In today’s world of big marketing budgets, consumer research, and “business intelligence”, new model decisions are typically planned out years in advance. But sixty years ago, Honda showed that they could improvise thanks to the creativity of a dealership in Idaho. The original Trail was based on the Super Cub platform, so when the latter was revamped last year, Honda didn’t miss the chance to repeat history.
What I don’t like:
VerdictHow times have changed. When the first Trail came out, it was a ground-breaking tool for farmers, ranchers, hunters…anyone that looked to the outdoors for work or simply recreation. Nowadays those customers are better served by ATVs or proper dual-sports, leaving the Trail 125 as a fun playbike and nostalgic reminder of times gone by. It does an excellent job in that reduced role.
The Trail 125 captures the looks of predecessors like the 110, but not all of the functionality. Seeing as I don’t need to build fences or carry deer carcasses, I’m perfectly fine with that. Your needs may vary.
Photos by Drew Ruiz.
SIXTY YEARS AGO…Honda took a big gamble when they decided to come to America, and when they first started selling motorcycles here they had three models: the Dream, the Benly, and the 50.
At the start of the enterprise, Honda had three models – the Dream, the Benly, and the 50 (what Japan called the Super Cub). Initial sales were just 15% of Honda’s estimates, and it only got worse when some examples of the early Dreams and Benlys had bad motors. Honda’s corporate office recalled the bikes back to Japan for fixes, leaving American Honda with just one model to sell: the nifty fifty.
Before Jack McCormack started American Eagle, he was working at the newly-formed American Honda, and he noticed that a dealership in outdoorsy Boise, Idaho was selling more 50s (very much a street bike) than the six dealerships in Los Angeles…combined.
Turns out that the dealer, a gentleman named Herb Uhl, figured he could make the 50 appeal more to wilderness-loving locals by modifying the bike with knobbies and a 72-tooth rear sprocket. Honda took the hint and created a production version, and the rest is history. Through 1986, Honda sold over 725,000 CTs in the United States with models displacing 50, 55, 70, 90, and 110 ccs.
In the next two weeks or so, your local Honda dealership will have the 125 for $3,899 (plus $190 destination charge).
MODERN TIMESJust like it was back in the 60s, the new Trail is based on the Super Cub platform. Both of them are part of Honda’s “miniMOTO lineup“, a quirky quartet that also includes the Monkey and the Grom.
The common thread between all four bikes is the fuel-injected 124.9cc air-cooled four-stroke single, but the Cub and the Trail have a semi-automatic clutch. You’ll still have a shifter pedal to contend with – it gives you neutral on the bottom and you make your way up for gears 1 through 4.
The Trail has several other unique features, including a rear rack (rated for 44 pounds but it feels like it could support another human), dual-sport tires, engine protection, and a kickstarter.
There are less obvious changes as well: .5″ longer wheelbase than the Cub (49.4″ total), .4″ longer front suspension travel (4.3″), 1.1″ taller ground clearance (6.5″), and a .8″ taller seat (31.5″). Each change is minor individually, though they all add up to something that feels much more rugged than the Super Cub. It’s not just aesthetics – Honda took us on some dirt roads in Cleveland National Forest and the Trail had no problem rolling over small rocks, dealing with loose surfaces, and even getting a little air!
The engine remains the same but the intake and exhaust are different: the former has been lengthened, raised, and turned into a snorkel of sorts so it’s grabbing air right underneath the rear rack, and the latter has been raised as well. These changes are part of the reason why the Trail 125 makes a little more midrange power and a little less top end power – American Honda hasn’t officially released a horsepower figure but we’re talking single digits here, likely around 8.5.
While both bikes have 1-channel (front only) ABS, the Super Cub has a drum rear brake while the Trail has discs at both ends. The rear sprocket gains three teeth (39 total), which helps with acceleration but brings down top speed from ~62 to approximately 55 mph.
The final change is one I’m a huge fan of – the Trail 125 has a 1.4 gallon fuel tank (.4 gallons larger than the Super Cub). I’ve seen >100 mpg on all of the miniMOTO bikes I’ve ridden, and based on my short first ride I see no reason why that wouldn’t be the case here.
STYLE & SUBSTANCEA personal highlight for me is how closely the Trail 125 resembles the 110, the last Trail model that Americans were able to buy. You might think that’s lazy, but I think it looks great! With that in mind, your only color option is Glowing Red. There’s no yellow like on the CT90…yet, though you might be jealous of the Sand color that other markets get this year.
Most of the similarities are obvious, whether it’s the bodywork, exhaust, or wheels. But there’s some great little touches, such as how the turn signals are mounted or how the hub of the front wheel is styled to look like a drum brake.
The styling is actually so good that for me it triggers a philosophical question about what the name “Trail” actually means to Honda, because there’s a six-decade long precedent here. Historically, their Trail lineup has been a mini workhorse of sorts. Things are a bit different this time around.
While Honda did a great job keeping the style from the 110 to the 125, they haven’t kept all the functionality:
– The 110 had a 2:1 ratio dual-range sub transmission – pull a lever and swap to low gearing to crawl up hills or carry heavy loads. That’s not on the new bikes.
– The 110 had handlebars that could swivel – yet again, pull a lever and rotate the bars to make the entire package narrower for easier transport. That’s not on the new bikes, either.
With that said, seeing as people who want serious off-road work vehicles or toys are buying ATVs or dirtbikes anyway, does the lack of the above features matter any more? Or does Honda just need to make something fun that tugs at the heartstrings of previous Trail/CT owners to be successful? I’ve never ridden any of the previous CT/Trail bikes, but I do know if something is fun or not…
ON (AND OFF) THE ROADUnlike most new motorcycles sold in the US, the Trail 125 can be started with the push of a button or a kickstarter. Or maybe I should call it a handstarter, because it’s so low effort that you can start it with your palm. Either way, it’ll fire up instantly and settle into a quiet but agricultural-sounding idle. I couldn’t tell you what the idle rpm is, as there’s no tachometer (not that you need one). There isn’t much in the way of instrumentation at all – you’ll get a speedometer, odometer, two trip meters, fuel gauge, the usual warning lights…and that’s pretty much it.
Here’s a quick hand start as well as an acceleration run. Problem is that the Trail’s speedometer is hard to see, and the GoPro doesn’t make it any better. If it helps, I shifted from 1st to 2nd at 25 miles per hour and from 2nd to 3rd at 40 miles per hour. The highest speed I saw in our ~40 mile ride was 54 miles per hour, and I’d say that comfortable cruising speed is 45 on level ground.
Also unlike most new motorcycles sold in the US, you’ll have to shift up to get into first. The semi-automatic transmission has neutral at the bottom, requiring you to shift up for gears 1 through 4. Thanks to my time with the Super Cub (which has the same setup) I was able to get used to it quickly, but I still had a couple of moments where I tried to shift down from neutral into first and was punished with a lot of noise and no movement as the engine revved while the transmission remained in neutral. There’s no clutch lever, but there’s still a semi-automatic clutch – it’s just operated by your left foot. As you push the lever in either direction, you’ll sense when it disconnects the flow of power from the engine through the rest of the drivetrain, the physical gear change, and re-engagement of power. If you flick the pedal up or down quickly, it’s the equivalent of letting a clutch lever slip out of your hand and the Trail will get jerked around. I had more trouble than I’d like to admit making the 1-2 shift as smooth as I wanted.
Tall, narrow dual-purpose rubber (80/90-17 front and rear) isn’t the most encouraging to throw around pavement and it took me a while to trust the IRC GP-5 tires. But the Trail 125 is willing to lean at angles that will disrupt whatever you’ve got mounted on the giant rear rack. 259 pounds is fairly heavy for a 125cc bike, but it’s still a lightweight for motorcycles in general so it’s easy to point the Trail wherever you want it go. The handlebars may not swivel, but they definitely offer great leverage and direct feel of what the front wheel is up to.
In fact, they’re almost too direct. Ride quality on the Trail is pretty good considering the lack of weight, but way too much force gets transmitted to your hands and wrists when you hit a large bump with the front wheel.
We spent the morning on our Trails on pavement, enjoying twisty roads that almost made forget that this isn’t big enough to legally be allowed on freeways. Over a lunch break/miniature fishing trip presumably designed to put us in the frame of mind of a potential Trail buyer, I even wondered how commercially successful a “Big Trail” would be, much like how Honda had the Big Ruckus. Having only spent time on road so far, I felt like the Trail 125 was fine, but not great. I went into full social distance mode and headed to the dock to collect my thoughts. The local trout must have picked up on my pessimism, as I didn’t catch a single fish. Thankfully Honda brought some lunch, as no one else caught any fish, either.
This is where the Trail 125 does its ancestors proud. It’s obviously not a true dirtbike, but it’s surprisingly competent in rougher terrain when you remember that it’s based on the Super Cub. Here’s a ~30 second clip of us bouncing around at about 30 miles per hour (again, the speedometer is very hard to read).
In the dirt, I couldn’t stop smiling with the Trail. It’s the kind of bike that makes me wish I didn’t live in the middle of a city that requires at least an hour on the freeway to get to some wilderness. But I do, so I’m happy keeping my Monkey and S90 around for city errands. Still, the night after the launch, I had a dream where I was back in Alaska on it. The Trail just makes me want to explore places without a deadline. It’s not a bike to be in a rush on, as it’s easy to find its limits if you’re jumping it or hitting ruts near top speed. But the Trail is resilient. It’s built in Thailand and the build quality seems excellent on first inspection. Nothing feels cheap, and I’d bet good money that it could withstand several crashes with minimal issues.
I had much more fun with the Trail 125 than I thought I would. Part of this was due to its surprising competence in the dirt, and part of it was that small bikes are always best enjoyed in a group of friends with other small bikes. Case in point – Zack Courts of RevZilla tried to teach me how to wheelie with a foot-operated semi-automatic clutch. My results weren’t great, but a super low camera angle tends to help.
No matter the road surface, I found the Trail to be quite comfortable from an ergonomic standpoint. I’ve got a bit of a slouch in this photo but I was even comfortable sitting bolt upright (as a reminder, I’m 6’2″ and 195 pounds).
My complaints are minimal. Like all of Honda’s miniMOTO bikes, the Trail 125 isn’t a good deal, but you’re paying extra for style and for Honda’s reputation for reliability compared to the other scooter options in the $2-$3k price range. I’m generally OK with that, and it should be noted that nice examples of the Trail 110 often sell for more than $3,000 anyway.
In addition to the previously-mentioned dash, I wish there was an optional buddy seat pad that could be mounted to the rack. It’s a strange omission on something that is at least styled to be practical. Just like with the Super Cub, there’s provisions in the swingarm for pegs and other countries get the option, but the US is left out in the cold. The aftermarket will take care of it, just like they hopefully will create a tribute supplemental gas tank!
CONCLUSIONI must confess that I assumed the Trail would just be a styling exercise, but I was truly impressed by its off-road performance. I still consider the Monkey to be my favorite of the miniMOTOs, but this is now a close second (followed by the Grom and then the Super Cub in a distant 4th, if you’re curious).
More so than with the other miniMOTOs, I’m very curious to see how Honda does sales-wise with the Trail 125. I’d be remiss not to remind potential shoppers that Yamaha’s TW200 and Suzuki’s recently-discontinued VanVan 200 offer up a similar experience with much more capability for <$1,000 more, so Honda's banking hard on the style and nostalgia. Don't forget that Honda just released an "adventure scooter" of their own (the ADV150), and the Trail’s going to snag some sales from that.
If you’re expecting a successor to the CT110 functionality-wise you’ll be disappointed, but I’d love to talk to anyone who feels that way and isn’t just going to buy a proper dual-sport like a CRF250L instead. If you just want a stylistic successor to the CT110, you’re going to love the 125. It looks the part, it’s cheap to run, it’ll take a beating, parts will be a cinch to find, and you won’t have to worry about the carb if you let it sit for a while.
The original Honda Trail was built with a specific purpose in mind, a classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. This time around, it’s a Super Cub in drag. But it’s fun, it’s easy to ride, and it makes you want to explore – for a lot of people, that’s all that a motorcycle needs to be.
Check out the 2021 Honda Trail 125!