For many beginners, learning to ride a street motorcycle can be an intimidating experience. There are a multitude of physical and mental tasks that must be handled simultaneously, and adding the power of even an older model multi-cylinder 600 (nevermind anything larger) will often overload the beginner’s abilities to the point of panic. This is why many countries require beginning riders to start off on nothing larger than a 250cc motorcycle; the 250’s small, easily manageable size and power allow the beginner to actually learn about proper throttle control, weight transfer, steering, gear-shifting, and other critical riding techniques much quicker than the misdirected and intimidated newbie tiptoeing around on a larger motorcycle.
The problem is that—in the States, at least—the 250cc streetbike pickings used to be pretty darn slim. Due to the constant American mentality that bigger is always better, the market for small displacement machines has remained a tiny fraction of the other categories. Thus, other than a few dual-sport bikes, the only choices have been Honda’s Rebel mini-cruiser...and Kawasaki’s long-running Ninja 250. In fact, the smallest Ninja has basically been the only sporting choice for decades—until quite recently.
Three’s a Crowd
Leveraging its long-running Thailand factory (built in 1967 to enable Honda to gain an early foothold in the soon-to-explode Southeast Asian markets) and its relatively new (built in 2001) India plant to manufacture the motorcycle in large numbers at low cost, the new 2011 CBR250R is the result of Honda’s belief that a sporty small-displacement bike could not only exploit the still-mushrooming Asian markets, but the recovering established economies of North (and South) America and Europe as well. We covered much of new CBR’s details in our initial overview found in the March issue’s Late Braking news section, and in associate editor Bradley Adams’ First Ride story in the April issue. Suffice it to say that the 249cc single-cylinder machine represents a major leap forward in the category.
There’s actually been another player in the 250 class since 2005, but due to various issues, the bike has been somewhat off the radar. Korean manufacturer Hyosung has been building small displacement motorcycles since the early 70s (the company was licensed to build Suzuki motorcycles for the South Korean market in 1979, though it has been manufacturing and marketing bikes of its own design since 1987), but it wasn’t until the company established a U.S. base in Georgia six years ago that its presence was significant enough to be noticed.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R
The Hyosung GT250R is the Korean company’s sport-oriented entry-level machine (it also offers a GT250 bare-bones naked version). Featuring an air/oil-cooled, 75-degree 249cc V-twin with electronic fuel injection and six speed gearbox, the GT250R uses the same basic chassis as its bigger GT650 brother. This means it also has big-bike components such as an aluminum twin-spar frame, 41mm inverted fork, dual 300mm front disc brakes, single linkage-equipped rear shock, and 120 front/150 rear tires sizes. Like its Korean automotive brethren, Hyosung has carved a reputation as an inexpensive alternative to the more popular brands, and has been working hard to upgrade its bikes in order to change the common association of cheap along with inexpensive.
And of course, then there’s the Ninja 250R. First introduced way back in 1983, the original EX250 was a Japanese domestic market model that Kawasaki introduced to help feed the burgeoning bike market there. When the little 249cc parallel twin was brought over to the U.S. as a 1986 model, Kawasaki really didn’t have any high expectations for the micro-Ninja. To its surprise, the 250 sold well, enough to keep the bike solidly ensconced in the U.S. lineup since that time with only two real updates in 25 years. And whenever gasoline prices have spiked, so have sales of the micro-Ninja; four years ago when gasoline soared to well over $4.50 per gallon, Kawasaki couldn’t keep up with demand, and the bikes were back-ordered for quite some time. Even more impressive is the rock-solid reliability of an engine design from the early 80s that redlines at 13,000 rpm; the micro-Ninja has been raced literally from its inception, and the bike was chosen as the spec bike for the European Junior Cup racing series that will accompany selected rounds of the 2011 World Superbike Championship.