Benelli is coming back strong with a new range of models into the New Zealand market for 2018, and leading the charge is the Leoncino, the baby lion of the Benelli family.

 Words: Mat Pics: Ben Galli

It’s odd for a bike of just 500cc to be the hero machine of a marque in this day and age, but that’s where Benelli’s new Leoncino heritage naked machine finds itself, at least for now.

Benelli is growing rapidly, returning from obscurity with genuine contenders, with another five models due for release this year, including two more Leoncino’s and a 700cc sports naked.

The Leoncino – or Lion Cub in Benelli’s native Italian – has plenty of features to like, and at under $10,000 ride away, offers plenty of bang for your buck.

Like the TRK 502 we test rode in last month’s issue of BRM, the Leoncino shares the same 499cc parallel twin heart, 6-speed gearbox, switchable Bosch ABS, and is also specced with 17-inch wheels with a second version featuring a larger, more off-road friendly front wheel in the pipeline.

Benelli Australia and New Zealand thinks of the Leoncino as a heritage naked rather than your bog-standard bike. That puts it up against some tough competition in the LAMS segment from Yamaha, Suzuki and Ducati, which also offer bikes to tug at the nostalgic heartstrings.  It’s certainly got the looks to impress, but unlike the competition, the Benelli brings a lot to the market and undercuts the competition on price at the same time.

Italian Style

Styling wise, Benelli’s Italian design house – CentroStile – has nailed the modern heritage look, with the modern touches we demand as riders not taking away from the classic lines. Up front is a stylish headlight nacelle, which houses a very up to date LED headlight system, with an upside-down horseshoe daytime running light built in.

In fact, all of the lighting on the Leoncino is via LED, with the only exception being the LCD dash unit, which sadly doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the bike in terms of style. That said, the LCD dash is packed with features including clock, gear position and trip meters, meaning it does the job well, even if it looks a bit dated.

The icing on the cake in the design however is a very cool addition to the styling in the form of a little lion – Benelli’s mascot – on the front mudguard. It’s a small touch in the overall scheme of things, but really adds to the bike in a rather big way in terms of personality. Heck, how many bikes come with their own mascot let alone in this price bracket?

The Lion’s Heart

Benelli reportedly tweaked the 499cc parallel twin engine for the Leoncino, but the biggest change to the delivery of its 47.6hp and 48Nm of torque comes via shorter gearing at the final drive.

Other significant changes have included the air box apparently, and the Leoncino adopts a smaller 13.2 litre fuel tank against the TRK’s 19.7 litre capacity.

With the launch location set in Melbourne, and the wine region of the Yarra Valley calling, we saddled up and immediately hit the freeway on our way for much more tight and twisty roads.

On the road, the bike sits happily at 5500rpm at 100kph, 500rpm over the point at which peak torque is delivered.

The fuelling is hard to fault at roll on and off throttle, and while it isn’t what I’d call the fastest bike in top gear roll-on overtaking, chopping down a couple of cogs and getting the engine on song is quite rewarding.

That is in part thanks to the 360-degree crank which sees the pistons move in unison, giving the bike a true motorcycle feel when you twist the throttle. A point A to point B appliance this bike definitely is not.

Funnily enough though, the intake note on the Leoncino far outstrips the physically larger adventure tourer of the family and really gives you a true motorcycle-like note when you twist the right grip to the stopper and aim for the redline.

I’ll admit that once we reached the twistier roads on the outskirts of Melbourne, that redline was often abused. While the digital tacho implies that it will kick in at 10,000rpm, you bang right up against it at around 9500. No matter, the gear ratios are spread nicely and a deliberate shift (the box at just 200km on the odo, didn’t like weak shifter inputs) hooks a new gear and you continue on your merry way.

With a top speed in excess of 160km/h, with a Benelli ANZ representative claiming that 188km/h was possible before the gearing tops the bike out, the Leoncino certainly isn’t lacking in legs.

Well Put Together

While it doesn’t feature big names such as Brembo, KYB or Öhlins, the suspension and braking componentry, made in house by Benelli’s parent company Qianjiang Group in China, do the trick well.

Yep, I said that dreaded C-word. But don’t count the Benelli out just because of where it is put together or who owns it. If you happen to like a certain high quality Swedish car brand by the name of Volvo, you might be shocked to find out that it is owned by Geely, the same folks that own the Qianjiang Group. That same high standard has filtered over to the motorcycling sector going by the build quality of the Leoncino, and I can say the bike feels as good as any other from the saddle.

There’s no nasty welds, cheap feeling plastic, or bad panel gaps as seen on other bikes built in China in recent memory, to the point where you could easily say the bike was made anywhere in the world you choose to think a quality motorcycle comes from.

Benelli is backing itself on the quality front as well, with a two-year unlimited warranty on all bikes alongside the new addition to the New Zealand market, a matching two-year roadside assistance package.

A Rider’s Bike

Up front you’ll find 50mm (you read that correctly) upside-down forks with rebound adjustment, while out back is a monoshock with both rebound and compression adjustability. Compression for the rear is adjusted by a conveniently located knob on the right-hand side. Something pretty much unheard of on such an entry level machine.

While I didn’t fiddle with the damping on our day long ride, the settings the bike was delivered with did well on the rough Aussie roads, which often threw up bumps and potholes mid-apex.

Braking too, is surprisingly good. The ABS – as previously mentioned – can be switched off by the handlebar-mounted button when at a standstill for a bit of skiddy fun, with the power from the twin 320mm discs up front with their 4-piston calipers doing the business. The feel at the adjustable lever was much better than my experience with the TRK 502, actually feeling tangibly connected with the brake pads.

The rear 260mm disc is a goody too, with the scrambler-esque lever positioned well for easy access. The Bosch ABS does feel a little bit aggressive in its modulation when it kicks in, but that admittedly, was while being forced by a ham-fisted journo having a laugh and not in a genuine emergency situation, which we’ll all agree is where ABS counts.

Something I did note in the handling department however was a very small steering lock-to-lock movement. With the Leoncino Scrambler due later this year, it will be interesting to see how the bike handles a gravel road if Benelli leaves the steering head as is.

No meek LAM

Unlike other LAMS machines which often get saddled with cut price rubber, the Leoncino I was riding in Australia featured Pirelli’s brilliant Angel rubber, which – when we finally escaped the metropolis of Melbourne – we found had plenty of grip available to make the most of some surprisingly fun roads on the way to the Yarra Valley.

While the Aussie roads aren’t quite as good in terms of conditions to ours, they cut through some amazing scenery that was made easy to soak up while on the Leoncino. The ability to enjoy the journey is in part thanks to the bike’s well thought out ergonomics, which for my height of 5ft 9inches, felt pretty spot on.

The only negative to the comfort factor of the bike was the beautiful leather seat – which is reportedly made in Italy and shipped to Asia for the bike’s assembly. While the wide seat is set at just 785mm high, it is slightly on the hard side. It’s not like a trail bike in terms of ‘oh god, I want to get off!’ after 5-minutes, but after a full day in the saddle, I could feel the kays I’d travelled.

Interestingly, the third version of the Leoncino – the Leoncino Sport – features a screen and panniers, so hopefully that version will also see the seat’s padding tweaked to make the bike more touring friendly.

That said, Benelli ANZ says the base bike is more targeted at the urban market, but not necessarily at a core of LAMS riders.

There’s enough power for some hooliganry, including wheelies and burnouts, the character of the bike is right up there with some much larger capacity machines, and with the unlimited kilometre two-year warranty, the Benelli Leoncino is a very tempting offer.

Time will tell if the bike buying public will get on board the Lion’s brand, but here at BRM we’re dangerously close to becoming Benelli fanboys based on our recent experience. Bring on the great Benelli expansion of 2018!

2018 Benelli Leoncino Specs


Price $9490 + ORC
Engine Parallel Twin, 4-stroke, liquid cooled, DOHC, 4 valves for cylinder
Max. Power 47.6hp at 8500 rpm
Max. Torque 45Nm at 5000rpm
Clutch Wet clutch
Starting Electric
Displacement 499.6cc
Gearbox 6-speed
Bore x stroke 69 x 66.8 mm
Fuel supply Electronic fuel injection with throttle body ø 37 mm
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Frame Frame in steel tubes
Front suspension Upside-down forks Ø 50mm
Rear brake Single disc ø260 mm with single piston floating caliper and ABS
Front brake Twin semi floating disk ø320 mm with radial 4 piston caliper and ABS
Rear suspension Rear swing arm with lateral shock absorber with spring preload adjustment and hydraulic rebound adjustable
Front tyre 120/70- R17
Rear tyre 160/60 – R17