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Cheaper motorbike imports worry U.S. experts

With gasoline prices surging, motor scooters and small motorcycles are now the hottest things on two wheels. But cheap imports from China are leading some would-be bike riders astray according to experts.
Scooter Rally
Scooters and small motorcycles are now the hottest things on two wheels. But cheap imports from China are burning some would-be bikers, experts say.Redux Pictures

With gasoline prices surging, motor scooters and small motorcycles are now the hottest things on two wheels. But with a flood of cheap bikes entering the U.S. market, experts warn that unwitting American consumers could soon find themselves taken for a ride.

Sales of scooters and other small motorbikes have been rising steadily over the past eight years, and they have accelerated over the last year or so as urban and suburbanite Americans have sought out cheaper ways to make quick trips and save on gasoline.

National statistics on recent scooter sales are not available, but an estimated 96,000 were sold in 2004, up from 25,000 in 1999 according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade association. Motorcycle sales have been rising, too: An estimated 629,000 were sold in 2004, up from 354,000 in 1999 the association said.

These zippy rides certainly have their advantages. They are agile in city traffic, range in price from $1,000 to $6,000 and offer more cargo space than your average motorcycle. They also offer excellent gas mileage — sometimes as much as 100 miles per gallon.

But tempting as these rides may be, their growing popularity is leading some would-be bike riders astray, according to experts. Surging demand has led many manufacturers to import bikes as quickly and inexpensively as possible, and some U.S. businesses have imported vehicles that do not pass federal muster or meet emissions standards, they note.

These bikes cost far less than their law-abiding counterparts in the competitive U.S. market, and many of them are sold online, or through private importers, and they are so cheap they attract a novice consumer who is unlikely to know about scooters standards. Many U.S. consumers are left with non-roadworthy bikes and useless warranties.

“We’ve seen scooters for sale online that cost as little as $499, whereas an entry model from Yamaha or Honda will cost $1,700 or $1,800 and you know you’ll get authorized trained personnel available five or six days a week to help you with your bike,” said Tim Buche, president of the Motorcycle Industry Council. “So we understand the consumer is searching for a low price, but they’re not buying value.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that strong interest among U.S. consumers for small motorcycles, marketed as scooters and dirt bikes, was leading some U.S. businesses have imported vehicles that do not meet basic emissions standards. The agency said it was working with border protection agents to tackle the illegal import problem at the door, investigating imports and distributors of scooter-type bikes.

Jocelyn Adair, attorney in the EPA’s Enforcement Office, said the agency noticed an influx of bikes from China in 2004 and began to investigate. The group found that many motorcycles were being described improperly as off-road vehicles, when the engine and safety equipment, such as head tail and brake lights, indicated they may be used on a highway even though under EPA rules those motorcycles sizes are not allowed on a highway.

“A lot of importers appear to be looking for ways to avoid compliance with our regulations, so we are enforcing tightened rules,” she said. “And new regulations in January 2006 will mean motorcycles have to comply with emission standards regardless of engine size.”

And the agency’s enforcement actions are having an impact, Adair adds. “The importers are coming forward and they are starting to comply with our regulations, but we are still acting to stop other importers.”

While some bikes importers from China are not playing by the rules, it’s important not to taint all Asian bike imports with the same brush, cautions Donald Brown, motorcycle analyst at DJB Associates in Irvine, Calif.

“Some of these bikes have not met federal Standards for use in the U.S., and that’s really not fair because the standards should be met by all importers and they are necessary to ensure the safety of motorcycle rides, and if they don’t meet those standards customers cannot be sure that they are relatively safe on the road,” Brown said.

“But Japanese brands like Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki are well established here in the United States and they have met federal standards and above for a long time,” he added.

Indeed, many scooters made in China, Korea and Taiwan are perfectly sound, notes Tim Buche of the Motorcycle Industry Council. “It’s just inappropriate behavior by some manufacturers, and we know the government is taking great strides to deal with them,” he said. “If you’re doing business in the United States, you need to comply with the rules.”

Buche also notes that there are important steps consumers can take to make sure the motorbikes they buy are in compliance with U.S. regulations. They should look for three labels on a vehicle — an emission control label, a noise emission control label and a vehicle identification label with a 17-character vehicle identification number, he said.

“This is usually stamped into head of the frame, near the triple clamp area, but we are seeing it’s lacking on some of the imports,” he said. “Some manufacturers etch them in and some make them up, but looking for them is a crucial component of anyone’s buying decision.”