First Ride – 2018 Benelli Motorcycles Lineup

In Italy, Reviews by AbhiLeave a Comment

Normally, a Benelli on this site is a classic exotic Italian like the iconic six-cylinder Sei. Nowadays, the name is Italian wrapping paper on gifts from China. The 600 and 300 aren’t bad, but I always find myself qualifying my thoughts with “this is fine, for the price.” On the other hand, the 135 is significantly better than the Grom or Z125 AND it’s cheaper, to boot. The 135 is tremendous.

First, a quick thank you to Charles Fleming, who kindly let me crash his reviewing party so that I could share my thoughts with you.

Superficially, these bikes are very Italian. Even if you ignore the Benelli logos all over the place, you’ll still see Italian flag imagery on the frames. Hell, the bikes Charles and I were provided to test even lined up to make the green/white/red of the Italian flag:

Despite the “Tricolore,” modern Benellis are made in China in a city near Shanghai. Corporate headquarters are still in Pesaro, Italy – where the company was founded in 1911 by the widow Teresa Benelli, hoping that it would provide jobs for her six sons. In 2005, Benelli was bought by Qianjiang, a Chinese motorcycle manufacturer that was founded in 1985. Michael Lee, Marketing and Product Manager at SSR Motorsports / Benelli USA, emphasizes that the Chinese production lines have Italian supervision and that one bike out of every production run is pulled out to be inspected in detail and compared to a reference bike. This is where your personal opinion on “Made in China” comes into play. I thought the fit and finish were acceptable and I had no issues whatsoever, but I was on the bikes for half a day. Your guess is probably as good as mine when it comes to predicting how the bike will hold up over years of ownership, though my barely-educated guess based on a few hours of riding is that these would hold up to the expectations of the average rider. For what it’s worth, I thought these offered much better fit and finish than the SSR Buccaneer I tested a few months ago.

Across the 135, 300, and 600, there are a few interesting constants – they sound better than you’d expect, and they’re physically bigger/heavier than the competition. The size/weight difference is a deliberate decision by Benelli, who argues that (especially when it comes to the 300 and 135) smaller bikes aren’t sufficiently sized for the average American. These are bigger and therefore heavier than similar bikes so that riders like me at 6’2″ can be comfortable, and it works.

As you may have already realized, the smaller the Benelli, the more I like it. But let’s look at the bikes individually, from biggest to smallest:

TnT 600

Before we look at the 600, I want you to take a moment to consider what the competition is – it’s not obvious. If you define it as naked inline fours that displace ~600cc, there’s only one bike that the TnT 600 competes against – the $8,249 Honda CB650F. Yamaha’s FZ6R would also fit the bill, except it’s not in Yamaha’s 2018 lineup. On the other hand, if you look at naked bikes that cost around the Benelli’s MSRP of $5,999, then the closest rival is Honda’s CBR500F, and that’s why this bike could be interesting. As Benelli claims, this is “more powerful than everything with comparable pricing,” and they’re right. The TnT puts out 67 horsepower and 38 pound-feet of torque. The CB500F costs $100 more but it gets left behind with 49 horsepower and 32 pound-feet of torque. If all you’re looking for is ponies per dollar, the Benelli is a hell of a bargain and your choice is clear.

But motorcycling is about more than horsepower, and the 600 does not enthrall me due to a claimed curb weight of 485 pounds – that’s the same as a 1,170cc BMW RnineT Scrambler! The weight is a parasite that sucks out some of the fun of cornering. This goes back to Benelli’s decision to make larger bikes that better fit the average American, but I don’t think that’s as much of an issue with the 600 class as it is with smaller bikes. At the end of the day, you’ve got an NFL lineman – it’s got plenty of power but it’s also saddled with several pounds of fat.

The TnT deals with the weight by beefing up some of the components. The USD front forks are gigantic 50mm units (for perspective, similar bikes typically use 41mm forks, and a KTM 1090 Adventure R has 48mm forks), though they’re soft and aren’t adjustable in any way. The rear shock has some adjustability to it (preload/rebound) and I didn’t have any issues with it. The brakes are also bigger than you’ll find on competitors, with double 320mm discs up front and a single 260mm disc in the rear all being fed by braided steel lines. Despite the big numbers, the brake performance was disappointing, especially up front. You’ll have to pull the brake lever for a while before you get any sort of bite, and you’ll still have to pull much further to get enough force to slow down quickly. Pair that with the soft forks and you get a lot of fork dive, making the braking experience disheartening. When you remember that this motor is much more powerful than its rivals and the bike can get up to a claimed 137 miles per hour, the brakes seem like even more of a disappointment. In between the twisties of Angeles National Forest, there were plenty of straightaways where I did not bother accelerating with full force just so I could minimize my dependence on the brakes before getting to a corner.

The styling does feel Italian, but from a decade ago. I really like the style of the rear half of the bike, particularly the undertail exhaust and the swingarm.

I like the exhaust, but it’s one of many styling touches that feels like it was “borrowed” from the Aprilia Shiver.

Of the 3 bikes in the Benelli USA lineup, this is the only one that comes with tires you’ve heard of. The smaller bikes use Chinese-made tires, while the 600 is equipped with the Angel ST by Pirelli.

Ergonomically, the “bigger is better” mantra works well, though I think the 600 is too wide at the knees. My last gripe is with the speedometer, which felt like it was reading high. I wasn’t in a position where I could verify the speed with GPS, but it was displaying velocities in the high 80s when I was just flowing with traffic on the highway. The cynical side of me feels like it’s a way to make the bike seem faster than it is.

One Sentence Summary:
I don’t really know why you’d buy this unless you absolutely will not buy a used bike, have a $6,000 budget, and want something very rare.

Check out the Benelli TnT 600!

TnT 300

This is where things start to make more sense for me. 300cc bikes are often cramped for bigger riders, so in this case I think the weight penalty is worth it for the comfortable riding position. But let’s start again by looking at the competitors. KTM and Kawasaki are leaving the 300 class behind with their 390 and 400 motors, but there’s still a few companies sticking with 300 for their entry level bikes. There are several faired options such as the Yamaha R3, but if we’re looking at naked bikes like the Benelli, then the closest challengers are the $4,750 BMW G310R or the $4,649 Honda CB300R. The Benelli TnT 300 will set you back just $3,999 – plus, there’s currently a $300 rebate.

Photo courtesy Benelli

The 300 doesn’t have a power advantage to fall back on like the 600 does, but it’s right in line with its peers on paper. The 282cc parallel twin (basically half of the TnT 600 motor) produces 32.2 horsepower at 10,500 rpm and 20.21 pound-feet of torque at 9,000 rpm, all sent through a 6-speed transmission. That’s 1.3 horsepower less than the BMW and 1.8 horsepower more than the Honda, though the Benelli produces more torque than both of them.

The steel trellis frame is suspended with 41mm USD forks up front and a side-mounted monoshock in the rear. Both extremities offer 5.3 inches of travel, which is plenty for the intended usage. Just about every bike someone would compare the TnT 300 to comes with one front brake, while the Benelli comes with dual rotors (though they are on the smaller side at 260mm). The rear brake clamps down on a 240mm disc.

Welds on the 300’s frame

Riding the TnT 300 was more enjoyable than I was expecting. It feels better put together than the 600, it looks more modern (especially with regards to the front headlight and the low exhaust), and it’s very comfortable. I liked the ergonomics a lot, with the caveat that the peg position made me pigeon-toed. The rider’s triangle is upright and the tank is narrow at the rider’s thighs. All of this makes it quite suitable as an in-town runabout, and you won’t be a liability on the freeway either. But when I get on a small bike, I look forward to light weight and therefore agile handling as a consolation prize for smaller power numbers, and that’s not what happens with the TnT 300. Claimed curb weight is 432 pounds, and that’s the same figure Kawasaki quotes with the KLR 650.

Despite the weight, this is a decent motorcycle. It’s actually quite an achievement for Benelli to offer this much bike for such little money. The $3,999 (don’t forget the additional $300 rebate) asking price is the exact same as Honda’s new 125cc Monkey, and the TnT is obviously much more practical.

One Sentence Summary:
It doesn’t excite me, but I appreciate the ergonomic decision and I wouldn’t look at you funny if you bought one as long as you’re comfortable with the dealer network.

[UPDATE: Seeing as I brought up the dealer network, I should clarify that Benelli has 290 dealers in the US, 175 of which distribute the “Big 4”. That means they’re in more US dealers than Ducati, Triumph, or the Piaggio group (Moto Guzzi/Vespa/Aprilia)] Check out the Benelli TnT 300!

TnT 135

The TnT 135 is clearly gunning for the Kawasaki Z125 Pro and Honda Grom, but Benelli’s angle of attack is different with the 135. At one point during the day, Michael Lee casually said that Benelli was trying to offer 10% more bike for 10% less money. It’s an easy-to-remember phrase, but I think he’s conservative with the percentages.

The obvious improvement is given in the name. Benelli fights a couple of 125s with a 135cc motor, but the goodies are more than increased displacement. The motors in the Z125 and Grom both have 2 valves per cylinder, less than 10 horsepower, 24mm throttle bodies, and 4-speed transmissions. They’re basic, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because they’re both fun and they work well. But the Benelli one-ups everything – 4 valves per cylinder, 11.3 horsepower, 28mm throttle body, and a 5-speed transmission.

It’s not like Honda or Kawasaki have lions, do they?

Because of the power increase, you can see an honest 65+ miles per hour and the bike feels like it would have no problem staying there for hours at a time. Going up the steep hills of Angeles National Forest, I found myself struggling to top 45, but down those same hills I could easily cruise at 75.

The motor is one thing, but it’s the suspension that truly stands out to me. When you hustle a Grom or Z125 around a corner at a high rate of speed, the forks feel like they want to buckle. Benelli has equipped the mini TnT with giant (for the class) 41mm forks, and they make the motorcycle feel impressively stable. The theme of “more” also applies to the weight, as the TnT is 266 pounds. That’s 35+ pounds heavier than the Kawi and Honda, but I don’t think it’s a drawback in this case, as the overall weight is still low.

The money part is easier to explain. The MSRP is $2,649 – compare that to Kawasaki’s asking price of $3,199 and Honda’s extraction of $3,349 from your wallet. For the math averse, that’s a 17% discount off the Z125 and a 22% discount off the Grom.

When it comes to the other Benellis, I feel like any compliment has to be qualified with “for the price.” But the 135 is better than its competition and significantly cheaper. Consider me very impressed – and that’s before we’ve even discussed the styling touches. When it comes to the mini sportbike look, Benelli takes it a step further with LED headlights, a fender-mounted license plate, trellis frame, and shotgun exhaust. Benelli themselves call it a “pipe organ” exhaust, but considering Benelli’s history with guns (the firearm company spun off from the motorcycle company in 1967), I think it’s more appropriate to note that the exhaust tips sure look like double barrels.

I’ve gushed about this bike, and I’m 95% of the way towards being a complete 135 evangelist. Selfishly, I want one for a long-term evaluation, because the only question left to me is how it holds up over time. I was so impressed that I almost bought one for Vy, but I wanted her to have ABS and she much prefers classic styling, which is why she’s getting a new Monkey instead.

While there’s a space for it on the dash, there’s no gear indicator just yet.

At the end of the day, the 300/600 only make sense for people who are looking for the cheapest possible option, and it’s tough for a manufacturer to compete on price because the average customer will just go used (unless you’re offering something crazy like the old 10-year warranty from Hyundai/Kia).

Charles enjoys the 135.

One Sentence Summary:
If you’re looking at a Grom or Z125, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice if you don’t test one of these as well – it’s cheaper AND better.

Check out the Benelli TnT 135!

The smaller the Benelli, the more I like it!