Should I buy a Chinese Dirt Bike?
There’s no denying that dirt bike riding can be a pricey proposition, and finding the right bike can be a daunting task for a budget-conscious beginner who won’t settle for anything less than a new machine. Even Japanese models, once favored because they packed a lot of bang for the buck, have seen their prices trend continually upward to the point that there is little difference in MSRP between them and their European counterparts in many dirt bike segments.
Take 250cc and 450cc motocrossers for example: The latest Japanese 250cc motocrossers, such as the 2018 Honda CRF250R are now bumping up against the $8000 mark, with bikes such as the KTM 250 SX-F and Husqvarna FC 250 already retailing for around $8500. Things are a little closer in the 450cc class, where the least expensive 450cc motocrosser, the 2018 Kawasaki KX450F, which is identical to the 2017 Kawasaki KX450F, retails for $8849, cheaper than the 2018 Suzuki RM-Z450 by just $50. To combat this trend in some segments, such as Dual Sport, some Japanese manufacturers, including Honda and Kawasaki, have some of their popular models manufactured in Thailand.
Mel Harris is the Vice President of Operations for SSR Motorsports, one of the next-generation Chinese motorcycle manufacturers. Harris, who worked at Suzuki for 27 years and ascended to the position of Vice President there before leaving in 2008, said that he sees the the latest Chinese motorcycle products now arriving in the US as much better in build quality than previous generations.
“SSR Motorsports/Benelli, CF Moto and Hisun, to name a few, are much improved from the units that arrived here in the early 2000,” Harris said. “SSR Motorsports has been in the US since 2002. We take pride in our models being of a higher quality than our competitors. Yes, a little higher retail price, but our warranty and customer complaints are less than 5% of our sales. Plus we have parts, [addressing] a major complaint from first units sold here.”
Harris said that he can’t speak for other Chinese dirt bike companies, but he says that SSR Motorsports products have been accepted by some of the large US dealers where he says they sell a good number of units without returns.
“SSR Motorsports has grown every year, and this year as many manufacturer are declining we show a 25% increase,” Harris said. “SSR Motorsports dirt bikes offer a quality unit at an affordable price with good customer service. Last year Jeff Willoh campaigned our SSR 450cc MX Motorcycle unit to the Championship in the WORC Series in the 30+ class, racing at Glen Helen three different times with no DNF and finishing on the podium in all three races.”
While Chinese dirt bike manufacturers have not yet really begun to make full-blown motocross-specific models, SSR Motorsports is one Chinese dirt bike brand that has breached the 250cc and 450cc off-road market with some interesting models that retail for thousands less than other machines in their class (as Harris mentioned, SSR also owns the Italian Benelli brand). The SSR SR250S, which looks suspiciously like an older Honda CRF250R, retails for just $3899, while the SSR SR450S checks in at $4899. We are currently trying to obtain a test sample of both models, we can say that we’ve seen credible reports that the SSR models, while not yet on par with their Japanese competition in terms of outright performance, have come a long way in a very short time, and Harris says there is more development on the way.
“We are working on new EFI MX bikes,” he said.
For now the one Chinese dirt bike that has us most intrigued is an SSR Motorsports machine, the SR450S, which compares to the Honda CRF450X. Both machines feature carbureted, liquid-cooled, SOHC, four-stroke singles, perimeter aluminum chassis. The SR450S features a 47mm fork that is compression and rebound damping adjustable, but its rear shock only offers preload and rebound damping adjustability, which is less desirable in a competition-oriented machine but more than acceptable for play bike duty.
The SSR SR250S is composed of the same basic ingredients as Japanese competition models past and present. Its carbureted 249.6cc, liquid-cooled, SOHC, four-valve, four-stroke engine is wrapped in an aluminum perimeter chassis and features adjustable suspension. SSR Motorsports claims that the SR250S makes 25.9 horsepower @ 9000 rpm and weighs 260 lbs. That’s a far cry from the power-to-weight ratio of a typical Japanese motocross or off-road machine, but the SSR’s build-quality is definitely a cut above the Chinese dirt bike models that are crowding the floor of your average auto parts store.
Like we said, we have yet to swing a leg over an SSR Motorsports machine, but these two examples lead us to believe that some Chinese dirt bike manufacturers are making inroads, however slight, when it comes to improved build quality. Of course, the argument can also be made that Chinese dirt bike manufacturers are little more than copycats when it comes to the technology used in these two examples. You be the judge.
So, should you buy a Chinese dirt bike? It depends on what your needs are. If you want to get into racing, you’re still probably better off finding an older, well-maintained Japanese or European bike that will at least offer the convenience of a solid dealer network and a plethora of aftermarket performance parts to meet your servicing needs and also to satisfy your need for speed. Chinese dirt bike brands simply don’t have the dealer infrastructure yet, so you’ll most likely be buying parts directly from the manufacturer or possibly from a distributor or dealer who sells dirt bikes right alongside, say, gardening equipment. Be wary. At least SSR has been in America for quite a few years already, so we’d be less worried about getting into a parts bind with them than with some other Chinese dirt bike brand.
If, however, you are a trail rider on a tight budget, and you won’t settle for anything less than a new vehicle in your garage, a Chinese dirt bike of the build quality currently offered by SSR Motorsports might be worth investigating.
Consider yourself a pioneer of sorts. Maybe you’ll even start a trend!