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.
Rebel, Rebel: Honda's venerable 250 cruiser
If we could count the number of people who learned to ride on Honda vertical twins or owned one as their first bike, you'd be astounded. The Rebel's engine can trace its lineage to early Honda twins -- which is both a positive and negative point. Because of this history, buyers can expect a bullet-proof engine, though it looks like it's related to motorcycles from the 1960s.
The heart of the Rebel is its air-cooled twin-cylinder 234cc engine. With a perfectly square bore and stroke of 53 x 53mm, the cylinders are fed through two valves each. A single overhead cam, which is powered by a maintenance-free automatically adjusted cam chain, operates the valves. The tappet clearances are maintained easily with screw-type adjusters. The compression ratio is a conservative 9.2:1. Carburetion comes via a single 26mm Keihin CV mixer. Exhaust gases exit through a 2-into-2 system, featuring mufflers on both sides of the bike. Power flows through a five-speed transmission out to a chain final drive. Thanks to the thrifty gas consumption, the 2.6-gallon tank should offer around 172 miles of cruising between fill-ups.
The Rebel's chassis technology is as retro as the powerplant. A semi-double cradle frame holds the lump in position. Up front, a 33mm fork connects the 18-inch front wheel to the frame. Atop the fork the slightly pullback bar sports bare-bones instrumentation: a speedo, odometer and idiot lights. Further back, the seat is a two-piece affair that tops out just 26.6 inches above the pavement. Supporting the rear half of the bike is a pair of shocks. Suspension-wise, you don't get any adjustability in the front, while there are five positions of preload in the rear. A 15-inch spoked wheel, sporting a 130/90 Bridgestone, completes the pavement interface. Braking is handled by a single, two-piston caliper with 9.4-inch disc in the front and a cost-saving rear drum.
While not exactly on the cutting-edge of cruiser styling, the Rebel is nice to look at. The black paint gives the bike a minimalist theme, but the new for 2001 pearl blue is snazzier. Despite being a budget-oriented motorcycle, the fenders are constructed of metal, and likewise, a few little detail pieces stand out. The plastic side panels are adorned with chrome strips imprinted with the Rebel logo. The dual pipes exiting both sides of the bike also dress up its looks a bit and distract one from the utilitarian look of the chain drive.
Riding the Rebel was an interesting experience. First, the riding position is the most cramped of any of this quartet. Longer-legged riders complained that the pullback bar hit them in the knees during parking-lot maneuvers. The other riders agreed that the pegs were mounted a bit high. Once out of the lot, however, the Rebel's approval rating climbed. One of two twins in this comparison, the Honda was the quickest off the line and felt the most powerful at all speeds.
Around town, the peppy engine made coexisting with four-wheeled traffic a worry-free affair. At highway speeds, despite our preconceptions, the Rebel could easily keep up with 65- to 70-mph traffic. Climbing hills did require a downshift occasionally to maintain speed. Adding a passenger would, no doubt, slow it down. The engine was remarkably smooth on the superslab, which would make short tours a stress-free endeavor. In the twistier sections of road, the engine's power was welcome since we tended to be more conservative on corner entries than with middleweight machines, thanks to the soft suspension.
Braking was handled effectively by the disc/drum combo, but the effort at the lever was a bit more than we would have liked. The drum offered decent feedback and resisted unintended lock-up.
When we gathered for our post-ride wrap-up, the Rebel was voted the second easiest to ride. One tester said he'd like to borrow this bike for his wife since she is quite petite. While it would be a great choice for smaller riders, it might cramp larger ones, negating its easy-going status.
2001 Honda 250 Rebel
Suggested base price: $2999
Wet weight: 329 lb.
GVWR: 675 lb.
Seat height: 26.6 in.
Wheelbase: 57.1 in.
Overall length: 83.3 in.
Rake/trail: 30 degrees / 4.4 in.
Handlebar width: 32.0
Fuel capacity: 2.6 gal.
Fuel mileage: 66 mpg
Average range: 172 miles
Engine type: Air-cooled, four stroke vertical twin
Final drive: Chain, 33/14
Front suspension: 33mm stanchions, 4.6 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, 2.9 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 1.85 x 18 in. front, 2.75 x 15 in. rear
Small Guy Complex: Kawasaki's 125 Eliminator
Eliminator is a tough name to live up to. Kawasaki's Eliminator series was its performance-cruiser line. Even the 500 Eliminator is quicker than many larger-displacement bikes. However, being the smallest bike in our entry-level cruiser comparison meant the Eliminator 125 started out with a 50 percent disadvantage when compared to the other contestants. Still, the little single has strengths that help it to stand up to challenge.
Although the Eliminator name is old, the 125 version is the only new model in this test. Since the 125 was released this year, its styling most closely follows current trends. From the snazzy tank badge to the chrome gas filler panel (complete with warning lights), the Eliminator shares a family resemblance with the newer members of the Vulcan series.
Starting with a backbone frame that cradles the engine, the chassis, like all the others in this comparison, is pretty standard fare. A 33mm fork holds the 17-inch wire-spoke wheel. Attached to the right side of that wheel, a single disc gets squeezed by a two-piston caliper. Atop the fork, a drag-style bar supports the speedo. The shapely tank looks like one from a much larger motorcycle. The one-piece stepped seat gives the bike a sleek appearance. The rear fender adds a hint of sportiness. The rear suspension is a twin-shock, preload-adjustable affair. A 15-inch rear wheel and a drum brake round out the rolling gear.
The little engine utilizes a single cylinder to generate power. The 55.0 x 52.4mm bore and stroke brings the displacement to a minuscule 124cc. A single overhead camshaft actuates the two valves. Cam timing is kept accurate by an automatic cam chain tensioner while a counterbalancer negates vibration. A 28mm Mikuni carburetor handles the mixture. After the electronic ignition has done its magic, a megaphone-styled exhaust empties the cylinder. Both the carburetion and exhaust are tuned for bottom end and midrange power. The fruits of their labors are sent to the chain final drive via a five-speed transmission.
Riding the Eliminator highlights the engine's specific tuning. Pulling away from a stop, the engine feels strong initially, but the power falls off abruptly, forcing the rider to shift into second at about 11 miles per hour. Again, the engine feels strong initially, but just for a moment. Of all the bikes included in this comparison, only the Eliminator struggles to stay ahead of in-town traffic. Out on the open road, without other vehicles to gauge by, the 125 provides a pleasant ride. However, a move to the interstate reveals its dearth of power. The Kawasaki could comfortably maintain 65 mph, but try to go any faster and the engine feels like "it's gonna explode," as one tester put it. Not being able to travel easily on the highway limits the Eliminator's utility, which is too bad since it was the most comfortable bike we tested.
The Kawi's riding position, ironically, felt like the largest of our quartet, striking an ideal balance between roominess and compact size. Part of the big-bike feel to the riding position must be credited to the fact that the Eliminator feels heavier than it is.
However, when the time came to apply the brakes, we were once again disappointed with the Eliminator. The brake control travel quite a ways before engaging with any force, causing concern on the first application of the brake after switching from the other bikes. Once accustomed to the low-power binder, we simply exerted extra pressure on the lever. In addition, the rear brake pedal travel is excessive. From the moment that the drum's shoes start to drag, the pedal still needs to be pressed several inches to reach full application.
Although the Eliminator has some shortcomings, at a retail price of $2499, it is the least expensive of the bikes in this comparison. Add its roomy riding position and good looks, and the little Kawasaki could make a nice economy ride. However, because of environmental regulations, California residents won't be able to buy the Eliminator at any price.
2001 Kawasaki 125 Eliminator
Suggested base price: $2499 (not available in CA)
Wet weight: 308 lb.
GVWR: 668 lb.
Seat height: 26.8 in.
Wheelbase: 57.9 in.
Overall length: 84.7 in.
Rake/trail: 34 degress / 4.8 in.
Handlebar width: 27.8 in.
Fuel capacity: 3.4 gal.
Fuel mileage: 47 mpg
Average range: 160 miles
Engine type: Air-cooled, four stroke single
Final drive: Chain, 46/15
Front suspension: 33mm stanchions, 5.1 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 2.00 x 17 in. front, 2.75 x 15 in. rear
Suzuki's Narrowly Fat 250 Single
Traditionally, Suzuki's cruiser line has leaned toward the aggressive end of the styling spectrum. Just look at the Intruders and the Marauder. For the most part, the performance of these bikes has been in line with its styling. While the manufacturer had taken steps toward the fatter, more retro-styled segment of the market with the 1500LC and new Volusia, most riders still think of Suzukis as performance machines.
The GZ250 tries to strike a position between Suzuki's fat and lean cruisers. With the widest front wheel in its class, delivering a classic feel and a turned up rear fender for a sporty look in the back, the GZ is fairly successful in finding the middle ground. In the lightweight cruiser class, it has a look all its own.
The GZ's engine is an air-cooled 249cc single that gets its displacement from a 72.0 x 61.2mm bore and stroke. The SOHC head breathes through two valves. The head also incorporates Suzuki's Twin Dome Combustion Chamber (TDCC), which purports to produce a faster burning fuel mixture and more power. A 32mm Mikuni performs atomization duties, while a sporty megaphone-style exhaust takes care of the waste products. The motivational department is handled by a five-speed transmission and a chain drive.
The chassis is a backbone frame construction. The steering head rakes out to 32 degrees for a laid-back posture. The fat (for this crowd) 2.5-inch by 16-inch front wheel wears a 110/90-16 tire under what is the biggest front fender in its class. Fork stanchions measuring 37mm connect the wheel to the pullback bar. The seat is 27.8 inches from the pavement. Twin shocks assure that the seat stays at that height. Above the 130/90-15 rear tire, the fender helps give the bike a sporty look. In fact, the styling is reminiscent of the Marauder, particularly in the tank design.
Riding the GZ highlighted how well Suzuki thought-out this bike. The riding position was comfortable and ranked as the second favorite with the test riders, although those long of leg did get a bit cramped on lengthy stints in the saddle. Still, one tester said he'd recommend the GZ (along with the Virago) for taller riders looking at the lightweight cruiser class. Most rider comments centered on how everything -- the footpegs, bar, seat, controls -- were in just the right position. The only notable complaint was the location of the rear brake pedal which some felt required too much forward movement to apply effectively.
The GZ's power delivery tied for second with the Virago's. The Suzuki puts out decent power in the bottom end and midrange, making for a pleasant around-town experience. However, the top end is a bit soft in comparison to the other 250s. Hills encountered on the highway usually required a downshift. Engine vibration was intrusive only at very high rpm. The thrifty engine will ask for reserve around 200 miles.
When it was time to slow down, the front brake, while effective, felt fairly soft, requiring more effort than we thought was necessary to stop such a light bike. A couple testers also commented that they felt the steering was a little heavy when compared to its rivals, but this was never a problem.
Votes for the Suzuki's looks were all over the map, ranging from "all right" to praise. One rider said the GZ was his favorite of the foursome, but he tends to like the fat-look cruisers. When we ranked the Suzuki for user-friendliness, it shot to the top of the list, rivaling the Virago, with one rider ranking it first and two others ranking it second. At $2999, the GZ250 strikes a good balance for an entry-level cruiser.
2001 Suzuki GV250
Suggested base price: $2999
Wet weight: 331 lb.
GVWR: 775 lb.
Seat height: 27.8 in.
Wheelbase: 57.1 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degress / 5.5 in.
Handlebar width: 30.2 in.
Fuel capacity: 3.7 gal. (3.4 gal. California models)
Fuel mileage: 59 mpg avg.
Average range: 144 miles
Engine type: Air-cooled, four stroke single
Final drive: Chain, 41/15
Front suspension: 37mm stanchions, 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, 3.5 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Wheels: Spoke, 2.5 x 16 in. front, 3.0 x 15 in. rear
Sole Suvivor: Yamaha's 250 is the Last Virago
At its peak, the Virago line of cruisers was a force to be reckoned with in metric cruiserland. Ah, but times change, and cruiser fashions have stepped away from the Virago and toward the Stars.
Looking at this 250 is a trip down memory lane. All of its major features bear the Virago family resemblance. From the chrome intake pods to its big front wheel to its pullback bar to its stepped seat, this bike could only be a Virago. Supporting all these reminiscences is a double-cradle frame with the front raked out (chopper-style) to 32 degrees. Holding the 1.6-inch by 18-inch wheel in place, the 33mm fork transfers steering inputs from the buckhorn bar to the Cheng Shin rubber on the pavement. The 58.7-inch wheelbase is the longest of the gang assembled for this test. Twin shocks with dual rate springs keep the swingarm attached to the chassis. A 130/90-15 Cheng Shin tire mounts to the 15-inch spoked rear wheel.
The bodywork is pure custom styling. A plastic front fender hugs the rubber on the big hoop while the metal rear fender draws its inspiration from bob-jobs of the 1940s. Side panels tuck neatly away inside of frame members for a clean style. A teardrop tank holds a mere 2.5 gallons of petrol. The famed Virago pods -- love 'em or hate 'em -- house nothing on the left side and the intake on the right. On the other end of the combustion process, staggered dualies are standard Virago fare. The minimalist instrumentation resides above the triple clamp. The biggest fashion faux-pas are the ugly black plastic mirrors, which only redeem themselves by offering the most adjustability and the best rear view of our pack o' lightweights.
The engine is also pure Virago. The air-cooled 60-degree V-twin displaces 249cc thanks to its bore and stroke of 49 x 66mm. Each of the cylinders is topped with its own single overhead cam driving two valves. One 26mm Mikuni handles the carburetion, and a digital TCI controls the spark. A five-speed transmission feeds the power to the chain drive.
Depending on who was doing the ranking, the Virago finished either second or third in the power department, so we'll call it a tie with the Suzuki. Some of the Virago's power probably comes from sporting the highest compression ratio of the class (10.0:1). Regardless, the Virago was quick off the line, delivering pleasant power whether in the urban jungle or on country back roads. Keeping up with interstate traffic was easy until on the high side of 70 mph. Cruising power was good and only occasionally required downshifts for hills. The exhaust note left the others in the dust.
The Yamaha's brakes were a topic of much discussion. First, the long reach to the lever wasn't a problem since there was an easy method to adjust it. However, the 11.1-inch front brake was the grabbiest of the test. Despite being touchy at low speeds, the binders were the most powerful of the bunch, yet they still required a firm pull. The rear brake was strong, but offered little feel for how much it could be applied before lockup.
Some of the riders found the riding position to be a bit cramped. One cited the angle of the grips, which required his arms to be held close to his body. The left controls also drew comments about the turn signal and horn button placement. When riders first rode the Virago, they would invariably hit the horn when trying to signal. This was most likely caused by the grip position, too. Riders who are long in inseam may find that the curve at the rear of the seat is uncomfortable on the ol' coccyx after awhile.
Despite these quibbles, two testers chose the Virago as their pick for best all-around lightweight, and a third ranked it second. Clearly, this bike has a lot going for it. Although it is the most expensive of our quartet, the $3399 price is easy to swallow. For the additional $400, Virago owners will enjoy the only V-twin of the class. And we all know how cruisers feel about V-twins.
2001 Yamaha Virago 250
Suggested base price: $4399
Wet weight: 328 lb.
GVWR: 755 lb.
Seat height: 27 in.
Wheelbase: 58.7 in.
Overall length: 86.2 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degrees / 4.7 in.
Handlebar width: 29.5 in.
Fuel capacity: 2.5 gal.
Fuel mileage: 66 mpg
Average range: 165 miles
Engine type: Air-cooled, four stroke 60 degree tandem V-twin
Final drive: Chain, 45/16
Front suspension: 33mm stanchions, 5.5 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 1.6 x 18 in. front, 2.5 x 15 in. rear
Evans Brasfield: OK, I admit it, I had a bunch of fun riding these entry-level cruisers. Although, when I was given the assignment of organizing the ride, I felt a little like someone told me to wash the dishes. Despite my initial grumpiness, riding these lightweights forced me to change my usual perspective from that of an expert rider to a novice's view. Consequently, I became reacquainted with an old truism: Judge a tool by the task for which it was designed.
If these four lightweight cruisers' job descriptions are to provide low-cost unintimidating transportation, then they've succeeded -- only some are more successful than others. Despite its sharp looks, the Eliminator just can't make up for its 50 percent displacement deficit. The remaining three deliver practical utility. However, when it comes time to choose, I'd narrow the field down to the GZ and Virago. Price, styling and the phase of the moon would determine my final selection. All in all, these bikes are properly suited to do their jobs -- only look in the used market to pick one up after it's depreciated.
Andrew Cherney: I thought this quartet of peewee bikes (as we called 'em) would end up trying my patience, sewing machine engines and all. Well -- and don't make me say this twice -- it wasn't as inhumane as I envisioned. I was almost pleasantly surprised at how much fun these half-pints were to ride down a country road. I found the Virago's motor responsive, and its seating position the best of the lot, even if the buckhorn-style bars did come a bit too close to my knees. The Honda Rebel was a favorite mount around town because of its responsive brakes and decent acceleration, and the Suzuki's comfortable bar height and riding position create an appealing cockpit for the beginning rider. The tiny Kawasaki Eliminator strutted the rakish styling of a streetrod -- although its brakes and throttle were flimsier than they needed to be and I never felt substantially safe on it.
Any one of these midgets would inspire confidence in a beginner rider, but if it's the best all-around beginner bike you're looking for, you probably can't beat the Rebel. But if you're thinking of taking any of these babies out into the dog-eat-dog reality of urban traffic, however, you might just find yourself struggling to get out of your own way.
Jim O'Connor: Let's put this test into perspective, shall we. These bikes should be evaluated a little differently. First, the Eliminator 125. Well, it won't do much eliminating, especially if it is going uphill. The Honda Rebel 250 is a perfectly respectable bike. The engine is capable (when getting off the 125) and the clutch is predictable. Unfortunately, the footpegs were too high for my taste and they felt odd when combined with the low handlebars. Next, the GZ250. It has a nice big seat and wide bars, so maneuverability was easy. The brakes worked the best, and smooth input created predictable results, even if they were a little mushy. This bike ties for the lead with my emotional side giving the Virago the final nod.
I guess I subscribe to the grin-factor mentality of riding. It doesn't need to be the best bike out there, I just need to smile when I ride it. In this crowd, I grinned the most on the Virago. The 250 V-twin sounded the best and had the most power (and even if it didn't, it sounded more powerful). Jeers would have to include its brakes, which needed firm commitment from my right hand to get them to work. Once committed, however, they hooked up well.
All of these bikes are good for beginners and people who need basic transportation, but I think most riders would outgrow each after a very short time.
Andrew Trevitt: It's hard to take these bikes seriously, but then learning how to ride -- and doing it properly -- is a serious undertaking. All of these bikes are well suited for that purpose; their low seat heights and mild-mannered engines are quite unintimidating for beginning riders. Choosing a bike would be more a matter of finding the one you are most comfortable on rather than basing a decision on any performance criteria, because being at ease on a bike will give you more confidence.
I found out on our ride that the characteristics which make the 125 and 250s easy to ride and hard to get into trouble on -- modest power, brakes and suspension -- make it difficult to get out of a bad situation, which could be exited from easily with a better-equipped bike. These small cruisers are great to learn on, but do yourself a world of good (once you have some miles under your belt) and don't to confine yourself to this class for an extended period of time.