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 sportfresh-faced enthusiasts for whom "biggest" doesn't necessarily mean best.
It's not surprising that many riders enter the sport of motorcycling on 250cc cruisersthey'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 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 suspectsthe venerable Honda Rebel 250, the bulletproof Suzuki GZ250 and the zippy Yamaha Virago 250but 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?
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.
Running To Stand Still
"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.
Chereny grabs the bike by the horns...
...and ably wrestles his opponent to a fall.
He regains his footing, and then...
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 critiqueits single cylinder did fine in bottom and midrange power delivery, but had a sluggish throttle and faded fast. The Rebel wallowed in this companyexperienced 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 groupone 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 surprisedit should serve notice to the old guard that even rookie riders like to have new toys every now and then.
Not From Japan: AlphaSports' GV250 Comes Out Swinging
AlphaSports may be a relative newcomer to the cruiser market, but its GV250 Classic reveals a build quality on par with that of major OEMs. The bike has been manufactured by Hyosung Motors and Machinery Inc. in South Korea for the European and Asian market for several yearsand now Hyosung builds the GV250 to AlphaSports' specifications for the U.S. market, too.
In classic cruiser fashion, the GV250 displays its 249cc engine with V-twin cylinders splayed 75 degrees apart. The technology's not all retro, thougheach cylinder is fed by four valves operated by dual overhead cams, with two Mikuni carbs performing mixing duties. The entire valanced, low-slung package is held together by a tubular double-cradle chassis with an oil cooler hung just above the forward cylinder. Beefy, stacked shotgun exhausts allow spent gases to exit on the right.
The front fork is shrouded in chrome, and two preload-adjustable springs support a broad, well-padded saddle a mere 25 inches from the ground. The reach to the low, wide bar and a near upright seating position allows long in-saddle moments; good thing, too, since the 3.7-gallon fuel tank will have you on the road for close to 200 miles. A beefy (for this crew) 16-inch front wheel dons a 110/90-16 tire under what is arguably the largest front fender in the class. Not surprisingly, the rear fender is also the longest in the group. The bike rolls on tubeless, 150-series rear rubber that covers an aluminum-cast wheelthe widest here. A five-speed transmission smoothly engages a chain final drive.
The GV250 incorporates the fat-fendered style currently in vogue with cruisers, and the level of the Alpha's fit, finish and styling gets high marks. The wide handlebar and forward-placed footpegs put you in almost the same ergonomic position as, say, a Road Star. It looks brawny for a 250, but first-timers needn't be intimidatedthe Alpha weighs in under 385 pounds.
Though cold-blooded at first crank, the mill elicits a pleasant twin-cylinder thrum once warmed. Normal throttle application with timely gear changes produces 60 mph without much effort, and on the road, all testers agreed that the unflappable Hyosung engine encouraged throttle-wringing. Riding this bike emphasized how roomy the cockpit was compared to the Japanese bikeseven our 6-footers felt at home with the Alpha's spread-out ergos, and long-time veterans were pleasantly surprised by its easy manners.
The same setup can create trouble in traffic, though. Two of the smaller testers needed time to get used to the weight of the handlebar, with its fat tire, at walking speeds. The single 10.4-inch front disc brake delivered good stopping power, but didn't provide much feedbackrookies felt its double-piston caliper was adequate in town, but larger and more experienced riders felt there was room for improvement.
On straightaways, the Alpha delivered its power without fuss through the gears, even at higher speeds, where three testers said they approached the 80 mph mark with very little complaint. A few riders commented that the fully equipped instrument cluster (speedo, tach, fuel gauge and idiot lights) was a welcome sight compared to the Japanese bikes' uniformly underwhelming instrumentation.
The Alpha may have a larger profile than the others, but save for a complaint about heavy steering, there was nothing but praise for the plump machine. Everyone agreed it was the only one that seemed like an "honest-to-goodness cruiser." Even as the second most expensive bike of the quintet at $3599, three out of five testers chose the Alpha as their pick for best all-around lightweight. Japan Inc. should take heed. There's a new kid in town....
This Rebel Doesn't Yell: The Honda 250 You Remember from School
If the Rebel looks familiar to you, it should. Honda's venerable 250 has been around since 1985 and has put thousands of new riders through their paces. The Rebel's bulletproof engine and spare, retro styling make a user-friendly package that's proven to be easy on the eyes and even easier on wallets.
With the Rebel, what you see is what you getits air-cooled, parallel-twin engine has a perfectly square bore and stroke of 53 x 53mm, and each cylinder is fed by two valves. A single overhead cam powered by an automatically adjusted cam chain operates the valves. Compression is a low 9.2:1, and carburetion comes courtesy of a single 26mm Keihin unit. Exhausts are expelled via a 2-into-2 unit, with mufflers appearing on either side of the bike. A five-speed transmission gets power out to a chain final drive. The 2.6-gallon tank sips fuel at approximately 60 mpg for a hefty 170-mile cruising range.
A double-cradle frame supports the engine. The 33mm fork attached to an 18-inch front wheel is directed by a wide, slightly pullback bar with a single gauge for instrumentation. Amidships, you straddle a two-piece seat just 26.6 inches above the pavement, supported by two dampers adjustable for preload (with no adjustability available in the fork). The rear end rolls on a 15-inch spoked wheel shod with a 139/90 tire. A 9.4-inch brake disc is stopped by a single, two-piston caliper up front, and there's a drum setup in the back.
While the Rebel is no showstopper, three of our testers found it attractivethe '03 pearl-blue color scheme was especially eye-catching. And build quality is typically solidthe fenders are metal and the badging details are particularly well finished. Alas, all 250s are built to a price, and sometimes it shows on the Rebel. Little details like a missing oil light, no tach, nonmatching budget tires and a weak non-halogen headlight stick out.
Riding the Rebel is just as you remember it from your MSF courseeven vertically challenged beginners are able to plant both feet on terra firma, and its light weight and nimble handling instills instant confidence. Good thing, because this bike is made for short peopleour shortest tester, at 5-foot-2, was still cramped on the Rebel, and others maintained it'd be more comfortable if the bar, pegs and seat were an inch further apart. The only normal-sized feature of the Rebel is its wide handlebar, which allowed testers to push the front end around with ease.
This flickability made the Rebel entertaining, and our more experienced riders appreciated its ample ground clearance. Several testers complained that a long pull was required on the front brake lever to engage the 9.4-inch disc, but total rookies felt instantly comfortable with the Rebel and remarked favorably about its cornering ability and quickness off the line. When push came to shove, however, the Rebel petered out on power with larger sized riders.
The lack of power was a problema smaller tester even remarked, "I felt more like I was riding a rabbit than a Rebel." Most riders could only cajole the little Honda to a top speed of 70 mph with any degree of comfort, and hill climbing was a shift-y affair. Of course, Honda hasn't aimed this bike at experienced riders, and novices should find the power output acceptableif they stay off the highway.
When we sifted through the post-ride comments, testers ranked the Rebel third or fourth, but its cramped quarters and sluggish mill very nearly negated its attractive price. All in all, we'd say the Rebel is still a good value for the money, if you're under 5-foot-3 inches tall.
Looks Can Be Deceiving: Kymco's Venox Has the Attitude of a Bike Twice its Displacement
Kymco, an acronym for Kwang Yang Motor Company Ltd., has made motorcycles since the '60s and now sells to 44 countries on four continents. Although better known for its scooters, Kymco made its first venture into the hallowed turf of V-twin cruisers with the 250cc Venox in '02.
Sporting a healthy splash of traditional chrome, the Venox's large steel headlight, sleek shock covers and futuristic rear taillight all point to unorthodox aesthetics, especially in this tried-and-true class of bikes.
The Venox gets its power from a 90-degree V-twin, liquid-cooled engine lurking in a double-cradle frame. What you might not expect on a 250cc cruiser is dual overhead cams, eight valves and twin carbs to handle internal mixing and atomization duties. Hi-tech stuff for this lot, and the dual truncated exhaust pipes angling away from the rear tire on the right side only serve to reinforce the idea. A 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheel is shod with 120/80 rubber up front, and the rear wheel carries a 150-series tire on a solid 15-inch discthe only one in our quintet.
The slightly curved, one-piece seat hovers a manageable 27.8 inches off the ground, while the handlebars sweep well back from a pair of two-inch risers. Unlike the other bikes, the gauges (sans tach) are mounted in a chrome pod atop the long 3.7-gallon fuel tank. The rear forks are covered and sport chromed hoods over the mounting bolts at the frame for a clean design. Chrome air-pod covers below the gas tank add to the sleekness.
The Venox is the tallest, heaviest and longest bike in our group, which elicited a variety of comments from our testers. Its rangy ergonomics and wide saddle fit the two 6-footers fine, but the Kymco's raked-out front end resulted in vague feedback and uncertain handling at low speeds, and the testers blasted it on their evaluation forms.
The bike's floppy steering bore the brunt of the heat, and a few noted that the handlebar wasn't adjustableit was pinned in place. Many felt the Kymco's hefty 420 pound tonnage was "a lot of metal for any beginner to be heaving around." Three others complained that the handlebar contacted the tank in tight turns. One remarked that the "less-than comfortable configuration" was OK once he got used to it.
But riding the bike at speed was a different story. The bike's weight and wheelbase resulted in a more solid, stable ride, especially over sharp bumps, and most felt the bike's powerband was accessible "with a bit of urging." The gearshift seemed to work fine on upshifts but "felt crunchy on downshifts," according to some, and a heavy, positive action was required to achieve decent cog swapping.
The Venox's styling seemed to be a hit with all riders. "By far, this is the best-looking cruiser in this test," said one of our testers, and two others gave it top marks for its unusual aesthetics. The Kymco's dilemma seems to boil down to style versus handling and build quality. For the $3999 asking price, the Venox isn't a bad deal, but smaller, beginning riders should probably look elsewhere.
Small But Big: The Suzuki GZ250's Fat Style Screams Cruiser
Evolved from the timeworn GN250, the littlest Suzuki cruiser offers no surprisesa basic steel frame with a single downtube bolts to a twin cradle underneath the powerplant. The air-cooled, four-stroke 249cc single cylinder has just two valves, which suggests simple maintenance that should be well within reach of the careful beginner. The SOHC head incorporates Suzuki's Twin Dome Combustion Chamber, its two domes causing a high-speed swirling motion in the intake charge. This process is said to produce a faster burning mixture and more power. A 32mm Mukuni carb treats the mix, which is eventually released through a sporty megaphone-styled exhaust in the form of spent gases. Power is delivered via a five-speed transmission and chain drive.
The simple backbone skeleton offers a 32-degree steering-head rake for a relaxed posture. The fat 2.5 x 16-inch front wheel wears a 110/90-16 tire under a full fender, which rides between 37mm fork stanchions. A flat pullback bar dictates directional changes.
The dished seat rides 27.8 inches above the asphalt on preload-adjustable twin shocks connected to a 130/90-15 tire. Brakes are as basic as you can get, with a single-piston caliper working a single front disc, and a mechanical-drum rear. The Suzuki's styling strikes a pose somewhere between full-figured and lean, in a fair approximation of the larger Suzuki Marauder's lines.
There were no rude awakenings once our testers saddled up on the GZ. The larger riders immediately noted the plush dampingit made for a comfortable ride, but didn't hold much promise for a sporting jaunt. The low seat height and forward foot controls fit four of the riders well, but we noticed the padding on the seat had compressed substantially at the end of a long ride. All riders said the brakes worked adequately, but several complained that a good deal of effort was required to haul the GZ to a stop. The single-piston caliper was likely to blame for this poor performance.
The GZ's steering, however, earned high marks for predictabilitythe Suzuki was stable, though some testers interpreted this as heaviness on the part of the fat 16-inch front tire. Cornering clearance, however, left something to be desiredour more enthusiastic riders found footpegs and various underpinnings hitting the deck more than they liked.
The consensus among all riders was that the GZ was adequate around town as long as nothing brave was attempted. The GZ earned good marks for fit and finish in this price category, but a few testers remarked that it "looked and felt generic and boring," with its "basic speedo-only instrumentation."
At $2999, the GZ250 is a decent deal, though it's the same price as the Honda and not nearly as powerful. If you're into motorcycling for the long haul, however, chances are you'll outgrow this bike in less than a year.
Last One Standing: Where Have All Yamaha's Viragos Gone?
This Yamaha wears some of its Virago family connection on its sleevechrome intake pods, a skinny front wheel and the buck-horn bar are the obvious birthrights.
Scratch a little deeper and a familiar double-cradle frame with a chopper-style, 32-degree raked-out front end will bellow its classic cruiser bent. The gleaming, air-cooled 60-degree V-twin within displaces 249cc. Each of the cylinders gets its own single overhead cam driving two valves, with a single Mikuni carburetor handling the fuel mixture. A five-speed transmission motivates the chain drive.
Holding the skinny 1.6-inch x 18-inch wheel in place are 33mm fork legs, which get steering inputs from a buck-horn bar. Twin shocks with dual-rate springs keep the swingarm attached to the chassis, and support a stepped saddle 27 inches from the ground. A 130/90-15 Cheng Shin tire covers a 15-inch spoked rear wheel.
The Virago occupies the custom side of the styling spectrum. The short plastic front fender hugs a skinny front tire, while a cropped, metal rear piece offers a sporty look reminiscent of the chopper era. Continuing the chopper vibe is a small 2.5-gallon teardrop tank. And those debatable chrome pods just outboard of the tank? One houses dead space, while the right side is part of the intake tract. Dual staggered pipes highlighting the starboard side of the bike are standard Virago character traits, but the hideous antennalike mirror stalks are a painful reminder of the bike's budget-conscious leanings. Single pod instrumentation atop the triple clamp confirms this.
The Yamaha's styling may be old news, but two testers rated it a top looker. And in the power department, the Yamaha finished either first or second (depending on the size of the rider) on the score sheets. The Virago's perennially strong performance came through during the urban portion of our testeven 6-footers had few problems around town, and smaller riders felt the Yamaha had plenty of oomph off the line and sufficient power up to around 60 mph. After that the power fell off quickly, resulting in a top speed of approximately 75 mph. Those smaller in stature said they came closer to the 85 mph posted on the speedometer and were comfortable cruising on the highway. The V-twin exhaust note was a unanimous hit.
The Virago showed up the others in the braking department with its large front brake disc. The 11.1-inch rotor provided superb performance for more experienced riders, but newbies voiced concern over grabbiness at low speeds and a lack of responsiveness from the rear. Either way, the Virago's braking combo was the most powerful in the group.
Ergonomics were nearly perfect for our shorter riders, with one exclaiming, "After two hours I was still comfortable in the saddle," but taller riders weren't quite as accommodated. Several cited the narrowness and closeness of the buck-horn bar, while one rider felt cramped by the peg positioning.
Even with these complaints, four testers rated the Virago the second-best lightweight, with the fifth rider giving it top honors. It seems $3399 is a reasonable price to pay for a Yamaha V-twin that can almost run with the big boys.
Height: 6 ft. 2 in.
Weight: 200 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.
The Kymco Venox is by far the best-looking bike in this test, and I felt fairly confident going at high speeds, but I'd buy the Alpha over the others .
Height: 5 ft. 2 in.
Weight: 120 lbs.
Inseam: 30 in.
The Alpha became my favorite after taking it out on the street, but if we're talking comfort over pizzazz, the Virago would have to be my choice.
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 175 lbs.
Inseam: 35 in.
The Yamaha Virago was the best all-around light motorcycle in this threesome. I own one and am completely satisfied with it.
The Littlest Cruisers of 2001
Additional motorcycle road tests and comparison tests are available at the Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.