Honda's great back-to-uni ride

PAUL OWEN
Last updated 07:00 01/02/2014
Honda CB125e
Fairfax NZ

HONDA CB125e: Underneath the flashy tank and more modern cycle parts, the bike's heart and soul is more than 40 years old.

Honda CB125e
Fairfax NZ
SOMETHING IS MISSING: No rev-counter for this commuter machine.
Honda CB125e
Fairfax NZ
REMAINING SINGLE: The biigest change is that the newest version has eschewed an overhead cam for a simpler, cheaper OHV design.

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Memories came flooding back as I photographed the new Honda CB125E outside Massey University's Albany campus.

AT A GLANCE
Engine: 124.1cc air-cooled ohv single with 24mm carburettor, 8kW (12bhp) at 7500rpm and 8Nm of torque at 5500rpm
Transmission: Five-speed sequential gearbox, chain drive.
Frame: Steel tube single-cradle frame and square-section steel swingarm; 37mm front forks with 118mm of travel; preload-adjustable twin shocks with 70mm of travel.
Price: $2995.
Hot: Quite possibly the easiest motorised personal transport to buy and manage on a student loan; equipment, comfort and finish is $500 ahead of GN125 rival.
Not: Slower than the CB125S of four decades ago due to 50kg increase in weight; footrest support welds could have been done by an intermediate school metalwork class.
Back in the early 1970s, our universities were fringed with a moat of parked-up motorcycles possibly because there were no cheap student loans to allow instant access to four-wheeled personal transport in those days. With Honda deliberately targeting students with the latest Chinese-made CB125, it was hard not to compare the current model with its predecessor from 40 years ago as I clicked off the shots.

There are fundamental differences between the latest Cee-Bee and its CB125S ancestor, but its role as cheap affordable transport is the same.

At $2995, the newer bike occupies a similar position in the marketplace, and is one of the easiest-to-own bikes that the winged-brand offers thanks to its parsimonious 3.5l/100km fuel consumption and a servicing schedule that is much less demanding these days.

Back when my girlfriend rode a 1971 CB125S to her lectures eons ago, the bike was made in Japan and was driven by a single-overhead-camshaft single-cylinder engine. The latter made a bit more power than the pushrod single of the current version, and the S-bike weighed just 86kg, quite a bit less than the 137kg mass of the contemporary E-machine thanks to the former having a simple kick-shaft to start the engine instead of a push-button. Electric start might be a strong selling point of the latest CB125, but it does add a robust electric motor and a larger feeder battery to the bulk of the bike.

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The performance of a CB125 was therefore quite a bit livelier four decades ago, but it did come at the cost of maintaining the bicycle-grade cam-chain that Honda used to drive the historic Cee-Bee's overhead camshaft.

The payoff for the constant camchain tension adjustments and fresh engine oil transfusions every 1200km was that she never had any trouble keeping up with my Suzuki TS250 trailbike whenever we ventured beyond the city streetscape. That historic Honda was capable of sustaining 100kmh everywhere, and it conquered gradients and headwinds with ease.

Fast forward four decades, and the new CB125E isn't quite so immune to the slowing effects of hills and unfortunate air flows. The bike will cruise at an indicated 90kmh on a flat motorway surface on a calm day and top out at 100 in similar circumstances, but will slow to 70 or so if either the topography or the wind conditions conspire against it. A further reason for this is that the new Sino-Honda's mass is increased by the higher level of standard equipment that this supposedly basic machine is fitted with.

The instruments include large clocks for both speed and revs, a fuel gauge, a simple gear indicator where each upshift of the neatly engineered five-speed lights up a number in vertical sequence, and individual indicator warning lights. The bike also comes with a generously-sized luggage rack, a far plusher seat than the historic CB, and the provision of two easy-to-access parking stands in both side and central positions. The ignition lock also has an extra lockable cover over it to deter/delay theft. It's such a costly inventory that it makes you wonder why those pedal-driven bicycles that occupy similar price positions to this Honda are so expensive.

Conversely, if looking for reasons why the Honda is so affordable, you'll find them in the messy welds of the footrest carriers, the simple drum rear brake, and the use of a carburettor to stoke up the engine instead of fuel injection.

On the opposite side of the build quality ledger, the paint is luxuriously applied, the switchgear feels robust and high-rent, mirrors are well-sited and clear, and the motor bursts into life at the merest hint of pressure on the starter button. It's definitely a Honda, all right.

You also feel this in the quality of the ride, especially if you impose a 90kmh speed limit for the bike as the extra 10kmh available in favourable conditions does take it outside its comfort zone. At more modest speeds, the simple suspension performs well for a rider of my 80kg weight, way better than the bouncy ol' CB125S of yore. Ditto, braking performance is right on the money, the front disc powerful enough to have the narrow front tyre in need of a cool-down after a committed application.

The $2995 CB125E enters the New Zealand showroom to find that its competition has recently dwindled to Suzuki's ancient $2495 GN125 cruiser-styled commuter with the recent deletion of the $4289 Scorpio 225 from Yamaha's NZ lineup.

The Yammie 225 might have cost $1294 more, but the extra 100cc of engine performance that it offered made a huge difference in motorway and state highway applications. If you hurry, you can still score one of the 12 Scorpios still available in NZ dealer network at the time of writing.

If you miss out on the larger capacity Yamaha, the CB125E then becomes the default choice as the best back-to-uni ride around. Certainly its purchase price and cost-of-ownership won't over-tax any student loan, and it doesn't possess an overhead camshaft seemingly driven by knicker elastic within chocolate bearings like the historic Honda 125.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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