s worldwide reach an important marketing tool for its famed superbikes.
But this time it’s different. For one thing, the company had just signed a five-year contract with Dorna, the series promoter and owner. Already, there is serious discussion of severe penalties for breach of contract, sufficiently harsh, it is said — MotoGP isn’t as expensive as F1, but it ain’t cheap either — to make any cost savings seem rather distant. Carlo Pernat, Aprilia Racing Team’s former chief and current manager of Ducati MotoGP rider Enea Bastianini, told Cycle World that Suzuki could incur as much as 10 million euro in penalties for its breach of contract.
Okay, even more than the how, it’s the who of this seemingly sudden about-face that has the motorcycling world in a tizzy. It appears that Suzuki’s president, Hiroshi Tsuda, was not at all in favour of the pull-out, but was over-ruled by the board of directors. Even more conspiratorial is that Suzuki entered into a partnership with Toyota in 2019, exchanging access to its stranglehold on the Indian market in exchange for TMC’s EV technology. And indeed, Suzuki’s sole communications on the matter refer to the “current economic situation” and the need to “shift costs and human resources to develop new technologies,” which the press has taken to mean that MotoGP has been sacrificed so Suzuki can focus on electric vehicles.
But even that, on closer inspection, seems like a false flag. For one thing, Suzuki has very much adopted a ‘go-slow’ adoption of batteries and electric motors. In its most recent 2021 Integrated Report, management notes that while other automakers are looking to electrify all their models by 2030, “most of Suzuki’s customers are ordinary consumers and the existence of our business necessitates us to stay closely attuned to their needs.” For that reason, the company says that “instead of rushing too far ahead and focusing solely on advancing technologies, we must first consider what kinds of vehicles our customers will actually use in the coming years.” In plain English, that means the company will indeed develop electric vehicles, but its core automotive audience still wants low-cost, fossil-fueled product that has allowed the company, again, to dominate emerging markets like India.
So, why then the sudden pullback from MotoGP?
Well, the simple truth is that it might not actually be all that sudden. In point of fact, Suzuki has been in a slow-motion retreat from the motorcycle industry for almost two decades. It’s jettisoned much of its once high-profile racing efforts, including World Superbike as well as MotoGP. More telling is that where once Suzuki’s motorcycle lineup was the very cutting edge of technology and styling, its current lineup is the oldest in motorcycling. Indeed, save for the 999-cc four it developed for the 2017 GSX-R1000, it feels like Suzuki hasn’t developed an all-new engine since the turn of the millennium.
Oh, the monster-motored Hayabusa was refreshed last year, but after years of speculation of an all-new motor — including rumours of a turbocharged beast that would really set the motorcycling world on its ear — it turned out to be the mildest of retunes of the 1,340-cc engine that was developed back in 2008, itself but a mildly stroked version of the 1,299-cc monster that shocked the world in 1999. In its first years in production, Suzuki sold almost 15,000 Hayabusas a year, and 10,000 a year in America alone in 2005 and 2006. According to the company’s Integrated Report 2021, it will move fewer than 2,000 units worldwide for the brand-new “update.”
Other models fare no better. The DL1050 V-Strom, which competes in motorcycling’s growing adventure-touring segment (and therefore should be a focus for whatever high-tech the company does have) is powered by basically the same engine that powered the then-revolutionary 2002 DL1000 (and before that the 1997 TL). Oh, it got bigger pistons in 2014 and different cams and throttle bodies in 2020, but that’s it for nigh on 20 years of development. Hell, the current engine still has the nagging clutch chatter that owners have been complaining about since, well, the 2003 V-Strom I owned.
The rest of the company’s lineup is pretty much the same. The cruisers are beyond out-of-date, the DR-Z400 ancient, and the once-loved SV650 just plain tired. Hell, the most talked about bikes in Suzuki’s lineup — 2020’s re-invented Katana and 2022’s GSX-S1000GT sport tourer — are just rehashes of 2005’s K5 GSX-R, a then-state-of-the-art litre bike. Quite literally, Suzuki is trying to pawn off 17-year-old engines as au courante.
I really think the once and (not likely) future king of superbikes is slowly winding down its full-sized motorcycle production, with an eye to get out of the business entirely — once it’s squeezed every ounce of profit it can out of its aging motorcycle fleet, of course
Now, one can argue whether Suzuki’s lineup is moribund because sales of its big-bore motorcycles don’t justify investment. Or whether it’s been the lack of development in new models that has precipitated those moribund sales. But, whatever the case, the company has nothing new in the pipeline.
For the longest time — it feels like more than 10 years now — newsmakers have been trotting out patent drawings of a turbocharged twin that is supposed to rejuvenate Suzuki’s lineup. First introduced as the 588-cc Recursion (later revised to the 700-cc XE7), the turbocharged version was supposed to take the place of the DL1050’s V-twin — and possibly even the fours in some sport bikes — while a naturally aspirated version would finally revitalize the long-suffering SV650, not to mention the still-popular-but fading DL650 “Wee-Strom.” Alas, while Suzuki has been filing patents since 2013 detailing what it could do, there’s been no indication of what it will do with the new engine design. Pretty much every year the speculation grows stronger, and every year, the Suzuki loyal are left disappointed.
This paucity of new and exciting motorcycles is very much reflected in Suzuki sales. Lost deep in the company’s 2021 annual report is the reality that full-sized motorcycles — and by “full-sized,” I mean over 400 cc and not wearing scooter-sized wheels — are not very important to Suzuki any more.
As I mentioned, despite all the fanfare that greeted the new Hayabusa, the company only sells about 2,000 a year globally. Ditto the Katana. Indeed, consider this: perusing that Integrated Report and applying a little guesswork (Suzuki breaks out its sales by model name but not by actual displacement) the 2021 sales of its core big sport bikes — that would be the aforementioned Hayabusa and DL650/1000, as well as the Katana, GSX-S 750/1000, and GSX-R600/750/1000 — probably total fewer than 50,000 units. By comparison, BMW’s most popular model, the big-ticket R1250 GS, accounted for about 60,000 sales all by its own self last year. It’s also worth noting that while seemingly constantly-refreshed BMWs commands top dollar, pretty much every Suzuki sold in North America has to be deeply discounted.
To be fair, all the once-dominant Japanese motorcycle makers have fallen on hard times, and for much the same reason. Oh, Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha’s lineup haven’t stagnated quite as completely as Suzuki’s has, but there’s more than a little irony that once-declining European brands — Triumph and BMW, not to mention Ducati and relative upstart KTM — are beating the Asians at what was once their own game. It’s Europe, now, that’s constantly rejuvenated their product portfolios with a seemingly never-ending progression of improved motorcycles and exciting new technology.
BMW now updates as quickly as Honda used to; Triumph is doing a masterful job of building multiple enticing models from different platforms; and KTM’s resolute pushing of the performance envelope has resulted in 11 straight years of record sales. Hell, even traditionally conservative Harley-Davidson, normally the very epitome of hidebound tradition, has released two all-new powertrains — to great fanfare, by the way — in the last six years, and Ducati, now under Audi’s wing, seems to set new sales records almost every year.
Suzuki could yet make a mockery of all these meanderings, of course, finally releasing that Recursion twin it’s been promising all these many years. And yes, there was a slight uptick in North American sales last year. But, by Suzuki’s own admission, that was largely due to a pandemic-fueled boost in off-road dirt bikes and ATVs. Suzuki USA even released a statement — via vice-president of motorcycle and ATV sales and marketing Kerry Graeber — confirming that it remains “committed to powersports and the U.S. market.”
But such protestations ring hollow. Indeed, this feels all eerily familiar to Suzuki’s retreat 10 years ago from the North American car market, when it became obvious to one and all — the New York Times saying “it came as little surprise” — that the Grand Vitara and Kizashi weren’t cutting it with American and Canadian consumers. Now, it’s the company’s streetbike lineup that looks old and tired. And not just compared with its competitors here in North America, but indeed in the entire global market.
So, no wonder Suzuki has so unceremoniously pulled out of MotoGP. I mean, why spend a whole bunch of money on road racing when you don’t really have much interest in selling streetbikes?