.25 Caliber Shootout

Three Japanese Fighters Whip Out Their Little Guns

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LOS ANGELES, December, 1997 -- You've got to start somewhere. And just as new pilots aren't strapping themselves into multi-engine jets, beginning riders are ill-advised to start their career with their legs wrapped around a GSX-R750 or a Gold Wing.

New riders need to get a feel for it all: The wind, the road, the speed. But it's got to be fun, too, and while you're learning the intricacies of choosing a line through a decreasing radius turn, or just learning to stay the hell out of the way of the insipid nut who's changing lanes right into you, you still want a bike that reflects your personality, accommodates your riding habits and will help you become a skilled rider. Motorcycle Online decided to put three "beginner" bikes through their paces in an effort to find motorcycle-Nirvana for the novice.

The little Ninja cuts a striking pose. Only the smaller size gives away its 250 displacement.

Our test bikes were the Kawasaki Ninja 250R, the Yamaha Virago 250, and the Honda CB250 Nighthawk. We couldn't have found three bikes in the same displacement category that were less like each other. What they did have in common was our main testing criteria: Lightweight, small-displacement, cheap.

The Ninja is driven by a 248cc liquid-cooled parallel twin. The short 41.2mm stroke is reflected in the 14,000 rpm redline that is indicated on the only tach present among the three bikes. With dual-disc brakes, a compliant suspension, and a six-speed gearbox shifting through a reasonably good power curve, the smallest Ninja of the family just barely edged out the Virago in our test.

Cruising in the sun through the canyons of Malibu. Sigh. The Virago knows its purpose.Which brought us to a surprising discovery: The Virago is a kick-butt little cruiser, designed and styled to fulfill its particular special mission. Sporting nice metallic paint, cool forward controls and wide handlebars, riding the Virago certainly didn't look any different from riding any other cruiser, except that it is a bit smaller (and therefore a fraction of the weight). For the rider, though, the real pleasure started at the right wrist with the best power delivery and most sensitive throttle control of the group, by far. The 249cc air-cooled V-twin packed about as much torque as possible into those two little lungs and twisting the grip resulted in a pleasantly smooth and insistent tug while floating along on the soft but capable suspension. Top that off with a low seat height and a long wheelbase for a fine expressway cruise and you've got a fine trainer that nearly ate the whole enchilada but for one detail that, alas, is fairly crucial to first-time riders: Price.    Resting your behind on the Yamaha's comfy seat will suck a full $1,000 more out of your bank account than will the Ninja. And, though the Ninja had some very real problems (more on those in a moment), it would be hard to argue in a straight 1-2-3 comparo that the Virago was $1,000 finer, especially for a bike that is destined to be replaced when the rider is ready for bigger, badder, faster.

The Nighthawk, leaning. Exhilarating, to say the least. But what about Contestant Number Three? Well, the 250 Nighthawk was definitely there, we rode it, and we, alas, did not see the light. The excellent 750 Nighthawk's little brother came off more like the stunted child than a chip off the ol' block, with a power delivery that one of our testers precisely described as "ridiculously low", even for a 250. A standard should be built with all-around competence in mind, but with cheesy 70's-styled controls and switches, a suspension that left us wondering whether this bike's designers had ever heard of or had just completely forgotten damping of any kind, and finally a front drum brake, we were left scratching our heads. Buying into this would only cost you $400 more than the Ninja. Hmm.

  Well, a sunny Friday afternoon sun beckoned and we strapped on some lids, slapped on some gloves, and took these bikes out for a spin in the Malibu Canyons. Tests can not live on commuting alone. Twisties must be negotiated to unlock a bike's inner truths.

An unlikely trio. The Ninja devoured the winding asphalt with aplomb. A light, sporty 250 should turn like a French curve, and so the Ninja did, with fine braking into the turns supplied by a twin-piston caliper gripping the rotor up front, and a single piston binder grabbing a disc at the rear. Stoppies are possible on this motorcycle. And just like a sportbike should be, the Ninja was the essence of flickable and, more importantly for a beginner, confidence inspiring, holding on to most lines asked then coming out of the corners into a surprisingly stable ride.

There were perhaps a few other surprises, not quite as welcome. Low to mid-rpm carburetion was glitchy at best and the bike was at times a little unsettled when driven deep into the corners. Where the Virago's perceived power delivery was in a nice smooth curve, the Ninja was marred with uneven and sluggish off-idle power until about 5,000 rpm where things started to smooth out a bit. Furthermore, drive lash on this bike was quite significant, and while it could be argued that it would encourage newbies to learn smooth throttle control, the overall effect was rather unpleasant, and a sudden throttle change in a turn (not unreasonable to expect for a new rider) could be an unsettling sensation indeed, despite the rather soft suspension set-up.

The Virago suffered no such nonsense, simply responding as expected to minute throttle adjustments, flicking nicely into the corners and offering a ride that, although soft, was pretty much exactly what you'd want from a cruiser. Ground clearance wasn't great and scraping pegs wasn't difficult, but then this is a cruiser and wasn't out of character.

Our Nighthawk was, well, again, the least fun of the three.

With what seemed like zero front end dampening and springs at both ends that were much too soft, flying through the kinks in the road became more a matter of slowing the hell down and just cruising, nice and easy. Except that it isn't a cruiser and there is a zero cool factor. The Honda also suffered from a great gaping lag on the throttle coming off idle, and a very uneven idle at that. We just couldn't see this little standard beckoning to the beginner for that Sunday morning out on the road. It was no fun in the turns and offered none of the general do-it-all capability that a standard should. And where the Virago sported a single disc up front and the Ninja had discs front and back, the Honda had that darn front drum brake. Braking was okay on the Nighthawk, but given Honda's reputation for details, we would like to see them at least pretend they cared.

The choice for us was clearly between the Ninja and the Virago, and we did come to a split. We were all impressed by the Virago's refinement, not only in the quality of the feel but also in the appearance and quality of the fit and finish. It not only accepted its cruiser role, but it fulfilled it very nicely, with no apologies for displacement. Unfortunately, it also did so with no apologies for price, and this is where the Ninja made up for its shortcomings. The cheapest of the three, the Ninja offered true sportbike capability and styling along with a good fit and finish, lots of little features like bungee hooks, centerstand, a tachometer, front and rear disc brakes and an all-around fun time. Of course, given the disparity of styling a choice between the two might come down to simple riding preference, sport or cruising, and either choice would give a novice a good platform to grow on and, most importantly, avoid that aforementioned nut inviting himself into your lane.

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