Like a lot of us, motorcycles have gotten a bit larger over the years. Beginner bikes have swelled from simple 250cc machines to 500cc and 600cc models. Electronic aids such as ABS, traction control, and digital displays added layers of complexity to an inherently simple design.
A motorcycle, at its core, is a vehicle made for convenience and fun. Sometimes, all those extras get in the way of the simple joy of riding a bike. Now the pendulum of progress is finally swinging the other way.
Since 2010 there's been 127 percent growth in the "small street" sector1, according to a recent presentation by Kawasaki, in which an analysis of data from the Motorcycle Industry Council was shared.
“We've seen a lot more product in the 400-and-under-size division. And that does mean that brands see a market opening to fill with cool new bikes,” said Ty van Hooydonk, vice president for communications at the Motorcycle Industry Council. Such motorcycles as KTM’s 390 Duke, Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, Yamaha’s R3, and Honda’s CBR300R are attracting first-time buyers and riders in increasing numbers for a simple reason: They're all designed to be comfortable and easy to handle and offer new riders a sane amount of horsepower.
Even premium brands such as BMW and Ducati, traditionally focused on bigger sport and adventure bikes, have taken notice. BMW’s new G 310 R, a 313cc naked bike, will go on sale globally early next year, and Ducati recently released a 400cc version of its popular retro-style Scrambler.
But the most fun of all may come in one of the smallest packages: a 125cc Honda Grom.
It’s easy to dismiss Honda’s Grom as a scooter pretending to be a proper motorcycle. First introduced in 2014, the fun-size bike just received a cosmetic update for 2016. Sure, it’s powered by the same air-cooled, single-cylinder engine found in the company’s Wave scooter. But unlike a scooter, power is directed to the rear wheel via a proper four-speed transmission. The manual transmission means you’ll need a full motorcycle license to drive this version, unlike its scooter sibling.
Swing your leg over the beginner-friendly, 29.7-inch seat, and you’ll notice several higher-end touches, a rarity for a motorcycle that starts at $3,199. The brakes are hydraulic discs as opposed to cheaper drums. The front suspension uses an inverted fork of the type normally found on premium motorcycles and has an impressive 3.9 inches of travel. A monoshock at the rear provides a similarly plush 4.1 inches of travel. Even the instrument cluster is digital. Sure, the suspension isn't Ohlins and the brakes aren't Brembos, but they look like they could be. The Grom may be little and inexpensive, but it certainly doesn’t feel cheap.
How It Drives
The 125cc engine provides just enough power to jump off the line with authority—it’ll even wheelie (yes, I tried)—and gets an impressive 134 mpg. There’s space and foldable pegs for a passenger, but the added weight of a second butt on the back of the seat places a noticeable damper on the power unit (fine at low speeds around town but a struggle on inclines). The additional weight over the rear affects the balance of the Grom far more than it does on a heavier bike.
Speaking of that seat, now's a good time to note that nothing is perfect: It's incredibly narrow and will make even the most hardened of backsides ache after an hour or so. The mirrors are another weak point on the Grom. They sit so close to your body that they are completely useless, unless you happen to enjoy constantly admiring your own elbows.
The bike shines at low speeds and in tight spaces. The high and wide bars make navigating tight city spaces and twisty backroads a joy. Over four days of testing in northern New Jersey, it did everything I asked of it and more. Unlike most scooters, the Grom is eager to lean over and drag a peg if the situation calls for it. Riders will find themselves going out of their way to find situations that call for it.
Although highway-legal in some states, the Grom is definitely not highway-advisable. Top speed is a claimed 56 mph. I achieved 62 mph just once—at full throttle, on a downhill, with a tailwind, in a full aero tuck. I would not attempt to reach that speed again.
The aforementioned clutch is light, but the lever on our press bike traveled quite a long way before it began to engage each of the Grom's four gears. The hydraulic discs are responsive and more than adequate for bringing the 225 pounds of bike, fluids, and fuel (and 164-pound me) to a stop. It would be nice if the bike came with adjustable levers and ABS, but that’s asking a lot at such a low price-point.
In the end, none of these minor quibbles really matter for one simple reason: It's an absolute blast to ride. Free from the intimidating prospect of piloting an overpowered sportbike or gargantuan, expensive cruiser, the seat of the Grom is just a happy place to spend an hour.
You don't have to worry about perfectly timing your shifts, nailing an apex, or proper braking technique. Just grab all the throttle you can, wait until you hit the redline, shift, and repeat. It's also easy to park and cheap to insure. What more do you want from a no-frills motorcycle?
The Grom might not be a real motorcycle, but it's most certainly a gateway drug for real motorcycles. Master the basics on one, and you'll soon start to crave the speed of a bigger bike. I've ridden naked bikes, midsize cruisers, and nostalgia-inducing modern scramblers. They're large, they're fast, and unlike the Grom, they don't lead people to ask, "Is that a toy?" But the Grom consistently put just as large a smile on my face. Plus, it's much easier to dart around a city on.
It’s so good, in fact, that it has spawned some competition in the U.S. Kawasaki just introduced the Z125 Pro. Like the Grom, it’s powered by a 125cc engine, has a digital dash, inverted forks, disc brakes, room for a passenger, and a hoonigan vibe. Unlike the Honda, it starts at just $2,999, or $200 less. When asked about the new competition, a Honda spokesperson reminded me that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Both the Grom and the Z125 Pro look like larger-displacement motorcycles for a reason. They're meant to remove the traditional barriers to entry to a life on two-wheels and promote brand loyalty. When riders feel comfortable on their Groms, Honda hopes they will move up to a familiar-looking CB 500F. The Kawasaki Z 125 Pro looks eerily similar to the Z800 for the same reason.
Then again, if the small bikes are this good, why would you want to upgrade at all?