Honda Rebel, Kawasaki Ninja 250R, Suzuki GZ250, And Yamaha Virago 250 - Penny Ante

Investigating The Bottom Rung Of Street Motorcycling's Ladder

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing, Marc Cook

Three thousand dollars. If you're a starving college kid, it sounds like a lot, but in today's economy it's not actually a huge chunk of change. Certainly in the world of transportation, $3000 wouldn't buy you much. A clapped-out Camry, maybe, or a pickup pieced together from three or four derelicts. As for motorcycles, you could go in with two other equally wealthy friends and co-own a nice, new YZF-R1. So you might be surprised to learn, in this age of $8000 supersport 600s, that you can have a brand new, fully warrantied street motorcycle for just about $3000.

True enough, the motorcycles that live at the bottom of the economic food chain may show signs of curious DNA mixing and a distinct lack of power and size, probably from undernourishment. You won't find top-notch chassis design, exotic materials or the latest in suspension and tire technology down here. No, as you browse near the back wall of the dealership, you'll find 80-percent-scale cruisers and an old-tech sportbike that hasn't quite grown into its hand-me-down clothes.

Lately, and very quietly, the manufacturers have engaged in something of a price war at this end of the market. Three of these four bikes-Honda's Rebel, Kawasaki's Ninja 250R, Suzuki's GZ250 and Yamaha's Virago 250-were significantly more expensive in recent years. For example, the 250 Ninja's MSRP has fallen $750 from the 1998 model's, and a solid-black Rebel is a grand cheaper than it was at the model's reintroduction in 1997. Suzuki's GZ250 was new last year (gee, how did we miss that?), but sells for just $350 more than the GN125 that departed the line after 1997. Finally, Yamaha's $3299 Virago 250 sold for $3999 in 1998; it's up $100 for the 2001 model. No question, your buck travels further (if not faster) in the 250cc segment this year.

Normally, we'd do a hard-edged comparison test of these bikes, but we have three cruisers and one sportbike so there are apples in one sack and oranges balanced in the other hand. Also, we couldn't stop snickering over these bikes long enough to compose ourselves for the final tally. We can say this about all four of these motorcycles: They are almost comically underpowered next to "regular" or "normal" motorcycles, causing the speed-addled among us to reluctantly recalibrate our brains. They are quite small. Save for the Ninja, which manages to accommodate regularly built humans, these 250s present the kind of ergonomics you'd expect to see reflected from a funhouse mirror. And, you don't get all the amenities in the world for your three grand-only the Ninja, in fact, has a centerstand, fairing of any kind, or even tubeless tires (although they are in hard-to-find 16-inch sizes.)

Honda Rebel
Talk about getting the most out of your tooling. The Rebel has been around in one guise or another since the tire companies switched from stone to rubber. This parallel twin makes modest power (modest even for this class) but is perfectly genteel in manner; the clutch is light, the gearbox is smooth and what throttle response there is is, well, entirely predictable. All are items critical for a first-timer to feel comfortable in the saddle. Plus you know it'll probably never blow up.

Unfortunately, the Honda's ultimate lack of oomph effectively keeps it from providing the entire motorcycling experience when that experience might just include putting in some highway miles. With small, light riders, the Rebel will drag itself up to 75 or 80 mph indicated, but the last few miles per hour come with an agonizing lack of enthusiasm. Once there, you'll enjoy every tingle and harmonic from the thrashing little twin through the seat, pegs and handlebar. Add to these miseries a seating position that's cramped for average-sized riders and puts you in a saillike posture to make whatever velocity you might have earned none too pleasant to endure.

Off the freeway, the Rebel seems to catch its breath, and proves to be totally at home in the urban or suburban environment. Thanks to light steering, good brakes and low weight-it's within a pound of tying for the lightest bike here-the Rebel makes for a nimble traffic-dodger. Also imbued with the lowest seat height of the four, the Rebel makes fast friends of even the shortest riders and provides a comforting perch for the intracity commuter.

In town, you don't notice the Honda's soft suspension much, unless you cross lots of railroad tracks or make a habit of running over curbs. Larger riders will discover the shocks' bottoming bumpers have a Rockwell number in the four figures. Adequate brakes and long-lasting tires actually make for a good package for this low-impact duty.

What you can say for the Rebel is that it's made to typically high Honda standards. (There, we just paid for Boehm's new patio furniture.) Generally, the Rebel looks like your typical Honda just done on a smaller scale.

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