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Common Tread

Case study turned bike review: Are Chinese motorcycles any good?

Aug 16, 2019

"Are Chinese motorcycles any good?" I get asked that question a lot. I ask it myself often.

You see, that answer needs to be reassessed periodically.

Up until very recently, my standard answer was pretty simple. “No.” But the quality has been increasing by leaps and bounds. Much as Japanese bikes got stratospherically awesome, Chinese motorcycles are, on the whole, improving at a breakneck pace. I’ve avoided them up until this point because my experience with them has left me with little to say that is nice, and if you can’t say nothin’ nice… well, you know. But I have been keeping a very, very watchful eye on motorcycles of any displacement or powerplant, simply because the rate of change is phenomenal. When I built my minibike, I was very surprised at the high quality found in my very affordable engine, which was Chinese in origin. So if you're asking that question in the summer of 2019, I'll proffer a different answer.

I am always willing to be surprised, provided the surprise is a pleasant one. The Benelli TNT 300 was that kind of surprise. Photo by Lemmy.

A Benelli TNT 300, manufactured by Qianjiang under the Benelli badge, showed up to the ZLA compound damaged, still in its shipping crate. Mechanical Wizard Joe Zito ordered up a buncha parts for it, did its initial setup and pre-delivery inspection, took it for a little spin, and then turned it over to me.

Throttle tube
This was about the only setup issue we encountered — a throttle tube that needed a nickel's worth of grease. 2017 Benelli TNT 300. Photo by Lemmy.

I spent a week commuting on this motorcycle, and there are two overarching thoughts that guide my assessment of this little machine. Before we get into those, though, you should know that yes, it’s a little strange for us to review a new motorcycle three model years later and yes, this bike does still have some damage here and there. (Am I going to ask Zito to install new fork legs to replace the mild dings ours suffered, just for a few hundred miles of testing? Of course not.) But, that’s par for the course for Chinese bikes. (In fact, Benelli is offering rebates if you buy a new 2017 model as of the time of this writing. And 2019 models, too, which are curiously the same MSRP, and have the same rebate. That makes no sense, but whatever.)

Point number one: Owning a Chinese motorcycle is different

A long time ago, cycles produced by the Japanese manufacturers were seen as junk. That’s certainly changed, no doubt due to their level of performance and their extreme reliability. It would appear that cycle is repeating itself, as many “Japanese” motorcycles are now built in places like Thailand.

The TNT is of a quality I would normally associate with a low-end Japanese motorcycle, and I mean that in a very complimentary fashion. This is really the first Chinese-built motorcycle I have found to meet my own personal standards for construction. Set side by side with our CSC San Gabriel ($1,995) that Spurgeon reviewed and Andy rode, the rationale for the higher cost of the Benelli ($3,999 on the 2017 model I am testing, and which is presumably unchanged on ‘19 models) is immediately obvious: It’s a way nicer motorcycle. Obviously, these two are not competitors, but my point in comparing them is merely to illustrate what should be obvious: There can be a range in quality from one Chinese manufacturer to another, just like motorcycles from, uh… every other place.

Manual photo
I mean, I sorta get the gist, but this is not confidence-inspiring. Photo by Lemmy.

Another part of Chinese motorcycles is a bit of… rinky-dink-ness. For instance, I reached out to Benelli for a press contact, and never heard back. That’s not exclusive to Chinese brands. In fact, I think it’s just par for the course with smaller brands. The owner’s manual is a reminder, too, of Japanese products made for American markets, written in Engrish. And remember the difference in price I mentioned earlier? Good luck finding the MSRP on Benelli’s website.

Zito text
Oh. Maybe we'll push that review off for a few weeks. Photo by Lemmy.

Titling the bike and getting plates was a minor hassle. We did get plates... three weeks after we applied for them. (This is normally instantaneous in Pennsylvania.) Picking up replacement parts for the shipping damage was also a cumbersome experience for Joe. In fairness, our experience was atypical because the damage would have been picked off by the dealer. Unlike CSC and some others in this space that sell direct to consumers, Benelli uses a standard dealer model.

This is all sort of bad news. But there is a sunny upside to this. Remember the price? That’s where this shines. It’s a grand cheaper than a Yamaha YZF-R3, and $1,500 cheaper than a KTM 390 Duke. That is a ton of money at this end of the price spectrum.

Ol’ Greaser reported previously on Harley’s partnership with Qianjiang, and at the time, we thought these bikes were dang similar. If H-D can make this bike with a slightly larger engine (338 cc is the figure that was bandied about) and bring it here for the same price, good access to parts and service might tip the scales in this Tornado’s favor (regardless of what badge it’s sold under).

I already mentioned that Benelli uses the usual dealer model, so that’s good. They don’t appear to have any way for you to locate those dealers that I can find on their site, though, so that’s not.

Ultimately, I am telling you what you probably already know: A motorcycle that’s not coming from one of the more established brands will require a buyer to lower expectations, and those lower expectations are rewarded in the form of an attractive sale price.

It's got the right look and a lot of neat features. Is it right for you? Well, that's up for debate. The Tornado is a polarizing answer to an unclear question. Photo by Lemmy.

Point number two: The TNT is a lot like black licorice

Black licorice is one of those foods you either love or ya hate, and there’s no middle ground, and no changing of minds, it seems. I think the TNT300 is pretty much the same thing. I spent one week commuting on the TNT, and here’s what I think about it: It’s great! On a 150-mile-or-so-commute, a 300 cc motorcycle with no wind protection is sort of starting behind the eight ball, but I really warmed to the little Benelli quickly.

My Day One notes make mention of the fact the TNT is easy on gas, and a quick fuel mileage calc shows that even when being flogged within an inch of its life, the Tornado turns in pretty excellent mileage at 46.43 miles traveled for every gallon o’ gas you put in the tank. (I wasn’t really stretching this out to see what it could handle, given the intended usage here, but the tank is a claimed 4.2 gallons, and on my longest haul, I saw 169 miles with two fuel bars left — not bad.) Also, it wants 93 octane fuel.

It looks good here, but the protective plastic is a little hokey. Still, not bad. Photo by Lemmy.

I did notice some cheapness when I jumped onto the bike — the tank emblems are very thin metal. The mirror “glass” is wavy. The clear plastic in the dash overlay is also wavy. It’s not quite up to low-end Japanese-bike snuff… but it’s close. The bike fired right up and was very quiet at idle.

Broad, flat, firm — the seat is good. And that nice molded logo is a cool touch. It was surprising it sat as far in the air as it did, which helps the Benelli feel like a "real" motorcycle. Photo by Lemmy.

I climbed aboard and was not totally in love with the ergos. This is about as cramped as I would want to be on a bike. I felt my hips and knees were a little squished, which is surprising given the seat height is a just-slightly-shorter-than-average 31.3 inches.

Shfiter tip
Oh, that's a nice touch. Photo by Lemmy.

That’s mitigated, a bit, by the number of things which can be adjusted. The motorcycle is thoughtfully equipped with movable shift and brake lever tips, which is a nice touch on a bike in this price range, and the brake lever is adjustable for reach, too. One may also adjust the pedal height on both pedals. The handlebar is very narrow. I didn’t adjust the risers, but those appear they can be flipped around for additional reach if desired. Other nice touches: The bike includes a very useful tool kit, and also came with a lithium battery that has a built-in tester. (!)

It would've been cool if the headlight was LED, too, but the halogen in there is more than acceptable. Photo by Lemmy.

There’s also a full suite of LED lamps. (The headlight, though, is a halogen, albeit a very good one.)

Generally speaking, even after diddling all the things that would get me more room, I think I am just a touch too large for this motorcycle. One of the great parts about the ergos, though, is the wasp waist of this bike. It feels like you could strangle the bike with your knees if you wanted to. This has the most comfortable spot for knees on any motorcycle I think I have ever ridden.

Honestly, there is very little point to this part of the motorcycle. Photo by Lemmy.

So we get underway, the little Benelli and I. The bike buzzes. A lot. Like, even with the yuge bar-end weights the TNT 300 sports, nothing can quell this vibration, not even the counterbalancer this thing is supposedly equipped with. The mirrors, I presume, are included as some sort of tuning fork/dowsing rod sort of a thing, because they're pure useless at near any point in the rev range, much like a Shovelhead being run double-time.

I don’t care.

The bike howls from 8,000 rpm right up to redline, an indicated 11,000 rpm. A hard limiter cuts in very shortly thereafter, at (I think, because we have no Benelli contact person to ask) 12,000 rpm, but the tach reads slow. The Tornado needs to be actively managed to extract performance. Peak power (32.2 claimed horsepower) arrives at 10,500 rpm. So that means to really get the most out of this thing, you’re dancing and flirting riiiight before the rev limiter cuts in to end the party. Handle it correctly and the bike makes you look like a hero. Botch it, and it’s the same as botching the shift points on any small-bore: You lose.

The engine apparently has something to prove. I'm OK with that. Photo by Lemmy.

I clutchless upshifted almost constantly. It’s silky smooth to do so at or near the redline; it’s awful anywhere else. Run second gear out, release throttle tension for a microsecond, bang third, and clamp down on that throttle tube again. Lather, rinse, repeat. If you’re good, it will sound like you’ve got a quickshifter.

The intakes scream. The bike doesn’t shy away from our relationship that is quickly turning abusive, so I make no move to let up, and the bike stays right with me. The inline twin engine has pep. 12.0:1 is the compression ratio (hence that 93 octane fuel I was putting in this bike), and the engine is oversquare. Uncharacteristically for a P-twin, camping near the redline is rewarded. (This bike is fuel injected, unlike that piece-of-shit CSC.)

rear suspension
Surprisingly nice for a motorcycle at this price. Photo by Lemmy.

The suspension is way better than it has any right to be. The upside-down front fork has an adjustable...something, and the offset rear monoshock has adjustable preload and rebound. (The manual doesn't mention what the fork has. It's an unlabeled clicker on one fork cap, so I s'pose that's compression. I figured this out, but this is my job. It seems unfair to ask a customer to find out what an unlabeled adjuster does.) The bike feels really taut when set up correctly, though I did soften the bike a little to make it more plush for long-haulin'. Shinko SR881 tires are more than adequate for this bike’s output. It should be noted I only ran the bike in dry and damp weather; I didn’t take them out on downright wet roadways.

If you want to find a similar setup on a Big Four motorcycle, I think you'll have to step up into a 650 or 700 twin, which is obviously a bit more money. Man, were these brakes progressive! Very little initial bite, which is probably good for a rider who's not expert-level. Photo by Lemmy.

Brakes are also awesome. Dual four-pots up front is class-leading braking, to my knowledge. And this has braided lines and wave rotors. Result? This is the most progressive brake I have felt on a motorcycle to date, which is either great or terrible depending on what you like. There is a ton of stopping power, and due to the robust engine braking and super-heavy weight of the machine, you don’t even need to use those great brakes to tap into it! Interestingly, the rear brake, which is pretty good, is claimed to be a two-pot caliper on Benelli's spec sheet on their site. However, it appears on all years of this machine (and the one I am testing) to be a plain-jane single-piston slider. Again, no press contact, so I might be wrong. Que será será.

The bike has a ton of heart. It’s Rudy Ruettiger.

I mean, Zito already made a good joke about the welds, so I don't have a witty caption. They're fine. They'll do the job and they're not totally awful. Photo by Lemmy.

Some of you will say I’ve gone soft; I can’t say bad things about this motorcycle. I can. Parts of it are crappy. (The welds, for instance. Zito referred to them as “swingset quality.”) The weight sucks. (432 pounds wet? That’s what a 600 race rep weighs weighed. In 2001.) ABS? Not gonna happen. (Not a problem for me, but I know that’s a deal breaker for some riders who are a little more allergic to injury.)

This muffler is yucky. Photo by Lemmy.

And the muffler is awful. It looks like it came off a Saab 9-3. (Benelli did the best they could to hide it, which isn’t very good.) And there’s no slipper clutch, so you better be adept at throttle blipping if you like engine braking.

The Tornado weighs more than a dump truck, but it comes with neat touches peppered throughout, like these factory-equipment spools. Where do your priorities lie? Photo by Lemmy.

And this is why it’s like black licorice. Personally, I thought Rudy was a scrub. But clearly, he had a few fans. This bike does have a pile of shortcomings, but I like some of the pieces that are tossed in here. The Tornado is a baffling mix of really cool bits and pieces and obvious compromises. It’s pretty damn different from some of the other motorcycles one can buy, though, so at very least, it is original.

Benelli at Geno's
Built that heavy, I'm sure the Benelli was made to take on unpaved roads. Poorly paved city streets seem like fair game, too. Photo by Lemmy.

In a lot of ways, this motorcycle feels like it’s a smallbore for a veteran rider, not a rookie: The engine needs careful coaxing and the brakes and suspension are nicer than necessary. I guess that makes sense because in other parts of the world, this is a huuuuuge bike for a very seasoned rider. (That might also explain the weight, too — an overbuilt steel trellis is easy enough to repair with a tombstone buzzbox and good intentions.)

In general, I dug it. I would likely explore buying a Japanese counterpart and grafting nicer components on there if I had time, or maybe just grab a 650/700-class twin if I had money. If four grand was my ceiling, though, the Benelli is a compelling motorcycle.

Are Chinese motorcycles any good? This one is. If this is the bellwether of things to come from China, excepting political and economic factors, I'm betting Chinese motorcycles are probably going to hit American streets sooner rather than later.

2017 Benelli TNT 300
Price (MSRP) $3,999
Engine type Liquid-cooled dual overhead cam parallel twin, four valves per cylinder
Displacement 300 cc
Bore x stroke 61 mm x 42.7 mm
Compression ratio 12:1
Torque 18.4 foot/pounds @ 6,500 rpm
Transmission Six gears, chain final drive
Front suspension 41 mm inverted fork, adjustable compression damping, 4.8 inches of travel
Rear suspension Single shock, adjustable rebound damping and preload; 4.8 inches of travel
Front brake Two 260 mm discs, four-piston calipers
Rear brake Single 240 mm disc, two-piston caliper claimed, single-piston caliper on test unit
Tires front/rear 110/70ZR17; 140/70ZR17
Wheelbase 55.3 inches
Seat height 31.3 inches
Tank capacity 4.2 gallons, 0.8 gallons reserve
Curb weight 432 pounds road ready