Small capacity road bikes are big business in the Australian market. Of the top 10 road motorcycles sold in the first half of 2017, seven were learner-class machines, and three of those were sportsbike styled machines: the Yamaha YZF-R3, the Honda CBR500R and the Kawasaki Ninja 300. The Harley-Davidson Street 500 out-sold the lot.
From this we can conclude that beginner riders want to look as badass as possible when they throw their leg over their very first bike. And fair enough, too, they've just made an expensive and frequently inconvenient lifestyle choice, gambling that they're going to love it as much as the rest of us do. The least their first bike can do is give them a tingle in the pants when they run a soapy cloth over it.
Suzuki hasn't really had a beginner-class sportsbike for a long time, to my hazy memory. The last small capacity bike I can remember with sporty fairings and a Suzi logo on it was the old GSX250F Across, a terrific little 4-cylinder screamer with a helmet-sized lockable trunk where you'd expect the fuel tank. I've still got one in the shed, actually, my missus used to ride it.
In more recent years, Suzuki's best learner bike has been the SV650 – a great bike that I'd recommend heartily. But it ain't got that shiny plastic that the racer guys on the telly have, and perhaps that's what's keeping an otherwise outstanding bike off that top ten list.
Enter the GSX-250R.
This is a beautifully put together motorcycle. It really is. It's great to look at, nice to touch, and comfy to sit on. The view from the rider's seat is genuinely sumptuous. It's the sort of view that I can imagine inspiring heart-bursting pride and superfluous cleaning sessions in a new owner.
The centerpiece is a very nice blue-backlit digital dash which, apart from doing its job admirably and looking terrific, gives you an easy-to-read clock, fuel gauge and gear position indicator.
The fairings on our test bike are done up to mimic the latest and greatest GSX-R1000 - indeed, they're very close to the paint jobs Iannone and Rins are racing with in MotoGP. This thing looks boss. Here it is next to the big Gixxer Thou, you can barely tell them apart at a glance:
Suzuki has a considerable history when it comes to making hardcore sportsbikes. The GSX-R range has a hard-fought reputation for ruthless performance and racetrack focus.
But by the end of the driveway, I know this bike is not a Gixxer. I guess if it was, they'd have called it a GSX-R250. The R on the GSX-250R gets shunted right over to the end. Instead of a screaming 4-cylinder engine, it gets a mild-mannered parallel twin, a 248 cc, single overhead cam job developed from the even milder-mannered Inazuma GW250.
The engine makes 24.7 horsepower and 17.3 pound-feet of torque. That's … not a lot. It makes the 250R extremely friendly for beginners, as it's easy to get off the line without stalling, and there's basically zero chance of accidentally wheelying the thing like what happened to me on the old GPX250 I rented to do my license test on back in the day. That was … enlightening.
Excessive power can certainly get a beginner rider into trouble. But adequate power can also get you out of trouble. Motorcycling in traffic, at least the way I do it, is a game of spotting gaps and zipping into the cracks to find the safest place to be at a given time. This little Suzi doesn't have the punch to ride like that, you've got to plan ahead and go with the flow a little more.
Around town, it gets the job done. On the freeway, it revs so high I start to feel sorry for it. I always sit 5-10 km/h over the speed of traffic. That's a good tip for learners – most speedometers over-read by somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, so if you know your bike's speedo well, you can usually safely sit on an indicated 110 in a 100 zone without risking a ticket even in the harshest enforcement zones.
If you're moving forward through traffic, even by a little bit, everything is happening in front of you, rather than coming from behind you. That means less surprises and a general feeling of being in control of your own destiny. I have found that anyone who overtakes me going much faster than that is usually very awake at the wheel. So that's what I need to do to feel safe in traffic.
At an indicated 110 on the GSX250R speedo, this little twin is howling along at more than 8,000 rpm. It feels like a cruel thing to do to it for longer stints. Now, let's be clear: this is a Suzuki, and as such you don't need to worry, it's engineered to outlast the lot of us. After the nuclear apocalypse, nothing will be left but Keith Richards, cockroaches, unkillable water bears and indestructible Japanese motorcycles. But it's not a relaxed way to get around at freeway speeds.
The meek performance of the engine is exaggerated by the awesome-looking MotoGP fairings, which make every V8-driving moron think you want to drag race at the stop lights. You don't. You will lose. Like certain Dear Leaders of certain Democratic People's Republics, this bike walks very loudly but carries a tiny stick.
You know that tough guy friend of yours that says "I could never ride a motorbike, I don't trust myself, I'd go everywhere at a million miles an hour?" Oh yeah? Try that on this bike, hotshot.
Outside the motor, I can't find much to fault. It's such a well built package. The slightly thin tires, perhaps, might land people in trouble with wet tram tracks, but that's a lesson you learn on your bicycle if you live in a town that's got those. Maybe the mirrors, which work well, and fold in for lane splitting, but don't snap back into position when you fold them back out. Surely that couldn't have pushed the price up too much.
In corners, it's a delight. At 181 kg fully fueled and ready to ride, it's heavier than some of the competition, but still a light, compact and manageable motorcycle for just about any size rider. The plus side of a thinnish, 140-section rear tire – in this case, a lightly sporty IRC Road Winner – is hyper-quick steering and awesome corner speeds for riders with the skill to dive in late and pin the throttle early.
In fact, on a tight racetrack, there would be plenty of fun to be had on one of these. The brakes and suspension are impressive for the price, it uses next to no fuel, and the whole package works well together. Standard ABS on Aussie models means you can brake with abandon in a straight line, and as for traction control … Well, if you can break the back end free on tarmac, I'll buy you a Mars bar.
I just can't shake the feeling this is a tremendous bike built around the wrong motor - at least for this market. In Chinese or Indian riding conditions, this thing might be just about perfect. But the price, while affordable, will also be a tough pill to swallow given the competition. At AU$6,790 ride away in Australia, (US$4,449 in the States) it costs more than $1000 more than the Honda CBR300R, which has 5 horsepower's worth more poke and 12 less kilos to push around. It costs $500ish more than the Kawasaki Ninja 300, which is 6 kilos lighter and offers 10 more horses.
And then there's the Yamaha YZF-R3, which costs $200 more, but is 12 kilos lighter and gives you some 70 percent more power for a total of 42 hp. You might as well throw in the KTM RC390, which is starting to step up a class really, but it's significantly cheaper too. That's a tough market for the GSX-250R to go up against, considering all those other bikes look plenty racy to boot.
Still, as a commuter machine, a back-blocks banger and a tight corner destroyer, there's plenty of fun to be had here in a bike that's the opposite of intimidating. The greenest of new riders will feel confident finding the throttle stop – mind you, that's a habit you'll want to kick before you step onto an open-class sportsbike – and an apprenticeship on a GSX-250R would teach you a heap about cornering lines and carrying speed.
I just hope we see a GSX-R300 sometime soon that goes as sweet as this thing looks. There's a World SuperSport 300cc race category waiting if it does!
Product page: Suzuki Australia