A special contribution from Thomas Day (aka Geezer with a Grudge)
I hear this all the time,
“Why don’t we get that great bike? The Europeans/Japanese/Chinese/Canadians/Icelanders get all the cool stuff.”
When the conversation goes further, it almost always turns out that we are going to totally disagree about what’s cool and what’s not. For example, most guys are upset at not getting the latest full-on liter-plus racerbike. I could care less about that sort of over-priced, over-powered minutia. I can’t afford a bike like that and, if I could, I’d be bored riding something that can do 200mph in a 55mph world. I’m too old and poor for racing and uninterested in pretending to be a racer on public streets.
The rest of the world is demanding moderate performance, high fuel mileage, multi-purpose bikes and that’s exactly what I’d like to see here. When I did race, I was a 125cc motocrosser and I still have a special feeling for small, lightweight motorcycles. Like the Yamaha YBR250, a 21hp, fuel-injected, air-cooled, 4-valve 4-stroke single, electric start, 300 pound “naked bike.” Or Honda’s CBR125R, the XL125V Varadero, or the mid-sized bikes like the L700V Transalp and Yamaha’s XT660X.
Since Honda brought the 600cc Transalp into the US in 1987 and gave up on us in 1988, that bike has become cooler and cooler every year. Apparently, Honda doesn’t even consider bringing it to the US. We’re not hip enough to want something this trick because we’re easily distracted by wads of chrome and blubbering engine noise. Even Canada hasn’t been worthy of the Transalp since Honda decided North America was living in the dark ages.
Practically everybody but the US is drenched in Japanese small iron, from 50cc to 400cc models. Every once in a while, Japan brings in something half-cool, like Suzuki’s TU250X, but they only make a half-hearted run at creating a market for this kind of practical motorcycle and they become disappointed easily. I half-suspect they take it personally. When we don’t appreciate their finer works of engineering, they pout and blow off the substantial customers who are interested in those products.
When the product is smaller than 250cc, it seems that we have no chance at all of seeing it. There are tons of bikes in the 100-250cc territory that have never seen the light of the Port of Long Beach.
The Honda VTR250 was a late-1980′s marketing bomb and that was the end of the US version of that experiment. The Ducati Monster version of the VTR250 just kept getting cooler and cooler until Honda canned the model in 2009. Honda’s XL125V/CBR125R singles are every bit as cool and every bit as unavailable in North America. Why? I wish I knew. The CBR version is a 13hp, 300 pound, fuel injected natural for any urban road warrior. With a 2.6 gallon tank, fuel injection, and an estimated 94mpg, the CBR is perfect for about 90% of what most of us do on a motorcycle.
One test claimed the bike had a cruising speed of 60mph and a top speed of 75mph with a 160 pound rider. Totally thrashing the bike on-and-off road, one owner recorded an average of 62mpg out of the dual purpose Varadero version of this power plant. The CBR125 is imported into Canada, mostly as a trainer, but the Varadero is only available in the twin-cylinder liter version. We get neither.
The liter Varadero is pretty appealing, but Yamaha’s XT660X and the macho version, the XT660X is way more interesting. I’ve lusted after the since it was a paltry 600cc dual purpose bike with way more function than style.
Kawasaki and Suzuki make a couple of interesting 125′s that we don’t get, but it appears that their days of cool small bikes may be declining. Suzuki has the DR125SM and Kawasaki has the Kawasaki D-Tracker 125, but they didn’t list any interesting small street bikes on any of their 2011 ROW sites. Either Suzuki and Kawi are giving up on the modern motorcycle market, or they are waiting to see what happens next. That’s not much of a marketing approach when playing it safe could be the same as handing off the future to those with the guts to go for it.
With the many problems motorcycling has–our crappy public image, mediocre fuel efficiency, noise issues, high prices, old demographic, and general lack of social value–small motorcycles offer a lot of solutions. Call them “starter bikes,” if that makes you feel good about yourself, but many serious riders spend their whole riding lives on 400cc or smaller bikes. Getting great mileage, light enough for the smallest riders, versatile as a Swiss Army knife, easily maintained, and more fun to ride than practically anything else on the planet, small motorcycles are a solution to a collection of problems that haven’t even been asked yet.
My current road bike is a 650 and it’s bigger than I need for one-up touring. Most modern dirt bikes are too damn tall for me, as much as I love them. Many of the 250 street bikes that have been imported to the US aren’t just starter bikes, they’re kids’ bikes. My 250 Kawasaki Sherpa is too wimpy for anything other than local commuting. My new best friend, a 2008 Yamaha WR250X is the closest thing to a perfect all-around motorcycle engine ever built. A few weeks ago, Andy Goldfine (Editor’s note: founder of Aerostich) introduced me to a formula that explains it all: L + S = MF. (Light plus Simple equals More Fun.)