Apr 2, 2011

Why Don't We Get That?

 All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

Yamaha's YBR250 sportbike
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.
Honda's XL700V Transalp
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.
Honda's XL125V Varadero
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.
Honda's CBR125R
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.

Yamaha's XT660X
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 introduced me to formula that explains it all: L + S = MF. (Light plus Simple equals More Fun.)


Paul Y said...

Until there is a major paradigm shift in american thinking, these wonderful little bikes will never make it here. Most of the small stuff is painful to ride if you have to cover long flat roads (where a cruiser or large tourer makes sense). If you ride to have fun, most of us want the latest techno gee-whiz, if you ride for economy, just get a scooter. I've noticed many of my friends after years of big bikes gravitate to the mid size bikes, usually singles and twins, but these are folks with lots of experience. You cannot convince someone that rides less than 1500 miles per year that they will have more fun and use their bike more if they get a bike thats light, easy to use and can go anywhere within reason. It just won't have the cachet of the hippo bike they think they need.

T.W. Day said...

Well said, Paul.

You're right other than a pair of doctors I had in an MSF basic course a few years back, everyone I've aimed toward small bikes has gone the other direction. As long as riding is about fixing a poor self-image, the bigger the better.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure these great smaller bikes wouldn't make it here. I'm old enough to remember all the great smaller bikes we used to have, particularly from the Japanese. I can remember how much fun it was revving up that Suzuki X6 Hustler 250 cc two-stroke, which was pretty quick for the day. All of the major Japanese companies had a whole fleet of smaller bikes available.

Paul Compton said...

Nearly all the middle-weights (at least as new bikes) are absent in the UK too. As a learner and having completed your CBT (compulsory basic training - about equivilent to the MSF course) you are alowed to ride a 125cc of up to 11Kw power (14.6bhp). A CBT certificate lasts 2 years and you can either take your full test during that time, or just take another CBT course. The full test can either be taken on a 125, in which case there is a 33bhp restriction for two years, or (if over 21 years old) on a bike of at least 35Kw to get a 'Direct Access' licence.

Having done this, most people are rushing to a 'toy' motorcycle, an overloaded 'adventure' bike, a ridiculously fast Sport bike, or an overweight cruiser. Those wanting practical transportation would in the past have bought a 200-500cc bike, but these days will probably go for a big scooter.

T.W. Day said...

The scooter business is pretty good here, too. We have nothing like the UK's licensing restrictions. Anyone can buy automatic weapons and/or a 200hp crotch rocket or 1000lb hippobike in the US without a lick of sense or skill. You can't, however, afford health insurance. I hadn't thought of it before, but maybe there is a connection.

I take it the 125-250cc bikes advertised on the UK importers' sites are unobtainium? That sucks. Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda are experimenting with some decent small imports and I hope that $4 gas will inspire a few riders to reconsider more rational rides. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Great article - you listed many of the bikes I lust over (Transalp, Varadero). I just bought a Deauville, NT700V, and love it! Don't know how it's doing for Honda, and don't care as long as I can still get parts.

I also have a Sachs Madass 125 - which is perfect for nearly all the places I need to go, within 30 miles or so. I know some dealers complained about it being a "niche" bike - hard to sell at volume for their profitability (the dealer where I bought it no longer sells it).

T.W. Day said...


I've never heard of the Sachs Madass. That is despicably cool. It looks like (http://www.moto-scoot.net/new125madass.php) the Honda Ruckus on steroids. I think I "need" one.

MMM reviewed the NT700 without my input and at least one of the reviews was so far off base I wondered if she was just in a bad mood that weekend. It's a great bike, but Honda can't give 'em away. I think they gave up on the US for 2011 and 2010 was the last year they'll bother importing the NT here. It's still popular in Europe, so parts will be around for a long, long time.

TW200 said...

After 19 years of street riding, I recently bought a CBR 125r here in Canada. It is the smallest streetbike I've ever owned - and it is a lot of fun!
I am living in a friend's beach house out of town for the summer, so I'm commuting to work on the CBR. The round trip is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) of curvy country roads and urban zone. The little CBR handles it very well, and gets 95 MPG. It costs me three times as much in gasoline if I drive my car the same route.

T.W. Day said...


I got nothing but jealousy for you. I would like to just get to ride a CBR125, let alone commute to work on one. Canada is, as usual, hipper than the US.

Anonymous said...

I have a Suzuki TU250x. I'm back to riding after 25 years off. Last bike was a Yamaha RD125 (street 2 stroke). Yeah for the 250's. BUT, a 250 is just a bit small for American roads, unless it is really high strung. The TU250 is just a bit weak for the interstate (at sane speeds). I think a 350 would be just the thing. But, since there are no street bikes between 250 and 500+, I'll keep the TU as practical piece of transportation, and a really fun ride. I wish there were more options with just a bit more piston area for some more torque to move the air at 75 mph. The Honda 250 sport thumper looks like a great piece of engineering. But, I really don't get the need for all the plastic.

T.W. Day said...

The best reason for the plastic is aerodynamics. An air-smooth 250 would easily be able to commute at 75mph. My WR250 is pretty comfortable at 75, but a little streamlining would make a world of difference.