The Chinese adventure travel bikes are coming

Updated February 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.
cbmt06ccmgp450What’s needed is something in between: less highly tuned and expensive than a 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 Zonfgshen NC450 RX4 Cyclone 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.

loncinIt’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. chinmotoResearching 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.

chongqingAs 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.

adventures-1977-20Take 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 motopig1a 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.


shine

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 superdualin 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.

franbanJudging 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.

mashlogoshine400In 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 popularGB250TT 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.

sinnis250The 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.

mash-06I’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.

shin400Many assume the motor is an XR400 clone, but it’s actually derived from the 400cc version of the similar, late-eighties XBR500kick-and-electric XBR500 cafe retro (right), also sold in Japan as the ‘Manxified’ GB500.

I was deliberating over a back-to-basics zongRX3400 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).
wk400Shineray’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.

WKTrail400But 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.

shineXY400GY4This 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 shin-decouple 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.

mashadv1In 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 BikeOverland 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.
mash-16The 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.

4-swmAt 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?

SWM-scramblerOn 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 husqvarna-bajareminds 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.

fantic-chopper-004But wait, there’s more. Fantic Motor, an Italian brand whose sports mopeds and embarrassing 125cc (left) I recall new-2016-zongshen-450cc-engine-for-dirtfrom the 1970s, have announced the Caballero 500 Scrambler 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.

fantic-caballero-500-scrambler-1

rx4There’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?

1479258780668240Not 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,

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12 Responses to The Chinese adventure travel bikes are coming

  1. Paul says:

    Fantastic write up ! this is a topic that thats thrown around in serious dual sport / Enduro trail riding topics ” what makes the perfect dual sport motorcycle for the serious off road riding with as little hard top as possible ” leave that to the BIG GS owners with all the gear and no idea !
    looks ALMOST like the perfect bike , not to heavy, comfortable, simple air cooled motor, 18/21 wheels , fuel injection – even though thats debatable for river crossing, there’s one thing missing on this bike a 6th gear ! DRZ has same issue if it had a 6th gear ( if proven reliable enough ) would be perfect .

  2. Hi i must say shineray is the best chinese bike av riden i have a 200cc enduro shineray gy i know many guys who ride and have positive feedback, the thing is shneray stopped supplying parts and has sadly closed shops in kenya due to that new company yatian is taking over slowly ,,, if they culd do smthn about that it wud make a reljef for shineray rider

  3. Blair says:

    As someone who has owned KTM 950 Adv, Suzi DR 650, BMW R80GS Basic for adventure riding here in NZ I (along with many others) am still waiting for someone to bring out a mid capacity twin with a realistic weight and power able to be ridden two up. Say no more than 160-170kg with not less than 60HP. Singles are great (light and with adequate power) but they get pretty tiring on a long ride especially on the seal. I have heard rumours from the local KTM agent that KTM are toying with the idea of building such a bike but it is not coming any time soon. These 1200cc ‘Adventure’ bikes are great tourers but unless you are Chris Birch they don’t make Adventure bikes.
    If someone made one cheap enough it would be worth buying and ditching the suspension, wheels and brakes and upgrading the lot.
    Meanwhile Adventure bikeless for now I think about buying another DR650; cheap enough, reliable as hell and enough farkles out there to keep anyone happy BUT no room for the missus.

    • Chris S says:

      I always liked the GS Basic: low seat/weight, adequate power, good springs and basic in the right way. I’m with you on the max the weight of a mid-sized twin but I’d happily settle for <50hp (like the CB500X RR I ran) if it meant up to 90 mpg. Better economy = less carried weight and bulk. I’m dithering over buying a new travel bike that is not really what i want but will be great on the dirt and a compromise in getting there – all for want of a 450 single in the CRF-l/KLX-S mould, or a light 500 twin. Of the later I hear of the KTM too, as well as a Triumph. Bring ’em on.

  4. what about the Husky TE 630? I have ridden mine for 4 years and love it even if loaded down for a 2 week mostly off road trip it tops out at 70mph on the hwy when linking to dirt. give husky a try.

    • Chris S says:

      Yes I look for them occasionally but very rare here in the UK and unknown as a travel bike. More common in US and Au, I think.
      Expedition Portal did a nice job on one and which was for sale by the guy who bought it off them while I was in the area a few months later.
      As you may know SWM are re-using the motor in their Super Dual due some time soon. Looks heavy in all that clobber but will be interesting to see how that turns out.
      SWM Super Dual

  5. panttiroiko says:

    If you want to add something else in the mix, here’s an interesting example from Belarus…

    http://www.minsk-moto.com/en/

    Not Chinese, but fits the bill of a lightweight enduro/adventure bike with a low price. Too bad they only seem to have dealers in Belarus and Vietnam.

  6. Chris S says:

    Hi Kevin, glad you enjoyed the article. Well if you think the WK400 is too pricey at £4k then you won’t be buying the Mash Roadstar I just wrote up for the same price! Now that is an overpriced machine and I suppose Mash’s take on the 400 Adventure will cost quite a lot more when or if it gets here. I mention your comparison with a used CB500X for the same money or less. I don’t know about 15hp – just another 5 would bring it up to what an XR400 had which would do me while keeping it low stressed. As it is, I found the Roadstar no more powerful than the XR250 Tornado I’ve ridden in Morocco and I have my doubts it even makes 26hp unless it needs a lot more loosening up (which is possible). And unless my rosy specs need a wipe, I’m sure my ’78 SP370 had more grunt than the Mash 400. Online specs (the non-rosy type) confirm what you say about the weight and power of the XBR (on which the Mash and WK motors are based). Had a quick scan on ebay but converting that to an adv tourer is too big a job.

  7. 24moskito says:

    Nice article, thx for sharing your thoughts, BUT… this bikes I see at Chinese Bikes dealers are for sure good looking and CHEAP but often there are parts that rust already while they are still in the dealers shop. I mean, It make no sense buying a ride with a good engine but shit steel….

    On the other hand the prices really are a PRO for Chinese bikes… A 250cc offroader, looking a bit like Hondas CRF-L is available for less than 50% of the CRFs price. A friend bought a 125cc TIGER about 6 years ago, ok, there is some rust and the colour is gone on some parts but it was cheap and he never experienced any problems with the engine, the little bike never refused to ride on….

    I am currently looking for another CRF-L for a bit offroad travelling in Asia, my wife dont like my big bikes and feel safer on a small one :)
    Since another friend of mine bought this 250cc ride… TORNADO was the name I think, I will talk with him today, he has it 6 month already… btw, the price is just funny… 760.- USD per piece :)

  8. Great to see an objective and well-informed write-up of the current state of play involving Chinese bikes. Yes, early examples to arrive on these shores were ill-made and unreliable. The guy with whom I ran a training school made the mistake of buying a pair of 50cc twist-n-goes back in about 2004 – they lasted two weeks before he realised just what a big goof that was and replaced them with Piaggios which actually started on the button and didn’t have the brake shoes delaminate when you applied the front brake. But they are improving fast. In WK at least, the factory seems to have an importer who believes in the brand and isn’t simply attempting to unload crates at the dockside and do a runner before anyone can mention the ugly word warranty.

    I also think you are spot-on that the Chinese have spotted a gap in the market for middleweights that only Honda seem to have noticed and attempted to plug with their CB500-based trio. The only thing that bothers me slightly is that the WK400 trail bike is around £500 too expensive at £4000. Is that sufficient margin to pull in buyers, when the CB500X can be had for just over £1000 more.

    I’m also concerned that it needs another 15hp. The CB500s are on the 46.6hp limit for the intermediate licence and whilst I like the idea of an unstressed single – I can remember bikes like the SP370 and GN400 – 27hp wasn’t really enough back in the 80s and I don’t think it’s enough now. The (claimed) 44hp from my XBR500 made it almost the perfect all-rounder as a road bike and it wasn’t much heavier than my CB250RSs either.

    Good stuff! Keep it up!

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