Harley-Davidson to go into the Adventure category

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Actually credit where credit is due. Harley maybe very late to the party but realizes it must be bold to survive in the long run. Adventure (ADV) bikes (think of them as 2-wheeled SUVs)  are one of the most popular motorcycle segments now due to versatility but the competition is fierce and only getting moreso. Harley plans to launch a 1250cc ADV bike in 2020.

It is unlikely to cause segment leader BMW to quake in its boots with respect to its best seller GS series although the question is can the Harley brand can carry any sales at all? At the luxury end BMW, KTM, Ducati, Triumph, Moto Guzzi and Aprilia all have ADV bikes. BMW & KTM are the sales chart leaders. BMW for inventing the segment and KTM for strapping a 160hp nuke to its expertise in off road and 17 straight wins in the Paris-Dakar.

It is fast becoming a horsepower war. BMW is looking to launch a 145-150hp 1250cc next year for the GS from the 125hp 1170cc twin it currently has to keep up with the competition.

Without a spec sheet it is hard to tell much about the Harley ADV. It looks heavy. Weight matters. The BMW is around 240kg. The KTM 210kg. Will the Harley keep it under 260kg?

Horsepower is not a Harley strong suit. You won’t find power in a Harley spec sheet at the dealer. Will it use a clump of lazy torqued Milwaukee pig iron for an engine? In a low slung cruiser one can get away with it but in a tall ADV bike, when negotiating goat tracks (that’s a wide belly pan!), traction, power delivery and how a bike carries its weight is crucial. Can Harley produce over 120hp from this 1250cc engine with flexibility across the rev range? Will it be chain driven? Shaft? Belt? These things matter to the ADV snobs.

The design of the ADV Harley is certainly bold. CM likes it although if you drop it that headlight unit sure looks expensive to replace. Like many SUVs never see more off-road than a gravel driveway, the most dirt tracking Harley ADVs will see might be some road repairs on Route 66. The Pan America name certainly rings of highway biased use.

The next thing will be price. Even before (and after) we have full specs can Harley launch the bike at a competitive price? Harley can’t just rock up into a segment it’s never been active in and demand the type of premium it’s cruisers carry. It’s top of the line CVO series can be $50,000. BMW is considered the premium offering in ADV. Luxury Italian brand Ducati tried to price it slightly north and was caned in the sales race. KTMs are priced slightly cheaper but BMW remains king and having owned one know exactly why. The BMW is good at absolutely EVERYTHING.

Harley has history in new ventures. It broke the mold decades ago and took a stab at sports bikes with the Buell brand, but it was an abject failure. Porsche was called into help develop the V-Rod engine some 18 years ago but that is no longer sold.

Harley also aims to launch electric bikes, smaller 250-500cc categories for Asian markets and a mid range 500-1250cc for new sport type street fighters. All looks margin crushing from a distance.

From an investor perspective the accountants will require a lot of volume to justify the R&D expense. The shares closed toward the lows on the announcement.

Without getting too Harvard MBA, Harley feels extension of product is vital. To a degree it is right. Unfortunately graveyards for such strategies are too commonplace. Few get it right. Buell was case in point. BMWs K1600 Bagger will flop because it was an excuse trying to find a home for its 1600cc 6-cylinder regardless of capabilities. Customers see through this.

Harley’s ADV will have distribution channels as it’s biggest weapon. It will have a hard time converting ADV faithful unless it offers something truly better at a competitive price. Otherwise it will gather dust on showroom floors.

Personally this ADV will probably do better than most think. It won’t get close to toppling the Beemer but there are enough quirky people out there who want to be different. Nice job Harley but can it turn groups profitably around? The last 5 years have been a disaster. The question is all this product arrives at a time when the economy is likely to turn south.

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