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Are electric bikes the solution to Italy’s struggling motorcycle industry?

EICMA motorcycle show in Milan

Roberto Bosi/EICMA

Italian motorcycles.

The two words flow together naturally to express passion, design and character in two-wheeled vehicles. The great Italian marques like Bimota, MV Agusta, Benelli, Moto Guzzi and Ducati produced character bikes, not commodities.

Italy has nearly always been the largest non-Asian motorcycle market in the world; back in the glory days building more than 450,000 units annually. But I attended EICMA last week, Europe's largest motorcycle show in Milan, and the talk was about crisis, crisis, crisis – doom and gloom was everywhere.

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With Italy and most of Europe in recession again, rumours of debt default and disintegration of the euro zone, the Italian motorcycle industry is suffering through yet another year of a double-digit sales decline. Factories have shut and production is down by about 200,000 units or nearly half.

Moto-Guzzi and Aprilia are now owned by the scooter giant Piaggio, makers of Vespa, and are both struggling. MV Augusta is back in Italian hands after a short period of being owned and neglected by Harley-Davidson. And the great Italian brand Ducati is now owned by the Volkswagen conglomerate.

Ducati, under German control, is doing well sales-wise in the upper, premium end of the motorcycle market. It's also big into merchandising – caps, T-shirts, jackets – in a string of one-design retail outlets that look a lot like Burger Kings. Following the example of Ferrari and Harley-Davidson, Ducati is trying to become a "brand."

The Italian motorcycle industry, now in the doldrums, has come to realize that's the way to go. Its slogan: "Italy: The world's favourite motorcycle brand." From fashion to exotic cars, Italian luxury brands have marketed themselves as the last word in elegance and exclusivity. Vespa has done it with scooters and now it's trying it with Moto Guzzi.

While motorcycle sales in Italy are a "crisis," bicycle sales are doing nicely as cities like Rome build more and more bicycle lanes and trails. The other growth area is electric scooters.

There are masses of gas-powered scooters in every Italian city, town and village. It makes great sense when gas is $2/litre and parking spaces are next to impossible to find. Now there appears to be a switch under way to cheap electric scooters. Even the police department in Rome has a few.

Italian car sales are dropping as fast as motorcycle sales, but sales of electric bikes, which don't require insurance, licence or gasoline, are on the rise. At the motorcycle show, there was a "green" zone that featured a test track for customers to try out electric bicycles and scooters. It was busy.

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I'd guess that about 99 per cent of the motorcycles on display were gas-burning, but two electric bikes that stood out were from Brammo and BMW. Brammo, based in Oregon, builds all-electric motorcycles in Hungary and sells mainly online. Its main bike, the Empulse, has had excellent reviews in motorcycle magazines, which have reported that electric propulsion has real performance benefits over gas-powered. Comparing it favourably to Triumph triples and Suzuki and Kawasaki 650s, reviewers have found it handles beautifully, hits a 105 mph (169 km/h) top speed and has a realistic range of 75 miles (121 km).

BMW used the Milan show to once again show off its C Evolution electric scooter. It uses an electric motor and an eight-kilowatt battery pack to drive the rear wheel. BMW says that it can go 62 miles (100 km) on a full charge from a standard car charging station. The C Evolution has a top speed of 120 km/h (75 mph) and uses a similar anti-lock braking system as on its larger motorcycles. BMW is still testing the C Evolution and says it plans to offer a production version in the near future.

I consider any motorcycle to be "green" compared to a car. They require so much less fuel and occupy so little space on the road.

We'll see if Italian design, brand strength and innovation can get them back in the game as providers of urban transportation rather than exotic racers.

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