Words by Aninda Sardar and Aatish Mishra
It doesn’t sound very exciting at first, the 150cc segment, but if you’re on the lookout for a motorcycle that will serve your enthusiastic desires while also being good at running errands then chances are you’re also looking at this segment. In many ways, the 150cc category of motorcycles forms a bridge that spans the divide between the enthusiast and the commuter. After all, there’s no rule that says one can’t be the other. Therefore, given our intent to focus on every kind of biker, it is fitting that the first mega shootout for our very first issue of Fast Bikes India should be about this segment.
Within this segment however, there are further subtle sub-sections. Some form a bunch that is best labelled sporty commuters while executive commuter is a more apt name for the rest of the lot. In this shootout we look at seven bikes, four sporty commuters and three executive commuters as we try to ascertain which of each stands out in this lot.
Honda CB Hornet 160R
If there’s anyone who knows how to make an old horse gallop, it has to be Honda. Sure the CB Hornet 160R is a new bike that Honda launched just last year. But that legendary Hornet moniker and some new bits aside, the underpinnings of this motorcycle still hark back to the days of the first Unicorn. And frankly, that isn’t such a bad thing at all. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? The good bits first then. The Hornet’s diamond type frame and rear monoshock work as well as the combo ever did in the Unicorn, which means the bike is blessed with the same sort of stability (in a straight line or under braking) and neutral handling characteristics that had endeared the Unicorn to so many. It gives you the confidence to push harder while also masking your sense of speed. As a result, even though you may not feel you’re going quick, chances are that all-digital speedo is telling a different story.
A large part of that stability comes from the Honda’s 1345mm wheelbase, the longest of these four. That also means it isn’t the easiest to tip in a corner but once you’re leaned over, that chassis works its charm and holds its line with a confidence that will see you become a better rider. The twin (front & rear) disc set up with Nissin calipers offers good bite but Honda’s Combibrakes (applies the front brake also when you use only the rear) robs the brake of feel. Like its cycle parts, the Hornet’s 160cc air-cooled single too is not a ground up development but an evolution of the old Unicorn’s 150cc unit. So, yes, the Hornet’s engine runs smooth (albeit a tad roarty) and there are hardly any vibrations worth mentioning. There is also a certain linearity to its power delivery characteristic that makes things even more predictable.
The Gixxer is brilliant. There, I’ve said it. There is no other way to describe this bike that is named in deference to Suzuki’s big bad boy – the GSX-1000R, fondly called Gixxer around the world. The relation between the flat handlebar, the slightly rear set foot peg and that low seat makes for a super comfortable riding position.
The Gixxer’s chassis is taut and its monoshock is set up to offer the best mix of ride and handling. As a result when it comes to handling, the Gixxer can match the Honda corner to corner and even better it. Where the balance tips in favour of the Suzuki is how easy it makes things. You see the Gixxer’s wheelbase, at 1330mm, is 15mm shorter, which means the bike tips in to corners easier than the Hornet. Things get even better when there are quick left-rights. You can just pick up the bike, tip it into the next, hit the apex and roll the throttle open for a clean exit. Meanwhile, a suspension tuned to offer a great ride without compromising on handling, irons out most road irregularities.
The Gixxer’s beating heart is a 154.9cc air-cooled single with a pair of valves and an overhead camshaft. It’s a sweet mill that revs freely and pulls cleanly all the way to the top of its rev range where it pushes out around 14.5bhp, its 14Nm of twist force coming in about a couple of thousand revs sooner. What follows is a punchy experience that few riders would say no to.
TVS Apache RTR 160
TVS claims the Apache RTR is born of a racing gene, and they aren’t joking. Although the Apache is the oldest of the lot (we’ll consider the Hornet as a relatively new entrant for now), it really underscores the old maxim – age no bar. Swing a leg over her and you instantly realise something different just happened. The handlebar is lower, the foot pegs higher and you’re sitting closer to a crouch than on any of the other three. Even with the engine switched off, it is the Apache that feels the raciest.
The Apache has a stiff double cradle chassis and also sports the smallest wheelbase at 1300mm. The result is a super nimble package. If the Gixxer’s turn in is instinctive then the Apache takes it to a whole new level. It wants to, nay begs to, be tipped in to corners. Flicking it from fully leaned over to one side to full lean on the other seems to happen more as a result of some telepathic connection than any steering input. It’s a joy, this bike, to ride through a set of pacy twisties. That same short wheelbase however means the Apache is ever so slightly twitchy on the straight under harsh acceleration (it also feels nervous on rough roads). Pull on the stoppers really hard and this shortcoming becomes even more evident. Newcomers to the Apache RTR fold, you’ve been warned.
The Apache’s 159.7cc air-cooled single is a proper screamer and is happy to rev to the redline at the slightest excuse (sometimes without any at all). Its 15.2bhp and 13.1Nm pull the bike’s 137kg kerb weight cleanly and quickly too. Unfortunately the Apache is nowhere near its Japanese competitors when it comes to refinement, for its motor is rich with vibrations. The higher up you get in the rev range, the more they make themselves felt (more often than not as an uncomfortable buzzing) through the palms, the feet and the butt.
Yamaha FZ-S Fi
This is the bike that set hearts on fire with its good looks a few years ago. The FZ had come close on the heels of the shockingly good R15 and of course ended up basking in the glow of the latter’s halo.
Even today, the FZ-S is a pretty good looking bike in a crowd of bikes whose looks have evolved to match those of this Yamaha. There’s no doubt, this bike was a trendsetter. More importantly for us, under the FZ-S’s muscle lies a lithe and capable diamond type chassis matched to a monoshock at the rear and fat front forks. So, on a smooth piece of tarmac the FZ-S is as capable a handler as its peers. It holds its line with confidence and tips in quicker than the Hornet, although it isn’t as quick to turn in as the Gixxer and certainly not as happily as the Apache. On its own the FZ-S is thoroughly enjoyable but with a suspension that’s slightly on the firmer side of life, things do get mildly skittish when the road surface decides to be imperfect.
Although it’s a smooth running unit, the 149cc engine is perhaps the FZ-S’s biggest disadvantage. Thanks to that obvious capacity disadvantage, the FZ-S makes the least amount of power and torque. And this shows. The FZ-S refuses to power out of turns in the same vein as the rest of its ilk. Its linear delivery means things remain predictable as you exit but the lack of grunt means you’ll inevitably be left behind in a fair fight. This, despite the fact that at 132kg, the FZ-S is the lightest of the lot.
Sporty Commuters Conclusion
Four bikes, each with their own individual strengths. So technically, everyone should be a winner. But it never works like that, does it? In a shootout between four motorcycles there can be only one winner and in this group test of sporty commuters the odds are weighed heavily in favour of the Suzuki Gixxer. The Honda CB Hornet 160R is an excellent and proven product, but it isn’t particularly exciting and it’s pricey too. The priciest, in fact. The TVS Apache RTR 160 is a great hooligan and is super affordable but comes with a host of limitations. The Yamaha FZ-S Fi is competent in its own right and is definitely good looking but feels outclassed in this company.
The Gixxer however, despite its flaws, comes across as the best bike, as well as the one that offers the most bang for your buck. It’s great for a weekend ride-out and equally competent on the errand run. All that, with an affordable sticker. The Bajaj Pulsar NS 160 was not available to the masses when we did this shoot-out and hence that is one noticeable absentee. It could be the one to give the Gixxer a run for its money. Bide your time till we get to the bottom of this!
Does the V15 really qualify as an ‘executive’ commuter? Commuters have always looked and felt a certain way — utilitarian, clinical, with priority to function over form. But then Bajaj threw that formula out of the window and gave us the V15. The V15 is stylish, it has road presence and with a little bit of warship in its tank, it tugs at your heartstrings. But Bajaj has stated that it is a commuter and to drive the point home, has given us an all-up shifting pattern gearbox.
Okay, let’s move past all that. Once the motor is puttering and the wheels are rolling, does it still feel utilitarian? Well, yes and no. The seating position, it’s… unconventional. You sit with your feet forward, arms outstretched; somewhere between cruiser and commuter. The exhaust is gruff, unlike the other two bikes here. This does take away the commuter air. But then the 149.5cc engine is optimised for the city — all its grunt is concentrated at the bottom and early-middle part of the rev range. You can’t rev the nuts off this bike. It is designed for luggability, and this it does amazingly. You can go through the ‘box quickly and then settle in top for the rest of the day. On the downside, it isn’t the most refined unit out there. Full marks for flick-ability though. The V15 has a tiny turning radius and it can really weave through traffic. So its basics are in place, and it’s desirable. Has Bajaj got a winner on its hands?
There’s no denying the Honda influence carrying over on to this Achiever. Not only are they starkly similar in terms of design, but even underneath the Achiever still carries over some of the old Japanese legacy — the engine is virtually the same as what was used on the Unicorn 150. But Hero Motocorp is trying to move past this cloud over its head and is innovating in some interesting directions. They’ve added a bit of new technology to the bike, stuff we’re seeing in this segment for the first time, to make the Achiever stand out from the competition.
The biggest differentiator on the Achiever is the i3s technology, which is basically a Stop-Start system to save fuel while idling. Leave the bike in neutral and let go of the clutch, and the engine will kill in five seconds. Pull the clutch lever back and it will crank up again. They’re also the first in the segment to provide the auto-headlamp on feature, future-proofing this bike for upcoming regulations. It is also the only bike here to have a side stand indicator. Hero is certainly pushing the bar when it comes to features. But all these little knick knacks aside, what is the bike like to ride?
The Achiever is the softest of the lot — nice on short spells through the city and a little floaty when you pick up speed. The engine is quite a sweet motor though. Power delivery is linear, and the engine is free of vibrations until it reaches the top-end. Here though, vibrations do tend to make things a wee bit uncomfortable. It’s a bike designed for the city — not for the one-off adventure you want to take outside. The skinny tyres aren’t confidence inspiring for spirited riding. But the Achiever still checks all the right boxes when it comes to being an effective commuter — it’s comfy, reliable and frugal, courtesy some interesting technology.
Honda CB Unicorn 160
Where the V15 is a greenhorn, the Unicorn 160 is the old guard. Forget making your jaw drop, or making you feel cool. Honda has stuck to what works. It has taken that commuter formula, photocopied the daylights out of it and well, it just works. To be honest, the Unicorn 160 is bland. It doesn’t have the Achiever’s tech or the V15’s presence. It blends in to the sea of commuters and makes no qualms about being one. But underneath the mundane, is a solid product.
The Unicorn 160 is based on the older Unicorn 150. Even though it’s dated, it feels the most sorted amongst these bikes. Ride is firm and planted, the rear monoshock adds to stability. Since it has the largest capacity engine, it makes the most power and has the quickest acceleration time to show for it. Plus, the way it delivers power is phenomenal. It is properly linear, building up to a small mid- to top-end and tapering off past 9,500rpm. This is the same engine as on the Hornet, albeit in a different state of tune — it makes a fraction less power but it is more vibe free and much more linear. The combi-brake system brakes the front end lightly if the rear brake is tapped, keeping things stable under heavy braking. So the Unicorn may be greying around the temples, but it is as sharp as always underneath. It scrounges on features and tech, but gives you a reliable, solid package. Proper commuter then.
Executive Commuters Conclusion
Which one’s the best? The Unicorn, no doubt about it. It’s the most sorted bike of the lot dynamically, and performs the best. But would you still say that when you find out it costs `12k more than an Achiever? Not any more, eh? The Hero Achiever gives you more for less. Well, more in terms of features, if not riding pleasure at least. And for someone who wants to primarily commute, it makes the most sense. The V15 will have its takers regardless, simply for the badge on the tank. It definitely has shaken things up — no longer do commuters have to be boring ol’ putterers. But as a machine that gives you pleasure, it still needs some work. The Unicorn scores high on the riding pleasure front but the asking is far too steep, as the Hero isn’t too far behind. For the price it is being offered at, the Achiever is a real sweet deal.