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Bike 101: Choosing your ride

Don't be intimidated. These four motorcycles are geared for beginners.

January 10, 2007|SUSAN CARPENTER

LIKE most seasoned riders, I try not to think about it because it's just too embarrassing. I'm talking about those first clutch-popping, bike-stalling days on two wheels.

We all start somewhere. That's why I'm kicking off the year with a review of 250cc beginner bikes -- inexpensive, easy-to-control models that let riders log some saddle time without damaging their credit.

American manufacturers don't do small, so all of the models I've selected are from across the Pacific. Most have been running around since the '80s with virtually no upgrades. The exceptions are some of the new Chinese bikes, which may save buyers some cash up front but, based on the couple I considered (and rejected) for this review, could cost them time in a hospital. And the Koreans, most notably Hyosung, which entered the U.S. market in late '05 with a pretty smart game plan: to fill the starter-bike void.

Of the 200 or so street bikes on the market, novice-friendly 250s make up only 3.7%, yet 18% of motorcycle purchasers are first-time buyers, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Clearly, a lot of new riders aren't starting with a 250, even if fatality statistics say many are buying too big for their riding skills.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Motorcycle weight: A motorcycle review in the Jan. 10 Highway 1 section said the Hyosung GT250 Comet has a dry weight of 441 pounds. Its weight is 331 pounds.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 24, 2007 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Motorcycle weight: A box accompanying a motorcycle review in the Jan. 10 Highway 1 section said the Hyosung GT250 Comet has a dry weight of 441 pounds. The bike's weight is 331 pounds.

Go ahead. Dream big. But it's best to start small, build skills and trade up.

Honda Rebel

Despite its name, the Rebel is about as renegade as a Che Guevara T-shirt. That's why it's so popular with beginners, especially petite ones. The seat is only 26- 1/2 inches high, the bike weighs no more than your average NFL player and the power's as fierce as a declawed cat.

Smooth in accelerating but not too fast, the bike's moderate power is good and bad. It means beginners won't be rocketing out of control. They'll easily get the hang of speeding up and shifting, but they may also tire of the bike fairly quickly, especially after months of hanging out in the right-most lanes as larger bikes smoke them on the street.

Longevity of ownership probably isn't its strong suit, but the Rebel is more than proficient at what it's designed to do: turn interested newbies into lifelong enthusiasts in the least threatening way possible. The oldest model of the bunch, the Rebel's been cruising around since 1985 for the most part unchanged except for the nail polish and the carb, which was downsized to improve gas mileage. Honda put the bike out to pasture from 1987 to 1996, but more than 100,000 Rebels have been sold in its 13 years on the market, for good reason.

The ultimate easy rider, everything about this bike works well. Lean, low and lightweight, it's easy to handle. And its five-speed transmission is easier to shift than a cellular phone plan. With a single disc brake out front and a drum in back, the bike doesn't stop on the proverbial dime, but for new riders who are prone to grabbing the front brake or stomping on the rear in a panic, the brakes also won't send them over the handlebars.

Star Motorcycles Virago

The Virago has a resume similar to the Rebel's. The only changes to the bike since its introduction in 1988 have been 1) the carb, 2) the colors of its engine case and bodywork and 3) its name. Originally introduced as the Yamaha Route 66, it was rechristened as the Virago in 1995 and is now a Star Motorcycle, even if Yamaha is still the name on the rear fender.

With its 60-degree V-twin motor, pullback handlebars, spoked wheels and shimmery chrome detailing, the Virago is for Harley-Davidson dreamers on a beginner's beer budget. It's designed to get cruiser riders through the door and comfortable enough in the saddle to trade up, hopefully to another Star Motorcycle (as Yamaha has rebranded all its cruisers, to seem less Japanese, more custom). Star even offers aftermarket, chrome accessories for the Virago, including billet front axle bolt covers and teardrop mirrors, so beginners can feel more hip to the game, less new, less like they're riding a 250.

The bike doesn't feel so much like a 250 anyway. At 27 inches, the saddle is just half an inch taller than the Rebel. At 302 pounds, its dry weight is lighter by a couple of bags of flour. But it feels and handles like a larger, more powerful bike, thanks to torquier V-configured cylinders. Its five-speed transmission is also more widely geared, so the bike's engine doesn't feel like it's straining. The power is smooth and linear. There's some vibration in the handlebars, but it isn't jackhammer caliber. It feels more like holding an electric hand mixer.

Handling wise, I was impressed. I was out on this bike on a windy day when the road was littered with palm fronds. Considering the Virago's weight and size, I didn't feel especially blown around because it's so low to the ground, and it was a snap to swerve around road debris, even though the bike has a fairly long 58.7-inch wheelbase. The telescopic front fork and adjustable-spring twin rear shocks made for smooth sailing, whether I was riding streets, freeways or canyons.

Kawasaki Ninja 250R

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