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Benelli Leoncino Review

Benelli brings back an iconic name from its history and presents it in an all-new form.

Australia’s current motorcycle market is nothing if not diverse. Not matter what your riding requirements and tastes are, there’s sure to be something to satisfy it.

So, in a marketplace that’s crowded with styles, sizes and options, full credit must go to Benelli for creating one of the most arresting machines I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The new Leoncino doesn’t just look great, though. As proven on the Australian launch of the 500cc roadster, it’s got enough going for it terms of performance, handling and equipment levels to make a real name for itself in our LAMS market.

EICMA Star – with History

As keen observers of what’s new and cool in the motorcycle market will know, the Leoncino is certainly not new, having debuted in concept form at the EICMA show in Milan back in 2015.

Those same observers will know that you need something pretty special to stand out at EICMA. And Benelli did exactly that with the Leoncino concept – without question, it was one of the most interesting and attractive motorcycles to appear that year.

But as new as the Leoncino concept was, its name was anything but.

Translating as ‘lion cub’ in Italian, Benelli presented their first Leoncino – the inspiration for this modern tribute – in 1951.

Initially offered in 98cc and 125cc forms, the Leoncino was the first model produced in any sort of volume by Benelli after World War II. It continued to grow and evolve, with 2- and 4-stroke versions offered, while capacity options ranged up to 500cc.

The little lion roared on the racetrack, too, earning a winning reputation in national championships, continuing the racing heritage that Benelli had established before the war.

Leoncino production continued until 1963, when a ‘New Leoncino’ model succeeded it after more than 70,000 examples of the original had been built.

Being such an unqualified success for Benelli, it seemed natural that the Leoncino would return at some stage, but given the Italian company’s rocky financial situation through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, its revival was only guaranteed with the security that came with the Qianjiang Group’s buyout of Benelli in 2005.

The Modern Lion

While it revives a name from Benelli’s past and features retro-inspired styling, this modern Leoncino is anything but “old”.

The engine is the same 500cc liquid-cooled parallel twin used in the new TRK 502 adventure tourer, but the Leoncino houses this in a steel trellis frame that’s different from the TRK.

The 500’s double overhead camshaft design features four valves per cylinder, electronic fuel injection and wet sump lubrication. Output is listed at 35kW at 8,500rpm and 45Nm at 6,000rpm, with a 10,400rpm redline and 360-degree crankshaft for what Benelli says is better low-down performance and a distinctive engine note – more on that later.

Tilting the engine forward 20 degrees reduces height, allowing a lower overall profile and more room for the fuel tank, which is a 12.7-litre unit. Fuel consumption is listed at 4.3lt/100km, while the gearbox is a 6-speed with wet clutch and chain final drive.

The new steel tube trellis frame is attached to a 50mm USD front fork with compression adjustment and 125mm travel. The swingarm is of similar construction to the frame, with the rear offset lateral shock offering a 45mm stroke for 112mm rear wheel travel, plus preload and rebound adjustability.

ABS braking is standard, matched to dual 320mm semi-floating front discs with 4-piston calipers, and a single 260mm rear disc with single-piston caliper. ABS is the only rider tech on offer – no traction control, engine mapping options, electronic throttle, etc. – so the riding experience is raw and direct, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s unrefined.

The Casanova Touch

As already mentioned, the new Leoncino is something of a styling tour de force. Sure, there’s a lot of Ducati Scrambler influence there – indeed, the bike owes its whole existence to Ducati’s similar retro-revival model – but the Benelli has its own style and identity.

The award-winning design is the work of CentroStile Benelli, and specifically Stefano Casanova of Benelli’s in-house studio.  

Inspired by the original Leoncino’s blend of ‘sportiness’ and ‘elegance’, as well as a race-winning heritage, Casanova’s aim was to bring these elements to the new version. The result of Casanova’s handiwork is far from a classic bike clone, though. In reality, its looks owe little to the original Leoncino.

Distinctive styling features start with the unique fuel tank infill panel that’s anchored off the Benelli badge. The two-toning applied here is echoed at the back where a Leoncino badge bisects the two sections under the seat.

Rather than pick out the frame with a contrast colour, a la Ducati Monster, Casanova chose to keep it black, so it blends with the engine, which has virtually no brightwork. That blackout treatment extends to the swingarm, wheels, forks, handlebar and even the headlight shell.

The head, tail and indicator lights are all LED, and while I wasn’t overly rapt with the design of the head light shell, that rear light treatment is a slick design feature that blends well into the docked tail.

I gave a thumbs down to the bulky number plate holder, too, but I expect the aftermarket will come up with a tail-tidy-style solution for this in short order.

Another bone of contention I had was with the instrument panel. It carries all the information required – speedo, tacho, gear position indicator, fuel gauge, twin trip meters, etc., – but didn’t blend well with the rest of the design, in my opinion.

The ‘Piega Bassa’ adjustable handlebar has a broad spread that contributes to the Leoncino’s street scrambler look, while also offering good rider control.

In terms of model identification, you’ll never have any doubts about what you’re riding with this bike, as the ‘Leoncino’ name graces the engine, side plastics, fuel cap and even the chainguard.

Red, black and silver colour choices are available, with the deep crimson red my pick of the bunch as it has a great impact.

The finishing touch is the ‘Lion of Pesaro’ statuette on the front guard. This is a tribute to both the original Leoncino and Benelli itself. The symbol of the company came from a pair of stone lions that graced the entrance to Benelli’s original factory premises in Pesaro.

Starting a Family

The Leoncino roadster is the first in what will be a family of variants built off the same platform.

Three model variants on the 500cc version have been confirmed so far, with the first being the Leoncino ‘Trail’. 

Described by Benelli as the “all terrain” version of the Leoncino, the ‘Trail’ runs the same 500 twin, but extracts a smidgeon more torque from it – 46Nm at 6,000rpm.

Wire spoke wheels, including a 19-inch front rim, are another point of difference, as are semi-knobby tyres (110/80 Fr and 150/70 Rr).

According to the Italian language spec sheet (which may differ for Australian deliveries), the Trail has longer 55mm stroke on the rear suspension for 138mm travel, while front suspension travel is also longer at 135mm.

The Trail’s brake discs are the same size, but the front discs only get 2-piston calipers. ABS is retained from the roadster, along with the exhaust system, lighting, bodywork, handlebars and controls.

Those wheel and suspension changes mean there are changes to the dimensions, though, (again, referring to the Italian data sheet) with seat height raised to 825mm, length to 2175mm and wet weight up to 210kg.

Due for local release in July, the Leoncino Trail will be offered in the same colour choices as the roadster, with a Terrain Brown option added. Pricing has yet to be confirmed.

The ‘Sport’ variant is due later this year, defined by things like a headlight fairing, pillion seat cover, slightly shorter tail and deletion of the roadster’s ugly tail guard numberplate holder for what’s seat to be an under-seat unit.

The Sport also features a rigid, lockable pannier on the off-side, a radiator guard and wire spoke 17-inch wheels shod with 120/70-R17 and 160/60-R17 road tyres.

Clip-on handlebars and a higher, flatter seat alter the riding position, but footpeg placement is unchanged.

Engine output is the same as the Trail, but the Sport does run its own 2-1-2 exhaust system that looks sweet and would be a neat addition to the stock roadster.

While the Sport’s front suspension is the same as the roadster, the rear is midway between the base model and the Trail, with a 51mm stroke for 128mm of travel.

Braking is the same as the roadster, but dimensions (again using the Italian data) differ; the main variances being the slimmer width of 710mm thanks to those clip-on handlebars, while the Sport’s seat height is listed at 815mm and wet weight at 205kg.

Colour options for this model are yet to be revealed, but press images show a silver model with fluoro yellow detailing and a gloss black tank panel.

Finally, a smaller, 250cc version of the standard Leoncino roadster has been confirmed for Europe, but it looks like this model won’t be coming to Australia.

Nice Ride, Shame about the Noise

With that wide handlebar, a plush, well-padded seat and low-set footpegs (at least, lower than the TRK 502), the riding position on the Leoncino was upright and very comfortable.

On that saddle, I rode it all day and didn’t feel any discomfort – it’s wide enough with sufficient padding. At 785mm, straddling the bike was easy for me, and I’m not tall, so shorter riders won’t struggle with the height.

There’s an adjustable brake lever, which I found really useful, and a reasonably light (but not adjustable) clutch lever action.

From start-up, I immediately noticed the solid, vibration-free feel to the engine, but the actual engine note is too muted and conservative for my taste. The Leoncino is a bike that looks great, so it should sound great, too. A throatier silencer would be my first addition if I was picking one up.

Selecting first was easy, but the throttle delay of the TRK 502 from take-off is apparent on the Leoncino, too, albeit to a lesser extent. For my liking, there was still a little too much free play in the throttle before engagement, but it wasn’t a deal breaker.

Gearing is different from the TRK 502, with spacing being closer together. As such, riding through stop-start traffic will require shifting, but gear changing itself was very smooth, both up and down.

For the launch test, we covered city and regional roads, including a number of 100km stretches.

Regardless of the speed or road surface, the Leoncino proved to be a joy to ride. Torquey through the mid-range, the 500 did its best work in the 60 to 100km/h range, which would make it ideal for commuting and weekend fun rides.

At freeway-level speeds, the Leoncino felt very stable, thus it should inspire confidence and enjoyment from new riders. Holding a preferred speed was easy, too, with no need to be continually looking at your speedo thinking you may be over the limit in our revenue-hungry state.

As mentioned, that 500 parallel twin was welcomingly free of vibration, even at higher speeds, which was another tick for the Leoncino.

Despite being a naked, I found wind buffeting wasn’t an issue, either. Ride the Leoncino for hundreds of kilometres daily and you’ll feel the need for a fairing, but on the launch, the lack of a windshield didn’t bother me – in fact, I didn’t even notice it.

Thanks in part to its lighter weight – 186kg – compared to other mid-size bikes (a Suzuki SV650, for example, is 197kg wet, while Honda’s 500cc CB range are just under 195kg), the Leoncino handled impressively and proved to be easy to flick into bends. That wide handlebar helps, but you do need to have your gear selection spot on to ensure you can power out of corners easily.

The suspension soaked up road imperfections easily and will be plush enough for LAMS newbies, but more experienced riders will want to stiffen up the front and rear damping. I found the default setting a bit too soft, especially for spirited riding, but with adjustability at both ends, a firmer ride is achievable.

Finally, praise must go to the Leoncino’s braking. There’s a lot of stopping power in those twin 320mm front discs, combined with the assurance of ABS. Even with the sort of hard braking into a corner that would upset other bikes’ stability, the Benelli pulled up neat and true – I couldn’t fault it.

Desirable Style

The LAMS-legal Leoncino has got a lot going for it in terms of performance and handling, but it’s the styling that makes this bike a star. I can see the hipster crowd rushing to throw their skinny-jeaned legs over this machine as it has bags of style and will look right at home in the inner city.

Priced at $7,990 + ORCS ($8,990 ride away) and backed by a 24-month warranty and 24-month Customer Care Program, the Benelli is certainly cheaper than I had expected it to be and is something of a bargain in the middleweight field.

The aforementioned Ducati Scrambler is the obvious competitor to the Leoncino, but the full-fat Scrambler is double the price of the Benelli. The LAMS-legal Scrambler Sixty2 version is also dearer, as well as being underpowered and with inferior ride quality compared to the Benelli, in my opinion.

With its café racer styling, the new Suzuki SV650X, is also worth considering, as is Yamaha’s XSR 700, but these LAMS models are also more expensive than the Benelli.

Honda’s CB500F, the SWM Gran Milano/Gran Turismo and Royal Enfield’s classically-styled 500s are other players in this 500cc market, but I reckon these all lack the style of the Benelli.

So, with great styling, smooth performance, sweet handling, impressive rideability and a surprisingly low price, there’s really nothing bad that I can say about the Benelli Leoncino – I think I just convinced myself to buy one!

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2018 Benelli Leoncino – specs

ENGINE

Type: DOHC parallel twin, 8-valve, 4-stroke Displacement: 499.6cc Bore x Stroke: 69mm x 66.8mm Compression Ratio: 11.5:1 Engine Start: Electric Ignition: Delphi MT05 digital Induction: EFi, single 37mm throttle body Cooling: Liquid Max Power: 35kW @ 8,500rpm Max Torque: 45Nm @ 5,000rpm

TRANSMISSION

Clutch: Wet, multi-plate Gearbox: 6-speed Final Drive: Chain

CHASSIS

Frame: Steel, trellis-type Front Suspension: 50mm USD telescopic fork w/adjustable compression, 125mm travel Rear Suspension: Offset monoshock w/adjustable pre-load and rebound, 112mm travel Fr Wheel: 17 x 3.5-inch aluminium alloy Rr Wheel: 17 x 4.5-inch aluminium alloy Fr Tyre: 120/70ZR17 Pirelli Angel Rr Tyre: 160/60ZR17 Pirelli Angel Front Brake: Twin 320mm discs, 4-piston radial caliper w/ABS Rear Brake: 260mm disc, single piston caliper w/ABS

DIMENSIONS

LxWxH: 2100mm x 877mm x 1120mm (excl. mirrors) Wheelbase: 1443mm Rake: 24.5 degrees Trail: 95mm Ground Clearance: 145mm Seat height: 785mm Kerb Weight: 186kg (wet) Fuel Capacity: 12.7lt

COLOURS:

Red, Silver, Black

LAMS APPROVED: Yes

PRICE: $7,990 + ORCs

WARRANTY: 2-Year w/2-Year Roadside Assist

Find the best demonstrator car deals for Practical Motoring readers around Australia on our Live Deals website. 


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Phil Suriano

Phil Suriano