And so the battle is rejoined once again. The entry-level motorcycle is the bed rock of the two-wheeler market in India but in the recent past the numbers have either been stagnant or, horror, falling slowly. Only the very top of the segment seems to show any signs of fertility, something Bajaj was very insistent on highlighting at the launch of their top of the entry-segment Discover 100T.
But nearly at the same time, Mahindra set about erasing their erratic start to their motorcycle career with the Pantero, currently their only motorcycle in the market until the larger Mojo comes out and joins it in Mahindra showrooms. The Pantero does share some components, most obviously styling with the Stallio, but crucial bits, like the engine are reworked from the ground up, which means as testers, we have to forget all the memories of the Stallio and approach the Pantero as a new motorcycle.
Third is a more familiar creature. The Hero Passion X Pro basically bends the styling of the Passion around the same powertrain as the Honda Twister. This is intriguing, because we really liked the Twister and Hero could, in theory, have a really solid product on their hands.
But glowering back contemptuously at this lot of new kids on the block is our current king of the hill, the civil-looking but extremely potent Honda Dream Yuga. Honda seems pretty happy with its sales, and we certainly like it - it fought off some much larger machines to take third place in our scoring for the 2013 Bike Of The Year!
The question, as always is which bike is the most deserving of your money. And so the first punches are thrown.
The 100cc designer is a jaded person. The customer surveys come back like clockwork every year saying change is the enemy and the drudgery of the rounded tank, bikini fairing, adequate side panel, dinky tail piece and a flashy tail light design continues unabated. What's a creative chap to do? Hell, the customer, most of the time, even refuses to pay extra for vital gear like discs.
But Bajaj, as usual, have their needle on a record all of their own. The Discover 100 stands out like a sculpture in a garden full of hedges in this company. It might look like just another sculpture when parked in a field full of Discovers (of which there are a handful of variants), but here, it is different. The tank is bigger than the others visually and sculpted. The flowing surfaces work their curvy way all the way to the sleek tail end. As we have noted before, the sleekness of the line is at jarring odds with the practicality oriented festoonery of matte black plastic that almost hides the rear wheel. I can see a number of detergent manufacturers who will worry about a significant drop in monsoon sales because of this kind of motorcycle design. If the clothes do not get dirty in the rain, that is bad for business.
But you cannot take away the impression of a bigger, more substantial motorcycle that the 100T creates.
The Pantero, in a direct contrast, creates the exact opposite impression. It also looks different from the others here. It stays in character but uses flatter lines and less permissive curves to create what should be a flatter, sharper presence. In the real world, though, the Stallio resemblance isn't an asset and I personally still think that fairing is odd in shape and angle, the plastic band atop the tank is unnecessary and the overall design has just enough awkwardness for you to be conscious of it without actually being able to put your finger on it. Also, while the build and finish levels are vastly better than before as Mahindra's motorcycles go, it is immediately evident that some more improvement has to come before you can call the Pantero at par with the rest.
The Passion X Pro is about as familiar as a motorcycle can get. It is a very recognisable shape, hidden not at all by the umpteenth rejig of the Passion's sticker scheme. At the core, it is a simple looking motorcycle, which took the basic 100cc template ages ago and gave it just a mild sprinkle of tabasco ages ago. Build quality is very good as is the finish level.
But the standard setter is the Dream Yuga. It isn't a wildly original design - there is simply too much Shine in its lines for that - but there is a simplicity to the lines that is beguiling and build and finish levels are both about the best you can get in the segment.
Of the lot here, I would pick the Bajaj as the leader on its design subtracting only a few points because all the various Discovers are way too identical. But I'd rate the Dream Yuga as an equal because its design may not pursue the flair the 100T does, but the finish, build and clean design are equally appealing.
All the motorcycles here displace over 100cc. Being based on the same engines, the 8.7PS Passion Xpro and the 8.6PS Dream Yuga share the 2 valve SOHC 109cc single but employ slightly different states of tune - the Honda is a little more economy conscious. The 8.5PS Pantero employs a 107cc 2 valve single that produces slightly less torque than the Hero and Honda (8.5Nm versus the Xpro's 9.36 and Yuga's 8.91Nm, all at 5500rpm) but approximately the same peak power.
The Bajaj, as usual, has its own approach. Bajaj decided that displacement had to be 100cc and so the 102cc engine gets four valves and two spark plugs - quite the space management feat in such a small engine head - to make the 10.2PS that is the class leading peak power figure, albeit delivered at 9000rpm, a full 1500rpm higher than the other motorcycles. The 100T also makes 9.2Nm, nearly the class leader in torque then, again 1000rpm higher than the rest.
But in feel, this quartet are quite different from each other. To start at the bottom, the Pantero is everything the entry bike needs to be at moderate speeds. And in that, it is a massive improvement over the Stallio. At 40kmph in top gear, this could be any of the other 100cc motorcycles. Performance is adequate and acceleration is decent as well. But as soon as the sole rev counter in the test breaches 6000rpm, the story takes a wild turn. The subtle vibration that you only note when you hop off to the other bikes suddenly becomes pronounced, the engine note swells to a more raucous note and the rest of the trip to the peak power is fraught with vibes and a fair bit of noise.
The other three, instantly, feel vastly better than the Pantero as soon as you have redlined the Mahindra for the first time. The difference in feel between the Hero and the Honda is minimal but the Hero feels a little slower to react, perhaps because of the 8kg of extra weight.
The Bajaj not only has the highest power to weight ratio by some margin here, it absolutely blitzes the competition from any performance angle you choose. But as it tears towards it peak power point, it becomes a bit loud and some vibes do creep in. And there is also an attendant drop in economy that comes with this kind of performance. The 100T offers respectable economy with 58kmpl on the highway, 10kmpl less in town and an overall of 61.75kmpl. But in this company, the others are economy beasts in comparison. The Dream Yuga hits nearly 80kmpl on the highway, 72.9 in town and its average economy is a shocking 74.4kmpl. The X Pro offers nearly identical engine performance (it is 8kg heavier than the Yuga) except for better braking (that's why you should get a disc if you can). But the states of tune reflect in the economy with the X Pro returning 62.4kmpl in the city and 70.19kmpl on our highway runs which, overall is 9kmpl less efficient. The Pantero is less economical perhaps than the Stallio (which returned 81kmpl on our highway test!) but in this company, it does well enough. City economy was 64.3kmpl while highway was, at 77.4kmpl, very nearly the best figure on test. 67.58kmpl overall? That's the second highest economy here.
Overall, there are two motorcycles here that make persuasive arguments on engine performance. The Bajaj is clearly the performance leader. It uses its four valves to great effect, shattering any illusions on any front you choose about which is the performance 100 here. But on the other hand, the Dream Yuga is 13kg lighter, significantly more fuel efficient and its iron grip on refinement never loosens. Again, I'm going to call it a tie because I believe there are solid reasons to pick both on the powertrain parameters.
The ride quality department is the first parameter here, where all four are surprisingly equal. The Pantero could do with a little more refinement, the Xpro needs a touch more stiffness perhaps, the Dream Yuga can feel a tad stiff over the bumps and the Bajaj can get a bit unsettled over sharp bumps but this is all splitting hairs. The difference overall is miniscule.
On the handling front, again, the economy-oriented OEM tyres all favour durability to dynamic performance and this levels the playing field. As usual, the Bajaj feels effortless around corners, but the Dream Yuga feels a little more spartan in how your legs grip the chassis but its sense of eagerness in the corners is a distinct feature of the motorcycle for me. The Bajaj is also held back by the squarer profile of its tyres if we are going to dissect the 100cc bike in such great detail. The Xpro, in comparison, feels the same as the Yuga but the extra weight, I think, robs it of that cheer that the Yuga so entices us with. There is a certain staid Splendor-ness to the handling which will be familiar to Hero customers but with that comes a certain functional feel that younger, more enthusiastic customers will not take to it quite as much.
The Mahindra, then, is again the tail ender, but the Stallio itself wasn't a bad handler, and the Pantero is only last here by the smallest of margin as well. It's close. On the brakes, though the story is quite different. The Bajaj pulls off the fastest stops here with great confidence with the others all clustered around each others figures.
It is obvious now that in fourth place in this test is the Mahindra Pantero, and to be perfectly honest, the 100cc class is so well established, so clearly delineated in performance, economy, design and price requirements that Mahindra getting the Pantero to the top of the segment straight away was always extremely unlikely. That said, the Pantero has come a long, long way from the Stallio and it means Mahindra's new Two-Wheeler R&D operation holds within its secretive walls a lot of promise for us in the future. In the context of the test, the Pantero offers a reasonably well developed dynamics package with class-average features and economy, at a median price. But in most departments, the Pantero will find to its advantage work on more refinement whether it be control over its suspension over bumps or engine behaviour past 6,000rpm to quote two examples. Clearly fourth, but not as distant a fourth as you would imagine.
The Hero Passion X Pro could have been second. If you discount the Rs 2,000 extra you pay for the disc brake on test here, it is virtually the same price as the Yuga or the 100T. However, it offers less economy than the Honda with near-identical performance. Not a motorcycle you can overlook easily when considering whether to buy one or not.
But if you are an enthusiast with warm blood in your veins, the need for speed on a budget in your head, then you will want the 100T. It isn't the most frugal bike here by a fair distance - but it will manage over 60kmpl in daily use. But it is undoubtedly the firecracker as engine performance goes and it does look like something that comes from a segment above - in both aspects it feels like a 125 rather than a 100. These are the attributes, I think, that a youthful entry motorcycle buyer should be looking for. I'd buy the 100T and immediately start collecting money to upgrade to a 150cc motorcycle.
Where the Yuga leaves all this behind is the small issue of character. There is an effervescence to the Honda that I've often said I haven't seen in any other entry motorcycle. That happy feel, to me, is something I'd buy a motorcycle for everything else remaining equal. If you aren't an enthusiast, and just looking for a frugal (best on test), reliable, refined entry-motorcycle that will hold its value, go everywhere cheerfully and fade into the background, this is your winner, ladies and gentlemen, the Honda Dream Yuga is all the bike you need.