We all keep a place in our heart for our first bike, the machine we rode on our first proper road trip, the bike we’d ride 60 miles just for a bag of chips or a coffee. We’d find any excuse to ride it. It was, essentially, the bike that got us hooked on motorcycles. So, can the new wave of learner friendly bikes deliver the same buzz and kicks – and convince another generation that their future lies on two wheels?
Honda CBR500R £5599
New this year, it uses a 471cc parallel twin engine, and with 47bhp it’s the strongest here.
Kawasaki Ninja 300 KRT Edition £5049
The 296cc motor revs to 13,000rpm and packs 39bhp.
Hyosung GD250R £3599
Korean-made 250 single produces just 28bhp. However it is the lightest and cheapest of the bunch.
My first real big bike was a Kawasaki KR-1. I couldn’t afford the pricier, higher spec S model, but I still loved my two-stroke 250. My small group of biker buddies had similar bikes, two-stroke 250s or four-cylinder 400s like Honda’s NC30 or Yamaha’s FZR400.
We were all from different backgrounds and had different lifestyles but we all shared the same passion, and after each manic rideout there was always a buzz of conversation with smiles all round. These were the magical moments that ensured we became committed to a life of riding. Question is: are the new wave of learner-friendly bikes good enough to create the same feeling of adventure and camaraderie?
There’s a huge choice of learner-friendly bikes currently on the market, it’s littered with sporty-looking A2 licence-compatible bikes. Sadly, two-strokes have long-since been put out to pasture and pricey four-stroke race reps are no more, but the good news is the entry-level bikes are more reliable than ever, cheaper to run, and around a third of the price of their big brothers (when Honda officially imported their 400cc NC30 it was priced above £5000, more than the asking price for a nearly new Honda Fireblade). Today’s entry-level sportsbikes are becoming increasingly popular and with a new World Supersport 300 series, a world championship for A2 bikes as far as we can see, to start next year that popularity is set to grow. But surely these modern machines can’t supply the same fun as the bikes from the good old days, can they?
A ride down Memory Lane
After two days and close to 500 miles all three bikes have left us with memories, smiles and, for old time’s sake, a couple of near misses, too. I thought the first 100-mile ride from MCN HQ in Peterborough to Sherburn in Elmet, near Leeds, might be about as exciting as playing Operation without batteries, but I’m happy to have been wrong. As soon as we removed our helmets the bullshit started: “I saw 110mph… Wow! The Ninja won’t stop revving!... Did you see my CBR wheelie?” Give or take the odd grey hair, it was just like old times.
Huge mugs of tea were in hand as we started evaluating each bike on looks, style, build quality and desirability. The Korean-built Hyosung is certainly different, someone even described it as Bimota-like. It’s by far the sportiest looking of the three. But while the GD250R is definitely the bike that will get young riders drooling, it is also the bike that looks most like it has been built to a price. Don’t get me wrong, the level of finish isn’t bad, especially when you consider the £3500 asking price. The clocks are the clearest of the bunch and come with a gear position indicator, the red-painted frame and side-mounted shock look purposeful, so too do the racy-looking wheels with their meaty 150-section rear tyre - wider than the Kawasaki. But an experienced eye will soon start to notice where they’ve cut corners. The footpeg brackets are huge and clunky, some of the bolts look like they’ve been stolen from Ikea, there’s no ABS – and do you really need a collector box big enough to keep your lunch in? But… it is two grand cheaper than the Honda CBR.
The Honda and Kawasaki fare better, but that doesn’t mean they are faultless (and it’s worth noting that neither is actually built in Japan). The Kawasaki looks stunning but the speedo is hard to read, there’s no gear position indicator and the brake lever isn’t adjustable (unlike the cheaper Hyosung GD). The Honda has a lovely finish, but you wouldn’t call it exciting and it’s on the heavy side at 195kg – nearly as heavy as Honda’s 125bhp CBR600RR!
We could have sat around all day and enjoyed the banter at Sherburn but it was soon time to get going to the Yorkshire Dales National Park and our destination, the famous Tan Hill pub – the highest boozer in the UK. I surprised the group by jumping onto the Hyosung GD250R. On fast A roads it was happy to cruise at an indicated 80-85mph at 8-8500rpm. That may sound brutal as it only redlines at 10,000rpm, but it couldn’t have been happier (the Kawasaki was closer to 10,000rpm at similar speeds).
The GD250R has the sportiest stance, feeling like a cross between a small race bike and an old derestricted two-stroke 125. The bars are much lower than the others’, with the seat higher and pegs set back to give a racier stance that urges you to move around in the seat and attempt to get your knee down at every opportunity. It has the lightest steering of the bunch, turns quickly and the ride quality isn’t bad either. But it’s the Hyosung’s ability to have pure, small-capacity fun that lingers in the memory. As guest tester Dave said: “It’s as brilliant to thrash as my old Aprilia RS125 two-stroke and has similar power too, only you can abuse this one without having to worry about reliability.”
But the plucky GD250R does have drawbacks. Its tyres lack feel and the front brake has the power to compress the fork but little more while the rear is like a switch. There’s no ABS to help out when the rear wheel locks up, either.
On the other hand, the Kawasaki’s ABS-assisted brakes do a decent job. The handling is predictable with light steering as you’d expect, but again it’s hard to feel what the standard tyres are doing as they lack feedback.
As previously mentioned, the friction-free Kawasaki engine loves to rev and rev. It sounds like torture as you’re always hovering around 10,000rpm, but it will happily scream on to its 13,000rpm red-line.
The riding position is upright and relaxed compared to the GD, in fact the Kawasaki feels more like a commuter bike with a racy fairing wrapped around it rather than a mini sportsbike. The only downside to the Ninja is its compact dimensions. Six-foot-plus Dave found it a difficult bike to be comfortable on, mainly because of the short distance between seat and pegs, and all of us found the seat hard, the rear shock a little harsh and the screen too low.
The Honda is the roomiest and the most comfortable – it presents itself as a genuine middleweight. Everything works as it should; you simply throw a leg over and ride. It handles very well, is comfortable all day, the engine is smooth for a twin and its new styling looks Fireblade-good. It’s so hard to find a fault that the best I can do is point out that it’s the most expensive bike on test and for smaller riders especially it feels significantly bigger and heavier than the other two.
Eventually we made it to Tan Hill and, just like the old days, I’m unsure how we all made it there safely. I certainly don’t think we would have had any more fun on larger, more powerful bikes; the key to a good day’s ride is choosing the right roads and riding similar bikes with good mates.
Where we went
Leaving the MCN office we headed north on the A1 to Sherburn in Elmet near Leeds. From the famous Squires Café we headed into the Yorkshire Dales National Park and our end destination Tan Hill, the highest pub in the UK. I almost don’t want to tell you about this famous pub as it is surrounded by amazing scenery and brilliant roads. Day two was the reverse journey after an overnight stop in the Dales.
On the right roads, with good mates on similar bikes you really don’t need anything more powerful. The Hyosung surprised us. We all warmed to it and as hard as we tried we couldn’t break it. The Kawasaki looks great and is arguably the most fun, and the Honda is the most civilised and mature one of the group. We rode for 500 miles and never stopped smiling. Objectively, the Honda is the best bike here, closely followed by the Kawasaki and the fun-bucket Hyosung. But we liked them all.
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