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Consumer Confidential: Slower mail, cyber sales, bad brakes

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Here's your more-than-a-woman Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--Here's the latest bid by the U.S. Postal Service to cut its losses: slower mail. The Postal Service, which is trying to cut $20 billion in operating costs by 2015, is asking the Postal Regulatory Commission to let it relax delivery standards for first-class mail, which includes letters and bills. Slowing mail delivery would reduce the number of mail-processing plants the Postal Service needs. The service said in September that it was considering loosening delivery standards and closing 252, or more than half, of its mail-processing plants. The agency said last month it expects a $14.1-billion loss in 2012 as mail volume continues to drop. (Bloomberg)

--Clearly, we like shopping online. Purchases reached nearly $6 billion for the "Cyber Week" that runs from the Sunday before Cyber Monday through Dec. 2, according to the latest data from ComScore. The big drivers of the bountiful Cyber Week were three of the four heaviest online spending days in history, each of which posted sales in excess of $1 billion: Cyber Monday, the heaviest online spending day on record at $1.25 billion; Tuesday, Nov. 29, at $1.12 billion; and Wednesday, Nov. 30, at $1.03 billion. Online spending for the first 32 days of the November-December 2011 holiday season has totaled $18.7 billion, a 15% increase compared with the corresponding days last year. (Washington Business Journal)

--Heads up: Subaru is recalling three of its car models and Honda is recalling some motorcycles, all because the brakes can malfunction. The Honda recall covers 126,000 GL-1800 motorcycles from the 2001 to 2012 model years. A problem with a secondary brake master cylinder can cause the rear brake to drag, possibly causing a crash or fire. The Subaru recall involves nearly 32,000 Legacy, Outback and Impreza models from the 2012 model year. A defective brake master cylinder could cause the brake pedal to travel farther than expected. Federal safety regulators say this could cause a driver to misjudge the amount of pressure needed to stop quickly. (Associated Press)

-- David Lazarus

Photo:: The U.S. Postal Service is trying to cut $20 billion in operating costs by 2015. Credit: Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

 

Polaris invests in electric motorcycle maker Brammo

PolarisBrammoPolaris Industries Inc., which manufactures all-terrain vehicles and the Victory and Indian motorcycle brands, announced a minority investment in electric motorcycle maker Brammo Inc. on Wednesday.

'We are excited to advance our electric vehicle capability by establishing Polaris as a business partner and part owner of Brammo, one of the most innovative and aggressive companies we have found in the electric motorcycle space," Polaris Chief Executive Scott Wine. "This is a small, but important, investment for Polaris in an electric vehicle market that we feel is poised for significant growth." 

The Polaris investment was part of $28-million funding deal for Brammo; additional contributions came from existing shareholder Alpine Energy and NorthPoint Investments.

The Polaris investment gives the Medina, Minn., manufacturer access to Brammo's proprietary electric vehicle powertrain technology, which has been in development since Brammo's founding in 2002. Polaris will also help Brammo grow its core business, according to a statement released Wednesday.

Brammo, based in Ashland, Ore., manufactures the Enertia electric motorcycle, capable of traveling 80 miles per charge at speeds in excess of 60 mph. In 2012, the company will expand its lineup with its Empulse sportbike capable of traveling 100 mph, and Encite and Engage dirt bikes.

RELATED:

Brammo Enertia review

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Brammo gets electric motorcycles in gear

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Brammo Chief Executive Craig Bramscher stands next to a Polaris UTV and Brammo Enertia. Credit: Brammo

Consumer Confidential: Thomas the Tank Engine bought, Harley recall

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Here's your maybe-baby Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

—Thomas the Tank Engine, meet Barbie. The company behind everyone's favorite talking train, Hit Entertainment, is being purchased by El Segundo's Mattel for $680 million in cash. Mattel already markets many Thomas & Friends die-cast and plastic toys under a license that extends until 2014. Global sales of those toys are more than $150 million. Mattel says the deal will help combine its own global marketing and distribution capabilities with Hit Entertainment's global programming and licensing expertise. For those without small ones at home, Thomas the Tank Engine is a popular British children's television series that has spawned a variety of tie-ins and toys.

—Wal-Mart has your number ... at least when it comes to prices. The world's largest retailer is announcing a new strategy that it hopes will pull in procrastinators early by giving them a big incentive: a guarantee that they'll get the lowest price no matter when they buy during the holiday season. Wal-Mart says it will be matching prices on many of its products. Shoppers who buy something at a Wal-Mart store between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25, but then find the identical product elsewhere for less, can get a gift card in the amount of the difference. The offer excludes merchandise bought on Wal-Mart's website and some other products, such as groceries.

—Heads up, hog riders: Harley-Davidson is recalling about 308,000 motorcycles to fix a switch problem that can cause failure of the brake lights and possibly even the rear brakes themselves. The company says in documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that brake light switches can be exposed to too much heat from the exhaust system. The heat can cause the brake lights to fail, and the problem also can cause fluid leaks and the loss of rear brakes. The problem affects Touring, CVO Touring and Trike motorcycles from the 2009 through 2012 model years.

— David Lazarus

Photo: Thomas the Tank Engine has a new daddy. Credit: BayBritt Allcroft

Sales of Vespa scooters and other brands rise with gas prices

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High gas prices and a sluggish economy are boosting U.S. sales of motor scooters.

In the first half of this year, the major brands -– including Vespa, Piaggio, Honda and Yamaha -– sold 18,198 scooters, up 28.9% from the same period last year. The increase was greater than any other catagory of motorcycle, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Melissa R. MacCaull, vice president of Vespa and Piaggio owner Piaggio Group Americas, said there’s lots more room for growth.

PHOTOS: Classic scooters

Scooters make up only a tiny percentage of vehicle sales in the United States. But in Europe, where gas is expensive and the traffic-dense cities are conducive to scooters and motorcyles, scooters are often the first motorized vehicle a teen operates. 

Vespa is seeing increasing sales of its larger-displacment scooters, models that offer 150 cc to 300 cc engines that allow the bikes to travel at freeway speeds. MacCaull says that’s a sign that more people are starting to use the vehicles for their daily commute. Scooter2

“People in America are starting to see scooters as a way to save money and get places faster,” MacCaull said.

Piaggio’s bestseller is the Italian-built Vespa LX 150. It retails for $4,600, but a top case (a scooter trunk) and a windscreen push the sticker price just above $5,000. It gets 75 miles per gallon.

The growing popularity of scooters prompted the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles to create an exhibit about the vehicles called "Scooters: Size Doesn’t Always Matter."

The exhibit features more than 90 vehicles that mark a chronological tour of motor scooter development beginning with the simple Autoped of the mid-1910s to the alternative power vehicles that are produced today. It runs through May 28, 2012.

Smaller, more affordable and easier to maneuver than motorcycles, motor scooters offer an efficient and stylish means to run quick errands and travel short distances. The exhibit shows how the smallish motor bikes evolved from bicycle-style frames with motors to the sophisticated, aerodynamic vehicles. 

It also shows how scooters have been adapted to business and industrial uses and how they have been portrayed in movies and television shows.

Southern California was once a major scooter manufacturing hub, according to the museum.

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-- Jerry Hirsch

Twitter.com/LATimesJerry

Photos: Scooters on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Credit: Petersen Automotive Museum

Falcon Motorcycles unveils its Black

Falcon Motorcycles occupies a rarefied niche in the motorcycle world, taking pieces of decades-old bikes and evolving their artistry and engineering to levels few builders would even attempt. In three years, the L.A. shop has built exactly three bikes, all of them meticulously handcrafted. Its latest, the Black Falcon, took a six-man team an entire year to build. The bike makes its public debut at this weekend's Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel.

"We started with basically a box of pieces," said Ian Barry, Falcon Motorcycles' designer and primary builder.

Inside that box was the engine of a 1952 Vincent Black Shadow that had been sitting in a former motorcycle racer’s bedroom for 35 years, next to giant X-rays of the hips he’d broken racing.

Continue reading »

A123 signs on as sponsor of TTXGP electric motorcycle racing series

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The company supplying batteries for the soon-to-be released Fisker Karma electric car is sponsoring the 2011 TTXGP North American Championship electric motorcycle racing series. 

Massachusetts-based A123 Systems, which also has development deals with General Motors and BMW, is the first company to become a title sponsor for the TTXGP, which began on the Isle of Man in 2009 as a single race and expanded last year with a racing circuit in the U.S. and Europe.

A123 is title sponsor for the series kickoff May 15 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and a sponsor for the remaining three races in New Hampshire, Oregon and Virginia.

In a statement released Thursday, Robert Johnson, A123 vice president of energy solutions, said the company's sponsorship of the series is designed to "help promote its goal of moving vehicle electrification forward by showcasing the potential of high-performance technology like A123's lithium-ion battery systems."

A123 is the developer and manufacturer of advanced lithium-ion batteries. It was the recipient of a $249-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009. The money was used to build the country's largest lithium-ion manufacturing facility in Livonia, Mich.   

Seven teams will compete in the A123 Infineon Round on May 15, including Mission Motors (based in San Francisco), Brammo Racing (from Ashland, Ore.) and the winner of last year's North American Championship, Lightning Motors (in Woodside, Calif.).

This year's TTXGP is the first to be sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Assn., as well as the International Motorcycling Federation, or FIM, North American union. 

"We're not renegades anymore," said Azhar Hussain, founder of the TTXGP, which two years ago was the world's first electric superbike race on the Isle of Man. "The renegade is in the fold."

RELATED:

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Mission R electrifies Long Beach International Motorcycle Show

Isle of Man's love affair with motorcycle racing

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Lightning Motors on the Infineon Raceway track at the 2010 North American TTXGP. Credit: Jules Cisek.

Brammo gets electric motorcycles in gear

Brammoengage Production electric motorcycles have been on the U.S. market for three years, but sales have yet to take off. Their high price, coupled with limited speed, restricted range and an all-but-stalled economy, have relegated them to the realm of moneyed early adopters and hardcore greenies.

But Brammo, in Ashland, Ore., announced Wednesday what it hopes will be a game-changer. In an effort to reach the enthusiast market, it is partnering with an Italian firm to add six-speed transmissions, and a performance edge, to its electric motorcycles.

Brammo's one existing model, the Enertia, does not have a transmission. It's a direct drive, single-speed, as are all the other production electric motorcycles currently on the market, including those from Zero Motorcycles in Santa Cruz and Native Cycles in Oakland.

"The transmission moves electric motorcycles from being the electric part of the category to being at least the same or in some cases way better than gas in terms of performance," said Brammo founder and CEO Craig Bramscher. "Now you can pull in the clutch and rev it just like a regular motorcycle. When you dump the clutch, you get all the benefits of a gas bike: fun factor and rideability."

The new integrated electric transmission, or IET, will be incorporated into four new off-road models Brammo announced Wednesday -- the $9,995 Engage MX mini moto; the $9,995 Engage SMR super moto; the $11,995 Engage SMS super moto; and the Encite MMX Pro mini moto, pricing for which was not announced. The new dirt bikes will go into production in 2012.

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Brammo Enertia Plus doubles the range, not the price tag

Mission R electrifies Long Beach International Motorcycle Show

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Brammo Engage. Credit: Brammo Inc.

2011 motorcycle sales increase after two years of declines

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Motorcycle manufacturers have finally ended their two-year sales slump. Purchases of on-highway motorcycles increased 7% in the first quarter of 2011 versus the same quarter a year earlier, according to a report released Wednesday by the Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group in Irvine that represents power sports manufacturers.

Sales of scooters and dual-sport models were particularly strong, increasing 50% and 24% respectively, in the first quarter of 2011 versus the same quarter in 2010. The increase in fuel-efficient scooters and commuter-oriented dual-sport mirrors a trend from 2008 that saw such models increase in popularity along with increased gasoline prices.

Sales of off-highway motorcycles, however, continued their downward spiral, decreasing 5% for the quarter versus a year earlier.

Motorcycle sales began their precipitous drop-off in 2009, falling to 655,000 units that year after six  years of 1-million-plus sales. In 2010, annual sales dropped to 440,000 units.

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: 2011 Honda CBR250R. Credit: American Honda Motor Co.

 

Ducati Diavel is devilish fun

Ducati calls its first-ever muscle bike the Diavel, or devil. A better name might be the Guidata, or wizard, considering its near-magic handling.

There are a lot of things about the Diavel that defy its spec sheet, most notably its long, 62.6-inch wheelbase and fat, 240 millimeter rear tire, the latter of which was designed by Pirelli specifically for the Diavel.

Contoured like a cone, instead of an upside-down bowl like most fat-tired cruisers, Pirelli's Diablo Rosso II helps the bike effortlessly lean into turns at low and high speeds and is largely responsible for making this muscle bike as responsive and flickable as a sport bike.

The engine also helps. The Diavel is powered with the same retuned 1198.4 cc superbike engine as its critic's darling, the Multistrada adventure bike, introduced last year. The Testastretta 11-degree L-twin reduces the overlap from a Ducati sport bike's 41 degrees when the intake and exhaust valves are open to smooth the power delivery while increasing fuel economy and reducing emissions.

And it uses the same ride-by-wire technology as the Multistrada, allowing riders to choose between different ride modes. On the Diavel, those modes are urban, sport and touring, which toggle the horsepower between 100 and 162 and also default to preset traction control settings. Ducati Traction Control and anti-lock brakes are standard on the bike. Both can be turned off.

Torque is an impressive 94 pound-feet, with excellent low-end grunt that doesn't let up even at midrange rpms.

It's all classic Ducati, in terms of performance. But the Diavel also breaks new ground. It's the first Ducati to use low-energy, extra-bright LEDs for its turn signals and tail lights -- a great feature to improve visibility since this bike moves so quickly it's likely to take asleep-at-the-wheel drivers by surprise. It's the first Ducati to use a keyless, push-button start, which I liked except that the clearance for my finger was a bit tight between the button and the digital display mounted just above it.

It's also the first Ducati that doesn't really look like a Ducati. Sure, there's the trellis frame. There's also an exceptionally chubby tank area, the front end of which is sandwiched with V-max-style air scoops and twin radiators. The Diavel's looks take some getting used to.

When Ducati unveiled its latest at the Milan bike show last fall, I was a skeptic. Was Ducati really chasing Harley-Davidson? Now that I've ridden the bike for a long weekend, I'd say Ducati isn't chasing anything but its own racing legacy, which it's tapped to make a first-rate performance cruiser. 

2011 Ducati Diavel

Base price: $16,995

Price as tested: $19,995 (Diablo Carbon)

Powertrain: Liquid-cooled, electronically fuel-injected, Testastretta 11-degree, 1198.4 cc L-twin, 6-speed

Maximum horsepower: 162 at 9,500 rpm

Maximum torque: 94 pound-feet at 8,000 rpm

Wheelbase: 62.6 inches

Seat height: 30.3 inches

Dry weight: 456 pounds

Fuel economy: About 35 mpg

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: 2011 Ducati Diavel. Credit: Ducati North America

Harley-Davidson rumbles for a comeback with new Blackline

 It’s been a tough couple of years for the motorcycle industry, as U.S. sales rode into a ditch along with the economy.

But manufacturers are rumbling for a comeback, including Harley-Davidson with its newest offering, the Blackline.

The rare Harley to make a midyear model entrance, the 2011 Blackline is an understated badass -- excuse me: minimalist “dark custom” -- that was fast-tracked to fill a gap left by the discontinued Night Train and to freshen Harley’s softail lineup with a long custom.

Its wheelbase is stretched to an oil-tanker-esque 66.5 inches. And the bike feels even longer from the saddle, which is an ultra low 24 inches. This is a machine that will appeal to riders with chimpanzee physiques -– stubby legs and gangly arms -- who like to look like thugs.

HarleyBlacklineThe lines of the Blackline only add to the illusion that riders are sitting in, rather than on, their rides. Jutting out front is a classic, 21-inch spoked wheel, while out back is a modest 16-incher with an even more modest 144 mm tread tire. But don’t be fooled by the numbers. This isn’t a bike for beginners, or even returning riders, despite a starting price of $15,499 and the option of anti-lock brakes.

Its counterbalanced, rigid-mounted 96-cubic-inch V-twin has great off-the-line starting power, with 89 foot-pounds of torque. And I found its four-piston-caliper brakes were more than ample to slow the bike when a sedan cut me off on the freeway, careening across three lanes to catch an exit.

Slow-speed turns on the Blackline are, however, a bit like maneuvering a cement mixer.

What I most liked about the Blackline are the subtle design details, like the blacked-out badge on the tank and a two-tone paint job that mirrors the two-tone colors of the engine. The matte black cylinders with the matte gray heads topped with shiny black rocker tops is a nod to certain panheads and shovelheads from the '50s and '60s.

In an attempt to rip itself off even more as Harley delves deep into its bobber past and declutters this modern-day machine, the speedo has been moved from the tank to the triple clamp. Instead of a gas gauge there is merely a warning light to stop, get gas, keep riding.

2011 Harley-Davidson Blackline

Base price: $15,499
Price as tested: $15,998
Powertrain: Electronic sequential port fuel injected, air-cooled, twin Cam 96B V-twin, pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters, two valves per cylinder, six-speed transmission
Displacement: 96 cubic inches, or 1,584 cubic centimeters
Maximum torque: 89 pound-feet at 3,250 rpm
Wheelbase: 66.5 inches
Seat height (laden): 24 inches
Curb weight: 682.5 pounds
EPA fuel economy: 35 mpg city/54 mpg highway

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: 2011 Harley-Davidson Blackline. Credit: Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

Zero Motorcycles DS: An electric dual sport commuter

It's an unfortunate reality of motorcycles that mass-produced, plug-in electrics, which have been on the market almost three years, haven't received nearly as much mainstream-media attention as electric cars. Take the Zero Motorcycles DS, the third battery-electric model from the Santa Cruz, Calif., manufacturer.

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