Hmmm… the Benelli 300’s VIN plate says Made in China, but if it said Italy you could just as easily believe it: Check the nice welds on that red trellis frame, respect the braided steel lines leading to the dual front discs which are clamped by calipers that look like Brembos. Behold an instrument panel and switchgear that wouldn’t look at all out of place on any Japanese motorcycle. The stylish pointy footpegs look like something from an MV Agusta, and both shift and brake lever tips are eccentric-mounted adjustable. Eyeballing it, this is the nicest Chinese bike we’ve seen – by a long shot. Heck, it even has a cute little switchblade-style ignition key.
And why not? According to Mel Harris at SSR Motorsports (who was a VP at American Suzuki for 27.5 years), Benelli motorcycles and scooters are engineered and designed in Italy, then produced in China by QJ (Qianjiang Group), which has been the owner of Benelli since 2005. Benelli, if you believe Wikipedia, is Italy’s oldest motorcycle company, established in 1911. SSR is the U.S. importer, a 2002 startup that began with pit bikes and keeps branching out; SSR HQ is in Norwalk, California. (Correction: the TnT300 is the nicest Chinese bike we’ve seen since the Razkull 125 we played with last week – also an SSR product.)
Swinging a leg over for a quick blat about the estate does nothing at all to dispel the idea that this is a swell little motorcycle. The thing fires up with a surprisingly guttural idle and revs with a throatier snarl than most little Twins throughout the range. The aluminum Fatbar-style handlebar is in the right place, the seat’s cushy enough and big enough for a passenger – the only weird thing is that the footpegs are an inch or two rearward of where we might expect to find them on a naked bike.
Two 37mm downdraft throttle bodies feed the cylinders, controlled by a Delphi EFI system, and throttle response is clean and crisp from idle to the 11,000-rpm redline (though you’ll need 3000 rpm or so to get rolling). The clutch is light, the six-speed gearbox that was a bit tight at first seems to be getting smoother every time we ride our test unit, now showing 487 miles; if it’s not quite as slick and precise as the small Ninja’s box, it’s close enough. The clutch lever is medium-light and unremarkable.
Thirty-eight horsies is the Benelli claim at the crank, which we haven’t been able to dyno-confirm yet – but it really does feel right about in line with the Ninja 300 and Yamaha R3 (though it’s been awhile since we rode them). Extrapolating 38 minus 10% as we always do, for drivetrain loss on the way to the rear tire, puts us at 34, right in the Ninja/ R3 ballpark.
Clambering up to freeway speed on the Benelli is no problem, where the analog tach is reading about 8500 rpm at 80 mph. The little Twin is happy to keep pulling up to 102 mph on the digital speedo, which is joined in the LCD panel by a clock, fuel gauge, dual tripmeters and engine temperature gauge.
At 80 and at various other speeds, there’s a definite tingle coming through the grips but nothing I’d call a buzz; some will be annoyed by it, many won’t notice. The 360-degree crank drives one counterbalancer shaft, and the Benelli may be just a smidge vibier than the Ninja and R3 – perhaps due to having a long handlebar instead of short clip-ons. The bikini fairing pokes a small hole in the air; the bike’s perfectly happy to do that speed for as long as you want; its suspension does nothing to make you think you’re riding a cheap motorcycle – though a very short 92mm of trail (via 24.5 degrees rake) does give a definite instant-turning not-quite-skittish feel.
That engine’s also really flexible; when traffic slows, it’ll run smoothly down to 35 mph or so in sixth, then accelerate cleanly again without needing a downshift.
With a bore and stroke of 65.0 x 45.2mm, the Benelli Twin splits the difference between the 62.0 x 49mm Ninja 300 and the 68.0 x 44.1mm Yamaha R3 (321cc). With 12:1 compression, it winds up being a nice combination of reasonably grunty and revvy, but unlike them it has a hard rev limiter that cuts in right at the 11,000 rpm redline. It’s easy to bump into when you’re trying to keep up with people on bigger bikes on Glendora Mountain Road.
With that short trail and quick steering, the main limiting factor on twisty mountain roads is the rider’s faith diving into blind corners. Okay, that and the Cordial bias-ply rubber the TnT rolls on, which doesn’t give that really planted feel that encourages aggression at deep lean angles. The wheels are 3.5- and 4.5-inch 17s, so sportier tires are definitely available when the Cordials are done.
Other than the tires, all else seems agreeable including the suspension under my 160 pounds. We didn’t touch the shock’s preload adjuster; twisting its rebound adjuster does nothing until the last click, when it does increase damping a bit and settles the bike in quick transitions. The front rebound damping adjuster, on top of the right fork leg, seems to be mostly for ornamentation.
Trying to stay in Tommy “Guns” Roderick’s Hypermotard draft requires keeping the little Benelli’s tachometer needle bouncing as close to 11,000 as possible and working the gearbox a lot between second and third; a slipper clutch would be nice, this bike will teach you to blip the throttle. Alas, it is all in vain, and reminds me what I like best about riding like a maniac in the mountains: blasting out of corners. There’s not much of that available on a little bike like this… still, it’s a hoot, and even more fun when going downhill.
The other thing that’ll be holding the TnT up a bit relative to the competition is weight. We didn’t get it on the scales yet, but the claimed weight is 408. If that’s correct, this one’s at least 25 or 30 pounds heavier than the Ninja and R3. That blunts its sporting capability, but on the other hand, the Benelli really does feel like a more substantial motorcycle for everyday use, and an easier one for plus-size riders to fit on.
If you’re shopping down here, money is probably definitely an object, and that’s where the Benelli pulls ahead of the Japanese competition: its $3,999 price tag undercuts the base Ninja 300’s $5,199 and the Yamaha R3’s $4,999 MSRPs by a substantial margin. Benelli, of course, doesn’t have those bikes’ dealer network, but SSR does claim over 200 dealers across the U.S., and that parts are readily available through its Anaheim headquarters. Perhaps the Benelli’s most likely analog is Honda’s CB300F, which has an identical MSRP (without ABS) but has to make do with one less cylinder and a little less power.
How the TnT might hold up over time is anybody’s guess. From the outside and after a few weeks of riding, it really does appear to be, as well as feel like, the nicest made-in-China bike we’ve tested. A little online digging reveals complaints about drive chains not lasting long, a scattered complaint about possibly subpar steering head bearings, but no major complaints – and there’s probably no product on earth for which you can’t find a few online detractors. These Benellis are only recently for sale in the U.S., but they’ve been available in other parts of the world for quite a few years. SSR provides a 12-months/10,000-mile warranty on the engine/transmission but that’s parts only (no labor), along with a 6-months parts-only warranty on the rest of the bike.
Normally, we’d end by saying the Benelli’s really impressive for a Chinese bike. But in this case, it’s really impressive, period.
Editor Score: 81.5%