Forget your 100cc commuters, your kilometres-to-the-litre top trumps... this is war. A war for the hearts and minds (and wallets) of Indian bikers, and by bikers, we mean those who love motorcycling in its truest sense
Of course, by bikers, we do not mean the masses for whom a motorcycle represents the most affordable and convenient means of transport. While all of us here at ZigWheels have great respect for those penny pincher motorcycles, this time around we’re talking about bikes which appeal to the heart and not necessarily to the head. This is a war between the best performance bikes to carry the ‘Made in India’ moniker.
Honda’s CBR 250R has pretty much been the daddy of the Indian performance bike segment since its launch last year and not only is it the best quarter-litre cracker that we’ve seen built on our shores, it has also pretty much stunned the whole world with its prowess and friendliness. But earlier this year, the mad orange Indo-Austrian KTM 200 Duke redefined how low capacity motorcycles can be as much fun, and just as beautiful, as those ‘big bikes’ we all dream of owning one day. And now, to complicate matters even further, we have a name that has become synonymous with performance; a motorcycle whose predecessors pretty much sparked off the enthusiast biking culture in India, a bike that is closely related to the Duke – the Bajaj Pulsar 200NS.
These three bikes represent the pinnacle of Indian performance motorcycles, the ones that are the most hotly debated about and discussed across the internet and in biker bars. And yes, it is true that they address fairly different price points and each of these excels at what it does best. So while we will be looking at these aspects as well, the bottom line is to figure out which of these takes the crown of the ‘best Indian performance bike’, and if not to decide where your hard earned money should go, then at least to put an end to those endless debates.
She’s got the looks
Aesthetics, sex appeal, call it what you like, a performance bike should not only go like the clappers, it should turn heads as well
Bajaj Pulsar 200NS
The way the Pulsar 200NS looks is a bit of a surprise. Not only does it shun all the design elements from its predecessors, it clearly draws inspiration from international naked bikes while still coming across as a quintessential Pulsar. Bits like the CB1000R inspired headlight, the massive sculpted tank, the chunky perimeter frame, the near invisible underbelly exhaust and the sharply rising tail with its split seat all exude a sense of purpose and aggression that we’ve never seen before on any bike made here. Lithe and at the same time muscular, the 200NS looks the part of a fast bike and absolutely screams streetfighter from every angle. One thing that breaks this image though is the split handlebar, which would’ve gone much better with the overall theme had it been a solid, single piece unit.
Honda CBR 250R
Amongst the pack of naked hooligans, the fully faired CBR 250R actually looks rather sombre. But make no mistake, this is a rather good looking bike, no matter what angle you view it from. Sure, it may carry the ‘baby Blade’ moniker, but its massive fairing panels and headlight have clearly been modelled after Honda’s big, cushy VFR1200F, and this little CBR looks every bit the part of the comfortable, sport tourer. In fact, every bit of the design of the bike has been geared towards providing the snuggest riding position in order to munch those highway miles. The design is so nice and neutral that the bike looks perfectly at home whether leaned over in a corner with the rider’s knee dragging along the tarmac, or perfectly vertical, with a couple of panniers strapped to the tail. And in a country obsessed with full fairings and superbikes, the CBR feels the most like a ‘big bike’ amongst this lot and that makes its appeal undeniable.
KTM 200 Duke
In terms of design, the Duke really takes the rule book and chucks it out the window. It might not be such a shocker if you’re used to the Austrian bike maker’s designs in general, but compared to anything else we’ve seen in India so far, it really stands worlds apart. And while it absolutely radiates a sense of ‘form follows function’, start looking at the details and you realise that even the functional bits have been designed with form in mind. From the angular tank to the beautiful trellis frame, the arrowhead indicators, the compact full LCD console and the gorgeously carved aluminium cast swingarm, every little facet is absolutely striking. If god is in the details, then the Duke is Mount Olympus incarnate with Aphrodite ruling supreme. The design is so radical in fact, that it’s almost a love-it-or-hate-it situation where some folks may not appreciate its over the top approach. But just for that, for breaking the traditional boundaries of design, we absolutely adore it.
Why the Duke 200
Drop-dead gorgeous looks, minimalistic design and supreme fit and finish, the KTM 200 Duke looks nothing like what we've seen in India to this day.
The purpose of a performance bike, as the name suggests, is to go fast. And here we put that to the test and see which of these wears the performance crown
When it comes to performance, the CBR 250R really set the benchmark when it arrived last year. Of course, by performance, we mean outright, straight line performance – zero to 100km/h figures and all that jazz – the stuff of endless forum debates. And even the arrival of the KTM and the new Pulsar doesn’t seem to have shaken the ‘Blade off its high pedestal. As you can see from the infographic on the right, when it comes to the run up to the ton mark from standstill, the CBR has everyone beat – over 0.3 second faster than KTM and almost a second quicker than the Pulsar. Die-hard fans of the nakeds would like to say that this isn’t much of a margin, especially with regard to the Austrian, but in the world of “mine is bigger than yours” arguments, it’s more than enough. This is thanks to the CBR’s wonderful 249.6cc single-cylinder 4-valve DOHC mill, which is the most powerful and torquiest of the lot.
What is more impressive than just the straight up power figures of the CBR’s motor is the way the power is delivered. Where the KTM and Pulsar are rather peaky, the Honda pulls easily and smoothly in any gear, at any rpm. And while that may not reflect directly in the in-gear roll-on comparison we’ve chosen, where the two streetfighters are a bit quicker thanks to their shorter gearing and revvy engines, the CBR can pull a lot harder and more importantly a lot longer in each gear.
How quick you can move forward is pointless if you can’t shed all that speed quickly enough. And this is where the CBR’s party piece really comes into play. Thanks to the power of the Combined ABS system, the bike can literally stop on a dime. And even though in our figures, the KTM has stopped a little shorter thanks to its lower weight, that difference boils down to the ability of our bike road tester. But on an average, the CBR will stop better, safely and consistently on any sort of road surface, without you needing the exceptional motorcycling skills of a Varad More.
Why the CBR 250
Phenomenal performance with extremely friendly power delivery from that gem of an engine, a full fairing that cleaves through the air with ease and the power of anti-lock brakes for exceptional stopping power
Any monkey can open the gas and go fast in a straight line. It’s the corners where the real abilities of a bike, and a rider, lie
It’s one thing for a performance bike to go and stop quickly, but that’s just half the story. To see the complete picture, you also have to take into account how well it handles through the bends. Let’s get one thing immediately out of the way – the CBR, which by no means is a bad handler, is very softly set up and definitely seems to be more suited to long distance sport touring rather than corner carving. Quick changes of direction are simply not the Honda’s forte. So that just leaves this as a two-horse race between the KTM and the Pulsar.
The baby Duke, when it arrived earlier this year, completely blew our minds, and the competition out of the water, with the way it tackles the twisty stuff. The ultra light, mass centralised design makes the KTM a very nimble handler, while at the same time, keeps it fairly planted through the corners as well. To put it simply, it is simply phenomenal. But, and this is a big, round one at that, the Pulsar simply does it better. The Pulsar’s narrow twin spar perimeter frame endows the bike with much better dynamics, with the right amount of rigidity and flexibility to tackle almost any sort of cornering shenanigans one can think of. So much so, that it wouldn’t be a far stretch of imagination to call the Pulsar 200NS one of, if not the best handling bikes in the country, rivalling even the venerable Yamaha R15 in its cornering prowess.
The KTM comes a close second though. A part of the problem lies in the fact that, with 150-section rubber at the rear, which is even wider than that on the CBR, the Duke really is over-tyred. The wide contact patch of that tyre makes the turn-ins not as sharp, and it also makes it a little tricky to handle over loose surfaces. The flickability advantage that the Pulsar enjoys also comes from the bike being a little bit taller, with the rider sitting a little higher as well, which raises the centre of gravity making it that much easier to tip into turns.
Why the Pulsar 200NS
Supremely capable chassis sporting a perimeter frame combined with all the right elements such as the wide handlebars and tallish riding position makes it one of the best handling bikes in the market today
Bang for your buck
How much performance do you get for your money? That is the real bottom line at the end of the day
On paper at least, the CBR makes the most power, with the KTM following on its heels in second and the Pulsar a little lower down in third position. But performance isn’t purely a function of power, but more a combination of power and weight. That’s where the power-to-weight ratio comes into the picture, which with a kerb weight of just 136kg, the KTM 200 Duke tops the charts at 183.8PS/tonne. And this changes the dynamics of the comparison a little. Comparing the value-for- money aspects of these bikes, we thought it made the most sense to see how much performance you get for your money, rather than just compare features for price. Let’s face it - these are performance bikes. Whether one sports an all-digital console or split handlebars is really irrelevant. And since power-to-weight is the best benchmark for performance, here we check how much power-to-weight each bike offers per rupee (or lakh of rupees).
Why the Pulsar 200NS
Competitive performance at a price that blows the competition out of the water - the 200NS is a proposition that you simply cannot ignore
The last word
Three very capable bikes; three bikes that excel in their own unique ways. So which one of these three is our favourite? No points for practicality here
By now we’ve established that the KTM 200 Duke is the best looking, the Honda CBR 250R offers the best outright performance while the Bajaj Pulsar 200NS is the best handler. When you factor in the final test, that is, which bike gives you the most bang for your buck, the Pulsar is once again the clear winner. So, on paper at least, the Pulsar is the winner of this comparison. Being diplomatic about the matter, it would be pertinent to explain that every bike has its strengths and weaknesses. If covering hundreds of kilometres of highways and B-roads at one go is your thing, if you want a bike that can cruise at ton-up figures all day long without breaking a sweat, or your back, then of course it doesn’t get better than the CBR.
The KTM on the other hand offers pure hooligan thrills. Its revvy engine sounds absolutely bonkers and offers the kind of instant acceleration that was once only the realm of two-strokers. Combined with its low mass, perfect weight distribution and aggressive posture it's the perfect wheelie machine. And to top it off, the build quality on the bike is simply phenomenal, far exceeding that of the Pulsar and even the CBR for that matter. The Pulsar’s strong suit is of course its handling prowess. And true to its genealogy, it pretty much redefines the notion of ‘power to the people’, offering oodles of performance at a price point that, at less than half the CBR’s, is absolutely unbeatable.
We can go on all day about how each of these motorcycles is quite impressive in its own right. But to hell with political correctness! While it is true that you won’t be unhappy choosing any one of these bike, the one that we’ll go with has to be the Pulsar. It really does offer the best of all worlds, and is quite literally the most fun to ride in every imaginable condition. And when you consider that all of this can by yours for well under a lakh of rupees, how can the verdict swing in any direction other than the Pulsar’s?