Comparison of Small Displacement Motorcycles From 2001

School's out and we take the lessons to the streets with the small displacement bikes of 2001

This article was originally published in the June 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

small displacement bikes
We take the entry-level bikes of 2001 to the streets to see what these small displacement bikes are made of.Dean Groover

Entry-level bikes, beginner bikes, little bikes…these 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 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 from enthusiasts who are ready to upgrade their rides.

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 the Eliminator 125.

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 designed 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.

Riding Positions

2001 Honda Rebel 250
2001 Honda Rebel 250Dean Groover
Honda Rebel 250
Suggested base price: $2999
Wet weight: 329 lb.
GVWR: 675 lb.
Seat height: 26.6 in.
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
Handlebar width: 32.0 in.
Inseam equivalent: 30.4 in.
Wheelbase: 57.1 in.
Trail: 4.4 in.
Overall length: 83.3 in.

Height: 5 ft. 11 in.
Weight: 185 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

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 my 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.

Eliminator: 2 stars
GZ250: 3.75 stars
Rebel: 3 stars
Virago: 3.75 stars

2001 Kawasaki Eliminator 125
2001 Kawasaki Eliminator 125Dean Groover
Kawasaki Eliminator 125
Suggested base price: $2499 (not available in CA)
Wet weight: 308 lb.
GVWR: 668 lb.
Seat height: 26.8 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
Handlebar width: 27.8 in.
Inseam equivalent: 29.7 in.
Wheelbase: 57.9 in.
Trail: 4.8 in.
Overall length: 84.7 in.

Height: 5 ft. 7 in.
Weight: 153 lb.
Inseam: 31 in.

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.

Eliminator: 1.5 stars
GZ250: 2 stars
Rebel: 3 stars
Virago: 2.75 stars

2001 Suzuki GZ250
2001 Suzuki GZ250Dean Groover
Suzuki GZ250
Suggested base price: $2999
Wet weight: 331 lb.
GVWR: 775 lb.
Seat height: 27.8 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
Handlebar width: 32.0 in.
Inseam equivalent: 30.4 in.
Wheelbase: 57.1 in.
Trail: 4.4 in
Overall length: 83.3 in.

Height: 5 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 150 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

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.

Eliminator: 1.25 stars
GZ250: 4 stars
Rebel: 3 stars
Virago: 4 stars

2001 Yamaha Virago 250
2001 Yamaha Virago 250Dean Groover
Yamaha Virago 250
Suggested base price: $4399
Wet weight: 328 lb.
GVWR: 755 lb.
Seat height: 27 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
Handlebar width: 29.5 in.
Inseam equivalent: 29.0 in.
Wheelbase: 58.7 in.
Trail: 4.7 in.
Overall length: 86.2 in.

Height: 5 ft. 9 in.
Weight: 140 lb.
Inseam: 30 in.

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.

Don’t let Andrew’s comments fool you. He has a soft spot for 250s.

Eliminator: 2 stars
GZ250: 2.5 stars
Rebel: 3 stars
Virago: 3 stars