What you should know about why dirt bikes and off-road motorcycles do not sell in India

Pradeb Biswas Published: April 29, 2013, 04:38 PM IST

Obviously, this discussion has its roots around the dinner table at the KTM 390 Duke launch in Salzburg, Austria. KTM is the world's largest off-road motorcycle brand and as a natural consequence, dirt bike popularity affects them a bit, and concerns them greatly. The question is always the same. If the roads in India are famously, er, variable as ever, how is it that our history with dirt bikes is both sparse and abysmal. Sparse in the number of models that have made a stab at it and abysmal in the number of sales they have managed to garner.

The logic I usually hear is that it is such a small niche that no manufacturer who values his profit will venture into this segment in India. And our history is quoted back without exception as a way of justifying this. "Remember the Funduro? The SX100? and so on and so forth?" The situation back then was that we were not ready for these bikes. And nothing has changed, we are still not ready for these bikes.

Well, I do not agree one tiny little bit. I think it is all hokum. At this point, I am shown the Hero Impulse as the next example. "Oh yeah? Explain the incredible popularity [yes, sarcasm] of the Hero Impulse to us then!" All right, fine, I will. But hear me out.

My logic in sum, is this. I believe that in an unfortunate twist of fate, all the three dirt bikes India has seen so far have been off the mark in one way or another. And as a direct result of our incredible value-conscious market, these products have not clicked. But, when we discuss this, we tend to overlook the details and lump them together. And say more or less that long-travel suspension and knobby tyres were the reason for the demise. Dirt bikes, they just don't work in India. Shrug ruefully and walk away.

I think that Hero and BMW were incredibly ambitious with the F650 Funduro. There was nothing really wrong with the bike. Owners who have them today do scrounge for parts and consumables a bit but it has become easier to import spares so the bike is usually looked upon with indulgent affection rather than with the beginnings of a migraine. So what went wrong? The Funduro was jointly developed by Aprilia and BMW (think Pegaso) and the BMW bikes were built by Aprilia powered by an Rotax-built 652cc engine. Among its claims to fame was that it was the first BMW motorcycle to use chain drive. In the mid-90s, the bike was launched at Rs 5 lakh. I am no mathematician or economist but at 6 per cent inflation, that is the equivalent of Rs 13 lakh in today's money. Now consider the fact that after the introductory pricing disappears, the F650 will be about Rs 12 lakh. So it would appear that their tie-up with TVS aside, BMW Motorrad in India is in a bit of status quo, no? But that is a simplistic conclusion and we are digressing.

I think the real story is that the last few motorcycles refused to sell more or less and the prices were dropped to Rs 1.8 lakh. And at that point all the motorcycles were snapped up very quickly. Right through the period that the bike was on sale its price was adjusted downwards until the motorcycle sold out. If India wasn't ready, the price adjustment should not have helped. I think the fact of the matter is simple. Someone seriously overestimated the bike's value proposition.

Some people even argue that the F650 wasn't even a true off-roader. Which may well be true as well, but that only goes to show how alien in concept it was to Indian customers and how hard the selling proposition would have become when the unknown format was joined together with an incredible price. Hell I remember that the discussion about the F650 usually centered on its price rather than its performance, design or other aspects. Not a good sign.

Two-three years before that, Bajaj had the Enduro SX aka SX100 out, a neon green high-fendered thing. I remember my KB125's favourite mechanic owning one and he said, "Arrey they are damn cheap. No one wants them." Why? Apparently, they weren't very reliable. That is why my mechanic could have one. He had the (free) wherewithal to keep it running. Did it fail as a dirt bike? No, it probably was more an unreliable motorcycle than an unpopular off-road motorcycle. Was it an off-road motorcycle in the first place? The front suspension travel was only marginally longer than usual, ditto the rear.

And now we come to the Hero Impulse. As you know from our road tests, we really liked its dynamic package - ride quality is impeccable and handling only requires slightly better tyres to really shine. It is also quite handy off-road though the engine could do with more power. I would argue that if the Impulse had been a 250, it might actually have been aspirational enough for people to pay a lot more money and buy many more. In fact, I would say the motorcycle doesn't take its role as a dirt bike seriously enough to succeed in India. I believe that if its dirt focus was purer, the bike would have been more expensive, but I suspect also more successful - the value proposition (aspiration is a part of the deal to my mind) would have been much stronger.

Price (Ex-Delhi)
Starts Rs 2,52,928
Max Power(ps)
Max Torque(Nm)
25.00 Kmpl

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