First test in Italy inland from its Pesaro factory of Benelli’s twin-cylinder 500cc parallel-twin adventure tourer, developed in Italy but built in China by owner Qianjiang
The global debut four years ago of the four-cylinder Benelli BN600 model range, manufactured in China by the historic Italian marque’s owner Qianjiang (pronounced ‘Chin-jung’, but called simply QJ by all its staff), finally kicked off the long-awaited revival under Chinese ownership of Italy’s oldest existing motorcycle brand. After purchasing Benelli in December 2005, QJ’s ambitious plans to relaunch the Italian marque had stalled in the face of uncertainty caused by the global economic downturn, which put a brake on the development of new products from Benelli QJ, as the Italian company is now officially known. But the BN600’s arrival changed all that, representing Benelli QJ’s first all-new bikes to be jointly developed by QJ and Benelli technicians, then manufactured in China to reduce costs, leading to a crucial edge on price.
This marked the first fruits of QJ president Lin Hua Zhong’s acquisition of Benelli, and his strategy to position QJ as a contender in the global marketplace by acquiring an existing Western two-wheeled brand, then using its R&D expertise to produce a technically and stylistically more sophisticated range of bikes for Chinese manufacture. This was in preference to trying to concoct something less satisfactory in-house, which would have represented a big step up in engineering terms from anything QJ had produced before.
It’s a strategy which has seemingly begun to pay off, and the BN600 range’s commercial success in both the home Chinese market and abroad has encouraged QJ’s management to kickstart production in its modern, well-equipped 670,000m² factory at Wenling, 500km south of Shanghai, of several more Benelli models built there by the QJ workforce of 14,000 employees, who together produce a claimed 1.2 million motorcycles and scooters annually. After the global debut two years ago of the BN302, the kickoff model in a family of twin-cylinder bikes using spinoff technology from Benelli QJ’s four-cylinder range, now it’s the turn of the TRK502 adventure tourer, which after making its debut at last November’s EICMA Show in Milan, has now entered production in Euro 4-compliant mode, complete with ABS.
A non-ABS version without Euro 4 compliance has been on sale in China for the last year, meaning that any bugs in the all-new mechanical package have hopefully been ironed out. The new bike is available in three colours, red, white or black, at an absolutely killer price in Italy of Euro 5,999, including 22% local tax. Compared to the Euro 6,590 price of its only real multi-purpose marketplace rival, the smaller-capacity 471cc Thai-built Honda CB500X twin, the new Benelli has all the makings of a genuine bargain. The chance to ride it for an afternoon over a rugged 120km route leading inland from Benelli’s Pesaro base on the Adriatic coast to the foothills of the Appennine mountains, answered most of my questions about the validity of this comparison.
The TRK502 is the first of a range of new middleweight models to come from Benelli using the same all-new liquid-cooled eight-valve parallel-twin BN502 engine measuring 69 x 66.8 mm for a capacity of 499.77cc. According to Benelli’s R&D Manager Stefano Michelotti, this motor has no relation to the abortive 756 Leo parallel-twin prototype which he and his colleagues at Benelli first developed a decade ago, soon after the QJ takeover. Instead, it’s the second in a family of three such all-new designs which were conceived in 2012, with the smaller BN302 variant the first to reach production in 2015, and the largest 750cc version that’s for sure intended to rival the Yamaha MT-07, still to come – it’ll be launched later this year at November’s EICMA Show in Milan as a 2018 model, according to Benelli CEO, Ms. Yan Haimei.
So while the TRK502’s engine shares no essential components with the BN302’s smaller motor, it’s effectively a larger-scale version of this sharing the same overall design, with a 360º crank format – so with both pistons rising and falling together, like on a classic era Norton or Triumph. “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 giving greater flexibility and better lowdown performance, and a more individual sound.”
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. With a cable throttle rather than RBW/ride by wire, there’s no choice of riding modes, nor any other electronic rider aid beyond the Bosch ABS that’s required for Euro 4 compliance. Simple is best, is the QJ mantra, which at that price point is perfectly acceptable. 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.
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 what today is indeed a very individual audio soundtrack, with a muted but menacing throb emanating from the 2-1 exhaust’s single silencer exiting under your right foot. That makes this Benelli a modern Chinese-built Italian re-interpretation of a classic British 500cc parallel-twin with 360º crank – something the current Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando don’t provide, with their 270º pseudo-V-twin crank throws. And thanks to that balance shaft there’s zero adverse vibration in either seat, handlebar or footrests on the Benelli. Only above 7,000 revs are there a few slight tingles in the footrests, but this is in no way tiring or objectionable.
Initial pickup on the TRK502 is better from low down than I’d expected from a half-litre engine, perhaps because of the well-chosen and quite closed-up gear ratios, with 100kmh in top gear calling for just 5,500rpm, and the comfortable cruising speed of 120kmh delivered at only 6,500rpm. OK, acceleration is somewhat leisurely thanks to the TRK502’s relatively porky 213kg dry weight, split evenly 50/50 front to rear. This rises to 235kg with all liquids aboard, including a full 20-litre fuel tank that Benelli claims delivers a 500km range. So if you want to do any overtaking you need to kick it down a gear or two, and wind on the throttle. But for its target customer who’s more interested in actually getting there than how fast he does so – or she, for with the low 800mm seat that narrows behind the fuel tank to make it easy to put feet to floor, this is an ideal woman’s bike – the new Benelli is more than fit for purpose, even if it loses out on acceleration to a larger-engined comparable bike like – well, the CFMoto 650SM parallel-twin with 180º crank. You can tell China Inc. is getting serious about delivering Western-style motorcycles when you have two separate brands launching 500-650cc middleweight adventure tourers within months of each other.
Anyway, the TRK502’s happy operating zone is between 4,000 and 6,500 rpm, which with torque peaking at 6,000rpm when there’s 46Nm/4.6kgm/34ft-lb available, means you’re best off using its extremely sweet-shifting Japanese-quality six-speed gearbox to ride the torque curve, rather than pursue the horsepower numbers. The engine struggles a little to breathe deeply enough to build revs fast beyond the seven grand mark, and with peak power of 47bhp/35kW delivered at 8,500 rpm it’s better to short-shift and make best use of what torque there is provided. But the TRK502 motor is extremely flexible and forgiving, making it almost irrelevant which gear you throw at it.
It pulls wide open in top gear from just 2,000 rpm all the way to the 10,400 rpm limiter, which you have to really pursue if you want to hit it – you won’t ever do so in real world riding. The clutch action is extremely light, by the way, and very controllable – this is a good bike to ride in cities, where your left hand doesn’t cramp up in traffic thanks to its light throw. Anyway, the fact the twin-cylinder engine is so forgiving, with a twist-n-go flexibility that requires minimal use of the gearbox, means you can treat the TRK502 practically like the maxi-scooter it’s almost identical to in terms of price.
But not in terms of equipment, for the main reason for the TRK502’s twenty excess kilos versus the CB500X weighing just 193kg dry is its superior rider protection versus the Honda’s. It has a larger fairing and much more substantial screen, which is however non-adjustable, though it comes complete with separate perspex lower deflectors either side and was ideal for my 5’10”/1.80m stature, with no helmet buffeting at speed. The Benelli employs an open-cradle trellis-style tubular steel spaceframe not dissimilar to a Ducati’s, in which the engine is employed as a semi-stressed component. This is fitted with seemingly well-made Chinese-sourced running gear, with a non-adjustable 50mm upside-down fork up front offering 145mm of wheel travel, set at a 25° rake angle with 95mm of trail, conservative numbers that deliver stability on fast sweepers, without sacrificing a degree of agility in tighter turns, in spite of the lengthy 1525mm wheelbase.
This comes thanks to the fairly long double-sided twin-tube steel swingarm whose length Michelotti says is aimed at generating traction. It operates a rear monoshock with a variable link generating 45mm of stroke (the amount of actual wheel travel is undeclared) that’s adjustable for spring preload via a C-spanner, and also for rebound damping via a 40-click adjuster ring at the base of the shock. It’s worth noting that as well as the engine components in their entirety, the front and rear suspension and brake calipers and discs are all entirely made by QJ in China, same as the 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, aka Madame Klara (it’s a long story!), “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.”
So the TRK502’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 the bike. In spite of the radially-mounted calipers they don’t have a fierce initial bite, but they’re effective when they need to be without an excessively hard pull on the lever, and you can modulate the braking very well on the bike. But the twin-piston caliper and 260mm disc at the rear were less satisfactory – see later. The ABS fitted to meet Euro 4 requirements was developed in conjunction with Bosch China, same as the ECU, and the only other non-Chinese made components found on the bike are the Pirelli Angel ST tyres fitted to the good-looking cast aluminium wheels, a 120/70ZR17 on the 3.50in wide front, and 160/60ZR17 on the 4.50in rear. Now that Pirelli’s been purchased by China Inc., expect their products to proliferate in future on Chinese bikes. However, those 17-inch wheels indicate the TRK502’s initial focus is on tarmac use, but Michelotti reveals that Benelli will shortly be introducing a true dual purpose version with wire wheels, including a 19-inch front.
The long wheelbase gives plenty of room for a spacious riding position for both rider and passenger, generating a stance that’s pretty comfortable for someone of my stature. Anyone taller than me is going to feel cramped, though, because you very much sit within rather than on top of the TRK502, and the quite high-set footrests will mean any longer legs must be bent tighter than 90º. Benelli needs to offer a taller seat option among its already quite varied aftermarket catalogue items, of which the Givi metal cases mounted to the test bike are the most conspicuous – the frames they’re mounted on come as standard with the bike, but the cases themselves cost Euro 480 incl. 22% tax. Included however is a USB socket mounted underneath the left end of the handlebar, though it’s disappointing that there’s no small pocket in the fairing to stow freeway tickets and a card to pay them with, or a mobile phone that could be charged off the USB.
However, it’s worth noting that build quality is pretty high for a bike in this price sector – the whole finish of the Chinese-made Benelli twin is very good, and is now fully on a level with anything manufactured in Europe, or Thailand, come to that. Paint quality is good, and there’s been a notable step up in plastics and switchgear quality, plus the stepped seat with a spacious passenger section and two well-designed grab handles integrated into the vestigial rear luggage rack that’ll take a 5kg package, and does double duty as clipon points for luggage, is quite plushly padded and should be comfortable over the long haul. This doesn’t look like a cost-cutting motorcycle in terms of manufacturing quality. I guess that just as with Japan fifty years ago, a nation which originally traded exclusively on price has now learnt that export customers prize affordable quality above all else. Judging by how well made the TRK502 I rode was, QJ at least among large Chinese manufacturers has got that message, and acted on it.
The TRK502’s wide taper-section steel handlebar mounted on 80mm risers has pulled-back grips that deliver a fairly upright but still comfortable stance, with hand guards as standard. 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 less experienced bikers. Although you’re high enough to see ahead over car roofs to plot a course in traffic, you still feel seated within the Benelli as an integrated part of the whole package, with your knees tucked in nicely to the flanks of the capacious fuel tank. Such a stance is a key factor in promoting rider confidence, especially for novice riders – you feel at one with the Benelli. The mirrors are well designed and give an excellent view behind you, while the well-designed dash for this price level has an analogue tacho and digital speedo, plus water temp, fuel gauge, clock, mileage and twin trips, plus for the first time on a Benelli it now has a gear selected indicator that’s very legible, like the whole dash. The comprehensive dash on KTM’s Indian-built models set the bar high for low cost products, but Benelli QJ has stepped up to the mark on this latest model. The front position lights, rear light and all direction signals are LED.
In comparison to the Royal Enfield Himalayan 400 single which is another direct competitor, the new Benelli twin is a more substantial product at slightly less cost – not just because it has twice as many cylinders, but also because it’s more spacious, and seemingly more solid and classy-looking in appearance. But it’s also completely accessible for novice riders, in terms of the smooth controllability of the engine, whose massive flexibility makes this an excellent step up from a learner bike, and that 47bhp output means that it can be ridden with an A2 Euro licence.
A key factor in the enjoyment of riding the TRK502 was the Benelli’s confident handling – once I’d addressed some issues with the rear suspension. The settings chosen for the non-adjustable upside-down fork are good, and gave me good feedback from the front Pirelli Angel, with no chatter even over some of the pretty poor broken road surfaces our route included, It felt well damped, which is more than I can say about my one major criticism of the Benelli – the total lack of compliance from the QJ-made rear shock. Regardless of its origins this felt to be set up all wrong, too soft at the rear with limited travel, so that ride quality qwqs poor, and it skipped and chattered over poor road surfaces. The Italian journos I was riding with had the same complaint – you felt that it had collapsed beneath you and essentially stopped working the first time you went over a serious bump, as if there was way too much rebound damping. This in turn affected the Benelli’s handling, inducing understeer in turns. Stopping to investigate, we found that reducing rebound damping considerably also had the effect of raising the rear ride height, which resolved the understeer, sharpened the steering, but didn’t do much for the ride quality over bumpy surfaces. Having ridden the four-cylinder BN600GT sport tourer fitted with the exact same shock, I know this can be made to work properly, but in what was just a short ride there just wasn’t enough time to dial in a proper setup on this bike. It took a serious bump to unsettle the BN600GT, and its capable performance in soaking up road rash contributed greatly to the reassuring sense of togetherness I got from riding it, a sense largely absent from the TRK502.
So the jury’s out on the TRK502’s rear suspension, and also the rear brake on my bike which hardly worked at all – a fact I discovered in the first 500 metres of our ride, which started out along a strada bianca dirt road. After initially switching off the ABS via a button on the left handlebar, I tried to use the rear brake to stop for a turn – and nothing much happened. Whoops – better use the front brakes, and hope I don’t lock the wheel in panic. Which of course I did, but managed to save the ensuing slide completely by luck – skill and judgement had nothing to do with it. Later, on tarmac, I proved to myself that the rear brake had minimal effect – so since my Italian riding mates didn’t have the same complaint, I reckon Benelli QJ needs to sharpen its act of preparing press bikes, because the rear suspension problems were also almost certainly caused by incorrect setup. Pity.
The TRK502 is a very great deal of motorcycle for the money. It’s an affordable, accessible adventure tourer suitable for all types of riders, both male and female, with all levels of experience, from returnee riders to those contemplating going touring for the first time, who feel daunted by the sheer size and complexity of so many adventure tourers in today’s marketplace. With its restrained but perfectly adequate engine performance, 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. The build quality is now on a level with its Japanese competitors, with just one caveat remaining – how well it’ll wear over the passage of time, with several thousand miles/k’s under its wheels in all kinds of weather. The jury may remain out on that until customers start putting that issue to the test. But fresh off the factory floor, this is a good motorcycle at very much the right price, and 3,000 of them are heading to Europe this year, where they deserve to find homes.
Benelli is back, for real – believe it. And its Chinese owner is evidently getting serious about developing a range of well-priced models from 250-750cc comparable with anything available from Japan or Europe.