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High end motorcycles are here to stay...

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Get set for an invasion of high-end motorcycles -- just as the economy is heading into a possible recession.

Manufacturers are rolling out a troop of powerful, opulent, feature-laden machines at prices that would have seemed outlandish for something on two wheels just a few years ago. Several motorcycles that recently went on sale or are expected in dealerships this spring cost between $15,000 and $40,000, more than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. Harley-Davidson Inc.'s Rocker C looks like a custom-built "chopper" and costs $19,495. BMW AG is taking orders for its racy $25,375 HP2 Sport -- more than 25% more expensive than even its most deluxe models cost a few years ago -- and Ducati Motor Holding SpA is charging $72,500 for the Desmosedici RR, based on a model raced in professional competitions. Victory Motorcycles, a unit of Polaris Industries Inc., and MV Agusta, a unit of Cagiva SpA, are also rolling out new lines that enter new pricing territory.

The posse of pricey bikes follows a steady increase in the average motorcycle price, which reached $12,304 last year, up from $11,480 in 2002. But while the latest bikes were developed during the industry's boom of the past several years, they are arriving as demand is slackening and fuel prices are rising. U.S. motorcycle sales dipped 7.7% to about 1.1 million in 2007 -- the first decline in more than a decade -- as consumers cut back on discretionary spending.

The Harley-Davidson Rocker C, at $19,840, is meant to resemble a custom-built bike. Manufacturers of high-end cycles say buyers of top-of-the-line bikes don't fret over the sticker price or the cost of fuel. Motorcycle customers, makers say, just want fast, sexy rides and are willing to pay a little more for something special, such as an unusual design.

Rodney Rowland of Tallahassee, Fla., says the $20,000 price tag of his new Harley Rocker C didn't bother him, even though he had shopped around and seen other custom-style bikes that cost much less. Part of what makes the motorcycle worth more than others is the way people react when they see it, he says.

Mr. Rowland, who owns an auto-repair shop, bought his new ride just in time for Daytona Bike Week, an annual gathering that draws thousands of riders. After riding more than four hours to get there, he parked the bike, and it immediately drew a crowd. "People kept asking, 'Who did the custom work?'" he says. A compliment like that is rare for an unmodified, factory-built motorcycle.

Surveys from the Motorcycle Industry Council show the typical rider growing older -- the median age of riders was 41 in 2003, when its survey was last done -- and more affluent. Motorcycle makers argue that hot bikes are one splurge that -- unlike the fanciest cars -- is within reach of riders of average means. Such customers "often have to give up something else that year so they can have the bike," says a spokesman for German maker BMW.

Both custom-style bikes like the Rocker and touring machines like the Honda Gold Wing and the Victory Vision Tour Premium are aimed squarely at baby boomers, who recall choppers from their Easy Rider youth and have more time for "touring" now. For this demographic, comfort is important.

Last October, Charlie Hahn bought the Victory Vision Tour Premium. The unusually sleek shape of the $21,499 motorcycle turns heads, says Mr. Hahn, 57 years old. But the Phoenix construction-company superintendent says he bought the bike because it is comfortable for the rides of 1,000 miles and more that he often takes. And it has so many features that the sticker price seems like a bargain compared with the prices of other bikes, he says. "It has an air suspension that you can adjust according to your weight, and the cruise control is just like the one in your car," he says. The seat and handgrips are heated, and its streamlined saddlebags carry a week's worth of baggage for two people, he says.

Only recently, with the proliferation of expensive, highly designed models, have motorcycles become status symbols. Motorcycles' image has evolved over the years, with bikes representing adventure, independence and wild, outlaw lifestyles. But before that, motorcycles actually had a strong historical connection with hard times. During the Great Depression, motorcycles were a low-cost alternative for people who couldn't afford cars.

They were also an important mode of quick, cheap transportation in post-World-War-II Europe. (As Germany rebuilt its industries, motorcycle production was a priority in part because cycles were easier to build than cars.) And travelers of limited means have long used motorcycles as a way to take long trips on tiny budgets.

Some riders are still drawn to motorcycles for their frugality and overall efficiency -- especially as prices for oil and gasoline flirt with record levels. James Allgood of Oakland, Calif., says he rides to work in San Francisco because it takes just 25 minutes, compared with an hour in his Honda Civic hybrid. Unlike most states, California allows motorcycles to "lane-share," or pass cars by riding between lanes in slow-moving traffic. He bought his Kawasaki sport bike used and says it gets about 45 miles per gallon.

Mr. Allgood, who is 31 and works in marketing, also writes the blog and is a member of a motorcycle group called the Bay Area Riders Forum. He says members typically ride inexpensive, "get-around-town" motorcycles, but others gravitate to Ducatis, Harley-Davidsons and other expensive brands.

"People are looking for the image or the history associated with certain brands," he says, which is fine if it makes them happy. "It's not my money," he adds.

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