Honda 125 motorbikes: the models, the rivals and the verdict

Tucked in on the Honda CBR125R

From the ever-dependable, upright CG125, to the exotic two-smoking NSR125 race-rep, Honda have produced an exceptional number of iconic 125cc models.

Both a reliable alternative to four-wheels in congested urban sprawls, as well as an exciting entry point to your motorcycling career, the Japanese manufacturer have been masters of the small-capacity bike concept since their first mass-produced two-wheeler; the 1949 Dream D-Type air-cooled, twin-cylinder.

Since that time, the firm have also gone onto produce over 100 million Super Cubs and 10 million CG125s worldwide – never mind other ever-popular models, including the sporty CBR125R and V-Twin XL125V Varadero mini adventure bike.  

Pick your Honda 125

It’s not just geared 125s that have grabbed the headlines for Honda either, with models like the PCX125 becoming the first-ever bike to feature an emissions-busting stop-start system at its launch in 2010.

To this day, it remains the UK’s most popular twist and go scooter, with Honda registering 1037 more PCXs than the second-placed Yamaha NMAX 125 in the first nine months of 2019. 

Honda CG125 (1975-2008)

Cornering on an early Honda CG125

The absolute essence of motorcycling and a byword for reliability, the CG125 remained a staple of Honda’s range for over 30 years, perfect for urban commuting or as an introduction to motorcycling before moving on to something bigger.

Bouncy suspension and rudimentary tech mean there’s little to get excited about, however as a dependable mode of transport, the CG is unbeaten. This is despite Chinese copies attempting to undercut Honda’s more premium price tag by producing bikes costing £300 to £500 less.

Although never about speed, from 2004 onwards the CG got a mild performance hike to around 12bhp, as well as significant updates to the gearbox. Later machines also gained a front disc brake, rather than a drum, a better seat and mirrors, plus a five-speed box, replacing the older four-speed system. Also added was an electric start and improved clocks.

A side view of the Honda CG125

Honda CG125 rivals

With such a long history, the Honda CG125 has faced many reliable four-stroke rivals, including the Suzuki GN125, Yamaha YBR125, Suzuki’s RV125 VanVan and more.

Honda CBR125R (2004-on)

Popping a wheelie on the Honda CBR125R

Part of a new wave of four-stroke 125cc single-cylinder sportsters, the CBR took over from the two-smoking super-sexy NSR125 to line up against the likes of Yamaha’s YZF-R125 and later KTM’s RC125, Kawasaki’s Ninja 125 and many more.

Doing away with the blue haze and constant need for oil and spark plugs, the CBR offered similar good looks with improved reliability and despite almost halving peak power, the bike was still capable of around 70mph.

What’s more, a low seat height, light clutch and minuscule kerb weight meant it was perfect for novices. For 2011, the bike got its first major revamp, enjoying new styling to mimic the then-current CBR1000RR Fireblade, which also provided an improved 'big bike' feel.

Sadly, the 125R officially ceased production in 2019, however due to their popularity, can still be purchased in select Honda dealerships.

Honda CBR125R side view

Honda CBR125R rivals

Part of a new-wave of sporty four-stroke 125s, the Honda went up against the Yamaha YZF-R125, Aprilia’s RS125, the Suzuki GSX-R125, Kawasaki’s Ninja 125 and the KTM RC125.

Honda CB125R (2018-on)

Cornering on the Honda CB125R

With sportsbikes on the decline, the CB replaced the ageing sporty CBR125R for 2018 (although some can still be found in dealers), cashing in on the heavily congested sports naked class. It made its name battling it out with the Yamaha MT-125, Kawasaki Z125, Aprilia Tuono 125, Suzuki GSX-S125 and more for supremacy.

Powered by a 125cc 2v SOHC single-cylinder engine, producing 13.1bhp, the bike was the first of Honda’s current 'neo-sports-café' range to be tested by MCN, arriving in early March 2018 ahead of the CB1000R, CB300R and then later the A2-restrictable CB650R.

Alongside modern styling, the bike also features chunky 41mm upside down Showa forks, a modern LCD dash, LED indicators and IMU-operated two-channel ABS and a four-piston radial front brake caliper. 

Another neat feature came in the form of the up-turned muffler, which was designed to be more audible throughout the rev range, despite the noise-capping Euro4 emissions regulations the bike had to pass at its inception.

A side view of the Honda CB125R

Honda CB125R rivals

The naked CB goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Yamaha’s MT-125, Aprilia’s Tuono 125, the Kawasaki Z125 and the Suzuki GSX-S125.

Honda NSR125 (1996-2001)

Side on view of a Honda NSR125

The seemingly short-lived two-stroke NSR125 range, complete with its exotic NR750-inspired looks, offered a viable alternative to the exotic Italian Cagiva Mito 125 and Aprilia RS125, however was criticised at the time for its difficulty to de-restrict and tune (which is important when you’re 17!).

In fact, in its restricted format the bike only produced a claimed 11.3bhp – well below the legal threshold of 14.8bhp for learners and holders of an A1 licence. In order to unlock its full potential, a rider would need to drill out some welds in the exhaust and chuck away the intake restrictor – meaning a top speed of over 100mph, with a considerably lowered engine life.

Despite this, like all quality two-strokes, running the bike on high-quality oil significantly reduces your risk of a blow-up. What’s more, due to a resurgence in the popularity of two-stroke machinery, prices of decent used examples are rising, meaning they could make the perfect investment for the future.

Honda NSR125R rivals

Honda NSR125 front three quarters

Although rare in today’s four-stroke motorcycling climate, the NSR faces rivals including the Aprilia RS125, Yamaha TZR125, Suzuki RG125, Cagiva Mito.

Honda Monkey 125 (2018-on)

Tackling main roads on a Honda Monkey 125

The Honda Monkey name has existed since 1961, when the Japanese manufacturer produced a small motorcycle, complete with rigid suspension and 5in wheels for a Japanese theme park.

From there, the first road-going Monkey arrived in 1963 and then remained in Honda’s line-up until 2009. Nine years later, the name reappeared with the Honda Monkey 125; a retro inner-city motorcycle based on the similarly dinky MSX125.

Powered by a two-valve four-stroke 125cc engine, producing 9.25bhp, the bike weighs just 107kg and is capable of a claimed 189mpg, making it perfect for urban commuting. It’s also incredibly engaging, with the small size allowing you to make mincemeat of gaps that don’t strictly exist.

Despite its modest power, it will also tackle a brief motorway stint, although we wouldn’t strictly recommend it!

Parked up on the Honda Monkey 125

Honda Monkey 125 rivals

The closest rival to the Monkey 125 is arguably Honda’s own MSX125, with the two sharing the same engine, chassis and many ancillary components. Elsewhere, you've also got the Chinese-built Benelli TNT125 and more.

Honda Super Cub C125 (2019-on)

Parked up on the Honda SuperCub C125

Although not as practical as Honda’s own PCX125 and arguably not as fun as the MSX125-derived Monkey, there is something undeniably charming about Honda’s latest incarnation of the Super Cub.

The first of these dependable scoots left Honda’s Yamamoto factory production line in August 1958 and the Japanese firm have since gone on to produce over 100 million units.

Complete with a retro design and just enough modern wizardry to feel contemporary, the 2019 bike bridges the gap between modern scooter and retro fashionista, making it the ideal machine for scything through inner-city congestion.

With a top speed of around 60mph, the unconventional four-speed crash gear box, which features a heel-and-toe operation, and thus allows for greater acceleration than some twist-and-go rivals, creating a more engaging riding experience and allowing the Cub to stay ahead of the competition.

Read our full Honda Super Cub C125 review

Honda SuperCub C125 badge

Honda SuperCub C125 rivals

Being a quirky scooter, the C125’s main rival is arguably the Vespa GTS125, which offers a twist-and-go alternative that captures a similar level of retro charm.

Honda XL125V Varadero (2001-2009)

Cornering on the Honda Varadero 125

If there was ever a 125 that offered genuine 'big bike feel' the 125 Varadero was it. Powered by a 125cc five-speed four-stroke V-Twin, there is around 15bhp on tap, as well as bulbous adventure bike styling and a seat height of 802mm.

An easy-going practical motorcycle, complete with wide bars and a brilliant turning circle, the bike is the perfect transport for a commute across town, as well as tackling the occasional dual carriageway and motorway jaunt.

For some added practicality, Honda also sold the bike with optional accessories including hard luggage, heated grips and a sump guard. Despite being expensive to purchase brand-new, a low insurance group makes it a great-value used by for thousands of dependable miles.

Side profile of Honda XL125V Varadero

Honda XL125V Varadero rivals

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many full-sized V-twin, adventure-styled 125s on the market, meaning rivals to the Honda Varadero are few and far between.

The closest rival is the Derbi Terra 125, with the rest of the viable options consisting of single-cylinder trailies like the Yamaha WR125 and Honda XLR125. If you already have a full licence and are simply looking for a small-capacity adventurer, you could also look at the Suzuki V-Strom 250.

More from MCN