Benelli Leoncino 500 Road Test: Citizen of the World

First test in Italy inland from its Pesaro factory of Benelli’s twin-cylinder 500cc parallel-twin Naked roadster

Qianjiang (pronounced ‘Chin-jung’, but called simply QJ by its staff), owner of Italy’s oldest existing motorcycle brand Benelli, is now leading the long-awaited charge of Chinese manufacturers into Western markets with an array of new models built in China, but badged as Benellis. These have been under development for the past decade, but their launch into the marketplace was held back in the wake of the 2008 GFC [global financial crisis]. Now, buoyed up by the acquisition of a controlling interest in the company by Geely, China’s second largest privately owned car manufacturer which in 2010 purchased Volvo from Ford, and has since almost doubled production and tripled profits at the Swedish car manufacturer [see sidebar], Benelli has begun rolling out a succession of attractively priced, well-engineered and crisply styled new models in an array of different capacities, each embodying a family of models. 

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So, hot on the heels of the parallel-twin Benelli TRK502 adventure tourer launched earlier this year that’s enjoying showroom success with, for example, over 1,000 examples sold in Italy so far this year – making it the best-selling bike in the 250-500cc class in a market that expanded by 7.2% in the first nine months of 2017, and third best in the adventure tourer category behind the inevitable BMW R1200GS and Honda’s Africa Twin – now it’s the turn of the Leoncino 500, a Naked roadster first launched in prototype form at the 2015 EICMA Milan Show. Developed in Italy by Benelli’s engineering team headed by R&D Manager Stefano Michelotti, but manufactured by QJ in a modern well-equipped 670,000m² factory in Wenling, China, this has now entered production in Euro 4-compliant mode, complete with switchable Bosch ABS, and is available in three colours, red, silver or black, at a competitive price in Italy of Euro 5,990, including 22% local tax. That’s almost identical to the Euro 6,050 pricetag of its main marketplace rival, the slightly smaller-capacity 471cc Thai-built Honda CB500F twin, but as the chance to ride the Leoncino for a day proved, this Benelli designed in Italy but made in China feels a good deal more substantial and comfortable to ride than Honda’s designed in Japan/made in Thailand rival model. This ride came over the testing but scenic roads leading along the Adriatic coast from Benelli’s Pesaro base, then after a stop for lunch at Valentino Rossi’s new pizzeria – yes, really: see www.darossi.it – in his home town of Tavullia, Benelli tester Stefano Cardellini and I headed inland towards the foothills of the Appennines, before returning to Benelli HQ.  

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That added comfort may well be thanks in no small part to the only major component Made in Italy and shipped to China for assembly on the Leoncino, and that’s the pretty substantial leather seat with good pillion space! “We couldn’t obtain the correct padding in China, so we decided to get the seat made here in Italy and shipped out there,” says Michelotti. Set at an 815mm height, this delivers a spacious and, yes, very comfortable riding position that’s less cramped than the physically smaller Honda’s, thanks mainly to the lower-set footrests which are much less high-set than the TRK’s. They don’t however impact on ground clearance even with the excellent grip of the Pirelli Angel ST tyres fitted as stock. Like the Bosch ECU and two-channel ABS which represent the only other bought-in items, these are products of those companies’ factories in China, with QJ taking care of everything else itself in-house, including brakes and suspension.

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Thus QJ’s so-called Benelli Piega Bassa (‘Low Leanover’) taper-section handlebar on the Leoncino is quite wide, but has just the right amount of pullback to make a 5’10”/1.80m tall rider feel at home via a quite upright but untiring stance, that’s both spacious and relaxing. The front brake lever is four-way adjustable, but not its counterpart working the light-action cable-operated clutch, whose progressive pickup will make the Benelli easy to ride for relative newbies and less experienced bikers. The 13.2-litre fuel tank offering a 300km range is quite slim – there are no indents for your knees, but you can grip the flanks OK as you change direction. Indeed, that wide handlebar does provide excellent leverage for flicking the bike from side to side through a switchback series of turns climbing into the hills above Tavullia, noting as you do so that the Rossi Ranch now has a much longer Enduro extension added to the white-shale dirt oval, which is presumably where Vale sadly ruined his season by broking his leg earlier in the year. The mirrors on the Leoncino are well designed and give an excellent view behind you view with no vibration, but less satisfactory is the digital dash, which is hard to read in sunlight thanks to insufficient contrast in the blue-tinted display – it’s all rather muddy to look at. However, when QJ redress this – as Benelli’s R&D Manager Stefano Michelotti says they will – it should rival KTM’s class benchmark for completeness at this price level, with an analogue tacho and digital speedo, plus water temp, fuel gauge, clock, mileage and twin trips, plus a large gear selected indicator positioned above the speedo that’s very legible. The front position lights, rear light and direction signals are all LED. 

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The Leoncino 500 – as in, little lion, denoted by the small statue of such a beast mounted on the front mudguard: he’s surely gotta be called Leo, no?! – is named after Benelli’s best-selling model of all time, its much-loved 125 of which 50,000 examples were built in both two-stroke and four-stroke form between 1951 and 1972. Inevitably, being a Benelli, it also tasted sporting success, with future Italjet owner Leopoldo Tartarini winning the gruelling six-day Giro d'Italia stage race in 1953 on a two-stroke Leoncino single. Today’s version is powered by the same liquid-cooled eight-valve parallel-twin engine as the TRK502, measuring 69 x 66.8 mm for a capacity of 499.77cc. This is the second in a range of three such all-new twin-cylinder designs conceived back in 2012, with the smaller BN302 family the first to reach production in 2015, this one next, and the largest 750cc version intended to rival the Yamaha MT-07 debuting at this year’s EICMA Milan Show as a 2018 model, according to Benelli CEO, Ms.Yan Haimei, 

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So the Leoncino’s 500cc parallel-twin engine is mechanically identical in every way to the TRK502’s which preceded it into production, with the same 360º crank format – so with both pistons rising and falling together, as on a classic era Norton or Triumph twin, rather than the Honda CB500F’s 180º one-up/one-down format. “In determining the layout of our twin-cylinder family of engines, we first of all had to decide between a V-twin and a parallel-twin,” says Michelotti. “We chose a parallel-twin layout to share crossover technology with the BN600R in-line four we’d already developed. But then we had to decide what crankshaft format to use – 180º or 270º or 360º. We chose a 360º layout as giving greater flexibility, better lowdown performance, and a more individual sound.” That it does, for the Leoncino is in every way a modern take on what a trad-style Norton/Triumph/AJS/Matchless etc. 500cc British parallel-twin might be like today – even down to the muted but slightly menacing drone from the 2-1 exhaust. That’s something the current Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando don’t provide, with their 270º pseudo-V-twin crank throws -.but the transplanted Benelli Brit-bike made in China to Italian design does. Call it a citizen of the world!

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The resultant short, compact wet sump engine design sees the liquid-cooled cylinders inclined forward by 20 degrees, sitting on a robust-looking crankcase, with the six-speed transmission’s oil-bath clutch mounted tightly to it. The double overhead camshafts are chain-driven up the left side of the engine, with the paired 25mm inlet valves and 22mm exhausts set at a relatively flat 28.8° included angle.  Compression ratio is 11.5:1, delivered via the three-ring cast pistons and a shallow combustion chamber. Peak power of 48 bhp/35 kW is delivered at 8,500 rpm, with 46 Nm/4.6 kgm/33.92 ft-lb of torque at 6,000 revs – 3Nm or 5% more than the Honda CB500F. As such, the Benelli meets EU laws restricting 19-24 year-olds to an A2 licence after passing their test, which limits them up until age 25 to bikes with a maximum output of 35kW. 

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With a cable throttle rather than RBW/ride by wire, there’s no choice of riding modes on the Leoncino, nor any other electronic rider aid beyond the switchable Bosch ABS that’s required for Euro 4 compliance. Simple is best, is the QJ mantra, and that’s quite acceptable at such an accessible price point. Fitted with twin lambda probe oxygen sensors attached to the dual catalyst-equipped Euro 4-legal exhaust system to optimise the fuelling controlled by the Bosch ECU, and with a single injector for each of the twin 37mm throttle bodies made in-house by QJ in China, the Benelli’s parallel-twin motor weighing 65kg without throttle bodies carries a single counterbalancer positioned in front of the crankshaft, and gear-driven off it. Just as on the TRK, this results in a jewel of an engine that turns out to be uncannily smooth once you thumb the starter and it booms immediately into life, settling to a high 1,400rpm idle speed with that very individual audio soundtrack emanating from the 2-1 exhaust’s single silencer exiting under your right foot. Thanks to the balance shaft there’s no vibration in either seat, handlebar or footrests on the Leoncino – only above 7,000 revs are there a few slight tingles in the footrests, but this is in no way tiring or objectionable. 

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According to Michelotti, the only engine characteristics on the Leoncino which differ to the TRK502’s are the different exhaust system, a redesigned airbox, and the revamped engine mapping courtesy of the Bosch ECU. “This was partly aesthetic, because we wanted to hide the airbox under the tank,” he explains, “but the result was very beneficial to performance. The longer airbox helps reduce noise for Euro 4, but also delivers better low down torque – between 2,000-7,000 revs we have more on the Leoncino than on the TRK, even if peak power is the same.”

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The Leoncino’s engine is indeed torquey and forgiving, with seemingly more midrange grunt than on the TRK – although that may partly come from the Naked bike’s much lighter 207kg kerb weight with all liquids aboard [186kg dry], split evenly 50/50 front to rear, compared to its adventure tourer sister’s more porky 235kg including a full 20-litre tank, compared to the Leoncino’s 12.7-litre fuel load. It pulls really strongly from just 2,000 rpm, yet with a smooth initial pickup from a closed throttle that is a model for other manufacturers to follow, especially those of a desmodromic persuasion on the Scrambler range. Indeed, the mapping of the Leoncino’s fuelling is literally flawless – there’s no other word to use, hard as I tried to fault it. When I think back to the jerky throttle response, layered power delivery and stepped torque curve of the first Chinese-built Benelli I sampled just over three years ago – the four-cylinder BN600 Naked roadster – this represents a significant achievement, even if QJ did have a top teacher like Bosch China to work with in achieving it. Google Translate tells me that Zuò dé hǎo means ‘Well done’ in Mandarin – so take a bow, ladies and gents in QJ’s R&D setup in Wenling: you learnt fast how to deliver a customer-pleasing product.

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So initial pickup on the Leoncino is even better than on the TRK502, even with the same well-chosen and quite closed-up gear ratios, with 100kmh in top gear calling for just 5,500rpm, and a comfortable cruising speed of 120kmh delivered at just 6,500rpm. But at no stage in the revband does it seem to struggle for breath like on the adventure tourer whose happy operating zone is between 4,000 and 6,500 rpm. The Leoncino has a much broader spread of torque, and this makes it less critical which gear ratio you throw at it via the once again extremely sweet-shifting Japanese-quality six-speed gearbox. And all the time you’re aware of that invigorating, evocative and so-distinctive drone from the exhaust – there’s literally nothing else new on the road today like the Benelli. You have to really pursue the 10,400 rpm limiter if you want to hit it, and you won’t ever do so in real world riding. Just surf that lovely torque curve, and you’ll end up thinking you’re riding a bigger capacity bike than this 500cc twin.

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A key factor in the enjoyment of riding the Leoncino was the Benelli’s confident handling and compliant suspension. This represents a step up from the TRK, thanks not only to QJ continuing its steep learning curve in brake and suspension technology, but also thanks to the tauter suspension settings and tighter geometry of its dedicated open-cradle trellis-style tubular steel spaceframe. This looks even more like a Ducati chassis than the adventure tourer’s did, with the engine once again employed as a semi-stressed component. It has a much shorter 1460mm wheelbase (1525mm on the TRK), with the 50mm upside-down fork up front that’s adjustable for rebound damping set at a 24.5° rake angle (25.5°) with 95mm of trail, and offering 125mm of wheel travel [20mm less]. At the rear there’s a cast aluminium swingarm carrying a cantilever monoshock – unlike the variable-rate link item fitted to the TRK – that’s offset to the right and delivers 128mm of wheel travel, with adjustable rebound damping and – via a remote knob on the side of the shock – adjustable spring preload. This was absent from the TRK502 I tested back in the spring, which in touring mode would need this even more, but perhaps QJ will fit this to its future models, now they’ve developed it. Those relatively conservative geometry numbers are aimed at delivering extra stability on fast sweepers, without sacrificing a degree of agility in tighter turns. Once again it’s worth noting that the entire suspension and brake packages are all entirely made by QJ in China, same as the engine in its entirety, frame, wheels, bodywork and even the headlamps. “Unlike Western manufacturers which can turn to specialist manufacturers for components, we have to make everything in-house because there is no equivalent of the European supply industry in China,” says Yan Haimei, “So before fitting an upside down fork for the first time, we had to learn how to make one – and now we produce them in volume ourselves.”

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So the Leoncino’s twin 320mm floating front discs are gripped by radially mounted four-pot calipers all made in Wenling by QJ, and these work very well within the context of an everyday bike like this. Despite the radially-mounted calipers they don’t have a fierce initial bite, but are effective when they need to be without an excessively hard pull on the lever, and you can modulate the braking very well on the Leoncino. And the twin-piston caliper and 260mm disc at the rear were much more satisfactory than on the TRK I rode back in April – this time they combined to actually stop the bike when I trod on the brake lever!  The Pirelli Angel ST tyres fitted to the good-looking QJ-made cast aluminium wheels, a 120/70ZR17 on the 3.50in wide front, and 160/60ZR17 on the 4.50in rear delivered a comforting degree of grip on the uneven surfaces up in the hills,

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Once again, as on the TRK, build quality on the Leoncino seems pretty high for a bike in this price sector – the whole finish of this Chinese-made Benelli twin was very good, fully on a level with anything made in Europe, or Thailand, come to that. Already benefitting from designer Stefano Casanova’s mature and classy styling, this furthermore doesn’t look like a cost-cutting motorcycle in terms of manufacturing excellence – but the true test will come in terms of durability, and how well it shrugs off the wear and tear of everyday riding. But it does seem that QJ has raised its game to match the quality of Western companies’ products.

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Just like the same-priced TRK502, the Benelli Leoncino 500 is a lot of motorcycle for the money. It’s an affordable, accessible, everyday streetbike suitable for all kinds of riders, both male and female, with all levels of experience, from returnee riders to newbies. Even with its extra performance compared to its adventure touring sister model, thanks to its significantly reduced weight, it’s not an out-and-out sportbike, but is indeed intelligently designed and both fun and easy to ride, whether in town or on the open road. It’s what used to be quite a rare thing – an Asian-built motorcycle built for everyday use with a strong individual personality all of its own. Yamaha’s MT-03 triple has exactly that – albeit its MT-07 twin-cylinder spinoff less so – and when you thumb the starter motor on the Benelli Leoncino to send its two-up parallel-twin engine booming into life, you’ll know it has heaps of character, too. Its build quality is now on a level with its Japanese competitors, though the issue of durability remains in abeyance until customers start clocking up the miles to put that to the test. But fresh off the boat from China and into dealer showrooms, this is a good motorcycle at very much the right price.

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Benelli’s Chinese owner is fast-forwarding the introduction of a range of well-priced models from 250-750cc that it’s spent the past decade developing to be comparable with anything available from Japan or Europe, and made there or in India, Thailand, you name it. No wonder Geely’s billionaire owner Li Shufu figured now was the moment to buy a controlling interest in QJ. A greater vote of confidence in Benelli’s future is hard to imagine – especially when it’s backed up by products as good as the new Leoncino 500.

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