This month Nick Tasker reviews the other Italian bikes that warrant some page space, along with the rest of the Japanese and the European manufacturers, Indian and Chinese, plus the electric bikes new to the market.
THE OTHER ITALIANS
While Ducati may be the quintessential Italian motorcycle, it’s easy to forget that their sales volume is completely overshadowed by those of the Piaggio Group. Their Moto-Guzzi brand has taken the best part of their V85TT adventure-touring bike – the charismatic 850cc air-cooled engine – and used it to give their ageing V7 platform a new lease of life. Keeping air-cooled engines alive post-Euro5 is going to be very difficult indeed, and it will be interesting to see just how long the traditionally-minded manufacturer can keep it up. With the death of the old V7 engine, Moto-Guzzi is now a single-engine manufacturer, building effectively just three models. I suspect that the next couple of years’ sales figures will determine whether or not parents Piaggio decide to invest the considerable resources required to develop a future-proof, potentially electrified drivetrain for this niche brand. If you like old-school, air-cooled naked bikes, buy one while you still can.
On the other side of the corporate roster sits Aprilia, another Piaggio brand that’s been shedding models for years now. With every penny apparently going into keeping the remaining few models competitive through occasional nips and tucks, this ‘other’ Italian sportsbike company surprised everyone last year by announcing their new RS660 sportsbike. Lightweight, festooned with high-end running gear, and extracting an impressive 100bhp from a 660cc parallel twin engine, almost 50% more than the Japanese competition. The price tag (£10,000) is closer to what bikers used to pay for their 600cc-class sportsbikes than the current crop of more practical middleweights, so it will be interesting to see if there’s really a market for such a machine. The reduced piston count should mean a less peaky, more road-focused delivery and Aprilia promise that the suspension is tuned for bumpy B-roads, not glass-smooth racetracks. I’m looking forward to finding out if it can live up to the hype.
But while many won’t agree, the Italian bike I’m most keen to actually ride after the Multistrada V4 does, in fact, sport an exposed trellis frame and single-sided swingarm. What it doesn’t have is front forks, a pillion seat, or a surfeit of power. The Italjet Dragster 125/200 look, quite frankly, like concept bikes or one-off specials made by someone who really misses their Peugeot Speedfight. Even Italjet’s own webpage has to confirm that no, they are not joking – this really is a production bike. It’s expensive for a 125/200cc scooter, but at around £5,000 it’s still nothing compared to what most people spend on their two-wheeled toys. And imagine the crowd you’ll draw after parking up at your local bike meet on one of those!
Slim pickings here – mostly just new paint and stickers across the board. Plenty of models are living on borrowed time, with derogation rules allowing pre-Euro5 models to be sold only while limited stocks last. Suzuki and Yamaha’s showrooms will look noticeably less diverse as 2021 progresses and for the first time since the 80’s Honda won’t have a V4-powered bike in its line-up. The Yamaha FJR 1300’s almost two-decade-long production run is coming to an end, with changing tastes having already killed off the Honda ST1300 Pan European and Kawasaki GTR1400. But even though adventure-tourers are the flavour of the month, the Yamaha Super Tenere never found much of an audience and the cost of Euro5 compliance was evidently too high to justify.
On the other hand, Tracer 700 & 900 have become Tracer 7 & 9 respectively, the larger of the two gaining a number of high-tech features alongside it’s fractionally larger and cleaner three-cylinder engine. It sounds like some of the things I complained about in my review have been addressed (better handling, new up-and-down quickshifter), along with a few things I didn’t really have a problem with (bigger panniers, new electronically-controlled suspension). The latter could result in another unwelcome price bump, and given that the Tracer 900GT was already in danger of losing the value proposition compared to the Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX, this could be a real problem. Move too far up-market and suddenly the more prestigious European offerings start to look more reasonable by comparison.
Speaking of the Europeans, BMW has updated their S1000R naked bike. No ShiftCam technology here, just mild Euro5 tweaks, but the styling is much more cohesive and makes for a significantly more attractive motorcycle in my opinion. But I’m afraid it’s also one of the least interesting offerings in the segment. Flat-plane crank inline-four naked bikes are a little bit like washing machines. They’re very good at their job, they just aren’t usually terribly interesting. And when similar money buys you almost any other engine configuration, you’ve got to discount a lot of other really charismatic motorcycles to end up at the S1000R.
KTM realised that everyone was pushing 800cc adventure bikes up to 900cc and did the same thing, creating the 890 Adventure in the same various flavours as the previous 790. I really wanted to consider that bike as a V-Strom 650 replacement, but the damning reliability reports from the then-new power plant combined with the existing stories I keep hearing about electrical problems prevent me from seriously considering the Austrian brand. Maybe the new 890 platform will be the point when things change; maybe not.
In Kawasaki’s world things have been pretty quiet, save for the unveiling of the updated Ninja ZX-10R. Speaking as something of an apologist for what many people would consider to be ugly motorcycles, I am afraid to say that I haven’t seen a front fairing design this…unfortunate in a very, very long time. Then again, given that no-one except racers buys them anyway, and the fact that they’ll just replace all the bodywork with race fairings, it probably doesn’t matter too much.
INDIA & CHINA
This is where things get a little left-field. There are now so many Chinese manufacturers masquerading as old European brands that it’s hard for even an obsessive like me to keep up. Traditionally fiscally flaky Italian firms like Benelli have enjoyed drinking from the financial firehose of Chinese investors and have a slew of impressive-looking, if rather underpowered and overweight models in showrooms. Chinese manufacturers desperate to shed the stigma of their previous sub-standard efforts have been snapping up defunct British nameplates and using them to flog ultra-trendy small-capacity bikes for years, and some of the results have been just as bad as you’d expect. But for every zombified AJS there are a few that claim to source their engines and electronics from China, yet assemble them in Europe according to our more exacting quality and longevity expectations. Herald even claims that they are graduating from this process after ten years and that their new Brute 500 is wholly manufactured in the UK. Now there’s something I’d like to see in person…
Regardless of where they’re built, it’s true that the quality and dealer support for these less well-established brands has improved dramatically in recent years with the more successful and, one hopes, trustworthy of them all branching out into larger capacity offerings. CFMoto have been selling ultra-budget, Kawasaki-derived 650cc motorcycles for a few years now, and a recent tie-up with KTM is set to extend their range with engines sourced from their new Austrian partner. Chinese police are already testing a 1290-derived fully-faired bike that would be an interesting BMW R1250RT competitor, especially at half the price.
Their countrymen over at Zontes haven’t been selling products in the UK quite as long, but they’re clearly determined to catch up fast. While their 125cc selection does a good job of imitating Kawasaki and Suzuki’s various naked models, their catchily named ZT310-T looks like a Triumph Tiger 1200 that shrank in the wash. Part of the truly enourmous Guangdong Tayo Motorcycle Technology Company, Zontes are keen to follow CFMoto in demonstrating that Chinese brands can deliver more than just throw away learner bikes. The spec list is quite frankly incredible given the £4,199.99 asking price. Keyless start, TFT dash, electric screen, backlit switchgear, Bosch-sourced ABS, Lithium-Ion battery…some of these are features that bikes four times the price don’t always offer.
It’s also available with either forged 17” wheels or a spoked 19”/17” combo, depending on whether you expect your journeys to take you onto gravel or not. This thing undercuts the much-vaunted Royal Enfield Himalayan on price and weight while beating it handily on features and performance. It’s well worth checking out the feature video on their UK website which, unlike a few Chinese brands I could mention, actually works and looks like it was designed by professionals. No, I don’t expect the bike itself to be up to the standard of bigger, more expensive European or Japanese fare, but my own experiences with the Himalayan weren’t great and plenty of people took a chance on those at a similar price point. If your £20,000 BMW is too precious to actually take off-road and comes out in a rash in the winter salt, then maybe a Zontes ZT310-T could be worth a look.
Speaking of Royal Enfield, their less off-road focused bikes continue to show promise. Hot on the heels of the universally acclaimed and best selling Interceptor 650 comes the Meteor 350. A more cruiser oriented offering, the new bike will cost just £3749 on the road here in the UK. If the quality and riding experience are up to that of the Interceptor, that price could help move a lot of metal once stocks arrive at UK dealers. Japanese small capacity cruisers have always struggled to maintain the all metal authenticity cruiser riders crave, and the Interceptor’s success proved that well-judged running gear and an ultra-competitive price can make up for the power deficit that often prompts the Japanese to choose water-cooling for their offerings. Royal Enfield has serious ambitions for the western market and I’m very interested to see if the Meteor helps maintain their momentum.
Those of you who have been paying attention at trade shows over the last couple of years will have noted the proliferation of small electric motorcycle and scooter companies. SuperSoco always stood out for me, simply because their design spoke of ambitions beyond the fray of rushed lookalikes. Their bikes have a unique visual aesthetic that suggests actual care and thought are steering the brand even if the performance limited my interest in the past. But while many of these cheap cash-in marques have come and gone, SuperSoco is still here, and frequently sold alongside the more established electric brand Zero in dealerships. What’s more, for 2021, they’re finally offering a 125cc-equivalent option in the shape of the TC Max. It’s currently available for just £3,825 after the UK government’s OLEV Plug-In Motorcycle Grant, which is slightly cheaper than Honda’s similarly styled and performing CB125R. 125’s aren’t exactly expensive to fuel and tax, but charge the removable battery at the office and the savings could add up quickly. Definitely worth a look!
In the same vein we have relative newcomers Horwin, imported to the UK through electric scooter stalwarts Artisan Electric. I’ve never been overly impressed with Artisan’s product: plastic and fake chrome covered imitations of classic Italian scooters matched with relatively low-tech electric drivetrains. They’ve lately diversified into more futuristic designs which I think are much better executed. Their tie-up with Horwin brings the very stylish EK3 electric scooters to the UK for under £4k, but it’s the CR6 retro-bike and upcoming CR6 Pro that really caught my eye. The latter uses the same motor and battery combo, but adds a 5-speed manual gearbox and clutch to eke out every drop of performance and theoretically push the bike up past the 60mph mark. I’m forever pondering the idea of getting another 125cc motorcycle to handle my 70-mile round-trip commute and it would be very interesting to see if the technology has finally reached a point where electric becomes a viable option.
Bring on 2021
As you can see, there’s lots to be excited about for the 2021 riding season. Motorcycling was one of the few success stories of 2020 as dealers reported record sales following the first lockdown in spring. Commuters were encouraged by the government (and, perhaps, common sense) to avoid the crowded petri dish that is public transport but unable or unwilling to switch to their car or bicycle. It seems they suddenly discovered what the rest of us have known all along: that motorcycling is the perfect way for most people to get to work. CBT’s were booked solid and 125’s flew out of showrooms.
But bigger bikes sold well too, even amongst the luxury brands. Perhaps those buyers were simply looking for an outdoor hobby that allowed them some fresh air with built-in social distancing. Perhaps the sobering news gave people the nudge they needed to finally get up off the couch and live a little. All that lockdown enforced time for self-reflection may have helped many realise that life can be short, and that no amount of risk-aversion, healthy eating, and clean living can fully protect us from something like Covid-19. As an otherwise fit, young, healthy individual who caught it early on and was on oxygen a week later, I can confirm that it’s not just the frail, infirm, or incautious who can fall victim to this invisible killer.
Yes, motorcycling can be dangerous, and going for a ride without the right gear and training can multiply that risk significantly, but perhaps 2020 helped a number of non-riders consider that a little bit of risk can be worth it, given the thrill and excitement that motorcycling offers. None of us really know how much time we have on this planet and, as the saying goes, don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today.
First published in Slipstream February 2021