Chinese-built bikes have had a chequered history over the past decade or so due partly to a reputation for being cheap or poor quality copies of old Japanese designs – but that’s certainly changing for the good now.
With the recent arrival of machines like CFMoto’s impressive 650GT and the Zontes R310 naked it’s now undeniable the Chinese brands are catching up with those from Europe and Japan if still not quite as good.
So what’s the current choice of new Chinese bikes available?
Wider than you might expect. Yes, there are still plenty of budget scoots and air-cooled 125s on offer, the latter often using old Suzuki/Honda engine designs but restyled with the help of British or European partners/importers to fit the currently popular retro roadster theme which their old fashioned mechanicals suit well. But you might be amazed at the increasingly modern 250s, 400s and even liquid-cooled 650 twins now being offered beyond that. Here’s our pick of the best around right now…
Best current Chinese motorcycles on sale
2019-on Lexmoto Echo 50 E4
Spec: 49cc / 2.4bhp / 83kg
Price: £850 (used) - £1099 (new)
The E4 is, as its name suggests, the Euro4-compliant successor to previous Echo 50 which has been a UK best-seller in the AM 50cc scooter category for a number of years thanks to its sports scoot styling, adequate spec, decent sales network and bargain price.
Lexmoto is a UK motorcycle brand set up in 2007 by Exeter-based Llexeter, which began importing Chinese bikes under the Pulse brand in 2003. Aiming predominantly at first-time riders with a growing range of mostly 50 and 125cc machines, Lexmoto has grown to become one of the top six best-selling brands with a decent dealer network and winner of a number of industry awards.
With the emphasis on value no-one is claiming Lexmotos rival Japanese quality or technology but their range is broad, the bikes are stylish and affordable (finance deals start at £20 a month) and with good availability and established dealers. Residual values aren’t great but when they’re this cheap new, and considering the kind of buyers they attract, how much does it matter?
2018-on WK Colt 50
Spec: 49cc / 3bhp / 760mm seat height
Price: £800 (used) - £1499 (new)
Another of the leading brands of 'Chinese' bikes is North Lincolnshire-based WK. They've been importing Chinese goods for nearly 20 years and bikes under the WK brand for nearly 10.
Although again specialising in smaller, first time 50s and 125s they also import the bigger CFMoto brand.
Its Honda Grom-alike Colt minibike has a four-stroke engine in 50 and 125cc forms, tubular steel lattice frame, LCD dash and four-speed gearbox and while inevitably lacking the Honda’s quality is a good value fun bike for those starting our on bikes.
Again, like with many Chinese bikes, materials and finish aren’t quite up to Japanese standards but with the kind of low mileages and use this sort of bike gets it shouldn’t be a huge concern. WK also do a Ducati Monster-styled Demon, retro Legend and trail Scrambler all using the same 125cc engine.
Spec: 124cc / 9.2bhp / 113kg / 740mm seat height
Price: £2000 (used) - £2699 (new)
Hard as it may be to believe, the quintessentially named AJS Cadwell Clubman is Chinese, too!
Less known than Triumph and Norton, the historic AJS name actually survived the collapse of the British bike industry in the 1970s, was bought by former competition chief 'Fluff' Brown and since 1999 has been importing Chinese 50s and 125s, which have been given the AJS badge.
The Cadwell plays on this heritage but underneath is a fairly typical twin shock, air-cooled, 125cc commuter. With under 10bhp, it’s no rip-snorter and quality is fairly basic but it looks good, is easy to ride and decent value.
Build quality and durability is little different from most Chinese bikes but as it’s likely to be low mileage and looked after (simply because of its style) we’d have few concerns. Relatively rare used, but bargains can be had.
2019-on Sinnis Terrain 125
Spec: 125cc / 11.2bhp / 150kg / 800mm seat height
Price: £2200 (used) - £2589 (new)
Another of the larger, more successful Chinese brands, Sinnis are based on the south coast and claim to be the largest of the UK importers, with an eight-strong 125cc line-up ranging from the Akuma minibike at £1999 to retros, roadsters and supermotos.
It’s current most striking machine, however, is surely the new 125 Terrain, a full-sized adventure bike, complete with luggage pack, albeit powered by a humble air-cooled 125cc single-cylinder engine.
We haven’t yet tried it and certainly wouldn’t recommend it for two-up trans-global expedition, but it looks good is reasonably equipped and tempting value.
Sinnis is well-established, has won industry awards and claims its bikes come from the same Chinese factories used by the likes of Suzuki, Harley-Davidson, Peugeot and Yamaha. That said, they still err on the budget side of the market but the Terrain is a welcome addition.
2018-on Bullit Hunt S 125
Spec: 125cc / 11.5bhp / 112kg (dry) / 760mm seat height
Price: £1400 (used) - £1995 (new)
Bullit are a Belgian company that, similar to AJS or MASH, import Chinese built air-cooled 50s and 125s (although a 250 is also on the horizon) that have been given their own classic British retro style.
Now available across Europe there is a decent UK dealer network and their modest family of bikes, while hardly earth-shattering, have an undeniable charm and are decent value as well.
Alongside the Hero scrambler, the Hunt S is a classic roadster using a copy of the old Suzuki GN125 air-cooled four-stroke single.
We are talking a Chinese-built bike here so while the engine is unlikely to misbehave, there will always be a few question marks over the general level of finish and plating on its nuts and bolts. When new the Hero appears well finished, however a few years down the line may well tell a different story.
Spec: 312cc / 34bhp / 145kg / 807mm seat height
Price: £3849 (new)
Now here’s an interesting one: although still primarily using older aircooled, 125cc single cylinder engines, Zontes bikes generally have more modern styling and features than most Chinese offerings and have a better than average reputation for quality and reliability, too.
What’s more, the new-for-2019 R310 roadster (there’s the adventure-styled T310 as well), powered by a new, 312cc liquid-cooled single, is a credible alternative to Japanese naked A2 offerings in being easy to ride, fun, nicely finished and generously equipped.
So new there are few used examples out there yet but this is a step up for Chinese bikes both in quality and price, although it still undercuts the Japanese. Of course, it carries the stigma of being Chinese-built, but the general ride and build quality has risen sharply over the years and it does have a two-year warranty. Whether it proves to be durable over time is, of course, the only remaining question...
2019-on Herald Classic 400
Spec: 400cc / 27bhp / 165kg / 790mm seat height
Price: £4299 (new)
British brand Herald have become quite well known in recent years for their range of Chinese built, but British modified retro-style budget roadsters.
In general terms their wares are similar to those of Bullit or AJS, the difference being their more distinctive, fashionable styling conceived (and sometimes applied) at their Cambridgeshire base.
Again, air-cooled 125s and 250 singles are their bread and butter but they’ve recently begun offering a 400 single, too, complete with dual clocks, twin pipe exhaust, adjustable rear shocks and bullet indicators, while it’s forthcoming Brute 500 is its first bike to be designed, engineered and built in-house, using imported base mechanicals from the ground up.
Herald’s strong British influence means their style, spec and build quality is a step up from your average Chinese retro, which is reflected in the price, although performance is little different.
Spec: 499cc / 47bhp / 235kg / 840mm seat height
Price: £3800 (used) - £5500 (new)
Another one that’s a step apart from your average Chinese bike. Historic Italian brand, Benelli, originally collapsed in the 1970s then had a short-lived revival to produce the three-cylinder Tornado and Tre-K etc in the late 1990s/early Noughties before being bought by one of China’s largest motorcycle companies, Qianjiang, in 2005.
Today’s bikes are Italian-styled but Chinese built and increasingly have a mix of style, performance and value few can match. The TRK is full a full-sized adventure bike that happens to be powered by an A2-compliant, 47bhp motor.
In that sense it’s a little different to its closest rival, Honda’s CB500X, which is more novice-orientated. But the Benelli is undoubtedly a winner as well, with appealing proportions, great spec and nearly-as-good performance – all at a brilliant price.
Although not quite as well specced as the latest from Japan, the TRK 502 goes and handles well, has most things you need, looks good, has a classic name on the tank and is great value – just watch out fro corrosion and neglect.
2019-on MASH Dirt 6.5
Spec: 644cc / 47bhp / 163kg / 780mm seat height
Price: £4999 (new)
MASH is a French brand creating stylish, fashionable, affordable retros using a similar model to that of Herald in the UK or Bullit in Belgium.
As such, most of its extension range uses Chinese, air-cooled, 50, 125, 250 or 400cc air-cooled singles although is has set itself apart by becoming the first such firm to also offer a 650 single.
The Dirt 6.5 has anew engine and chassis (they say), AMA flat track-inspired styling, electric start and fuel injection, is A2-compliant and comes with a two-year warranty.
Although less common in the UK their bigger bikes especially have a decent reputation for style and quality, as is reflected by their slight premium over most Chinese bikes and going by the look of the new 650 we’d have few concerns.
Spec: 649.3cc / 61bhp / 226kg / 795mm seat height
Price: £5799 (new)
The bike that’s really put the cat among the pigeons by showing that Chinese bikes can now mix it with the big boys is a touring twin that’s also available in sports-touring 650MT and naked 650NK guises.
It's imported behind WK bikes and is developed from the older WK 650 twin which raced at the TT in 2016. It’s well finished, decently equipped including a colour screen, is comfortable, easy to manage, swift and practical. Its biggest selling point, though, is its affordable price tag.
Only time will tell how durable the CFMoto will fare with a winter under its belt, but the fit and finish on our new test bike looks good and Chinese engines generally have Terminator-like durability (it always used to be that the rest of the bike rotted around them). The 650GT comes with a two-year parts and labour warranty, too.
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