I hate starting articles with history or sales figures but in this instance, it bears scrutiny. Bajaj's Pulsar remains the most popular motorcycle in the 150cc segment. It is under attack but holding its own in sales terms for the moment at least. But look at what's attacking. The original FZ - never mind the sticker updates - is six years old. The Suzuki GS150R is excellent but sales are glacial. Hero also has just a small 150cc presence. Honda Trigger is okay but sales are lower than expectations and the Unicorn - I've forgotten when it came out (okay 2005) - is Honda's top-selling 150.
The segment is full of old motorcycles. Then two-odd months ago, the Indian 150 finally re-awakened. Bajaj launched the Discover 150S and F - 150s in displacement but intended to straddle the 125cc (commuter) segment in nature and price. We have the F here, the most powerful machine on test and certainly the cheapest. Then came the Yamaha FZ Version 2, or FZV2 which adds fuel injection and styling and engine updates to create a fresher product. The FZ is a popular 150 and Yamaha intended to breathe some life into it with the updates. But the rub is that the FZV2 does not replace the old FZ, but adds itself to the top of the food chain with a higher price. Too ambitious? We shall see. This here is the FZ-S, mind you.
The Hero Xtreme gets the simplest update. Hero have done their cosmetic magic once again while leaving the powertrain well alone. In this case, we're happy because the styling of the Xtreme has been in debatable taste from day one. This one looks good if you ignore the double-height forehead look created by stacking the daytime LEDs atop that headlight. And finally, Suzuki are making the moves. The Gixxer ( first ride story elsewhere in this issue) is all-new and not derived from the GS150R. The intention was clearly to go after the young, hip customer who buys the Yamaha FZ. Have Suzuki nailed the brief? Read on.
The fairing adds some disctinction to the 150F but the rest of the panels are visually the same as every other Discover. Finish levels could be better
Little LCD display is the extra premium bit over the Discover 150S
The Discover photographs a lot more impressive than it looks in the flesh. Perhaps because cameras hide the dullness of the colour palette. And because the similarity between all the Discovers is just too much. The fairing does give the F some distinction but the inconsistent finish levels depress your assessment of both finish and build quality. I suspect the motorcycle is actually all right and I understand Bajaj is looking into fixing the finish issues, but this was unexpected. The other three, in comparison are miles better. Possibly because they're not in the commuter space and quality is important to the premium 150.
The Xtreme looks pretty neat now but the bikini fairing could have been more angular and sharper
The instrument surround is a bit loud but the Hero remains a really likeable, though middle-of-the-road 150 overall
The Hero looks pretty good from the rear but I think the fairing could be sharper. I don't see any reason why the fairing has to recall the old Xtremes and a sleeker, smaller fairing would perhaps look better with the edgy new body - which I rather like. Finish levels are as good as expected, ditto the build. Hero could have toned back some of the gaudy detail like that Scream-ing Megatron silver plastic surround on the instruments. But what the Xtreme lacks in this company is the musculature and modernism of the Yamaha and the Suzuki.
Up close it's clear but the new FZ is hard to identify from the old one at a glance
New meters are clear and therefore better but the busy exhaust design and too-large hugger (shown below) look a little out of place on a sporty 150
The FZ created this style originally based off Yamaha's FZ1, and it is a pretty distinctive and popular look. The FZV2 received a lot of tweaks that can look busy up close. But the net effect is of a fresher motorcycle, so job done. Finish and build have never been less than great on Yamahas and the FZV2 is very much in that mould.
Gixxer looks FZ-ish in some details but you know it's a new motorcycle when you see it
Note densely packed but readable all-digital instruments and the unique exhaust shape that draws lots of attention and comment
The Suzuki follows the FZ down the big-tank-muscular-curves path but doesn't end being a clone. Up close it is possible to think they are too similar. The tank has similar curves in places and even the headlight looks like a simplified FZ shape from certain angles. But while no one notices the FZV2 out on the road, people do notice the Gixxer and that means Suzuki have accomplished the task of being identifiable as new. Suzuki is another company where quality levels are usually sky high and the Gixxer is very well made and finished.
The smallest engine, and the only four-valved unit, is the Discover 150F. The 144.8cc engine is tuned to produce 14.5PS at 8,500rpm while torque peaks at 12.75Nm at 6,500rpm. With a 132kg kerb weight, this should be an interesting bike to ride. And it is. The Discover was tuned for mid-range and it feels quick and gutsy. In the city, the engine works very well and the light weight and quick responses combine rather well. Out on the highway, though, by 65kmph you can feel the vibes in the grips and holding a sustained 80kmph is hard work. The engine sounds and feels less harsh than earlier Bajajs' perhaps but the 109.53kmph top speed is not something you're going to want to see too often.
The Xtreme feels a lot smoother. The Hero 150s have always been likeable and the Xtreme is no exception. The 149.2cc engine makes 14.4PS at 8,500rpm and 12.80Nm at 6,500rpm. But it weighs 14kg more (rear disc version) and therefore feels a bit milder in performance. That said, its grip on refinement is very strong and even nearing its 111.9kmph top speed, the Xtreme is vastly smoother, quieter and less strained in sound than the Bajaj. That said, in sheer numbers, the Xtreme just doesn't have the Bajaj's performance - 0-100kmph takes over 5 seconds longer. But then again, neither does the Yamaha.
Blue Core is a suite of tweaks and tuning that create a smoother, more efficient engine and in the process, Yamaha have shed weight as well as displacement. In feel, the FZV2 is noticeably more refined and smoother. I think it also feels a bit less involving than the old motorcycle. But while the FZ is the same 132kg as the Discover, its 149cc engine makes 13.1PS at 8,000rpm and 12.8Nm at 6,000rpm. So top speed is the slowest here - 106.22kmph while 100kmph comes up in 23.35s. This power is tuned for mid-range but the top-end is a bit stronger than before. The FZV2 feels like a clear (but not always dramatic) improvement over the old FZ. It's a lovely city motorcycle with excellent reflexes and manners. Very fast or very laid back, both feel very natural on the Yamaha. Not hard to see what you would buy the FZV2 for, really. Until you ride the Gixxer that is.
The Suzuki has the biggest engine, 154.9cc, and it uses the displacement advantage to the hilt. It makes more torque - 14Nm at 6,000rpm and more power - 14.8PS at 8,000rpm. And at 135kg kerb weight, it isn't heavy either. What that means is that the Gixxer always feels like it's got more power. The Discover is marginally quicker, but the Suzuki's ironclad refinement means that you'll be happy to run down the highway 90kmph for extended stretches but you won't try that on the Discover.
The overall refinement and grunt also makes the Gixxer great fun around the city. There's also a throaty intake roar that makes you want to ride just that bit harder still. In some ways, it reminds me of how the old FZ felt the first time I rode it - and as you'll see, that'll come back to haunt the Yamaha shortly.
Three of four motorcycles here use diamond frames with engines as stressed members of the chassis. The Discover uses a double cradle with a single downtube. This little detail aside, the 150cc class is pretty much identical - telescopic forks up front, monoshocks (except for the Xtreme's gas-charged twin-shocks), 240mm front discs etc. But they're far from identical in feel, thankfully. The Discover, to proceed alphabetically, sits on a 1,305mm wheelbase, the smallest here. It feels tinier in stature and quicker to turn and flick. In traffic this is very useful. Being the top of the Discovers, it also gets MRF Nylogrip tubeless tyres (80- and 100-section tyres no less) which makes it pretty handy around corners too. Bajaj's ability to extract good ride quality is pretty well-developed and outside of sharp bumps, the 150F makes short work of pretty much everything. Very likeable. What isn't is the disc brake up front. Its performance is good enough but the feel is that of a drum brake with lots of lever movement needed to generate brake force. I'd have liked it sharper. I suspect that Discover customers will be happy with the feel, though. The Hero Xtreme feels very familiar if you've ridden the previous ones. The slightly fatter 18-inch tyres (80- and 110-section now) make it a smidge slower to turn but you'll really have to be looking for nits to pick to notice the difference. Just like the last one, the Xtreme is competent but not all that exciting. Cornering is easy and it is confident but you keep wanting more involvement. Ride quality similarly, is a sorted balance between absorption and chassis control. It doesn't quite have the suppleness of the Bajaj but it's close enough for you to not complain. The brakes are actually pretty good in numbers as well as in feel - progressive and predictable in force build up. It is the middle of the road but very capably, comfortably, confidently so. Like it was the choice Hero made rather than how it turned out.
The FZV2 is like muscle memory. Outside of the weight-loss related chassis updates, the feel of the motorcycle remains nearly unchanged and slightly improved. The suspension feels softer and combined with the smoothness of the engine, the FZV2 feels really happy to be punted about the city, paying no heed to potholes and rough roads if you'rewilling to pin the throttle. But in the same breath, the FZ's edge has been blunted. It feels gentler and more rounded and that means it's a better commuter but slightly less involving. Unfortunately for the Yamaha, the presence of the Suzuki, magnifies these feelings. Because your first impression is that the Gixxer is very similar in feel to the FZ. The tank recesses are better in shape and the bike feels just a bit longer on the turn-in. But the feeling passes (they have the same 1,330mm wheelbase) and you quickly begin to enjoy the natural turn-in, mid-corner poise and the grunt from the engine on the corner exits. Ride quality is a bit stiffer than the FZ's but only just enough to give it control over the frame without becoming a handful on bad roads. Brakes, again, have that same natural feel which makes them easy to get used to and friendly in feel when you need to stop in a hurry. In short, the Gixxer feels like a rather carefully tuned chassis that knows how to balance the need to absorb bad roads without blunting the involvement for the enthusiastic rider. You'll notice that it's better in every way than the other three - if not significantly then at least noticeably. And it seals the deal by also being the most interesting motorcycle of the four to ride. In my book, motorcycles that grab your attention like that, become fast friends. The sole advantage of entering the game late is to know the competition and Suzuki does.
The Bajaj Discover 150F is the odd man out here. At Rs 60,000 ex-Mumbai, it is the cheapest motorcycle here. By its very nature, it feels more spartan and under-equipped than the others. Some premium touches like the wee digital display in the instruments are lost in the finish issues and the whole motorcycle feels its cost. But on the flip side, it has the best performance here. Is it the best motorcycle? No. But if you're looking for value-for-money and the refinement and status aren't deal breakers to you then the Discover could be all the bike you need. The Hero Xtreme is the next most expensive, priced at Rs 69,530 ex-Mumbai, or Rs 9,000 more than the Discover. At that price, you get a competent 150 that is easy to live with. It doesn't quite have the musculature or image of the Suzuki or Yamaha but for the money it's a good deal for sure. Hero have added a lot of gizmos to the instruments if that floats your boat and we believe the Xtreme at its price represents good value. In fact, it's good enough value for me to think that the FZ and the Xtreme, though radically different in price and positioning, are equal second in this test. Because the Yamaha FZ-S version 2 is the most pensive motorcycle here at Rs 82,350 ex-Mumbai. That's a premium of nearly Rs 13,000 over the Hero! If you do pay the extra cash, you get an effortless, sweet commuter that does the business and looks great too. The only downsides are that the old FZ feels a little more fun to ride and the new one, unfortunately, is lost in the sea of FZV1s visually. Which brings us to the Suzuki. The Gixxer, at Rs 77,013 ex-Mumbai is clearly a premium 150 but is priced against the FZV1 rather than the V2 - a saving of Rs 5,000. But despite the price, the Gixxer is clearly the best motorcycle of this lot, thanks to its grunt, abilities as well as its sense of fun and it makes you grin. It's the one I would buy from this group. Suzuki will, as usual, run into some trouble with getting the motorcycle to customers because they have the smallest dealer and service network. But the takeaway for me is that Suzuki's motorcycles in India are finally showing the promise and excitement that we have been waiting for since they opened shop here. When Bajaj launches the new Pulsar 150 - I'm expecting to see it in December 2014 - the new bike will have to build on the strength of the brand in the segment. What it will have to fight off for being best in the segment though, is the Suzuki Gixxer. Let the war games begin.
Images by Suresh Narayanan/Varun Anchan