In the current era of the 110-year-old Benelli brand, the Italy-based company has positioned itself as a considerably less-expensive alternative in various classes, rather than taking on the competition head-to-head. That changes with the 2021 Benelli Leoncino. With a list price of $6199, just $300 less than the Honda CB500F ABS, Benelli is stepping up to the big leagues with the Leoncino. Excuses due to a lower price point are no longer available. This is going to be interesting.
As is often the case with Chinese-related brands, the ownership is as layered as an onion—let’s peel it. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group is owned by Chinese billionaire Li Shufu, chairman of Volvo Cars. Geely controls Qianjiang Motor Group, which owns Benelli Q.J., which is based in Pesaro, Italy. The simple way to look at it is that Benelli is owned by a Chinese investment fund. Its Italian-designed motorcycles are built by Zhejiang QJmotor Co. in Wenling, China, using Qianjiang-designed motors. It’s an arrangement that is wholly dependent upon each entities’ dedication to quality.
If you’re used to Japanese motorcycles, the 2021 Benelli Leoncino will feel a bit unusual. Recent Benellis have had various ergonomic issues—the extreme reach to the hand-lever positions on the two Benelli TRK502 adventure bikes being the most egregious that come to mind. The Leoncino feels like it was built with two riders in mind—one with a large upper body, and another with a more compact lower half. So, it is roomy above the seat and compact below. While the levers aren’t as hard to reach as on the TRKs, they’re still farther from the grips than you’d expect, and the pull is harder than on Japanese motorcycles. The Benelli Leoncino inarguably has a unique set of ergonomics.
Styling is always a personal thing, though most people agree that the retro-modern Leoncino is an eye-catcher. The fuel tank gets your attention first, with its swoopy look and a plastic inset containing a sizeable Benelli badge—complete with the essential three stars, a wreath, and a lion. The name Leoncino is reprised in a deco-inspired font on the side panels and right-side engine case. The exhaust system looks good, as does the seat, which floats above the rear wheel. The steel-tube arcing swingarm and swingarm-mounted license plate holder are premium in appearance. The abbreviated fenders look good, and don’t miss the little lion (leoncino in English) on the front fender. LED lighting keeps the turn signals small, and the headlight has a nacelle with a vintage feel.
The 500cc QJmotor powerplant undoubtedly causes grimaces in the Benelli styling department, as it is meant for utilitarian use without much thought to appearance. The left side is especially unattractive, with the right side saved by the aforementioned touches on the case. Even with that handicap, the Benelli stylists make the Leoncino work. Bravo.
The good news regarding the motor is that it works well and seems to be reliable. QJmotor is one of the few Chinese companies with extensive experience building larger-displacement powerplants. We have ridden the TRK adventure bikes and the Leoncino quite a bit—they share the same liquid-cooled DOHC parallel-twin—and have had zero problems. The motors sound good, even as we flog them at high rpm. We can’t claim that the QJmotor 500cc engine has a Japanese level of refinement and reliability. However, our experiences with the mill have been good ones.
From a power-production perspective, the Benelli Leoncino is a fun ride. Quite docile at lower rpm, it makes the Leoncino an easy ride around town—something both beginners and experienced riders can appreciate. The torque curve is flat, so it will pull from any rpm. For spirited riding in the twisties or hopping on an urban freeway, all it takes are revs. There’s a noticeable increase in performance above 5000 rpm, with the horsepower peaking at 8500 rpm. Overrev is generous, as the redline comes at 10k. You’re never underpowered on the freeway, and vibration is not excessive at velocities above the speed limit. The Leoncino’s twin holds its own in the canyons, too, if you’re willing to keep the revs up. If not, it is simply a pleasant casual canyon carver.
Chinese-designed motorcycles can have awful handling and suspension, so be glad that the Italians designed the Benelli Leoncino. You might not know it by looking at it, but the Leoncino is spectacularly confidence inspiring. Handling is deliberate, so don’t expect the agile feel of a Monster or Tuono 660. The Leoncino gets you to push it harder by making you feel comfortable as speeds increase.
The massive 50mm inverted fork—the Ducati Streetfighter V4 has 43mm units—beefy triple clamp, and Pirelli Angel GT tires make for a sure front end. Yes, the fork and triple clamp are larger and heavier than they need to be. It’s one reason the Leoncino weighs 36 pounds more than its Honda equivalent. Yet, for new riders and old hands alike, it means that you never feel like the front end is anything but locked onto the pavement. Again, while the Leoncino requires work to change direction, you always believe nothing will go wrong in the corners. The faster you go, the more rewarding the Leoncino is.
Front and back, the suspension is firm, though not harsh. There’s plenty of damping in both directions in the shock and fork legs, so action is slow. The fork is non-adjustable, and the shock allows for rebound-damping and spring-preload adjustment. The balance is right on the showroom floor, so it’s just a matter of getting accustomed to the measured feel of the chassis.
Riders who like a flickable motorcycle will constantly be at war with the Leoncino. However, riders of any experience level who prefer a firm feel, will find the Leoncino a dream come true. Cornering clearance is plentiful, with the Pirellis happily guiding you to the chassis limits.
Although not as plush as you might like in an urban setting, the 2021 Benelli Leoncino works well. The heavy action of the suspension means that you feel the imperfections of city roads, though you don’t get spiked hits on potholes and unexpected dips and ripples. The beefy suspension soaks impacts up and alerts you to their existence, rather than attempting to transparently do their jobs. With a comfortable seat and ergonomics, you don’t get worn out on all-day in-town rides, even when guiding that extra weight around. Riders of average leg-length and above will want to stretch their legs along the way, as the footpegs are relatively close to the seat.
The motor gets the job done in the battle for urban tarmac, though the clutch needs work. That flat torque curve and flawless fueling is just the ticket for easy riding among the skyscrapers—twist the throttle, and off you go. Although the six-speed transmission is impressively slick-shifting, the clutch has problems. It’s notchy as you engage from a stop, and the pull is stiffer than we expect on a motorcycle in this class. It’s time for QJmotor to do some R&D and implement slipper and assist clutch functions, and smooth out its engagement action.
Deceleration on the 2021 Benelli Leoncino is outstanding. Just as the fork and triple clamp are overkill, so are the twin 320mm discs with radially mounted four-piston calipers up front. Along with the Pirelli Angel GT, the front braking absolutely could not be better, though the lever does require a bit more pressure than should be necessary. This front end could be used on a motorcycle with twice the displacement and triple the power—there is a Leoncino 800 in Europe— so it adds incalculably more poise. The braking is progressive; there’s no hard bite, and new riders won’t be intimidated. Seasoned riders will love how much braking force is available, save those with a dainty grip. The rear brake also works well, with enough feeling to prevent any unwanted lockups. The ABS is not aggressive, and you can lock up the rear wheel.
The LCD dash looks good, but has data issues. I love the large numerals for your speed—easily seen without much effort. Unfortunately, the readout is about 10 percent optimistic. We had the same problem with the TRK502 (though not the TRK502X). Most likely, that also means that your odometer is adding more miles to the bike than you’ve actually ridden. Also, as on the TRK502s, the fuel gauge is highly unreliable. It can go from half-full to reserve in an instant, and then shows as half-full when filled. This is one of those things that reminds you that the bike is made in China, not Japan. The tach is easy to read, though superfluous, and the gear position readout is large. There’s a clock, plus temperature gauges for the coolant and ambient air.
The big surprise of the 2021 Benelli Leoncino is the wide range of its appeal. Usually, a boutique brand such as Benelli has more to offer an experienced rider than a new one. However, the Leoncino’s handling and friendly engine are incredibly confidence-inspiring, making it an excellent choice for someone getting into motorcycling. At the same time, riders who have been around many blocks will have a great time riding a motorcycle with such a renowned pedigree. In both cases, the $6199 price makes the indulgence just that much less difficult to justify.
This Podcast is also brought to you by the new, state-of-the-art Schuberth C5. The modular C5 is a flip up design that blends safety with amazing aerodynamic and aeroacoustic performance within its light weight and compact design. Visit Schuberth.com for more information.
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena gives us his impression of the outrageously cool-looking new Indian Scout Rogue. The Rogue features a larger front wheel among several other changes, and the bobbed-looks and excellent 100 horsepower motor make the Scout Rogue an interesting—and very real—competitor to the offerings from Milwaukee.
In the second segment Neale Bayly brings us the third and final segment from Brian Slark—the man who helped bring Norton motorcycles to America. Having spent 27 years and counting at the Barber Museum in Birmingham Alabama, Brian talks us through the final part of his career, that of course includes how the museum got started and where it’s going.
From all of us here at Ultimate Motorcycling, we hope you enjoy this episode!