A black, blue and neon yellow CFMOTO 125NK is shown parked near a motorcycle dealer.

CFMOTO Shows Chinese Motorcycles Are Getting Serious

Some motorcycle brands, such as Harley-Davidson, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Indian, and Ducati, have long been synonymous with excellence. In recent years, though, riders visiting their local motorcycle dealer may have noticed the CFMOTO nameplate appearing more and more. Barely two decades after introducing their motorcycles to the US, this China-based powersports manufacturer has more than 300 official dealerships now spanning all 50 states, showing they are a serious player in the two-wheeled market.

The wave doesn’t appear to be cresting anytime soon. According to MotorCycles Data, reported global sales for CFMOTO across all powersports segments jumped more than 22% in 2023. Although other Chinese companies have higher motorcycle sales — brands such as Loncin, Haojue, and Zongshen all rank in the international top 10 — CFMOTO has established itself as a new premium brand. Motorcycles such as the 450SS sport bike, 800NK GP track bike, and 700CL-X touring cruiser offer top-end performance while maintaining the affordability Chinese bikes are known for. These aren’t cheap motorcycles to satisfy new and casual enthusiasts. These are serious bikes for serious riders.

Today, we’re examining how CFMOTO managed to break through and what might be next for this rising star. Making a name for oneself in an already crowded market is no small feat, especially from a country that has long been known more for building for others than establishing its own quality brands.

Getting a Foot in the Door

Like many success stories in the motorcycle world, CFMOTO has humble beginnings. The company was founded in 1989 in Wenzhou, China, as a small father and son business making motorcycle engines and spare parts. It wasn’t long before they started developing new products. In 1992, CFMOTO produced a 125cc engine cylinder head that soon became the Chinese market standard. Five years later, they came up with the 152MI liquid-cooled four-stroke engine, which would be the heart of CFMOTO’s debut scooter, plus many of their early motorcycles and ATVs.

Innovations such as these helped CFMOTO fight the perception many Chinese companies do overseas, that the low price tag means an inferior product. Combined with taking a more Western approach to motorcycle craft and marketing, such as putting their brand front and center rather than trying to conceal it, they began making in-roads beyond China. CFMOTO ATVs and UTVs came to the US in 2002. In 2007, they set up CFMOTO USA in Plymouth, Minnesota, to spearhead American development efforts.

As the company expanded its reach, CFMOTO also worked to build a reputation for being committed to detail and quality. Still, with so many other brands already dominating the market, elbowing one’s way in was proving to be a tough task. However, CFMOTO found a way to shortcut the process.

Partnering With Big Names

One sure way to raise your company’s profile is to partner with another company that is known and respected in the industry. This happened in the 1920s when Hershey’s sold chocolate to then-fledgling candymaker Mars Inc., which used it to create smash successes like Milky Way and Snickers. More relevant to this discussion, we’ve talked previously at AutoInfluence about SAIC Motor’s joint ventures with Volkswagen and General Motors to produce select vehicles bearing these nameplates.

CFMOTO has taken the same route on its path to becoming an internationally respected powerhouse. The company formed a commercial partnership in 2011 with Pierer Industry AG, the owner of KTM and a leading manufacturer of street and off-road motorcycles. Under the terms of this agreement, which was expanded to a co-owned business in 2017 named CFMOTO-KTMR2R, CFMOTO manufactures and distributes small-displacement KTM bikes in China and produces their large-displacement engines for international use. In turn, CFMOTO received a license to use certain KTM technology in its own CFMOTO-branded bikes.

The late 2010s and early 2020s saw the results of this back-and-forth with the release of new CFMOTO models that were bigger, more powerful, and more feature-rich than anything they had ever produced. This includes the 2021 debut of the CF1250, which had a 1,278cc V-twin engine based on the KTM Super Duke LC8 powerplant. They also made waves with the CFMOTO 800MT, which took the KTM 790 Adventure and emphasized the touring aspects. Beginning in 2023, KTM assumed distribution responsibilities for CFMOTO in the United Kingdom and Ireland, expanding the brand’s reach further.

November 2023 saw another huge development for CFMOTO with the announcement of a new venture with Yamaha, the third-best-selling motorcycle brand in the world. Speculation immediately began that we could soon start seeing CFMOTO-Yamaha mashups like we have with CFMOTO and KTM. The talk ran so rampant that Yamaha felt the need to issue a clarification a few days later, saying the partnership was only for CFMOTO to produce and sell Yamaha-branded motorcycles in China. Seeing as this is essentially the same way the CFMOTO-KTM partnership began, though, it wouldn’t surprise us if this relationship ended up following a similar path.

Groundbreaking Technology Accelerates the Boom

Even as CFMOTO was working with KTM to help further each other’s goals, they continued to come up with creative, inventive ideas of their own. CFMOTO reports having 879 patents worldwide. According to Justia, they hold 60 total US patents for motorcycles and ATVs. These include designs for hydraulic brake control valves, swingarms, exhaust layouts, and quick-connecting latch systems for attaching accessories.

CFMOTO is making advances in other ways, too. When the CFG1250 came out — a variation of which is the official police motorcycle of China — it had a 12.3-inch infotainment screen, believed to be the largest ever seen on a bike at the time. At the EICMA 2023 motorcycle show, they unveiled the company’s first three-cylinder motorcycle engine, a 675cc creation that promises to be lighter and stronger than its competitors. The same show saw CFMOTO debut the Custom Works division, offering a unique take on the custom bike that blends innovation with expression.

The Future of Affordable Performance

As things stand, CFMOTO looks to be full speed ahead. CFMOTO introduced ten new motorcycle models to the US market In 2022 and 2023. The year 2024 will see the debut of the CFMOTO 1250NK, a naked sportbike that, among other things, showcases the company’s newest patent for an adjustable footpeg design. The US campus has more than doubled in size since it first opened, with a new headquarters under construction. CFMOTO has also invested heavily in racing, partnering with the Spanish Aspar team for the Moto2 and Moto3 Grand Prix road racing series.

By being modern and forward-thinking, CFMOTO sets a new tone for what is possible from Chinese motorcycles, reflected in their rapidly growing market share. The only potential downside is the question of how long companies like KTM and Yamaha will continue to collaborate with CFMOTO. If they continue to grow, they could soon be a threat rather than an ally, much like Mars Inc. jeopardized Hershey’s dominance and eventually needed to find a chocolate supply.

However, the company seems well-positioned to weather such a potential turn of events. With a worldwide staff of more than 800 research and development engineers, a new Mexico manufacturing plant opening sometime in 2024, and exciting new concept motorcycles like the 125NK that put a fresh spin on their 125cc roots, CFMOTO is ready for even bigger things in the years to come. We’re eagerly watching to see how the CFMOTO story unfolds and whether any other Chinese motorcycle brands can replicate their success.