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Two strokes fight four

It’s only when a motorcycle from the past jostles with a modern one that you realise how rapidly biking is advancing.

autos Updated: May 12, 2010 10:56 IST
Nikhil Bhatia

Abundant foliage, few people, fewer buildings, and traffic-free roads decorated with trails of blue smoke, courtesy Japanese two-stroke bikes. Isn’t this how all of us remember urban Indian streets of the 1980s?

Biking was fun, fast and simple as the machines delivered maximum thrills per rupee, and lasted as long as a decade. Some of these lightweight screamers remain etched in the hearts of bikers, especially Yamaha’s popular RX100. So it was only fitting that we brought together two iconic motorcycles — the RX100 from the past and the FZ-16 from the present.

Old is gold, new is bold

The RX100, a handsome model in its day, sports simple lines with attention to detail seen in the parallel piping on its slender fuel tank. This minimalist, bare bones style is today only comparable to a basic commuter bike. Three body instruments include a cable-fed analogue speedometer, indicators for the turn signals and a neutral light. And while shiny bits may be frowned upon by today’s buyers, bling chrome used to be impressive once upon a time, just like what shines out from the RX’s front and rear mudguards, handlebar and silencer.

Sit astride the FZ-16 and you can see how motorcycle design has evolved over the two decades. A burly motorcycle, the FZ looks like it only just exited the gym when parked next to the lean-looking RX100. The FZ is loaded with eye-catching details. Its smart alloy wheels, angular headlight, sculpted tank and stubby silencer are all sure to leave people lusting after it for years to come. The FZ-16’s sci-fi all-digital instruments aptly show how equipment levels play such an important role in bike-buying decisions today.

Heart of the matter

The RX100 belongs to the time when global warming was the least of an Indian biker’s concerns, and 2T lube stains on jeans were quite acceptable. Powered by a two-stroke, 98 cc, single-cylinder and air-cooled motor, the RX100 was good for 11 bhp at 7500 rpm. And that’s talking a stock bike. But in the hands of an experienced tuner, the RX became capable of violent acceleration. Enhanced, hand-polished transfer ports, a higher compression ratio, bigger pistons, lightened engine internals, modified carbs, tuned exhaust systems, sprocket kits and tweaked gearboxes were all modifications that could be implemented on this sturdy motorcycle.

Let’s ride the bike. Spoilt by creature comforts such as electric starters and handlebar-mounted choke levers, it takes time and a forgotten knack to kick-start the RX. However, once brought to life, this beautiful bike settles into an audible, if perhaps tame, idle. A twist of the wrist, and its high pitched and loud two-stroke exhaust note takes over. As we get moving, I’m tempted to whack the throttle open. My right wrist obliges, and the bike takes off.

A decent low end is immediately followed by a potent burst of power as the revs build, with the bike buzzing like a horde of angry bees. As I nudge the beautifully weighted clutch and work upwards though its smooth-shifting four-speed gearbox, both speed and fun factor increase. I’m already starting to understand what the big fuss over these lunatic two-stroke bikes was all about.

Tightening emission norms were to finally sound the death knell for these power-packed two-stroke engines in India. While four-stroke units are cleaner and greener, they seldom provide the undiluted rush of adrenaline common on their highly strung predecessors.

The FZ-16 with its silky smooth, four-stroke, 153 cc, single-cylinder and air-cooled engine is not half as involving to ride as the RX. Maybe the mechanical equivalent of a dose of steroids injected into its wide powerband would make matters more entertaining.

The test begins

We come across a long, empty stretch of tarmac that’s promptly turned into a makeshift drag-strip. The numbers favour me on the FZ, this bike taking 5.59 seconds in the sprint to 60 kph compared to the older Yamaha that achieved the same in close to 7 seconds.

A larger engine, newer bike and more power are ingredients that generally win you speed runs, so my money’s on the FZ. Despite a slower start, the plucky RX with a healthy power-to-weight ratio proves it’s still capable of keeping right up with the FZ in the right pair of hands.
As we raced on, the odds stacked up in favour of the RX100 on the straight and open roads. Then came some corners, and with these, major chinks in the RX’s lightweight armour started to show through. It is Usain Bolt in a straight line, but the bike fails to match the FZ on a twisty road.

Large 18-inch tyres make the RX feel a little more reluctant, while its upright riding position starts playing spoilsport as well. Also, the RX’s skinny double cradle frame, telescopic front forks and twin shock rear suspension work as selfish components, with handling not really coming together as nicely as on the FZ, where the sum of all parts adds up to make for one well-mannered motorcycle.

Pushing the RX around a corner calls for a lot more planning, cautious speeds and the problem of braking. Drums of 130 mm, both front and rear, were ample when the RX was enjoying its days of glory, but in an age where front discs are making it to budget commuter bikes, drum brakes are inadequate.

Switching over to the FZ after the RX makes me immediately feel at home. The FZ features the latest and best bits on Indian motorcycles, delivering an excellent combination of straightline stability and cornering flexibility. Handling prowess has clearly been a priority from the design stages of this bike. The focus on centralising mass has paid rich dividends in the way the FZ gets around corners. Everything from its single downtube frame to beefy front forks, seven-step adjustable monoshock rear suspension and low-profile tubeless tyres work in unison to deliver a superlative experience.


Verdict

At the end of a day of hard riding, I understand what makes the diminutive RX100 so legendary. It may not have alloy wheels, disc brakes, a mono shock or an electric starter but what it lacks in frills, it makes up for with a rich character.

The FZ-16 comes with the bells and whistles of modern bikes. It’s an outstanding package and generations ahead of the RX100. It makes me feel we haven’t noticed all that our bike manufacturers have achieved over the years. Always hungry for newer technology, we’ve overlooked the small changes they’ve made while improving models over the years. For instance, how better frame designs and the shift from tubular swingarms to sturdy rectangle section units have made such a difference to the way motorcycles handle. How disc brakes and improved suspension make our rides more comfortable. Alloy rims make tightening and adjusting spokes a thing of the past. And it’s clear that enhanced reliability with high-quality parts no longer call for frequent trips to the local mechanic.

Put a gun to my head and I will pick the FZ. But ideally I’d like to keep both Yamahas. The comfort and reliability of the FZ are just what the doctor ordered for my daily commute, while the RX100 is for that weekly kick of motorcycling excitement.

Autocar India