Entry-level bikes. Beginner motorcycles. Little bikes. Those names are the kiss of death. We know of three things most Americans hate to admit to being short on: cash, experience or displacement. Here in the Land of the Free, everything seems to be about bigger being better.
Those who pay no heed to this theory need only to look at the cover of this magazine or visit any cruiser watering hole. During the winter months preceding this riding season, what was the topic of endless discussion? The new, biggest-displacement motorcycle ever produced by a major manufacturer. Fortunately, some recourses are available to riders who have somehow managed to avoid the "supersized" fetish. Middleweight cruisers are now stylish, viable alternatives to the big-bore bikes. Those who still think about spending six large or more for their first bike (when they still don't know if this sport's for them) have four less expensive, lightweight options available as 2001 models: Honda's Rebel 250, Kawasaki's Eliminator 125, Suzuki's GZ250 and Yamaha's Virago 250. If that's not enough, three of the lightweight cruisers tested here have been produced for enough years that used ones should be relatively easy to pick up used.
Entry-level bikes have a tough row to hoe. Although cruisers are very much about style, beginner bikes must meet price point criteria that precludes them from being trendsetters. The aftermarket offers little in the way of accessories since owners of lightweights are less likely to customize. The same can be said about performance upgrades. So, one has to ask, what are lightweight cruisers designed for?
Although it may seem incongruous, the 250cc-and-under class of cruisers was made for riding, pure and simple. While some novices may feel comfortable starting off with a middleweight, a sizable percentage of people entering the sport of motorcycling are a little more cautious. Beginning riders and students attending Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses need motorcycles that are reliable and unintimidating. All of these bikes fit that bill.
So, how do we rate these lightweights? First, they have more in common than they have differences. All four bikes are tuned for bottom end and midrange power, which makes leaving stoplights and cruising around town easy. However, engines of such small displacements don't have a wide range of usable power, and consequently, they sign off early when trying to make speed quickly. The result? Riders need to stir the shifter fairly frequently. However, if we look at these bikes as helping new riders develop skills, nothing works better than frequent practice. Upshifting and downshifting, as well as proper gear selection, can be picked up quickly. The only drawback to the small displacement (from a skills development perspective) is lightweights don't offer the power to zip away from potential problems, like their beefier brethren. This deficit is particularly noticeable in Kawasaki's 125 Eliminator.
Because of their small sizes, lightweight cruisers are less intimidating from a weight standpoint. Just check the statistics -- these bikes weigh more than 300 pounds less than most heavyweight cruisers! New riders can be a bit wobbly at times, and having less mass to hold up is a good thing. Similarly, all four of these bikes steer relatively quickly -- responding to a novice's tentative input -- and don't require the assertive manipulation that bigger, heavier bikes do. Here, again, the bikes are an asset in skills development. All four bikes were nimble, but the GZ250 steered a bit slower (almost like a bigger bike), thanks to its beefier front tire. The bikes' small size meant that larger riders did feel cramped, with the Rebel being the most obvious offender.
Unfortunately, all four of the bikes suffer from poorly damped suspensions, undoubtedly a result of the bikes' low price points. Encountering bumps midcorner can be unnerving -- particularly for new riders. All of these bikes suffered from excessive boinginess (a technical term for bikes underdamped on both compression and rebound, causing the chassis to pitch back-and-forth over bumps). The flexible frames also allow the bikes to wallow in sweepers. While novices might be put off by a little stiffer ride, we felt all the bikes needed suspension upgrades.
We also had concerns about the brakes on most of the entry-level bikes. All of the brakes required a firm pull on the lever, firmer, perhaps, than a novice rider might be willing to give in a panic-stop situation. While we agree that new riders don't want brakes that can easily overpower the front wheel (since novices are more likely to grab the front brake initially), we felt that more responsive brakes would benefit them by teaching the proper braking technique, instead of ingraining ham-fisted habits. The Virago, which, however, did exhibit some low speed grabbiness, rewarded the rider with linear braking in relation to the pressure on the lever and stood above the others in this regard.
In the looks department, we'd have to say that we were pleasantly surprised. While plastic did make an appearance on most of the bikes, a large percentage of the bikes had metal fenders. Styling was nicer than we expected, too -- even though the Rebel and the Virago look a little dated. Both the Suzuki and the Eliminator were the standouts from a fashion standpoint with the Eliminator getting the nod for capturing big-bike looks and roominess in a small package.
After living with these bikes for awhile, we'd choose either the Yamaha Virago or Suzuki GZ250. Both of these bikes were rated highly by the testers and offer the widest pallet of options for riding skills development. Smaller riders may want to consider the Rebel. The compact package that confounded the long-legged set make the Honda a good choice for petite folks.