In the cruiser market, in case you haven't heard, the oft-repeated conceit is that size matters. "If you're not packing at least a liter between your legs, son, well, then you must still be in grade school," goes the implication, or something to that effect. In this might-makes-right environment, entry-level bikes naturally get the short shrift, since large-displacement cruisers sell in vast numbers and are very profitable for their makers.
A less-than-enthusiastic response to smaller bikes is understandable in an industry where each year the Next Big Thing looks more like a semi than a scooter. Not only are small-displacement beginner bikes nearly ignored by manufacturers, experienced riders inevitably look down their noses at them, dismissing them as playthings, "not real motorcycles." Which is why, when we were planning this year's entry-level shootout, we decided it wouldn't be appropriate to have veteran riders test 250cc lightweights; impartial analyses from beginning riders would provide us with more realistic conclusions. So we sent the power-monger types packing and recruited five newcomers to the sport--fresh-faced enthusiasts for whom "biggest" doesn't necessarily mean best.
Cherney grabs the bike by...
Cherney grabs the bike by the horns...
It's not surprising that many riders enter the sport of motorcycling on 250cc cruisers--they're light, low and maneuverable, and most have been around for so many years you can usually pick up a used model for a song. (And even if you want a new one, they're cheap enough to put on a credit card.)
But anyone thumbing through the classifieds should also realize that beginner bikes are built to a price point that usually doesn't place style as a priority, but rather anvil-tough simplicity. Fashionable or not, however, the lightweights are usually designed to warrant inclusion into Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding courses. If you've ever taken a motorcycle training class, you've seen these bikes at ranges across the country. Our source at the MSF explained that a motorcycle must fit two out the following three criteria to qualify as a trainer for its curriculum:
* It must have an engine displacement of 500 cubic centimeters or less.
...and ably wrestles his opponent...
...and ably wrestles his opponent to a fall.
* It must have an unladen weight of 400 pounds or less.
* It must have a seat height of 30 inches or less.
Our test bikes fit the MSF requirements, and the machines were a diverse lot. Sure, we included the usual suspects--the venerable Honda Rebel 250, the bulletproof Suzuki GZ250 and the zippy Yamaha Virago 250--but this time we also brought in a couple of newcomers from the burgeoning Asian market. With the Kymco Venox 250 from Taiwan and the AlphaSports GV250 from Korea, it seemed the crusty incumbents would have their work cut out for them.
Our contenders sport decidedly traditional cruiser styling (except for the futuristic Venox), and all are tuned for power at the bottom end and midrange, making stop-and-go transitions less traumatic. But engines of such small displacement tend not to have a wide range of usable power (these are rated between 15 and 32 horsepower), and the bikes are usually left gasping for top-end speed. Riders need to stir the gearbox frequently to keep things moving. Then again, entry-level bikes are meant to instill confidence and promote better riding skills for novices through practice, without the intimidation of too much power or a steep price tag. So do they?
He regains his footing, and...
He regains his footing, and then...
We went straight to the amateurs for answers. Our newbies were perfect for the job since they offered a completely unjaded perspective. Seat time on the test units was split between an open course on a dry lake bed with an optional slalom segment (so riders could focus on the bikes without the distraction of traffic), and a road ride on the mean streets of Los Angeles. The riders rated bikes for ergonomics, handling, power and ease of use. Crib notes were also compiled on braking, suspension, style and value. Our crew ranged in height from 5-foot-2 to 6-foot-2, in weight from 120 to 220 pounds and in age from 24 to 65.
"You want something that doesn't distract you with discomfort," suggested our MSF contact when asked what recent graduates should look for in a new bike. Our bikes scored all over the ergonomic map, depending on the size of the tester asked, but everyone agreed the older-design Japanese bikes (particularly the Rebel) were more cramped than the Kymco and AlphaSports entries. Larger testers commented that the Japanese bikes were noticeably soft and underdamped over large bumps. The Kymco and AlphaSports wore their softness a bit more tolerably, possibly because of larger tires and better seat padding. The Suzuki received good notices for its neutral riding position, which didn't feel cramped for any of our testers.
In the power wars, the Virago proved it could still use its light weight and high compression ratio to good advantage, especially off the line, but many testers found the Alpha could catch up to it, with the Kymco a close third. The Suzuki was saddled with the same critique--its single cylinder did fine in bottom and midrange power delivery, but had a sluggish throttle and faded fast. The Rebel wallowed in this company--experienced riders and novices alike felt it was underpowered. On the lake course, several testers voiced concerns about the sponginess of the GZ250 and Kymco's brakes, while others complained of grabbiness on the Virago. Surprisingly, the Japanese bikes' dated styling appealed to our group--one deemed the Rebel "cute," and four others gave the Virago a thumbs up. The Alpha received two votes for aesthetic favorite, while the Kymco's unusual flair garnered three "best-looking bike here" scores. The Suzuki, alas, earned indifference, with not one tester picking it as his favorite.
Price and value proved important, too, and with MSRPs of $2999, the Honda and Suzuki were leaders in the value category, with the Virago close behind. The $3999 Kymco lost points for being the most expensive bike in the quintet.
After running these bikes through the wringer, our five-person test crew chose two clear favorites, with the big-boned AlphaSports 250 beating out the Yamaha Virago 250 by a slim margin. We can't say we're surprised--it should serve notice to the old guard that even rookie riders like to have new toys every now and then.