The first question is easy: How bad are they really? Except for Yanni, scrapple and the Oakland Raiders, few things in life are unequivocally appalling. Opinions hinge on expectations. But after living with this pair of Hyosungs for a while, we expected a whole lot worse. Now for the second question: What's a Hyosung?
Allow us to bring you up to speed. In this case, it's a motorcycle produced by Hyosung Motors & Machinery of Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea, about as far from Pyongyang and that wacky Kim Jong-il as you can get without falling into the Sea of Japan. Incorporated in 1978, the company exports a range of small-bore on- and off-road two-wheelers and ATVs. In '79, Hyosung signed on to produce-among other things-a pair of two-stroke Suzuki tiddlers for Korean consumption. And to prime the corporate pump for more ambitious endeavors, unspecified parts are cranked out for anonymous Japanese factories in need of cheap offshore production. Producing 15,000 bikes in '79, the firm had built more than 500,000 by '88. That jumped to a cool million by '96 and 2 million by '01. Hyosung had become a player.
But nobody cares about any of that over here. Chasing the Big Chips in America meant upping the ante from scooters and 125s. Suzuki wasn't about to supply engines to a Korean upstart with the potential to take a bite out of its bottom line. No worries, Hyosung already had an R&D center in Suzuki's hometown of Hamamatsu. So after headhunting local engineers with the right sort of experience, a 90-degree 600cc Comet V-twin debuted at Intermot in '02, followed shortly thereafter by the 647cc versions powering the GT650R Comet and GV650 Avitar.
Thanks to the 3-D scanner, coordinate-measuring machinery, white-light-digitizing technology and relatively cheap computer horsepower, there's no need to start from scratch. Assimilating existing technology is a whole lot easier and cheaper nowadays than it was when that UFO crashed at Roswell in '47. If "knockoff" rolls off the tongue with a dull thud, try "reverse engineering." Hyosung's 647cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, eight-valve V-twin isn't an exact copy of Suzuki's SV650, but there are more similarities than differences.
Hyosung's 81.5 x 62.0mm cylinder dimensions, for example, parallel the Suzuki's 81.0 x 62.6mm holes. Compression is identical at 11.5:1. In place of Japan's electronic fuel-injection, the Koreans use a pair of 39mm CV carburetors. The GT650R Comet sends power through six speeds and chain drive. The laid-back GV650 Avitar gets by with five cogs, but steps up with tidy belt drive. Exit the engine compartment and the Seoul Brothers exhibit more distinct personalities.
As Hyosung's sportiest, the GT650R gets a full fairing in place of the abbreviated version on the less-expensive GT650S. Underneath, the aforementioned 647cc twin lives in a steel-trellis frame. Suspension components are predictably basic, and general execution is at least a step behind an SV or other comparable Japanese entries. If orange peel in the paint whispers cheap, too much too-shiny chrome screams it. The vacuum fluorescent dash display would be more impressive without its cheesy plastic surround and that curious notch in the edge of the tach face at 6500 rpm. Bodywork is nicely turned out with no bubbles in the flaming graphics-a plus for those who like flaming graphics. On the plus side, adjustable footpegs are an unexpected bonus. And there's enough storage space under the pillion to supplement the standard "tools" with real ones, along with a light lunch.
As long as GT stands for General Transportation and not Grand Touring, the Comet is a functional runabout. A shortage of steering lock means U-turns eat up a lot of real estate, and distorted images in the rear-view mirrors are too close to the fun-house variety. But a wide, comfortable seat and ample wind protection make draining the 4.5-gallon fuel tank in one 215-mile sitting relatively painless, as long as your legs aren't too long. Tall gearing inhibits rapid acceleration, but also helps keep vibration at bay up to 75 mph or so in sixth. Beyond that, things get a bit buzzier than we'd like.
As a sporting conveyance, the Comet is pretty much what you'd expect as long as you're not expecting too much. Friendly, linear power-if not much of it-and a reasonably well-behaved chassis add up to acceptable road manners at a restrained what-if-Mom-finds-out sort of pace. Coax the tach to its 10,500-rpm redline if you must, but credible thrust is concentrated between 6000 and 9000 rpm.
Hyosung is out to impress frugal entry-level riders, however, not pious magazine editors. Such shortcomings are more glaring to us than they will be to a rookie trading up from a 1980 Yamaha Exciter with 97,000 miles on the clock. Perspective, you see, is everything. Without the benefit of recent SV650 seat time, for example, you might not mind fiddling with the choke lever on cold mornings. You might not even notice the engine's extra clatter, leisurely slow-revving character or the extra neutral between second and third in the sticky-shifting gearbox. Rationalize the mushy front brake-call it forgiving-at least until the back of an RTD bus gets too big, too fast once too often. We, on the other foot, get paid to notice all that stuff. And when you step up from building scooters and wispy 250s to a 650 with some serious competition, sooner or later cash-money customers will notice, too.
Pious magazine types will tell you the GT650R is too broad in all the wrong places and a twinge top-heavy through the twisty bits. An SV650S is 52 pounds lighter, and Kawasaki's Ninja 650R weighs 47 lbs. less. They'll say ground clearance is plentiful, but steering is slow, and the front end suffers from a chronic feedback deficiency. Those gripes are subtle annoyances at a casual clip. Beyond that, the Comet protests, running wide on the way out of tight corners, then fidgeting and wallowing on its price-point suspension. Terminally mushy brakes are the biggest cockroach in the kimchi. Slowing down from speed is an inexact science at best, and a crapshoot after they get hot and fade. The fork (which has adjustable compression and rebound damping, but not spring preload) is better than the shock (adjustable spring preload, but not compression or rebound damping), but neither measures up to what you'll find on an SV or Ninja 650. Nor does the rest of the bike.
The other Seoul Brother turned out to be a more pleasant surprise. We didn't expect much from the GV650, but once we got past the acres of ersatz plastic chrome, the 31/44-scale Korean V-Rod impersonator turned out to be a lot more fun than its sportier relative. And with no great expectations to live up to, the Avitar is a much better cruiser than the Comet is a sportbike.
The long, 65.6-inch wheelbase makes room for a comfortably roomy cruising slouch, even for the 6-foot-and-over set. Rookies were less than enamored with floppy steering that can make riding around the block easier than executing a U-turn in city traffic. If you can compensate for the weird steering and shocks with no discernable rebound damping, the Hyosung does the back-road bump-and-grind as well as some big-name Japanese contenders. The dual front discs on our bike came with a more solid feel than those on the Comet.
Not surprisingly, the new Korean twin is better suited to trolling than cornering. Running through a sticky five-speed transmission and belt drive, lower overall gearing masks the engine's lazy character, making the GV feel quicker and much more responsive around town. Aside from neutral being tough to find, urbane manners are excellent. On the flip side, shorter gearing means more vibration on the freeway. It's a genuine buzz-fest beyond 70 mph.
"Just you wait," says the guy at the Shell station. "People laugh at this Korean stuff now. Harley and Triumph laughed at Japanese bikes 40 years ago. They're not laughing now." OK, but going up against Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha in '07 is a whole lot harder. At this point, Hyosung's strongest selling point is price. At $5999, the fully faired GT650R undercuts Suzuki's SV650S by $500, and the half-faired GT650S will set you back $1100 less. Meanwhile, over in the cruiser aisle, the Japanese competition is actually less expensive. At $5799, an '07 Honda VLX Deluxe or Yamaha V-Star Custom undercut Hyosung's GV650 by $400. But the Avitar delivers a competitive level of boulevard accoutrements and performance, even if you end up paying a bit more.