Why Bagger Motorcycles are Creating a Rumble in 2018

01/31/18 01:06 PM EST
By Jonathan Welsh 

PREDICTING motorcycle-design trends can be tough. In the early 2000s, low-slung custom choppers covered in chrome seduced baby boomers while younger riders preferred speedy sport bikes in fiberglass. Last year everyone craved a pared-down café racer. More recently, nimble "adventure" bikes designed for on- and off-road riding have been gaining ground.

While gifted observers might have forecast those trends, not even the most prescient could have guessed that "baggers" -- those big heavy bikes with sculpted fiberglass saddlebags -- would carry an air of cool come 2018. Practical? Sure. Capable of hauling people and possessions cross-country? Of course. But never cool, never sexy. Peter Fonda's "Easy Rider" character wasn't about to weigh his bike down with saddlebags no matter how stoned he got.

Nevertheless, baggers are indisputably creating a rumble. The 2018 riding season, kicking off soon, will feature the largest array of models yet. In one sense, baggers have acquired a je ne sais quoi much the way once-dowdy beach totes have. Those oversize canvas carryalls that families used for hauling towels and toys to the ocean were so practical yet utterly unglamorous. But when designers started making them in desirable colors, with leather details, they were hauled proudly.

So too have the saddlebags that straddle these bikes' rear wheels evolved from awkwardly tacked-on aftermarket satchels to hard-shell elements built into the design. Now they come in striking colors like "twisted cherry," "impact blue" and "hard candy chameleon flake" (a dark metallic green) -- or are, alternatively, blacked out with minimal chrome, sometimes with a sophisticated matte finish. Also contributing to baggers' new cachet: They ride lower in the rear than standard motorcycles, which gives them the pavement-hugging "slammed" profile of a low-rider car. They seem to be almost crouching, about to pounce on unexpecting prey. Not even the chicest beach tote feels cooly carnivorous.

The bagger's basic design is evolving too. For years Harley-Davidson, the Milwaukee-based behemoth known for large, long-distance motorcycles with braggadocious names like Road King, pretty much owned the bagger market. International bike makers took notice and have aggressively expanded into baggers, vying to redesign -- or at least repackage -- existing models to attract new younger riders. This year, brands like Germany's BMW, Italy's Moto Guzzi and Japan's Yamaha are rolling out their own interpretations of what a bagger should be. These new-look machines are finding a niche between stylish, muscular cruisers American outlaws have ridden since the 1950s and wide touring bikes -- basically two-wheeled Winnebagos -- built with luxury-car amenities like navigation systems and heated seats.

The motorcycle industry has struggled to rebuild its sales since the 2008 recession made bikes seem nonessential. While about 1.2 million buyers in the U.S. took home a motorcycle in 2006 (a peak for the industry), in 2016 only 487,000 were sold. With the new interest in baggers, brands like Indian and Yamaha, once known for touring models and smaller "naked" bikes, are discovering a sweet spot in the market. Their hefty machines feel stable, and their low seats make it easy for riders to throw a leg over and hold them upright when at a standstill. The bags help riders carry essentials, so bikes are suitable for weekend travel. They're also generally slimmer than touring models, making them convenient for riding in urban traffic.

Here, five new bikes that define Bagger style, an oxymoron no more.

Indian Chieftain Dark Horse

In 2011, snowmobile and all-terrain-vehicle maker Polaris Industries bought the century-old Indian brand and began selling new cruisers and touring models in late-2013. Indian's baggers bridge those segments while adding what the company calls "darker, more aggressive styling" to its lineup. Indian also commissioned former X-Games motocross star Carey Hart to design custom versions of its bikes. The design, performance and practicality of the new models mean "you don't have to hang your head in shame" for riding a big bike with saddlebags, Mr. Hart said. $23,999, indianmotorcycle.com

BMW K 1600 B

The German bike maker has built hardcore touring bikes for decades, but they were more purposeful than stylish, built strictly to haul people and luggage efficiently. The K 1600 B, the brand's first modern bagger, is a sign that BMW has loosened up -- and let loose. While similar bikes have relatively simple two-cylinder "v-twin" engines with less than 100 horsepower, the BMW has a high-tech six-cylinder power plant that generates 160 horsepower, putting its Bagger among the most powerful bikes on the market in any category. $19,995, bmwmotorcycles.com

Moto Guzzi MGX-21 Flying Fortress

Moto Guzzi has been building heavy bikes for decades -- its Ambassador and Eldorado models of the early-1970s were known as "Italian Harleys." But the MGX-21 Flying Fortress is the brand's first foray into the sculpted saddlebag look. It features traction control, anti-lock brakes and adjustable electronic engine settings: Select "Veloce" mode for fast riding and maximum power. "Turismo" tones the engine down for long, relaxed rides. In rainy conditions, "Pioggia" keeps the wheels from slipping if the rider is too enthusiastic with the throttle or brakes. $21,990, motoguzzi.com

Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special

It's safe to say that Harley's Street Glide, first sold in 2006, kicked off the modern bagger era. In the early 2000s the brand was selling a stripped-down touring model called the Electra Glide Standard that many riders modified using wrenches and cutting tools, trimming their tall windshields and lowering rear suspensions for a streamlined, "slammed" look. Harley got the hint and followed with its factory-built bagger. This latest version, the Street Glide Special, was crafted with a surprisingly striking shape meant to recall hand-built show bikes. $25,999, harleydavidson.com

Yamaha Star Eluder

Yamaha has built up a range of several cruisers over the past decade, from the custom chopper-like Raider to the Bolt, which has the svelte look and forward-leaning riding posture of a dirt-track racer. But the company's lineup didn't include a real bagger until late last year when it rolled out the Star Eluder. Based on Yamaha's heavier Venture touring model, the stripped down Star Eluder weighs about 80 pounds less and comes with heated seats for rider and passenger, and a 7-inch LCD display with touch- and voice-activated controls. $22,499, yamahamotorsports.com

Write to Jonathan Welsh at jonathan.welsh@wsj.com


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 31, 2018 13:06 ET (18:06 GMT)

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