Common Tread

Small touches: The contact points with our bikes shape our impressions

Mar 20, 2014

Last week, I went with my roommate to take his 2010 Volvo XC90 to get serviced (I'll use any excuse to be in the area of my burger spot) and, while we were there, I decided to have a look at the newest V60. As with most Volvos, I've always been a big fan of their exteriors, but I could never spend that much money on a car that felt so dated and old once sitting inside. My vanity - my desire to be seen in something cool - just can't overcome my love for geeky tech and a good user experience.

The V60 received an update for model year 2014, involving a bunch of fancy looking exterior updates, all of which were welcome but felt sort of like the Denver Broncos signing Emmanuel Sanders – they were already fine in that department. Knowing that my major issue with Volvos was their interior (and the fact that I don’t think they drive all that well), I went straight for the driver’s cockpit. I noticed that the instrument panel is now some sort of TFT screen, not the analog dials of previous years, and I hit the stop/start button hoping it would turn on. I was in luck and, after sitting in the car for a mere 15 seconds, I called out to my roommate that I could finally own a Volvo.

The interior of the new Volvo V60. Photo courtesy of Volvo.

The interior of last year's Volvo XC90. Photo courtesy of Volvo.

Maybe that’s a little immature or ill-thought-out for you, and I’ll admit I wasn’t about to sign any paperwork. But to me, most competing vehicles are comparable and what really sets apart a car or motorcycle is the quality and attention to detail the manufacturers place on the areas where we come into contact with the vehicle. Everything has fancy screens these days. Even if I’m just spending $12,000 or $15,000 on a new car, that’s still a decent chunk of change and the first company to make me feel like I got a good value instead of reminding me how cheap I am is going to get my business (just helped my girlfriend get a new Ford Focus and it’s fantastic).

Sorry… you came to a motorcycle website. Getting to the point.

The Yamaha FZ-09 key feels more like a locker key. Photo by Wes Siler.
Last week I also helped a buddy who works in the industry pick up a new Yamaha FZ­09, which happens to be one of my favorite bikes at the moment. Yamaha actually did a fine job of making a really nice motorcycle that looks good, even from up close, for a really affordable price. Except for one thing: the key. The key to the FZ­09 looks like it could be a locker key or something. Yamaha isn’t the only offender, not by a long shot. The Suzuki Hayabusa key still feels incredibly dated and both times I’ve had a Kawsaki Ninja 300, the key has bent in my pocket.

Now, your first instinct may be to think I’m just being a whiner or that I’m spoiled rotten. First off, let me say both of those things are absolutely true. However, my point is not that this is some travesty that needs to be fixed instantly, or that it can be held as a negative mark against the products they grant access to. My point is this ­ as an object that lives on your key chain and that, when you hold it, creates a response similar to Pavlov’s dogs – it makes sense that making it a little nicer would improve the user experience on your motorcycle.

The Aprilia Dorsoduro key makes feels as good in your hand as the bike does between your legs. Photo by Aprilia.
Take, for instance, the Aprilia key. Couldn’t have cost much more to make than the FZ-09 key, but I feel cool just holding it. It feels as high quality and every bit as Italian as the rest of the motorcycle. My old key for my 2008 Monster 696 garnered the same response.

If something as simple as the key could have that effect, what about the rest of the motorcycle?

In the same way that the instrument panel on a Mazda 3 makes that car feel infinitely nicer than its Toyota or Honda competitors, the same is true for motorcycles. The instrument panel is likely the part of the bike you look at most (unless you ride a 1970s Honda, in which case it’s probably the electrical system or the carbs or something).

I recently rode the Honda CB500X and Kawasaki Ninja 650, two bikes that impressed me as being entry-level motorcycles with extremely reasonable MSRPs and both of which had really useful instrument clusters. Finding a miles­until­empty and average mpg reading on the display went a long way toward making me feel the Ninja was worth every penny of its asking price and more.

The Ducati Panigale was one of the first bikes that was widely accessible that had a full-color TFT screen. By widely accessible I mean you can actually find them in dealers, unlike some more of the boutique brands like Mission. I wouldn’t call the Panigale accessible in terms of most motorcyclists’ riding abilities or budgets, however, and I sort of wrote off the full-color display as something for “those guys.” Now, with the new Ducati Monster 1200 getting the same sort of screen (see the image at the top), I think it will be really neat to see who follows suit and how far downstream that kind of feature makes it. If I were looking at any two bikes in the 600cc sport bike class, comparing something like the Triumph Street Triple and the FZ­09, or trying to decide between a Ninja 650 and Suzuki SFV650 and one of them had a nice screen full of useful info in a clear and crisp display, it would make the decision real easy for me.

My point is that motorcycle manufacturers could be a little more thoughtful when it comes to the small aesthetic stuff and improve our emotional connections to our bikes. I think the manufacturers have a ton of room to make tiny adjustments that will reap huge rewards in terms of making customers feel like they got what they paid for, or more.

Do you care about the little aesthetic touches on a motorcycle, or has living in Los Angeles made me crazy? Are price, performance and operating costs the only important factors, or do things like the instrument panel and key add to the perceived value of your motorcycle?