Three for Five: Budget Bombers

Check-out 3 bikes on a $5,000 budget

Page 3

Living on a Budget

Just because you have $5,000 -- or the equivalent in credit power -- to buy one of these bikes doesn't mean the spending has ended. Oh, no, it's just beginning. Even though all three of these bikes have robust, proven designs, they still need maintaining.

The Suzuki DR650 is a dirt-oriented design, and therefore simple to work on. A call to John at Del Amo Motorsports' service department revealed a need for a 2.5-hour break-in service, with a 1.5-hour service every 4,000 miles after that. At 16,000 miles the valves get checked and serviced, which bumps the servicing time to 4.5 hours. If you figure about $30 for parts at each service and our fictional service rate of $90 an hour, you'll spend about $1,680 your first 30,000 miles on a DR650, not counting tires, brake pads chains and other variable wear items. The EX500, while doubtlessly having different servicing needs, gets about the same schedule, according to John, so you'll spend about the same.

"Any $5,000 motorcycle is going to have a laundry list of imperfections, and that's the fun part of owning your first new motorcycle. The fixes the Comet needs are all fixable by a novice shade-tree mechanic for not much money."

The Hyosung is more of an unknown quantity. Although the rumors hold that the 90-degree V-twin is a Suzuki SV650 clone, it is different and has a different set of maintenance requirements. Most notable is the factory's recommendation of a valve inspection or adjustment at 600 miles and every 6,000 miles after that (the owner's manual gives intervals of every 6,000 kilometers, but Hyosung USA says that should be 6,000 miles). Should this keep you from buying one?

We spoke to Chris at Fresno Motorsports in Fresno, CA. He told me it takes about 2.5 hours to do a service, including checking valve clearance and torqueing the head bolts -- which unfortunately requires removing camshafts to do -- but that he has yet to see a valve out of spec. We shot an email over to Hyosung, and they told us that their engineers are "considering changing the valve clearance inspection intervals to 12,000 miles", which should make service costs even lower. We're guessing servicing costs should run between $1,500 and $2,000 for your first 30,000 miles, depending on how the service recommendations sort themselves out. On a twisty road, Pete was surprised at how well the Comet handled, but Gabe wasn't. Our small, hairy Editor had ridden a GT650R with the clip-ons on a tight twisty road and knew it was solid, stable and well-suspended enough to get the job done, but was heavy-steering with the low, stubby clip ons. The GT650, with its big handlebar, is much easier to toss around, while still maintaining the solid feel imparted by that heavy but rigid chassis. We also thought the spring rates were OK -- luckily, as the front spring preload is non-adjustable -- and the damping in the front and rear shocks was just fine. "A cartridge fork is impressive at this price point," said Gabe.

The limiting factors are poor throttle response and wooden, weak brakes that probably just need a bleeding and some more break-in miles (or maybe better pads) to feel better. Gabe also noticed the old-school BT56 tires felt twitchy, hunting on rain grooves and turning in almost too fast, although they do offer lots of grip. More modern tires would be welcome when the Bridgestones wear out.

Are we damming with faint praise here? Not at all. This bike has plenty of flaws -- we could go on and on, in fact -- but at this price point it's very impressive. Any $5,000 motorcycle is going to have a laundry list of imperfections, and that's the fun part of owning your first new motorcycle. The fixes the Comet needs -- like carb tuning, insensitive brakes and unsightly cosmetic touches -- are all fixable by a novice shade-tree mechanic for not much money.

It's a real motorcycle at a really good price. Should you spend the extra $1,000 on an SV650 instead? If you can, that would certainly be safe. But you won't get the cartridge front end or the two-year warranty, and Hyosung dealers are often new and eager for your business; we can only hint at what that means. We've picked this bike as the one would purchase if we were spending our own money, but don't take our word for it; go check with your Motorcycle Health Professional to see if a Hyosung Comet is right for you.

The Conclusions

"The bottom of the motorcycle food chain is always going to involve compromises."

For some, $5,000 isn't a lot of money. For others -- most of us, I think -- $5,000 represents a large chunk of discretionary cash, and spending it all at once on a motorcycle is a big deal. After our week of riding these bikes, we tallied our votes, and at the end of it, the Comet is the bike we liked best overall.

It's a really good value, with handling, power and big-bike looks for $1,000 less than the nearest competitor. They also make a version with a full fairing and clip-on handlebars for $5,899, and a half-faired version for $5,399. It's not perfect, true, but in this price category it's the most technologically-advanced machine, and it works as intended.

Nits and Notes

The Hyosung has some pretty luxurious touches for a bike in this price range, including bosses on the swingarm for stand spools, an analog fuel gauge, a big passenger grabrail, Bridgestone BT56 tires and an amusingly-translated owner's manual that should provide hours of amusement for you and your friends. Here's a tidbit from the Hyosung website: "Motility and elasticity were satisfied by employing upside-down method." Al thinks he might have dated Motility when he was in college. "I had a headache for weeks," he says, "but it was worth it." A Hyosung dealer can set you up with the cool adapter plates and longer shift linkage rods the GT650R model uses to adjust the rearsets up and back.

A very nice feature. An odd feature on the Hyosung (we thought) was the light that comes on when the tank is half-empty (or half-full, depending on how you look at the world).

The DR650 was our second-place winner. It's a pretty good choice too, especially if you desire to get off road occasionally. It should prove to be economical and fun to ride, as well. The Ninja 500R is a great bike, but to call it long in the tooth is almost an understatement. At 20 years old, a sportbike barely has teeth. Still, the 500R is the same great bike it's always been, and if you want a bargain sportster that has two decades of aftermarket support and club-racing development behind it, this is the one to get.

The bottom of the motorcycle food chain is always going to involve compromises. But no matter which of these three bikes you spend your money on, you'll get your money's worth and ride away happily

What I'd Buy

Pete Brissette, Senior Editor

Budget bikes; I was weaned on 'em. My first motorcycle was a 1978 Honda CB400T. It was a budget bike when it was new and even more so at the price of $400 I paid for it over 13 years ago. A few bikes came and went until I landed my first, used EX500. I loved those things. They were easy to work on for a relative newbie, were comfortable, had a surprising amount of power if you did a stage-one jet kit with a two-into-one exhaust, and got good mileage.

Boy, how times -- or should I say, my expectations -- have changed. Climbing on the 2006 Ninja 500 brought back some memories, but it also demonstrated how much I've come to expect from a modern bike, or maybe just how spoiled I've become. Certainly we have to consider where this thing is in the scope of motorcycledom, but if Kawi doesn't make some serious changes to upgrade and update this bike soon, it's going to be hard to justify not buying another bike. The seat, although roomy was just too soft, the ergos feel very late 1980s and it's just too underpowered in the bottom and mid-range. Though, I'll admit it is fun to wring its neck to get to the power. Sadly, for the bike that won my heart so many years ago -- I even created an email address based upon my love for them-- I'm painfully aware that there are better bikes and/or better values to be had these days.

This flower represents Gabe's wishes for peace between Korean motorcycle owners and Japanese motorcycle owners.

"But it's a 35 horsepower single! Who needs brakes?"

I was really impressed with the Hyosung (Yo Sung!). Not so much for any one outstanding trait or quality it has, but for how well (relatively) this new player in the US market offered a competent and competitive motorcycle so soon after jumping in the game. It's a bargain in many ways too, but it isn't without its problems. Like the horrible off-idle stumble it has -- it's in serious need of a jet kit.

The fueling is about as flat off the bottom as a Florida highway, though once over that hump the power comes on long and linear. In general the overall build quality is unimpressive. For example, the plumbing for the evaporative fumes system is carelessly wound about the front portion of the frame where it feeds into the charcoal canister, an item that was plopped on in plain sight with all the care that goes into assembling a floor-model barbecue grill. There are other styling and functional notes that are a little rough as well. If I were considering this bike I'd find a good, used SV650 and get the refined, real McCoy.

So that leaves me with the esteemed DR650. It's obvious that you don't get as much motorcycle for your money as with the other two, at least in terms of tech and/or plastic real estate. Comparatively it's quite simple. But in my opinion you get more than one bike in the DR. On one hand you have an economical commuter that has good freeway manners and plenty of passing power, even over 80 mph. I'd be remiss if I didn't comment on the "dial-a-dive" experience you get when hard on the front brakes. At times the sensation is one that has you feeling like you're not really stopping, when in reality it's the amount of front-end dive that only seems to magnify the less-than-ample stopping power of the brakes.

But it's a 35 horsepower single! Who needs brakes? And in the canyons it was quite capable of staying right behind the other two. On the other hand, when the pavement ends, you and the DR get to keep on riding. It certainly isn't going to compete with the latest four-stroke 450, but it will get the job done in most moderate off-road environs. Considering that it has been in production for about an eon, there is an army of DR owners out there with enough tips, tricks and know-how to improve the stock state of your DR and keep it running for years to come.

Take my comments for what you will, but let Nurse Pete refer you to a DR for your bad case of budgetitis.

Gabe entertains the other staffers with impromptu puppet shows. This one is a special two-hour production of La Boheme," starring Beverly Sills and Carol Channing.

Gabe Ets-Hyokin, Senior Editor

What would I do with $5,000? Well, it would pay for my lavish lifestyle for about 35 days, or I could buy a 10 year-old Honda Civic with it. I could also buy a clapped-out two-season old sportbike from a nervous, pale guy with bad teeth, or find a pretty nice mid-to-large sized Metric cruiser. But I'm a fan of the do-it-all machine, something that's equal parts fun on a race track, on a twisty road riding with my homies, or lane-splitting behind resident nut-job Brissette. If I wanted new, what would I spend the money on?

I'm not a dirt-bike guy, not enough to own one, at least, and when I want to ride in the dirt -- which isn't frequently -- I borrow a friend's. For the 99.9 percent of my riding that is on pavement, the limitations of a dirt bike -- like the tall, uncomfortable seat, lack of wind protection, skinny knobby tires and see-saw suspension -- outweigh the fun of tossing a lightweight thumper around a twisty canyon road. And as dirt bikes go, the DR is awfully heavy and clunky for a novice dirt rider like me.

The EX500 is in desperate need of an overhaul. It needs a better chassis, better brakes, more modern wheels and tires, new styling and about 10 or 15 more horsepower. Oh, wait; Kawasaki did upgrade it; it's called the Ninja 650R and it's one of the best middleweight standard motorcycles I've ever ridden, especially for the price. Unfortunately, that's a price that is way too high for this test. For what it is, the 500 Ninja is still an amazing bike and a great choice for new street riders, but I'd rather spend $5,000 on a used bike.

And so we come to Mr. Yo-sung, who is the first Korean-built motorcycle in history to win a shootout. Although I picked it as my first choice, it is as far from perfect as any comparison winner can be. Fit, finish, and a weird maintenance schedule are big issues here, issues that could be solved with some hard work and careful attention to the US motorcycle market. When they sort these problems -- and they will -- this company will become a major player, dwarfing the European brands and perhaps even eclipsing one or more of the Japanese ones over time. That will turn the tables on a lot of folks -- many of whom mistakenly think Hyosungs are made in mainland China -- who say disparaging things about this established manufacturer. Ironic, no? That owners and industry insiders who swear by the Japanese brands -- brands who were once laughed at by now-extinct companies -- are laughing at the new kid on the block.

"It's the stripper-model Ford F-150 of motorcycling..."

It's imperfect but impressive. For $4,999 you get a lot of performance, handling and even a sensible-shoe kind of style that grows on you. It's the stripper-model Ford F-150 of motorcycling, and it offers the same feeling of durable, sensible value and performance. If you're a tinkerer and appreciate simple, solid engineering, this Hyosung might be right for you. If I had $5,000 to buy a motorcycle and a package of Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheez with, this would be the one. Does that go well with Kim Chee?

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