Owned by China’s Qiangjiang for over a decade, the long-awaited revival of Italy’s oldest existing motorcycle brand is well under way. With a plethora of new models unveiled at EICMA 2017, Qianjiang/Benelli is leading the charge of Chinese manufacturers making strides in the European market.
Back in 1951, Benelli launched its original Leoncino 125cc; one of the most popular machines in the iconic Italian brand’s illustrious 106-year history – and for 2017, an all-new Leoncino 500 has made it to market. Staff writer Ross has been out to Italy for the Leoncino launch, and took the chance to put one through its paces in the hills above Rimini.
Hot on the heels of the parallel-twin Benelli TRK502 adventure tourer, Benelli has launched its latest incarnation of its iconic Leoncino. In short, it’s a naked roadster which matches neo-retro styling with modern technology – while sharing much with its TRK502 sibling. Interestingly, its standard Pirelli Angel ST tyres, Bosch ECU and two-channel ABS, are the only bought-in items for the Leoncino. QJ and Benelli look after everything else in-house, including brakes and suspension.
My first impressions based on appearance alone were overwhelmingly positive. It’s a fantastic looking machine; thanks to the hard work of Benelli’s new CentroStile Italian design centre which has reimagined the original Leoncino, delivering an uncomplicated modern motorcycle, that’s great fun to ride too. A rather nice design touch is the little lion which sits on the front fender, tying the new machine to the iconic original Leoncino.
Features include a digital dash, which incorporates an analogue tachometer and digital speedo, and offers water temp, fuel gauge, clock, mileage, trip and gear information. Its lights are all LED and it comes with an Italian made leather seat (which is very comfortable, by the way) which is set at 815mm, delivering a surprisingly spacious riding position for my 6ft 1in frame – and I have no doubt that shorter riders would find the Leoncino just as comfortable too. It weighs in at a fairly average 196kg, but it’s really well balanced so you’ll barely notice the weight once you’re in the saddle. The Leoncino features fairly wide ‘Benelli Piega Bassa’ (‘low lean-over’) taper-section handlebars; in practice, they helped to provide excellent leverage for flicking the bike from side to side through the tight switchback we encountered on our test ride. The mirrors on the Leoncino are well designed too, providing an excellent rear view with no vibration – and its slimline 13.2-litre fuel tank offers a claimed 300km range. Admittedly, there are no indents for your knees, but it’s easy enough to grip regardless.
On the road
The Leoncino’s 500cc parallel-twin engine is near on identical to the TRK502’s – the only real differences are the exhaust system, airbox and engine mapping, which help to increase performance, while meeting Euro 4 regulations. The Leoncino’s engine is smooth yet torquey, but with more grunt than its TRK sibling – putting out 48bhp at 8500rpm, with 46Nm of torque at 6000 revs. Admittedly, it is 28kg lighter than the TRK, so you’d probably be a little disappointed if it didn’t have a bit more oomph.
While on paper it’s not technically a powerhouse, initial pickup is fantastic. You’ll have to work it hard to find its 10,400rpm limiter – and on the tight switchbacks above Rimini, I only came close a couple of times. In truth, it feels bigger than a 500cc machine, and unlike the TRK502, you won’t have to plan miles ahead before tackling an overtake, just make the most of its smooth power delivery, and easy-to-use gearbox and enjoy the deep resonant soundtrack that comes from its two-into-one exhaust system as you wind the power on and sweep past traffic with no trouble.