Three for Five: Budget Bombers -

MO Staff
by MO Staff

Five thousand bucks used to be a lot of money, didn't it?

Maybe you remember when five grand could buy a pretty sweet Cadillac, or the fastest, most exotic sportbike known to man.

Those days are gone.

Five gees will get you a 10 year-old Honda Accord, a five year-old liter-class sportbike, or one bike off of a shrinking list of rides. In fact, we here at MO searched high and low through the rolls of the various OEMs and only found a few street bikes that can be had for about $5,000.

Fifteen thousand dollars worth of sporting tackle!

Not counting scooters or small 250-class machines that have a limited appeal, there are a small number of contenders in this class. We managed to get three of them; the Suzuki DR650ES dual sport, the Kawasaki Ninja 500R, and a new guy; the Hyosung (say "Yo, Sung!) GT650 Comet. They all carry MSRPs of about $5,000 and are full-sized bikes that should appeal to riders with more experience, if not more money. We then spent a few days "working" outside the office to see which one we thought was the bike we'd buy with our money. So what did we choose?

We wanted to check what sorts of $5,000 motorcycles would appeal not just to a new rider looking to get into motorcycling as cheaply as possible, but also to more experienced motorcyclists looking for cheap, fun, reliable transportainment. That's why we left out bikes like the 250 Ninja, the smaller cruisers and other bikes.

So here are the three bikes we did wind up evaluating, and why we did -- or didn't -- like them.

What Did they Leave Out?

In this game, there's always one or more bikes we could have added, but didn't. Here are some we missed, and why:

It beats walkin'...

Buell Blast $4,695

It uses a simple, torquey and durable motor, has an extremely low seat and provides a non-cruiser option for those short-of-leg who want a first bike.

So what's the problem?

We just weren't very impressed by it the last time we tested it, citing vibration, mild performance and a generally limited appeal that would keep it from being a good all-around kind of bike for a more experienced rider.

Suzuki Boulevard S40 $4,399

This is another favorite, and why does it seem that all these budget bikes have been around longer than the Family Circus comic strip?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that the S40 -- formerly known as the Savage 650 -- is a good, wholesome motorcycle, with a character-ful, responsive 650cc thumper motor and a seat height so low your wallet chain might make sparks. It looks like a cool little drag bike, is cheap as a box of drywall screws and has a low-maintenance belt drive. What's wrong with it? Not a thing. We just forgot to include it. So sue us.

Suzuki GS500F $5,199

Editor Ets-Hokin figured this would be a good bike to compare to the Hyosung Comet, as they are priced about the same, weigh the same and even look like they share a frame (they don't really).

If you're surprised the Hyosung comes from Korea, you'll be even more surprised this one comes from Spain, where Suzuki builds them for the European market. It uses the same frame and motor the GS500 has used since the Neolithic era, wrapped in sexy GSX-R-like bodywork. It would have been a good comparison, as it would really highlight the value of the GT650, but alas, Suzuki told us they didn't have one available for the period of the test. We blame society.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall...

Kawasaki KLR650 $5,199

Oh, Swamp Thing, we hardly knew ye. Now in its last year of production after a mere 20 model years (Ford only made the Model T for 19), the KLR is a hell of a thing, a "tri-purpose" bike that can tour, commute or have fun in the dirt. When the apocalypse comes, two things will be left on Earth; the KLR650 and roaches. It's fun to ride, has a fuel range like the Spirit of St. Louis and can take abuse like Fonzie's liver.

But you knew that, didn't you? We gave it a lot of coverage in 2005, but we left it out this time, because it will be soon replaced by a much-improved KLR model. Stay tuned for an intro report.

Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD $4,999

This is a sweet little cruiser that actually uses the Ninja 500R's motor to get it here and there.

It's light, sporty and easy-handling. It's a pretty good bike that should be considered by the short-of-leg who desire a more-sporty than average cruiser.

We forgot to include it; oops!

The Contenders

2007 Kawasaki Ninja 500R $5,049 Seat Height 30.5"
*Claimed* Dry Weight 388lbs

Let's get right into this evaluation thing, with the Kawasaki Ninja 500R. Kawasaki has been selling this middleweight sportbike since, well, forever. When it first appeared in 1987, The EX500 was pretty high-tech for a middleweight sportbike, with a counterbalanced, liquid-cooled, dual overhead cam motor that was essentially half the fearsome ZX-10 Ninja motor. There are sporty little touches that have made this bike very popular in lightweight club racing, like a four-valve cylinder head boasting 10.8:1 compression, a six-speed gearbox, electronic ignition and oversquare 74mm by 58mm bore-and-stroke figures. Twenty years later, the 53.47hp and 32.74 pound-feet of torque we measured on our Dynojet Dynamometer are still pretty respectable for this kind of motor, which can rev its little heart out to over 10,000 rpm.

The chassis isn't so bad either. It's a perimeter steel thing made out of square-section tubing, with a Uni-Trak linkage and preload-adjustable monoshock (adjustable for preload) holding up the box-section steel swingarm. In front is a good-for-1987 but spindly-for-2007 non-adjustable 37mm fork. The front brake is a single dual-piston caliper and 280mm disc, and the rear brake was upgraded to a single-pot caliper and disc in 1994, under an edict issued by Emperor Constantine. The wheels were also updated (mercifully!) from their pre-'94 16-inch diameters, and now sport Bridgestone Excedra tires, with a 110/70-17 in front and a 130/70-17 rear. Wheelbase is a longish 56.5 inches, and claimed dry weight is but 388 pounds.

Nice paint, no?

Also new for 1994 (along with the movie Stargate, singer R. Kelly and teen pop sensation Newt Gingrich) was some new bodywork, including a high windscreen and a cool lower faring. The gas tank holds 4.8 gallons, and the all-analog instrument panel includes dual tripmeters. A centerstand and folding bungie hooks are yet more thoughtful touches. Colors for 2007 are "Metallic Titanium" or "Solar Yellow". For just over five grand, you get an awful lot. We agreed the 500 has decent styling that has aged well over the decades. "A newbie can get 'sportbike' looks without spending true sportbike dollars," remarked Managing Editor Pete Brissette, and that's good enough for many riders.

We all liked the vibrant Solar Yellow paint, which sparkled nicely in the afternoon sun, but Senior Editor Gabe Ets-Hokin noted the paint on the tank and faring panels looked mis-matched to him in bright sunlight. Build quality is good, and like the KLR650, a reminder of how much more attention to detail Kawasaki lavishes on more-current models; the 500R has lots of inexpensive-looking touches like exposed hoses, silver-painted stamped steel and big, thick welds. Sitting on the bike makes your ass wonder if this isn't some kind of cruiser. "The seat is waaaaaay too soft," said Pete, and Gabe agreed.

"It's a good, solid bike, has a proven record of reliability and goes fast enough to do Bad Things with."

The bars are tall and close together, and the mid-mount pegs close to the low seat give the riding position a weird "squirrel on waterskis" feel, according to Gabe, an "odd-feeling combo" that Pete "didn't particularly care for". The windscreen gives good wind protection; overall the ergos are comfortable enough for commuting, but definitely not sportbike-spec.

Pull the choke lever (yes, we said "choke lever") and the motor coughs to life without too much complaint. After a warm-up period, the motor revs well, with good carburetion all through the rev range. However, Pete found it "flaccid" at normal street speeds, requiring 8,000 or more rpm to really wake things up, when it becomes a "true sportbike" motor. Both Pete and Gabe loved wringing the bike out, calling the buzz-saw exhaust note the best when near redline, but Pete wondered if that peaky power delivery would make it not as suitable for novice riders. Gabe disagreed; he though there was "sufficient" power to tool around at legal speeds, with good response from the carburetors and four-valve motor. The clutch and gearbox are definitely beginner-friendly, though, with a light clutch pull and a precise feel from the shift lever. The Kawasaki neutral finder makes finding neutral from first easy.

"Handling and ride quality are equally good."

The frame offers enough rigidity for a brisk sport pace, although the plush suspension and mild cornering clearance offered by the thick, low footpegs put a limit on things. The suspension is soft and lacks damping, but the light weight and high bars give any rider plenty of confidence to break the law with impunity on a twisty road. The brakes are so-so, but sufficient, requiring a very good squeeze to stop quickly.

Pete complained that the rear brake "doesn't offer any better feel than a drum". Still, even with these flaws, with the engine singing near redline, this bike -- like its 250cc little brother -- can go a lot faster than you'd think and offers lots of fun to any skill level of rider.

It's a good, solid bike, has a proven record of reliability and goes fast enough to do Bad Things with. So why didn't we like it enough to make it our first choice? For $5,049, this bike has a lot to offer, and works well for a 20 year-old design, but has too many limitations -- like a weird riding position, soggy seat and suspension and peaky motor -- to make it a better value than the other bikes. If your riding will be mostly city errand-running, short freeway commutes or relaxed rides in the country this bike is really all you need, but the other bikes in this test can do those things -- and more -- for the same price.

MO Staff
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