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.

Kawasaki Ninja 250R
From the neon-green bodywork to the unabashedly dated dayglo purple wheels, the Ninja 250 makes its intentions clear. (It does leave you pondering its exact displacement, since there's no mention on the bike that it's a 250.) Introduced in 1986, the Ninja was a complete surprise and presaged the appearance of the EX500, which is also still on sale, although considerably revamped. As far as we can tell, the 250 is something of a time-capsule curiosity, almost unchanged from its original guise save for body shape and colors.

It's still a lot of fun to ride. The vertical-twin engine is revvy and surprisingly powerful, although we don't recommend taking on your EX500-riding pals at the dragstrip or even challenging a good-running CB750K at the stoplight. Once you get used to seeing the tach quivering between, oh, about 7000 and 11,000 rpm, all the time, you'll be fine. The eight-valve engine's responses are a bit soft at the bottom, particularly next to the torquey Yamaha (still speaking in relative terms here) but gets its momentum with due haste and spins quite happily to its 14,000-rpm redline. (In 1986, that was heady stuff; now we have 750s pushing that figure...isn't progress fun?)

Coupled with a close-ratio six-speed transmission, the Ninja's powerplant begs to be whipped and thrashed and with your average adult-sized rider aboard that's just what'll have to happen. At least the Ninja will pull to 80 or 90 mph and still have a little left over to avoid the runaway gravel truck or bass-addled homeboy in the jacked-up sport-ute.

In this day of superlight, superfast sportbikes on which the throttle is never open for very long (not on the street anyway), it's something of a revelation to ride the Ninja on a twisty road. Maximum progress is not necessarily set by cornering clearance, tire grip or suspension action but instead by your ability to manage momentum. In most cases, the Ninja will go around corners about as fast as the engine will carry it. Being limited by power (and slightly blunted by the Kawasaki's 334-pound dry weight, the highest here), flatters the soft suspension (only mildly underdamped we're pleased to report) and progressive but not terribly powerful brakes. Sure, you might make better time with something other than the ancient Dunlop K630s on those quaintly narrow 16-inch rims, but that's about the only tire still made that'll fit. Kawasaki updated the EX500 with 17-inch wheels years ago.

Of all the bikes here, the Kawasaki is the one most accommodating of full-grown humans. The riding position is 1980s sportbike/standard, with tallish bars, a wide and cushy seat, and a not-too-tight seat/peg relationship. For this, you give away the low-seat-height advantage of the cruisers-at 29.3 inches, the 250R's seat is nearly three inches higher than the Rebel's-but get back long-term comfort. In fact, if it weren't for the Ninja's frenetic engine (tiny pistons working mightily against short gearing) we'd even say you could tour on the thing, thanks to the pleasant ergonomics and amazingly good weather protection from the angular fairing. Frankly, if we were slumming around in this price range, the Ninja would be our budget beater of choice.

Suzuki GZ250
It's the newest model here and Suzuki's only offering near the $3000 price point. Unlike the others, though, the GZ coughs with just one lung: The air-cooled, two-valve ties the Yamaha's for largest displacement but clearly trails the pack in power. In fact, we found that to maintain a good clip on even faster city streets required absolutely punishing the little thumper, snapping off upshifts as soon as the power peaked and keeping the throttle pinned. Lighter riders fare a bit better, but everyone who rode the GZ commented on its lack of thrust. Because of its leisurely acceleration and limited top speed-somewhere around 70 mph for the bigger chaps on staff-we'd have to advise anyone contemplating more than limited highway travel to look elsewhere.

That's a shame, too, because the GZ's chassis is in many ways the nicest here. It's shod with decently sized, grippy tires and reasonably plush suspension that's not just totally too soft. (We understand that most 250 buyers will be small and that these bargain-basement prices dictate inexpensive suspension components, but even our lighter testers commented that the bikes feel engineered for 90-pound riders.) Suzuki fitted good brakes and even made the most of the bike's pygmy dimensions by placing the footpegs well forward and giving the bar a reasonably unconfining bend. Compared with the Honda and the Yamaha, the Suzuki feels usefully larger and far less cramped from the saddle.

And perhaps it's because of the bike's lack of speed that the GZ feels composed on rough city streets and on the highway. Rain grooves, which send both the Rebel and the Ninja dancing and skittering, leave the Suzuki unperturbed. Around town, the bike works extremely well, thanks to the low seat height and superb maneuverability. Just be careful of how you split lanes: A cranky Angeleno in a '78 Caprice could out-accelerate you across the intersection.

In the end, we'd have a lot more affection for this bike if Suzuki would step up and give it more horsepower.

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
PRICE
MSRP $2999 (black only)
ENGINE
Type air-cooled vertical twin
Valve arrangement sohc, 4v
Displacement 234cc
Transmission 5-speed
CHASSIS
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
PRICE
MSRP $2999
ENGINE
Type liquid-cooled vertical twin
Valve arrangement dohc, 8v
Displacement 248cc
Transmission 6-speed
CHASSIS
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.

Suzuki GZ250
PRICE
MSRP $2949
ENGINE
Type air-cooled single
Valve arrangement sohc, 2v
Displacement 249cc
Transmission 5-speed
CHASSIS
Weight 331 lb. (wet)309 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 3.7 gal. (14L)
Wheelbase 57.1 in. (1450mm)
Seat height 27.8 in. (680mm)

Verdict: Stable chassis, good ergonomics and fine build quality all overshadowed by gimpy engine. Massively underpowered for full-sized adults.

Yamaha Virago 250
PRICE
MSRP $3299
ENGINE
Type air-cooled 60-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement sohc, 4v
Displacement 249cc
Transmission 5-speed
CHASSIS
Weight 328 lb. (wet)313 lb. (fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 2.5 gal. (9L)
Wheelbase 58.7 in. (1490mm)
Seat height 27.0 in. (686mm)

Verdict: Go-getter V-twin engine makes the most of the displacement and adds a relaxed demeanor to boot. Cramped for large riders, the mini cruiser calms newbie nerves admirably.

The $3000 Club
You say you can buy any number of really good used middleweight-or-larger streetbikes for three grand, do you? Well, here's a partial listing of how old and how slow you'll go to keep on the $3K budget. Prices are average retail from the AMA Official Motorcycle Value Guide.

1986 BMW R80RT $3060
1988 BMW K75C $3005
1982 Ducati 500 Pantah $2855
1988 Honda CBR1000F Hurricane $2705
1991 Honda CBR600F2 $2945
1994 Honda VT600 Shadow VLX $2880
1994 Kawasaki ZX-6 Ninja $2945
1996 Kawasaki EX500 Ninja $2865
1996 Suzuki Bandit 600 $3025
1998 Suzuki GS500E $3025
1993 Yamaha FZR600R $2770
1995 Yamaha Virago 535 $2695
1996 Yamaha Seca II $2680
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