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125cc shootout - Foursight

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At the outset, I’d like to thank all my colleagues who helped me get through this story. That means Joshua (for being a great guy to ride with), Shreenand (for not dropping anything except the Gladiator) and Sanjeev (for being as enthu as you are) for riding with me. Special thanks to Pablo, who kept an eye glued to a Nikon viewfinder for a full day and to Shuchi who drove the tracking car and put up with the shocking dressing tastes under the riding kit and the bad jokes. Thanks guys, couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks also to mom, dad, God... (Enough! – Srini)

When I spotted that everybody was launching 125cc bikes, I surmised that we would eventually have to come out and pick the best ones (Having Bournvita in the morning these days, eh? – JC). So for our last big ride before the rains came down, we decided to get all the 125s together for a test. But at the planning stage, we unanimously nixed the TVS Victor GLX/Edge and the Hero Honda Glamour/Super Splendor from the test. It was too much work to organise two more bikes and then the logistics for six riders... (Especially since you wanted me to handle that bit – SS). 

Actually, we did consider both. But then the last time we took the Glam-Disco-Victor out for a back-to-back spin, we realised that the Disco basically outshone (oh yes, this story has drama, emotion, bad puns, bad ones...) them in almost all aspects of er... motorcycling. Besides, taking six bikes and making the story readable requires the literary dexterity of Tom Robbins and the factual clarity of an accountant, neither of which I claim to have. My dexterity and clarity are firmly under the influence of Heisenberg’s Uncertain Principle. So, we gathered up the new Japanese 125s, brought in the Disco to defend its title, and threw together our usual team of experts to home in like a Stinger on the hottest of the 125s.

The brief for the comparo was to take the 125s – all of which meet their design briefs very well – out of their comfort zones. We’re seeing a rather disturbing trend where manufacturers are favouring a specific usage pattern and making motorcycles that have too narrow a focus. And while that sort of thing makes R1s exciting, it can leave a Glamour rider fairly nervous on the open road. So our test included more than a week of riding in town traffic, highway stints, some bad roading and some plain old vanilla commuting. All the four are good in traffic, we knew that already. But who would manage to keep their two-valve head above the water on the open road?

At the end, the four of us sat down and scored the motorcycles. On the next six pages, we present to you the results of one of the most comprehensive tests we’ve completed at BSM, India’s most lovely automobile magazine.   Suzuki Zeus

Strength
Superb engine and gearbox, priced well
Weaknesses
The motor could have done more for the bike. Pricing pressure has caused some obvious under-spec-ing
Opportunities
Minor tuning, some repackaging could transform the Zeus
Threats
Suzuki will need time to react to the market reaction... it could be too late by then

Suzuki’s selling strategy for the Zeus centers on its super-low torque peak, at just 3500 rpm. However, that low torque peak, while immediately evident, is followed by a low and comparatively weak power peak as well. As a result, the Zeus feels creamy-perfect between 3000 and 6500 rpm. This is the most impressive trait of the Zeus. And as usual, the gearbox is great. But outside that range, the motor just has nothing to respond with. Stay in that range and traffic blurs by easily and commuting becomes easy. But try holding 75 kph down the highway, and the motorcycle feels like a whale out of water. 

Other attributes are just okay. For instance, the cornering ability was fine, but not in the same league as the Disco/Gladiator. Joshua said, ‘The Zeus didn’t seem sure of what was going on... slightly vague.’ In a country like ours, which is full of good handlers, the Zeus lost points heavily. The rapid descent to fourth place was not helped by the ride quality, which appeared fine initially, but quickly unravelled leaving a bumpy, bouncy impression that required a hefty rider and another hefty pillion to fix. 

The meek and ‘standard’ styling also didn’t earn the Zeus any further points. Sanjeev said, ‘I do like the fairing, the screen treatment especially looks very neat.’ But the rest evoked no admiring sighs.

Who should buy a Zeus, then? Apart from Suzuki fans, people who want a city-centric execommuter with good fuel economy and little else won’t be disappointed. They’ll love the creamy engine and the novelty of a brand new brand. The Zeus is not exciting to ride though, and while it will last forever, it isn’t for enthusiasts.

We love
Great grips, bar-ends, tachometer, fairing screen and the early torque peak

Love lost
Non-adjustable rear shock (this isn’t Vietnam, you know), spoked wheels, gear indicator and it has no discernible character. In a line Suzuki has lost the opportunity to make a big entrance into the Indian market   Honda Shine 

Strength
Distinctly torquey Unicorn-derived engine makes the Shine shine in the urban jungle
Weaknesses
Narrow in-traffic capabilities stress the Shine out when roads open up, cruising at
 65-70 kph feels ‘wrong’
Opportunities
A minor gearing change and adding bar-end dampers could really put a shine on it
Threats
But will Honda take a shine to that sort of re-tuning?

The Honda Shine is an eye-opener. Ride it in traffic and it makes you wonder why all motorcycles aren’t this good. It takes off from standstill with gusto and whenever you wring the throttle open, it’s a beautiful surge forward. But before you think ‘best bike in the world’, you’ll realise that the bike is almost hopeless on the open road. On our shoot, the Gladiator and the Discover were faster by a huge margin, while overtaking and while cruising. And with less vibration. Although you won’t notice it that much around town, the Shine’s handlebar is always avibe. While you’d normally cruise at 65-70 kph on a 125, you can’t because it vibrates too much. And you can’t go much faster either, because the engine sounds hoarse, stressed and distinctly unhappy. Talk about narrow-focus motorcycles. 

It does everything else well but loses enough points to not be in the title fight here. It brakes with confidence, corners nicely and in most situations, the ride quality is firm-comfortable. Joshua says, ‘Small, sharp bumps upset the Shine noticeably. And pillions don’t seem to like their perch.’

During the test, everytime a tester raved about the Shine, it got watered down in the flood of rants about its extra-urban failings. As a result, it lost lots of points on the fun parameter. It also lost points for simple styling, missing alloys (as did the Zeus and the Gladiator) and the missing engine kill. I think what sealed it was that right from the first rides, the Gladiator and the Discover were clearly ahead. 

Who should buy a Shine, then?
If all you need is a commuter, something to replace the ragged old 100cc bike, this is it. It’ll fit right in, and return good economy. But is that all that floats your boat?

We love
Urban role fit, superb torque and power delivery, all-accepting nature

Love lost
All-down gearshift, no engine kill, no alloys, no electric starter (still), downmarket grab rail and  the premium price tag despite
In a line Honda’s second bike appears to have the same problem as its first – it’s not tempting enough   Bajaj Discover

Strength
The most powerful 125 in the fray, not the least frugal either. Rockets away from all the 125s Weaknesses
Engine and gearbox are vibeless and quieter than before, but noisier than the rest
Opportunities
Bajaj’s been quiet on the Disco front... could they have a five-speed 13 bhp 125 up their sleeves? Or is that the Sonic?
Threats
Yamaha Gladiator

As we’ve said before, it was clear from the off, or soon after the off, that the title fight was between the Discover and the Gladiator. And we’re as surprised as you are that the winner is the Gladiator.
The area where the Discover lost the maximum ground was refinement. All of the 125s are a quiet lot, and so you do notice that the Bajaj is easily the loudest. Except at 75+ kph, when the Shine really outshines them all. Hell, at one point Joshua drew up to me (I was on the Shine) and said, ‘Dude, sounds like a bearing’s gone on your bike.’ Or at least I think that’s what he said, I couldn’t hear him. Shreenand adds, ‘You can’t dance in a quiet Disco.’ Touché! The Bajaj is admirably vibe-free, but the Gladiator is just on another plane on refinement terms. The Disco also lost refinement points for the gearbox, which is positive, but likes to thunk through each shift. Yes, the all down shift pattern has still to find fans at BSM.

But those niggles aside, the Discover is great. It corners with exceptional stability, although sometimes the long wheelbase can trick you into thinking the motorcycle is understeering. The ride quality is deceptively good too. It feels very feedbacky and sporty, but is very supple. SNS works. On smooth roads, you revel in the amazing feel. On bad roads, the Disco skims light-footedly over the worst of the stuff. Brilliant job, chaps.

‘Spending time on the Disco makes it obvious that Bajaj got the bike spot on from the start,’ gushes Shreenand (Oi! I don’t gush – SS). Despite being almost two years old now, it looks fresh, sleek and very nice. And not at all like the template 125cc execommuter. It has all the right elements too, except for the disc brake and the engine kill switch. Of course, Bajaj did have a lovely top-spec model with a tacho, starter motor, alloys, disc and all. But its price was uncomfortably close to the 150s and people weren’t buying that model. Your loss. Right now, this is the top Disco you can buy – push button start, alloy wheels and a drum front brake. And since we’re on the subject, the drum brake is pretty good. But the moment you take the Disco out after riding any of the others, the braking is found wanting. Bajaj lost crucial points here. 

The Discover did claw its way back into the reckoning with superb scores on performance – nothing here can stay with it. It also won top honours on being the most fun of all the bikes here to ride (the coveted BSM widest grin guarantee). Unfortunately, the Disco’s points total was short of the winner.

The other area where the Discover almost lost points, but didn’t, was the ergonomics. All of us found that switching bikes was no problem, unless you were getting onto a Discover. Then, for at least five minutes, something felt ‘wrong.’ Joshua said, ‘I don’t know what it is, really. The slim tank and the fact that I can’t hug it? The narrow width? The peg-bar-seat triangle? But whenever I gave myself five minutes to acclimatise, I didn’t notice anything amiss afterwards. Do you have Fox Mulder’s number?’

Sad X-Files jokes aside, we know more than a few Discover owners and all of them report an excellent long-term experience, something we confirmed during our stint with our unadorned red full-options long term Discover.

Who should buy a Discover, then?
Everybody who is looking for a 125cc motorcycle, we think. It does miss a disc brake and I can’t help but think that from a safety perspective, I’d pick a disc over an alloy wheel set everytime (if I can’t have both, that is), but the Disco has loads of other charms. And none of us are willing to believe that isn’t possible. To return to the point, anyone looking for an outright fun-oriented 125cc motorcycle needs to look no further than this. It isn’t just the quickest one, either, in this group, it’s also the second-most frugal of the machines and very comfortable also.

We love 
The amount of grinning it generates, performance, stable handling, athletic ride quality, the new tripmeter switch and the new sticker scheme,

Love lost
Gearbox and engine could be quieter and we miss the full-options top-end Discover and its red dial-ed tachometer.

In a line Bajaj’s all-conquering 125 has been levered off its perch, but only just. Just a minor upgrade will see it return to its place on top of the heap. And despite the Gladiator, we believe the Disco will remain the best-selling 125 in the country today.   Yamaha Gladiator

Strength
It’s a brilliant package, a combination of supreme refinement, awesome handling, decent engine performance and great build quality
Weaknesses
Engine feels a bit weak compared to the Discover. The Gladiator may not be enough for Yamaha to create a spike in sales
Opportunities
Yamaha is working on more products, with more excitement as one of the design objectives.
A mid-term upgrade with more power could do wonders
Threats
Bajaj Discover, more now
than ever...

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to BSM’s new king of the 125cc segment. A motorcycle that has evoked gratuitous praise from every single tester. Since the motorcycle on these pages is on a long-term test with us, there has been a brewing battle for the key and Pablo, as we go to press, is winning. He has a simple strategy: he’s never brought the bike to the office since the test was completed and the bike was parked at his house. 

To tell the truth, we were surprised to see the Gladiator ahead. But this has not been a knock-out sort of win. The Gladiator really went glove to glove with the Discover for the full twelve rounds, and emerged ahead on points.

It’s three standout traits are its refinement, its comfort levels and its handling. The 125cc motor, based on the Fazer motor, has gained teeth, but without losing the silent, vibe-free, no-stress character. This impressed us no end. Only approaching the top speed of 105 kph got stressy sounds out of that engine. Just like the Fazer, the Gladiator proves very, very comfortable. Shreenand said, ‘It’s a sofa you can get your knee down on.’ Well put, lad. Initially, we had concerns that the Gladiator might just cause bum aches on the long run. But highway runs proved otherwise. This is a squirm-free long runner. Finally, there’s the utterly dependable handling. The Gladiator corners very, very neatly, and is always ready to forgive a mistake. Indeed, Joshua said, ‘If my friend wanted to start riding motorcycles from scratch, this is the bike I’d recommend to him. And spoil him for life, I think.’ 

But it isn’t just these three things that won it. The Gladiator’s power is spread out better than the Discover. So while the Bajaj needs a bit of revving to leave everything in its wake, the Gladiator makes a steady stream of power. It doesn’t feel that quick, but the Shine and the Zeus sliding off the rear view mirror is all you need to confirm that. Without an obvious build up of power down (Shine and Zeus) or up (Disco), the Gladiator feels flexible and friendly. It also happens to coddle you with excellent ride quality, excellent brakes, superb build and fit-finish and is fairly good-looking to boot. It’s been said a million times, but that didn’t stop Joshua, ‘Why didn’t they make this instead of the Fazer to begin with?’ And it’s not an idle question. Had the Fazer been this together a package, Yamaha would have been further along in India today.

The Yamaha Gladiator, it must be said, did lose points on the fun front. As I said at the riding impression stage, its refinement levels border on the excessive and actually make the motorcycle feel slower than it is. And while you know you’re wrong, especially in corners, it seems to isolate you a bit from the road. 

The Yamaha Gladiator retains one quirk, though. Yamaha have always priced their products at a slight premium, and the Gladiator is no exception. At Rs 53,000 on-road Mumbai, this is the most expensive of the four motorcycles here. But we’re so happy with the way it has turned out that we’re willing to go out on a limb and say ‘That’s okay, it’s worth it.’

So who should buy a Yamaha Gladiator, then? I think the motorcycle fits everyone in the 125cc arena. It has no real flaws aside from the premium price and the fact that it is slower than the Discover. We hate the fact that Yamaha chickened out and didn’t give it a tachometer. We also don’t like the fact that the price tag is this high despite the bike not sporting alloy wheels, but the package is just too good to pass on.BSM

We love Quiet performance, loveable handling, unmatched comfort Love lost No tacho, this price should have brought alloy wheels as well, this is the bike that the Fazer should have been, Yamaha-shampoo cross-branding, switchgear could have been better In a line Blissfully adept, effortless Yamaha 125cc motorcycle is very, very impressive, despite its expensive price tag. We’re sad that all this proficiency will not be enough to beat the Bajaj Discover in sales.