Exclusive first test by any journalist of the 650MT
We’ve known it was coming sooner or later, but here indeed is the first 100% Chinese-built motorcycle that stands equal with its Japanese and European competitors in global markets – but at half the price. This is an exclusive test in Australia via a 320km day trip from Melbourne to the Victorian Goldfields, in all kinds of weather and riding conditions.
It was always going to happen sooner or later, but now one of the many Chinese manufacturers is finally producing an expanding range of European-designed, good-looking, but still affordably priced mid-sized motorcycles targeted at export sales, rather than smaller capacity sub-400cc models aimed at customers closer to home in what is still the world’s largest motorcycle market – 17.80 million motorcycles were sold in China in 2016, against 16.12 million in India, the next largest.
So alongside its alliance with Europe’s largest manufacturer, KTM, for whom it assembles 200 and 390 Duke models from Indian-built kits in its Hangzhou factory 170km south of Shanghai for sale throughout the People’s Republic, China’s CFMoto has taken a major step forward in the quality and appeal to overseas customers of its own products. It previously cemented an R&D deal with Gerald Kiska, whose Kiska Design company in Salzburg, Austria has overseen the creation of each new KTM model since 1992, for Kiska to be responsible for the overall design of all future CFMoto models. The first fruits of this are now available to customers outside China, in the form of the revamped, sharply-styled 650NK roadster and all-new 650MT adventure tourer, which both debuted at the EICMA Milan Show last November, and are now in production.
The 650MT is the third model in CFMoto’s growing lineup of midsized motorcycles after the 650NK roadster and 650TK bagger, each powered by its self-developed 650cc parallel-twin eight-valve motor. The chance to be the first journalist to ride it came by visiting its Australian importers, Melbourne-based Mojo Motorcycles, to throw a leg over one of the first bikes off the assembly line that had been sent Down Under for ADR homologation. Australia is a key export market for CFMoto, which coupled with its geographical proximity, is the reason that Mojo gets first dibs on new models from China’s finest. After being downright impressed with the overall performance and especially value for money delivered by its 650NK Naked sister bike when I first rode it back in 2012, and after visiting CFMoto’s Hangzhou factory to see for myself the significant level of quality control imposed at every step in the production process, I was looking forward to finding out how much its twin-cylinder platform had progressed in the past five years, especially since the 650MT is the first CFMoto product to be Euro 4 compliant, so includes ABS as standard. Yet it’s still just as affordably priced as before, with Mojo selling the model Down Under for AUD 6,990 on a ride away basis, including 10% local sales tax price, dealer pre-delivery charges, stamp duty and 12 months registration – but excluding the pair of Spanish-made 32-litre SHAD panniers fitted to the test bike, costing an extra AUD 500 for the two. That’s a killer price for an entry-level adventure tourer, especially stacked up against the Kawasaki 650 Versys that’s its obvious competitor and which retails in Oz for AUD 10,599, without luggage, and with delivery charges, registration etc. still to be paid – figure an extra $1,000 on top of the sales price. That’s a massive savings of upwards of 50% for the Chinese model – but do you, as so often, get only what you’ve paid for with it, with inevitable corner-cutting compromises in quality and performance?
A full 320km/200-mile day aboard the 650MT riding out into the Victorian Goldfields northwest of Melbourne provided the answers, especially as the Melbourne summer weather did its usual number on me in delivering all four seasons in one day. I got seriously drenched riding out along the Western Freeway towards Ballarat, thanks to an icy rainstorm that felt like it originated in Antarctica, and had me bemoaning the lack of heated grips on the 650MT – they’re not even an option yet, either. But protection was better than I expected thanks to the adjustable screen that you need both hands to adjust over a range of 60mm, though my shoulders inevitably got very damp, and a pair of handlebar guards would have been nice. Turning off shortly before hypothermia set in, I began to explore the great riding roads linking Victoria’s Tiny Towns like Daylesford and Castlemaine. By now I had hot summer sunshine that had the road steaming and dried me off in less than half an hour, as I then headed eventually towards Bendigo before taking the Calder Freeway back to Melbourne.
First things first, and the same well-engineered liquid-cooled 83 x 60 mm 649cc dohc eight-valve parallel-twin motor as found in the 650NK/TK is fitted to the 650MT, complete with 180-degree crankshaft (so, one piston up/one down) and chain camdrive on the right of the cylinder block. OK, this is essentially a Chinese ripoff of the Kawasaki ER6 motor, even down to the dimensions, but CFMoto owner Lai Guogui chose well in terms of which powerplant to copy in moving his company’s model range up the capacity ladder, and his engineers did a good job in executing it. Though claimed to produce the same 69.73bhp/52kW at the crank at 8,500rpm as it did in Euro 3 guise, with identical maximum torque of 62Nm/6.32kgm/45.72ftlb at 7,000 revs, this definitely felt more sophisticated and well-rounded than before in its MT application, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s actually more torquey than the previous version. Thanks to the single gear-driven counterbalancer and the hefty balance weights in the ends of the handlebars, there’s absolutely no vibration at any revs, right up to the hard-action 10,500 rpm rev-limiter, and especially no tingles in the footrest or seat as you sometimes get at a constant cruising speed from comparable single-cylinder models, and even some twin-cylinder rivals. This makes the 650MT both pleasant and practical in freeway use, as well as ultimately untiring to ride, with the fruity-sounding exhaust note giving it lots of character.
To obtain Euro 4 compliance CFMoto has now switched to a Bosch ECU for its fuel injection package, matched to twin 36mm UAES throttle bodies (as opposed to the previous 38mm ITT items), still with a single injector per cylinder. Besides improving fuel economy – always a consideration on a bike used for longer hauls – reducing the choke size by 2mm will have delivered some extra zip in terms of acceleration, and this may have helped counter any performance losses as a result of meeting the more restrictive Euro 4 norms. There’s supposedly a choice of three different riding modes, with the Rain map really softening the power delivery very noticeably, at the expense of any real sense of performance. This did come in useful when riding along slippery surfaces sprinkled with diesel after the downpour ended, same as the single-stage Continental ABS which kicked in very effectively, if a little brusquely. But I was unable to find any difference at all between the Sport and Touring modes also on offer. Maybe they forgot to load one of them!
Whatever the case, the 650MT is a pretty flexible friend in either mode, thanks to the willing performance of its 650cc twin-cylinder motor. Thumb the starter button and this immediately comes alive, then settles to a high 1,400rpm idle (perhaps chosen to obviate the lack of a slipper clutch?), with a pleasing and distinctive syncopated lilt emanating from the 2-1 exhaust, whose silencer is tucked in low down on the right. Just as before, the parallel-twin engine is torquey, free-revving and smooth, pulling pretty strongly with zero transmission snatch from 2,500rpm on part throttle, and from 3,000rpm wide open. There seems to be a more responsive power delivery than before, leading to a completely linear build of power all the way to that 10,500rpm revlimiter, and although it picks up revs a little faster from 7,000rpm upwards, when there’s an extra spurt of engine acceleration, you wouldn’t really characterise this as a step in the powerband. The six-speed transmission with chain final drive features a Japanese-developed FCC oil-bath clutch, making the 650MT a model of rideability thanks to its flawless gearshift and light clutch action – your left hand won’t ever cramp up riding this bike in traffic. This makes balancing the CFMoto at low speeds easy for riders of all levels of experience, with walking pace feet-up U-turns dead easy on a bike which has a very tight steering lock and is thus pretty manoeuverable, thanks also to the responsive but well-mapped fuelling. There’s no trace of an abrupt pickup from a closed throttle on the 650MT – just a smooth, liquid response which makes the bike seem so controllable. Though not particularly light for a 650 twin at 213kg without luggage, but with the 18-litre tank fully fuelled, this will be an ideal mount for beginners and especially for women, provided they’re comfortable with the quite tall 840mm stock seat height, though there’s a 20mm lower 820mm option.
Yet the 650MT is also enjoyable to ride fast, even if acceleration is determined rather than assertive thanks to the 10kg of extra weight it carries over its 650NK stripper sister even before adding the luggage. It’ll cruise all day at 120kmh/75mph with the tacho needle parked at 5,900rpm, little more than halfway to redline, and 160kmh/100mph ton-up cruising is perfectly feasible, tracking dead straight with no wobbles even with those wide panniers fitted which surely catch the breeze behind your legs, and the engine revving at 7,200rpm while that quite effective screen shelters your helmet from windblast. Absolute top speed is 200kph/120mph with the engine peaking at 8,400rpm – it won’t pull any higher – but things get definitely stressed running that fast, and the bike’s more comfortable at lower velocities. With torque peaking at 7,000 rpm and spread widely enough throughout the powerband that there’s no point in revving it anywhere near that 10,500rpm limiter. I shifted up at 8,000 revs and found myself back in the fat part of the torque curve every time.
The 650MT’s Kiska-concocted riding position is super-comfortable, with the deeply stepped seat slotting you into the bike rather than sitting on top of it, while also providing relatively plush padding – I had no trace of numb-bum syndrome after my 320km/200-mile day aboard the CFMoto. There’s good lumbar support for the rider, and adequate though not exactly spacious room for a passenger, but the footrests are too high and a little too far forward – they need to create a new dedicated aluminium casting in which to mount them in order to correct this. Or even better, give a choice of positions in the same casting. But the taper-section handlebar mounted on cast aluminium 100mm risers is perfectly shaped, with just enough pull-back to deliver a comfortable, straight-backed stance in which all the controls just fall to hand in best cliché mode. Though the 840mm seat height will be a little tall for some riders, it was the perfect height for my 1.80m/5’10” stature in terms of putting both feet on the ground at a stop light, my only compliant being the height of the footrests meant my legs became too bent to be truly comfortable on a long day’s ride like mine.
The mirrors are excellent and give a good view behind you without vibing, and the control boxes on the handlebars are a better quality than before, although the light switches are curiously on the right ‘bar rather than the more commonplace left. The side stand seemed rather short (there’s no centre stand), but it turned out it had actually got bent by the previous rider, who went touring two-up with luggage and a passenger: Mojo boss Michael Poynton has requested that future production versions should be more substantial! The 650MT’s cockpit comes over as accommodating, in spite of the only naff-looking item on the entire motorcycle, the front brake master cylinder which is both massive and ugly. That sense of being welcomed aboard is partly thanks to the well-designed if slightly spartan dash that’s a big step up from the 650TK’s pre-production such item, which omitted to include a trip reading, clock or fuel gauge – on a tourer! That was corrected for production, again after Mojo pointed this out, and the 650MT’s LCD dash has twin trips plus an odometer, as well as a very readable analogue tacho with the digital speedo set within it. There’s also a clearly visible gear selected readout (hooray!), plus a clock and a fuel gauge with a bright warning light.
The relatively compact motor sits in an identical tubular steel diamond frame to the 650NK’s, in which it’s employed as a fully-stressed member. But instead of the non-adjustable suspension from KYB/Kayaba’s Chinese affiliate that’s still fitted to its spiffed-up predecessor, the 650MT features Chinese-made Yuan suspension, with a 43mm upside down fork fitted for the first time ever up front to a CFMoto product. This is adjustable for compression damping in delivering 140mm of excursion, while the extruded steel swingarm with tubular bracing has a direct-action Yuan cantilever monoshock offset to the right, and providing 145mm of wheel travel. It’s adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping, and the result should be a more compliant package over bumps and rough surfaces than either of CFMoto’s previous twin-cylinder models have been. I did like the front end’s set-up – it was well-damped enough to iron out all but the worst examples of road rash out in the bush when taken on the angle, often at high speed. Thanks to the wide handlebar there was good leverage to help hustle the MT from side to side through a series of sweeping turns, where it felt really planted – there was good feedback from the 120/70 front version of the pair of 17-inch Metzeler RoadTec tyres fitted as standard, replacing the Chinese-made CST rubber on the 650NK/TK duo. Mind you, ever since China’s state-owned chemical company ChemChina acquired Pirelli/Metzeler in 2015, I guess this is now seen as a local product that just happens to be made in Germany!
I wasn’t so happy with the rear shock, though, which didn’t seem very compliant and gave a rather choppy ride that wasn’t as good as the previous non-adjustable shock in the 650NK. But it later turned out that the previous rider had taken a passenger on a two-up long weekend with the panniers stuffed full of luggage, and had cranked up the preload to suit. Mojo had omitted to return the suspension to the default settings before handing the bike over to me, and without the necessary C-spanner I couldn’t experiment with adjustments myself. So the jury’s out on the 650MT’s rear suspension, though the fact that the front is so satisfactory gives you a head start in hoping that it’ll be reasonably effective.
But fitting the Spanish-developed J.Juan brakes – albeit made in the firm’s Chinese factory – definitely gives the kind of superior stopping power lacking in the Made in China budget brakes that CFMoto previously fitted. These worked OK, but didn’t have the reassuring bite that the twin-piston J.Juan front calipers now deliver in gripping the twin 300mm front discs, aided in doing so by the metal brake hoses now fitted as standard. The larger 240mm rear than before with its single-piston J.Juan caliper comes into its own offroad – though not a proper dual purpose dirtbike, especially with the RoadTec rubber, the 650MT will be at home on dirt or gravel roads, where the nicely responsive rear brake will be welcome. The J.Juan brakes also worked well in the wet, too, as did the Metzeler tyres – though it helped at times to use some engine braking to slow the bike hard from high speeds, which even in the absence of a slipper clutch you can do without worrying about chattering the rear tyre, perhaps thanks to the high idle speed. But you don’t need to squeeze the brake lever that’s five-way adjustable (same as the one operating the cable clutch) excessively hard to get them to work, and lever pressure remained constant even after successive hard stops.
The fact that CFMoto has fitted the Metzeler tyres, Bosch ECU, Continental ABS (strange it didn’t opt for the complete Bosch package, though!) and J.Juan brakes indicates a welcome concern to deliver a bike fitted with named brand components that will provide reassurance to export customers, all while maintaining that affordable price. But while there’s a USB port fitted to charge your phone etc., it’s a pity that on a bike likely to be used for longer journeys that there aren’t a pocket in the bodywork for freeway tickets and suchlike, and while there’s room to clamp a GPS to the handlebar, there’s no socket to power it from – another omission CFMoto should remedy on a bike with touring pretensions. Come to think of it, a delivery courier who might otherwise seriously consider the 650MT as a suitable traffic tool, thanks to its upright stance and the good view over traffic from the hotseat, wouldn’t think much of not having that, either.
The CFMoto 650MT is as capable and pleasing – as well as practical – a ride as any motorcycle costing twice the price, with half the looks. Just how well it’ll wear the passage of time has yet to be proven, but since it’s seemingly as well manufactured as it’s been engineered, like its 650NK sister has done in the Naked bike class this may indeed be that long-awaited Chinese-made adventure touring bike that’ll make the breakthrough in Western markets – especially at that price. For at last a Chinese manufacturer seemingly more interested in quality rather than price, has developed a pair of functionally excellent products providing exceptional value for money, which are now both distinctively and crisply styled thanks to Kiska Design, and deliver dynamically, at an affordable cost.
Anyone thinking about buying a secondhand Kawasaki Versys 650, let alone a new one, now has a hard decision to make. Does he or she buy that – or a brand new CFMoto 650MT? Tough call – but after my day’s ride into the Victorian Goldfields on the Chinese bike, I think I know what I’d choose to do….
Photo credit: Stephen Piper