New Delhi: In the first seven months of this fiscal (April-October), sales of category A bikes increased 2.84%, category B, 4.47%, and category C, 77.76%.

While the numbers seem to indicate that the last category has bucked the slowdown, fact is, it was a category that saw sales of a mere 805 units in the seven months. C, of course, stands for the superbike category (motorcycles with engine displacement higher than 750 cc). The narrowness of this niche can be gauged from the fact that sales of Audi luxury cars (priced above 25 lakh), for instance, grew 53% in the same period to 5,174 units.

Of the 805 superbikes, the Indian arm of iconic US company Harley-Davidson Inc. sold 628 units (although its sales slowed in October). Pradeep Saxena, executive director, TNS Automotive, a research firm, said the superbike market is still minuscule but received a fillip with the entry of Harley.

Still, superbikes don’t come cheap with entry level models starting at 7 lakh and Saxena said that would mean the market will grow slowly over time.

“One good thing that has happened for the superbike companies is that, to an extent, (Royal) Enfield has created a base of customers for them. So, I think an Enfield owner has a higher propensity for buying those bikes than others," Saxena said.

“But in the near-term, the numbers will be smaller and superbikes will be kept at home to show off and people will take them out once in a while."

Top-end bikes, which include the likes of Harley’s SuperLow, Suzuki’s Hayabusa, Honda’s CBR1000RR and Yamaha’s R1, typically boast a large displacement of around 800cc or more and can maintain speeds up to 300km per hour if road conditions permit. But they cost 7 lakh or above, and they’re only bought by passionate bikers.

And in recent years, the number of such people has increased.

“The future looks promising with higher disposable income and increasing salaries. The buyers in the segment are not limited to businessmen like it was five years ago. Now you have people like doctors and senior executives in multi-national companies," said Roy Kurian, national business head, India Yamaha Motor Pvt. Ltd.

Yamaha was the first company to start importing superbikes into India in 2007. Quick to spot an opportunity, Suzuki Motorcycle India Pvt. Ltd and Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India Pvt. Ltd, both subsidiaries of Japanese auto manufacturers, also launched their best-selling models. Precision Motor India Pvt. Ltd started importing Ducati motorcycles from 2009. And Harley entered the market in 2010.

The availability seems to have created its own market.

“There has been an inherent desire for superbike/premium motorcycles in India and it’s just in last two-three years that people have been able to own them which has attributed to rapid growth of the segment," said Anoop Prakash, managing director, Harley-Davidson India. “The constant growth of India’s middle-class has resulted in a growing number of affluent customers that seek new leisure experiences. The premium motorcycle segment in India has grown over the last three years, with consumers looking for riding experiences coupled with style, comfort and performance."

With companies selling their bikes directly, middlemen and importers who were once the sole conduits to buying superbikes, are no longer relevant.

“Some five years ago, the market was grey—people used to buy from importers. Now that has changed to proper market with companies trying to cash in on growing demand," said Atul Gupta, vice-president (sales and marketing), Suzuki Motorcycles India Pvt. Ltd, a unit of Japanese auto manufacturer Suzuki Motor Corp. “So, sales will only go up as companies also focus on the servicing, which used to be a problem a few years ago."

Given the size of the market and the profile of the buyers, a slowdown in the economy is unlikely to hit this segment, Gupta added, “because this market is not seasonal".

This year, the market for superbikes over 800 cc displacement is estimated at 1,500-1,600 and it will grow to 5,000 by 2015, said Kurian of Yamaha.

That may explain why Harley has chosen to set up a local assembly plant for five models—including SuperLow, Iron 883 and Forty-Eight—at Bawal in Haryana. The assembly plant started operations in 2011. The Bawal factory is the company’s first in Asia and only the second outside the US after Brazil, where the company set up an assembly plant in 1999. This will make some of its offerings less expensive because completely built-up units (CBU) attract an effective import duty of as much as 60%.

“Harley-Davidson opened a complete knockdown kit (CKD) assembly facility in India in January 2011 which assembles motorcycles from US supplied kits. As part of its global growth strategy, Harley-Davidson is highly focused to ramp up the production of our complete knockdown (CKD) operations in India as it allows us to improve our market responsiveness and production flexibility while reducing the tariff burden, which we expect will drive growth over time by making our motorcycles more accessible to India’s customers," said Harley’s Prakash. “Having said that, we are working on a number of exciting new products that will answer the dreams of a new global generation of motorcyclists, and we are constantly exploring the best ways to make Harley-Davidson motorcycles more accessible to those customers."

Harley’s archrival, the UK-based Triumph Motorcycles is also in talks with Karnataka government to set up an assembly facility in India, The Hindu Business Line newspaper reported in March this year. According to its website, Triumph is in the process of identifying dealers. The bikes are expected to be launched in early 2013.

Yamaha’s Kurian said that with all these developments, competition will become more intense.

“Earlier the sales were limited to people coming to us and buying bikes but that is going to change. Now we will be making concentrated efforts in selling these bikes," Kurian added. “We are thinking seriously about our CBU business and an announcement will be made soon."

Harley-Davidson is also expected to make a crucial announcement on 22 November.

Suzuki’s Gupta, however, admits that his company’s focus is on the mass segment. “We are selling one superbike everyday and that should be our strategy for the next couple of years," he said.

Gupta said the bigger concern is infrastructure.

“Future of superbikes in India depends on infrastructure development. The basic thing that these bikes require is better roads and when we think about non-metro cities, the infrastructure is unacceptable."