Some riders find it hard to comprehend buying a 125 that costs upwards of £4000, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers developing a range of upmarket learner bikes that have gone on to be big sellers in recent years.
KTM’s Duke and the Yamaha MT-125 have done well in recent years. In Asia, 150cc versions are the bikes to have for aspirational young riders, while here in Europe we’re fed 125cc models to meet our A1 licence requirements, which restricts bikes to 125cc and 11kw (14.75bhp) of power. Despite having the largest range of 125s of any manufacturer, with seven separate models, Honda has previously lacked a really premium geared learner bike in their range – until now, that is.
The CB125R follows in the tyre tracks of the aforementioned Duke and MT-125 at the premium end of the naked 125 market. At £3949, the new Honda undercuts these two rivals (by £250 in the case of the KTM and £350 for the Yamaha) – it also carries a £150 premium over the faired CBR125R, although we’ll have more on that later.
Where KTM and Yamaha have gone all aggressive with their styling, the new Honda takes a sleeker and more stylish approach with its contender. The 125 is one of three new models launched by the big H this year under the banner of Neo Sports Café, a kind of internal philosophy for the design of their latest generation of naked that has spawned the CB300R (essentially the same basic machine as the 125, albeit with 31bhp, 286cc engine at its heart), and a new CB1000R.
Honda invited us to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where we would be the first non-employees to try out the CB125R, and despite battling often torrential weather conditions we were able to get a good feel for a model that is hugely important for the brand, both in terms of sales and also creating a real hero bike for the next generation of motorcycles.
I’ve ridden most of the small bikes on the market over the years but, despite that, I’m still often guilty of lumping all 125s together in the same category. With that mandatory power limit, it’s easy to fail to see the benefits that come with the high-end models, but my day with the new Honda was another sharp reminder that you really do get what you pay for in life.
Plain commuters usually have weedy forks, skinny wheels, basic brakes and bargain basement tyres, but what’s obvious at first glance is that the CB125R oozes big bike cred. Where the incredibly competent, £2799, CB125F looks like a learner bike, the R gives no such impression. The sporty 17” 10-spoke alloy wheels are shod with good, modern specification radial Dunlop Sportmaxes. With wide (3” at the front, 4” at the rear) rims, the hunkered down CB has a real presence, while the LED headlamp, tank shroud and wave style 296mm floating front brake disc add to the big bike look and feel.
What that extra £1200 buys you is design expertise and attention to detail. There’s an all new frame, complete with 41mm Showa upside down forks and a very plush (although still non-adjustable) rear shock. It’s the lightest bike in the class, by quite a margin, at 126kg fuelled up and that’s no coincidence. It’s full of detail touches, designed with the same skill and consideration as a Fireblade or a GoldWing, and led (at least on the chassis side of things) by engineers, not accountants.
The chassis is an absolute peach, hardly surprising when you consider that the project leader, Yuzuru Ishikawa, has a CV that includes designing the frame of the race bike that Valentino Rossi rode to the 2002 MotoGP world title, as well as the fabled RC213V-S of 2016. Having also led the flagship Fireblade project for many years (including the latest SP2 model), it’s fair to say that Ishikawa-san knows his stuff.
And it’s that skill and experience that makes the CB125R more than ‘just’ a learner bike. See that exhaust? It’s been designed to sit right at the centre of the bike for ultimate weight distribution. That two chamber muffler has been designed to make the little motor sound as sweet as possible. Notice how it points up slightly? That’s so that the rider can hear the engine and get connected with it. And that dished effect isn’t just the result of some random sketch from a bored designer. Honda says that amplifies the sound and improves the exhaust note. Clever stuff…
Despite the big bike looks, the CB125R is the most agile 125 I’ve ever ridden. Actually, scrub that, it’s one of the most agile motorcycles I’ve ever ridden, full stop. It is beautifully balanced and so easy to filter through the busy city traffic. The weather was absolutely horrific in my first few hours with the CB125R and one of the biggest complements I can pay it was that I never really had any great need to think about the bike as I tried to battle the traffic and the elements.
Those Dunlop tyres are really well suited to the CB125R and play such a major role in creating what is a really composed little motorcycle. A common problem with budget bikes is that they usually come out of the factory wearing cheap rubber. A few years back I found myself riding a CBR125R in similar conditions and can still remember stressing every time I approached a roundabout and wondering if the original equipment IRC tyres would see me through. Bad tyres can make a great bike terrible in an instant, and thankfully Honda have invested in the best they could for the new CB. In soaking conditions, I was eternally thankful to them for that.
But it’s not just in the tyres where Honda has let engineering triumph over economics. That swingarm is a relative work of art. Budget bikes would have something stamped simply out of budget steel, but the CB uses irregular thicknesses – 1.2mm in places to save a mere few grams, 2.3mm elsewhere to aid rigidity (and therefore handling). The LCD dashboard weighs just 230g and has the kind of functionality you’d expect on a £9000 bike, including programmable gear shift lights, fuel gauge, gear indicator and even a stopwatch.
Every component has been thought about. That full LED headlight, central to the Neo Sports Café style concept has an ultra thin lens to save a few more grams, while the battery is mounted up by the headstock to help deliver a 51.6% front bias in the weight distribution. Honda claims the best turning circle in the class, and it’s hard to disagree, while the two-channel IMU-controlled ABS is way beyond the spec of anything seen in this class before too. It calculates what the bike is doing 100 times a second. It works brilliantly and unobtrusively as well, by the way, as I was inadvertently able to test out too many times on the soaking Lisbon city roads.
Despite the horrible conditions in the morning, we did get a (little) respite to allow us to enjoy the bike on the open roads in the afternoon. Being a 125, it’s always going to be harder work to keep the motor on the boil but it’s certainly capable of keeping up with traffic. The six-speed gearbox is light and accurate (as are all the controls) and I saw an indicated top speed of 132kph (82mph) on the motorway at the end of the day. That said going into a headwind we struggled to top 100kph (62mph), as you may well expect from such a small capacity engine.
Indeed, if there was to be one criticism of the CB125R then it is that the motor doesn’t quite live up to the brilliant chassis. The aging two-valve unit has been lifted from the CBR125R, albeit with recalibrated fuel injection, and it doesn’t quite have the verve of the much more modern KTM unit. To be honest, being so light, the Honda feels really responsive and up there with the other bikes in the class, but the truth is that it only puts out 13 of the 14-and-three-quarters of a horsepower allowed under the law of the land. It might not need that other 1.75bhp, but I’ve a feeling that 10% more power would have made this cracking little bike even better.
But fear not. For full A2 licence holders, Honda will sell you the aforementioned CB300R. It’s basically the same bike as the 125, and I have no doubt that the chassis is more than capable of handling the extra power. That extra dollop of torque should make it even nicer around town, for just £480 more.
Honda claims that the CB125R is capable of 137mpg and around 300 miles from a full tank. While I didn’t spend enough time in the saddle to verify this, it does seem very achievable. In my 70 mile trip, of which a good 20% was on the stop, I used three litres of fuel. By my fag packet calculations, that works out at around 105mpg.
Let’s not make any bones about it, price is a major factor for many 125 buyers. At the end of the day, £3949 is a lot of money when there are Chinese bikes out there that can get you to work for less than half of that.
The Honda CB125R isn’t a bike for everyone but for learners looking for a bike that’s a step up from the run of the mill 125s, the extra money brings a city bike with great presence and a level of detail not usually found on such small machines.
For London commuters, you could argue that there’s no need for anything bigger than a 125 anyway. The light weight and miserly fuel consumption, combined with low road tax and insurance costs mean that it’s an exceptionally good choice of weapon for the daily commute. It’s a bike that you can ride on L plates (after doing the CBT, of course) saving all the cost of going through the full test, without any stigma.
You’ve also got that legendary Honda build quality and dealer support that takes the stress out of ownership. What’s not to like?
|Type||Liquid-cooled four-stroke two-valve SOHC single cylinder|
|Engine Displacement (cm³)||125cc|
|Bore and Stroke (mm)||58mm x 47.2mm|
|Max. Power Output||9.8kw/10000rpm|
|Carburation||PGM-FI electronic fuel injection|
|Fuel Tank Capacity||10.1L|
|Fuel Consumption||48.4km/L (WMTC Mode)|
|Clutch Type||Wet, multiplate with coil springs|
|Final Drive||O-ring sealed chain|
|Type||Inner Pivot Diamond Frame|
|Dimensions (LxWxH)||2015mm x 820mm x 1055mm|
|Colours||Grey, Black, White or Red|
|Type Front||41mm telescopic inverted fork|
|Type Rear||Single-shock absorber|
|Tyres Front||110/70R17M/C 54H|
|Tyres Rear||150/60R17M/C 66H|