Updated June 2017
Each year the Chinese pump out millions of sub-250s and scooters for users who need no-frills runabouts or workhorses. But whether they’ve tried one or not, more affluent western riders consider a 250 at the lower limit for a do-it-all trans-continental machine, while also admitting that your typical, quarter-ton, 120-horse, adventure-style machine from Europe and Japan is undoubtedly brilliant, but way over the top for real world travel.
What’s needed is something in between: less highly tuned and expensive than the discontinued CCM 450GP (right), better equipped for travel than a KTM 690 or Husky 701, lighter and more gravel-agile than a Honda CB500X (left) or the F700/800GSs.
A CRF450L would do nicely, but instead we got a one-litre Africa Twin and a dressed up CRF250L Rally for well over £5k. But as capacities creep over 250cc, the Chinese may be bringing us some options. See the water-cooled Zongshen NC450 RX4 Cyclone, or the similar motor in the new for 2017 Fantic 500 Caballeros at the bottom of the page.
It’s an open secret that many long-established motorcycle marques are now manufactured to a lesser or greater extent in China, even if some might get assembled closer to home. Chinese origin isn’t considered a great selling point, but it’s easy to turn a blind eye so long as you clock a familiar name on the tank.
It’s less easy to persuade us western consumers to buy a native Chinese bike, even if that machine may well have been cast in the same foundry as the marques we know and trust. Researching this, I’ve come across several tales of early adopters getting burned by crumby assembly, irregular running or poor materials. To that you can add the confusion when obscure Chinese marques get re-badged by importers, giving the impression there’s something to hide (or just something that’s easier to pronouce).
And then there’s China’s ruthless manufacturing ethos that doesn’t see merry bands of workers attending communal keep-fit sessions in the company car park each morning, let alone provide the sort of workers’ rights or environmental concerns we take for granted. This is why the established bike marques play down any Chinese connection, even if what holds most of us back from buying all-Chinese is unknown reputation and crippling depreciation, rather than a prickly social conscience.
As far back as the early 1980s Honda established partnerships with the Chinese Jialing factory and within a decade Yamaha and Suzuki made similar arrangements. By 2011 China overtook Japan as the world’s largest bike manufacture, with many factories based in Chongqing (left).
Around 2006 Chongqing was renowned as the white-hot epicentre of China’s urban industrial gold rush, but according to this recent article that gold rush is on the wane. The recession, adverse currency rates and the strength of other markets have seen China’s motorcycle production slow or even reverse. Even the Big Four have fought back by dropping their prices.
Take this all back half a century and you can imagine our bike-riding forebears grappling with the same ‘Made in Hong Kong’ suspicion as Japanese bikes began to make their mark. Even when I started biking in the late seventies you planted your boots in either the ‘Brit Shit’ or the ‘Jap Crap camp.
Broadly speaking, the Chinese have adopted the same strategy as Japan: start by banging out cheap small-displacement utilitarian machines, then move in on the smaller volume, bigger-engined bikes with a higher mark up, while getting into racing to speed up the R&D. Just like the Japanese in the 60s, the Chinese are on the march as they attempt to tune in to what affluent western buyers might consider, now that the load-carrying-runabout markets are saturated.
Established in the late 90s, Shineray (as in ‘Shine-Ray not ‘Shiner-ay’ if the company motto above is any guide) are one of the smaller Chinese marques said to specialise in trail and off-road machines. In 2014 they notably bought the Italian SWM name, last heard of in the 1970s. Around the same time Shineray also acquired an old factory with a batch of Husky models off KTM. That SWM Superdual on the left uses the old 600-cc Husky TE630 derived engine, but in the flesh was not so inspiring.
Judging by what I saw at a Classic Bike show, the even older Francis Barnett marque (right) has had a similar makeover. Buy the rights to a heritage brand then design a suitably old-school look around your Chinese- or Indian-made machine. For an anonymous Chinese factory which nevertheless annually pumps out more bikes than are sold in the UK each year, it’s a quick way of getting wary western consumers to buy your product, whether they know it or not.
In a similar vein established French motorcycle importer SIMA created the Mash Motorcycles brand. They’ve taken a proven Shineray XY400 (left) and refined it. It’s an appealing Brit-based retro look that some twenty years ago became popular in fad-prone Japan, if not in Britain itself. That early 90s GB250TT on the right was one of many similar machines made for the Japanese market and which are now cropping up as pricey and exotic UK imports.
The current 250 Retrostar from Sinnis (left, £2500) also bears a very close resemblance to the Mash 400 retros, but as far as I can tell, Sinnis (a UK brand name behind Qingqi) and Shineray aren’t the same company. The fact is you can spend a long time trying to untangle these Chinese whispers. But with Chinese bikes origin is important. Is it a Jap clone, licensed or otherwise, a copy, or a cheaply made fake.
I’d heard of the Mash retros and at a Classic Bike show got the chance to see some close up. Chinese 250s are two a penny, but with a more overlandable capacity of 400cc, could a Mash retro be a contender as a base bike? I’ll admit that part of me is attracted to the idea of regressing towards a retro-styled machine: the appeal – however flawed – of a simple and inexpensive low-key, leg-over overlander that you can adapt to your needs. A close look before the crowds rolled in revealed a quality of finish that was hard to separate from a similar Japanese bike. A few days later I took one for a test ride.
Many assume the motor is an XR400 clone, but it’s actually derived from the 400cc version of the similar, late-eighties kick-and-electric XBR500 cafe retro (right), also sold in Japan as the ‘Manxified’ GB500.
I was deliberating over a back-to-basics 400 overlander when it transpired that manufacturers in China might to the job for me, producing adventure-styled bikes mimicking BMW’s F800GS look but with full equipment. One such machine is the Zongshen RX3 Cyclone sold under various badges in the UK, the US (5000-mile report) and Russian-speaking lands, but that’s just another 250. What’s wanted is the reassurance of a 400’s added torque so you don’t have the scream the motor when overtaking a lorry up a hill. Well, Zongshen may be addressing that (see below).
Shineray’s Kougar 400R (left) cropped up on the WK Bikes stand at 2014’s NEC show: a light but well-equipped medium capacity single which connected with riders like me. An NEC report on Visordown confusingly called the bike a ‘WK Trail 400’, but in the link that’s a Shineray logo on the bike’s yellow tank.
‘WK’ is the UK brand of the Chinese CFMoto marque – one of the bigger players in the bike game which is sold simply as ‘CFMoto’ in other western markets. They’re unusual in being one of the few Chinese bike makers to produce a ‘big’ 650 road bike which, bodywork aside, looks based on a Kawasaki ER-6/Versys.
But hang on a minute – for a couple of years there was such a thing as a WK Trail 400 (above left and right). It arrived in the UK in 2015 but by 2016 was going for under £3000 and is now no longer listed on the WK website. Comparing specs with the Mash 400 Adventure far below (and still sold in Europe), it does seem to have been the same bike, except the luggage and crash bars were optional.
This Kougar was based on Shineray’s older, carb’d X5 (left) announced way back in 2011 There’s a not-so-flattering review from 2013 here, while in 2014 a couple of German guys rode two Shinerays including an X5 (right) 20,000km from China to Germany. Their trip report details what few problems they had.
In 2014 French Moto Mash announced their 400 Adventure (left, quick road test), which as mentioned is near identical to the defunct WK Trail 400 above. At 400cc you’d hope either of these bikes could potentially plug the gap between the heavier and pricier twins and an over-extended 250. Right now that category is only served by old DRZs and XRs, or the costly, BMW-engined CCM 450.
The conclusion I came to reading short tests of the WK400 in Bike, Overland Magazine and Rust is that, as expected, they don’t plug that gap. The bigger capacity doesn’t add up to any greater performance over a similarly priced Jap 250 trail bike in terms of top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption and price, while brakes and lights are said to be poor.
The retro-styled Mash Roadstar (left) is the closest thing they have in the UK. But as the 400-cc engine is the same as the 400 Adventure (and the WK Trail 400 too), I figured a test ride might reveal the potential. More on that here.
The SWM 440 engine – now selling in the UK
Shineray also bought former Italian off-road marque SWM in 2014, a way of slipping into the European market which otherwise wouldn’t look twice at a ‘Shineray’ or even a Mash/WK badged machine.
At the same time Shineray also grabbed a few recent Husky models from KTM and which were going spare, notably the 650 Terra/Strada I rode a year or two back. But SWM also now sell some all-new modular and cool-looking 440cc retros shown above, all based on a different engine to the XY400 used by Mash/WK. This engine is described as a 435cc; 12.9:1 compression; 6-speed with a SOHC wet sump, air-cooled motor and no kick. But even if SWM come out with an 440 adventure model, will it be that much beter than a Mash?
On the left, the 70s-inspired SWM Silver Vase 440 at a bike show rather than photoshoped onto a rugged moonscape. Conceived at the end of BMWs involvement with Husky, it reminds me of the Husky 650-based Baja (right) we saw at shows a year or two earlier. The Baja is still in concept limbo.
September 2016: SWM 44os on sale in the UK from £4799 to £4999. MCN test here.
But wait, there’s more. Fantic Motor, an Italian brand whose sports mopeds and embarrassing 125cc (left) I recallfrom the 1970s, have announced the Caballero 500 Scrambler and Flat Tracker with a 450 water-cooled Zongshen motor claiming 43hp. Out in 2017 they say. You can buy Zongshen’s NC450 engine on Alibaba for about $900. The pics right show it kick and electric and fed by a carb, but the Fantic below looks injected with no kick. It would need to be efi to sell in Europe.
There’s more: there is even a Zongshen RX4 Cyclone that appeared at the 2016 EICMA show to go alongside their established RX3 250 Cyclone. Might be out in the US in 2018 say CSC importers, but like the RX3 – covered in equipment to make it look more for the money – it’s heavy at 195kg – same as my CB500X. And how close it is really to their supposedly 130-kilo ZX450 2017 Dakar Rally racer with the same NC450 engine?
Not too much you hope. By day four of the 2017 Dakar all five Zongshen ‘ZX450s’ were out due to crashes, timing out and vapour lock which led to a fire (to be fair, a quarter of the moto field had joined them). But there’s some doubt whether they were even real Zongshens. Read the latter part of this thread on advrider. It’s a sorry tale and apparently not the first time the Chinese have played around with the goalposts in the Dakar. Still whether the ZX450 engine is a clone of a WR / CR, or something largely original, you imagine they’ll get round to making it work and produce a bike that hopefully errs more towards the rally bike than the RX4 in its current prototype form,