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

Yamaha Virago 250
Yamaha's smallest Virago falls afoul of our admittedly arbitrary $3000 limit by 10 percent, but it's the least expensive bike the company has to offer. We think the Virago is actually worth the extra cash. We expected the Ninja, with its higher-technology credentials, to kick the cruisers into the weeds on engine performance. What a surprise, then, to see the Virago holding its own. The undersquare (49.0mm bore, 66.0mm stroke), 60-degree V-twin lands shy of the Ninja's peak output, but makes up for it with a broad torque curve and exemplary manners. Next to the Kawasaki, the tiny Virago acts most like a genuine, full-scale motorcycle, easily pulling away from traffic and making its way to highway speed. As a relatively tall-geared V-twin, the Virago's engine feels far more relaxed than any of the other 250s.

With a willing engine, the Virago is reasonably well suited to commuting chores that include freeway travel. Although there's no question the engine is pulling close to its redline at normal (read: Southern California) freeway velocities, there's no need to ruthlessly conserve momentum, draft large vehicles or search out downhill sections just to stay with the flow. And given its longest-in-class wheelbase, the miniature cruiser remains stable and confidence-inspiring at 75-plus mph.

As you'd expect, the Yamaha's tiny 33mm fork and el-cheapo twin shocks are set for full mush, but don't quite give out at the mere suggestion of a bump, as do the Honda's. Still, you won't mistake the Virago's ride for that of a full-sized motorcycle, like, say, the Virago 535. And while the seating position is slightly less confining than a coach-class airline seat, it's still not nearly as comfortable as the Ninja's standard perch (please save your sportbikes-vs.-cruisers letters) or even the Suzuki's layout.

In all, the Virago was the biggest surprise here, offering more performance than we expected and looking good in the bargain. Well worth the extra $300.

Are These Things For Real?
Now that we've spent quite a bit of time with these low-dollar rides, it's time to admit that they're pretty OK motorcycles. (Damning with faint praise is just one of our specialties.) There's something to be said about a brand-new motorcycle. You don't have to wonder if it's been thrashed by the previous owner-indeed, you can do all the thrashing yourself in the privacy of your own driveway.

You won't be facing unexpected expenses like replacing the battery, chain and sprockets, or tires; for as much as these things weigh, the normal consumables ought to last just about forever. Three of these bikes managed fuel mileage in the mid-50s, with the Honda squeezing an average of 62 miles per gallon. Don't, however, buy one of these 250s thinking they're do-everything motorcycles. Yes, they're superb for teaching the rank newbie the ropes but if you expect to spend much time on the highway or are considering an autumn tour, we'd advise saving your money and moving up a notch to the lighter middleweights.

Honda Rebel
MSRP $2999 (black only)
Type air-cooled vertical twin
Valve arrangement sohc, 4v
Displacement 234cc
Transmission 5-speed
Weight 329 lb. (wet)313 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 2.6 gal. (10L)
Wheelbase 57.1 in. (1450mm)
Seat height 26.6 in. (676mm)

Verdict: Reliable, well-known and trustworthy. Honda's massaged Twinstar remains afloat in the backwater class on build quality, not horsepower or suspension.

Kawasaki Ninja 250R
MSRP $2999
Type liquid-cooled vertical twin
Valve arrangement dohc, 8v
Displacement 248cc
Transmission 6-speed
Weight 363 lb. (wet)334 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 4.8 gal. (18L)
Wheelbase 55.1 in. (1400mm)
Seat height 29.3 in. (744mm)

Verdict: A literal blast from the past. Essentially unchanged in 14 seasons, the midget sportbike works hard but overachieves. A bargain at $3000.

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