What’s the best first bike?
If your life is like mine, you get asked that a lot. I think it’s actually not a very good question, as there are a lot of unknowns in it. Best first bike for whom? For what? What will you do with it? How much money do you want to spend? How tall are you? Do you enjoy being terrified? And so on.
If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle before, an appropriate-sized learner bike should be your first moto-purchase. Motorcycles are like shoes—you buy what fits you now, not what you’ll “grow into” six or 12 months in the future. If you’re an average-sized person, small, lightweight bikes like the CBR250R or Ninja 300 can be good choices if you are already confident with basic operation of a motorcycle. But though I’m a small person (albeit, as the song says, Big in Japan), Americans are big people, and if you want to avoid being the proverbial monkey humping a football, you’ll want a bike with a small engine but large physical size.
A dual-sport is a good choice here, but what if you crave the sportbike riding position and look? There’s really only one choice, and you may be surprised it’s been with us for a long time in the form of the Hyosung GT250R.
Hyosung is an established manufacturer, maybe one of the oldest you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1962 as a trading operation, the company quickly got into nylon manufacture and grew to become a massive industrial concern. By 1978 Hyosung was license-building motorcycles for the South Korean market, and in 1986 opened an R&D department in Japan and began designing its own products. Hyosung motorcycles and quads saw our shores in the 2000s and have been sold by several importers.
The GT250 platform has been in the USA from almost the start, but it has been slowly improved and upgraded over the years. The full-faired GT250R joined the lineup, then fuel-injection came in 2010. It’s been pretty much the same for a while, and it’s been even more eclipsed by the wildly enthusiastic response to the Kawasaki Ninja 300R. So we’re just getting around to checking it out.
Yep, the Ninja 300 presents a high bar, so it’s unfair to make a direct comparison. But pit it against the Honda or the old Ninja—2012 or older—and the Hyosung isn’t looking too bad. The big tube-steel frame looks suspiciously like a Suzuki GS500E’s (not a bad thing—the GS500 is a pretty good-handling ride), but it offers lots of room between the wheels—the 56.5-inch wheelbase is a full inch longer than a Honda CBR1000RR, for instance—and the tall seat, almost 33 inches off the ground, will offer nice legroom for the long-of-leg, and panicky moments for the shorties. At 5-foot-7, I could mostly get my feet flat on the ground, but calling this 416-pound bike (3 pounds lighter than a GSX-R750) a “little” 250 indicates a conditional understanding of that word.
The chassis is finished with some surprisingly nice touches for a $4099 motorcycle. The bodywork’s styling is fresh enough to get admiring glances, there are decent passenger accommodations and a 4.5-gallon gas tank, and the digital dash, though hard to see sometimes in the daylight, offers adjustable backlighting. The mirrors are broad and give good visibility. The forks are large inverted units—the only bike in the class so equipped—but offer no adjustability. Rear shock has no damping adjustment, but does have a threaded adjuster for preload and works through a linkage. Tires are Shinko, in large-ish 110/70-17 and 150/70-17 sizes, and brakes are dual disc in front, with wooden-feeling TCIC (Tae Chung Industrial Corporation, in case you play with the “Korean Industry Superstars” set of Trivial Pursuit cards) two-piston calipers that Al reports “make an entertaining sound when you use them.”
The engine is a serviceable item that seems relatively basic despite some sophisticated touches. It is a dual overhead cam 249cc air/oil cooled v-twin, with an oversquare bore, fuel-injection and four valves per cylinder. It’s got a pretty mellow compression ratio—10.2:1, and the exhaust headers are garden-hose small. This means the motor feels like it’s not breathing as well as it could, and the dyno numbers bear this out—other publications have seen around 22-25 horsepower on the dyno. It’s slow-revving and not as smooth as a more modern liquid-cooled design might be, but it offers enough power to move the bike ahead of car traffic, offers a flexible powerband that’s easy to use and is good for a top speed well into the 90s.
And “nineties” is a good word to describe the GT250R. The riding position, big humped tank and general feel of the bike is Japan, Inc. c. 1994—and that’s a good thing, I think. The adjustable footpegs (nice touch!) and low clip-ons are classic Japanese sportbike, as are the chassis numbers. This makes the motorcycle feel stable in turns, with steering that’s high-effort for such a small bike. Suspension is surprisingly well sorted, even for me at 140 pounds and Big Al at…well, let’s just say at a lot more. I did experience some jarring from the back end, but I didn’t adjust the preload, and the forks are probably easily tuneable with $20 of fork oil and some spring-tuning. The tires seemed grippy enough, but are an unknown quantity and damped my enthusiasm for pushing it on cold winter rides.
Not that 25-ish hp can push 420-ish pounds very fast. On the freeway, it’s tolerable, and the bike actually isn’t too bad cruising at 80 mph. With enough downshifts and some rider chutzpah, you can pass cars at freeway speeds, and the wind protection and decent seat—coupled with observed fuel economy around 60 mpg (Hyosung claims 78 mpg)—will let you ride all day. For sport rides, the low motor output is perfect for student sportbikers—you learn to work the five-speed gearbox, how to conserve corner speed and to really ride, rather than just point-and-shooting like your big-bike mounted friends. Sure, they may leave you behind in the straights, but you can take solace in the fact that your bike is actually teaching you something.
With a limited two-year warranty (the second year is parts only), the GT250R represents a solid (but not great) value at $4099. I’d strongly recommend it to bigger riders looking for a sportbike that looks cool but is forgiving and suitable for learning—or somebody looking for a fun and frugal everyday commuter (you may want to also consider the naked GT250, which has an upright handlebar and $3799 MSRP). I really enjoyed my time on the Hyosung and am eager to try out the $5599 GT650.
Gabe and I were talking about the GT250R while I was shooting photos. We were both in agreement about the chassis stability: there is lots of it, perhaps too much. Our opinions coincided that the steering and turn-in are very heavy, which is emblematic of lots of stability-inducing trail. We concur about the engine: it’s adequate and manages highway speeds. The dual-front-disc brakes fell into the same category: surprisingly good for this category. Our like-mindedness extended to high praise for the appearance: it’s a handsome bike. Our solidarity included ergonomics—it feels a lot bigger than what is usually offered in the 250 class. My sole dissenting observation is that the rear shock is severely under-damped, but I am something like two Gabes.
In short, we were almost completely in harmony that this is an outstanding bike for some beginning riders (because it’s the size of a full-sized bike, the seat height isn’t especially low, which removes it from consideration for the inseam challenged). The GT250R doesn’t do anything surprising: it’s absurdly stable, has good-but-not-great brakes, the chassis goes where you point it with no drama, and the motor is tame and predictable. It’s a sane, fun, un-intimidating little bike, and that’s a good thing.
The GT-R is not perfect, however: the beginner-friendly slow-pull throttle (the opposite of a quick-pull) makes it wrist-breakingly difficult to reach full throttle, the LED instrument panel goes completely black when polarized sunglasses are used, and the shift lever throw is very long, making the shifting seem slow and notchy. That’s a pretty short list, two of which are very easily fixed.
The unexpected turn to the conversation came when we started discussing…racing. Yes, racing. Both Gabe and I are former racers, and it’s a touchstone for us. The local racing organization, AFM, has two classes for which this bike is eligible, 250 Production, and more interesting, 250 Superbike. The Ninja 250/300 is the dominant force in these classes. We discussed what it would take to make this bike into a competitive tool for Ninja beating.
The obvious shortcoming is the motor. It doesn’t rev very quickly, which is indicative that there is an air-flow restriction. It could be something as simple as a restrictor plate at the airbox intake, or under-sized exhaust. We believe that any competent tuner could find some more power in this motor. The OEM tires are a high-mileage compound, but in a fairly common size supported by race-tire manufacturers (Pilot Powers, for instance). Rubber brake lines are easily replaced with more-rigid braided-steel lines (though brake pads might be a problem). The upside-down forks could be sprung and valved, and a rear shock could be sourced from a builder that does custom work, such as RaceTech or Works (I suspect an older Japanese sportbike model may use a similar shock—ed.). Reducing weight would necessarily be another important step toward achieving a light, fun little race platform, but this bike has a lot of heavy-looking stuff attached to it.
So here is a Korean 250 at $4099 that can be competitive with the (somewhat more expensive) Japanese competition. Getting two ex-racers to see this kind of potential in an entry-level product is a real achievement for Hyosung. It’s a very user-friendly bike which runs well and looks great.