FIRST RIDE: Benelli Leoncino Trail


Benelli is back in business with its electric mix of modern-retro metal – and building on the success of its recently reimagined Leoncino, the Italian factory has gone one step further and kitted it out for the dirt. Introducing Benelli’s Leoncino Trail. 

There’s no denying the overwhelming popularity of the new breed of neo retro-styled off-roaders. Derided by many dyed in the wool bikers as little more than a hipster trend, you could probably argue that they’ve helped entice a new generation of riders into the world of motorcycling. Yes – even outside of Shoreditch. And manufacturers right across the board have been working hard to get in on the action – so if you’re after a stylish but versatile machine that’ll tackle twisties and trails with equal vigour, then you are truly spoilt for choice. There’s Triumph’s Street Scrambler, Norton’s new Atlas, Ducati’s Scrambler and Fantic’s Caballero to name but a few. But this time, we’ve been taking a look at Benelli’s Leoncino Trail – the off-road ready version of its recently introduced Leoncino 500.

Benelli’s undergone a serious resurgence in recent years, after short periods of relative inactivity through the 1990s and early 2000s – punctuated by the release of some seriously sporty exotica including the Tornado Tre 900 sportbike and TNT roadster. Bought by China’s Qiangjiang in 2005 before being taken on by Geely in 2016, Italy’s oldest existing motorcycle brand is back. And it means business. With a plethora of new models unveiled at EICMA back in 2017, Benelli has been making strides in the European market as it expands its range of aggressively priced, but still thoroughly capable machines.

Back in 1951, Benelli launched its original Leoncino 125cc; which went on to make a name for itself as one of the most popular machines in the iconic Italian brands illustrious 106 year history. For 2017, a revitalised Benelli launched its all-new Leoncino 500 to the market – and MCM was lucky enough to get the chance to head out to Italy for the launch of the new machine, taking the chance to put one through its paces in the hills above Rimini. And it really impressed us – so we couldn’t wait for the chance to ride the marginally more expensive, dirt-capable Leoncino Trail. Even if it was in and wet and windy Lincolnshire.

Built around the same 500cc DOHC eight-valve parallel-twin engine and trellis-frame as the standard Leoncino, the Trail gets wire-spoked wheels (19-inch up front and 17-inch at the rear), dual-sport Metzeler rubber, 10mm more suspension travel front and rear, different sprockets, shorter gears and switchable ABS. It has also benefited from a number of mild changes to its rake, trail and wheelbase to improve off-road stability – while its front brakes have been toned down, with the introduction of less aggressive floating two-piston calipers up front (though they do bite the same 320mm twin discs) to reduce the chance of the front-brake locking-up on slippery surfaces.

The brainchild of Benelli’s purpose-built CentroStile design centre in its hometown of Pesaro, the Leoncino Trail’s a real looker; simple and stripped back, but still undeniably stylish. It’s Italian at the end of the day – even if it does happen to be manufactured in China. Settling into the seat for the first time, the good vibes continue. It’s comfortable, everything falls to hand easily, and its high and wide bars and upright seating position helps to offer an authoritative riding position. Spot on. But more importantly, what’s it like on and off the road.

First things first – let’s talk about the engine. Kicking out 48hp (35 kW) at 8500rpm and 46 Nm of torque at 6000rpm the Trail’s no rocket ship. But that doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of power on tap to have a hell of a laugh on the black top. It’ll get the jump on traffic in town, it’s super smooth, and there’s torque to play with right through the rev range. Ok, so you’ll have to think about overtakes out on the wide open road – but there’s enough in the tank to get you past cars without too much trouble.

For stopping the brakes are more than up to the job too. They may be a step down from the ones on the road-going Leoncino, but they still offer ample power and feel. It’s worth mentioning that you have got to grab one hell of a handful of the brakes to pull up quickly – which can be a little disconcerting at first. You soon get used to it – and thankfully the setup makes complete sense off-road, as it helps to reduce the chance of you grabbing the front braking and losing the front end when grip is down to a minimum. But to be honest, because of the way the Benelli’s geared – you can make use of its ample engine braking the vast majority of the time.

 Its suspension setup is decent too – with the longer travel units working to soak up the worst lumps and bumps that Lincolnshire’s pothole-laden roads could throw at it (probably helped by the fact it’s dialled in to handle the trails). It’s good when the surface improves and you want to push on, with little dive under heavy braking helping to keep the bike stable in the corner. The bikes Marzocchi upside-down front forks offers rebound damping adjustment, while the Sachs mono-shock at the rear offers preload and rebound adjustment – meaning you can dial it in for the road or trails, depending on what you’re up to. I found the standard setup spot on though – although if you were pushing hard on drier tarmac, it’s likely you’d want to stiffen the ride slightly.

It’s great to throw around too, with its low centre of gravity and wide handlebars helping to make the Leoncino Trail very nimble. We reckon that makes it a particularly good learner machine, for those on a journey up the licencing categories; it’s manageable, stable, and devoid of any nasty surprises to catch out the unwary. And even if you’re not a learner, you’ll no doubt find plenty to love about the new Benelli. I know I did.

Off-road the Leoncino is deceptively capable too – thanks mostly to its 19” front wheel and Metzeler Tourance dual-sport rubber. Of course, it’s no out and out dirt devil – instead blending reasonable off-road agility with some serious chops on the road. But with a set of more serious knobblies clad on the wheels, I reckon it’d surprise you in even the most challenging of conditions. All it’s missing is an upswept exhaust and a decent bash-plate – and it’d be a little monster. Admittedly, it’s more than likely that many riders won’t want to take their Leoncino Trail off the tarmac for fear of dropping it – but you’d be remiss not too. It’s capable, unintimidating and agile – and as a result is great, great fun.  

In essence, Benelli’s Leoncino Trail is an exceptional, mid-priced, mid-sized machine. It’s significantly cheaper than the mainstream competition – and yet aside from its unimpressive, slightly aged switch-gear, it’s just as capable as them. And what differences to a few switches really make anyway? In essence, if you’re after a funky, fun and thoroughly flickable machine – that’ll handle trails and tarmac with equal aplomb – the Trail is definitely worth a look. Go on. Try one. It’ll surprise you.  

WORDS: Ross // IMAGES: Gary Chapman

TECH SPECS

ENGINE: 499.6cc twin cylinder four-stroke with liquid cooling

POWER: 35kW (48 hp) at 8500 r/min

TORQUE: 45 Nm (4,6 kgm) @ 4500 rpm

SUSPENSION: (F) Upside-down forks with 135mm of travel (R) Single side shock absorber with 60mm of travel and preload adjustment

BRAKES: (F) 320mm diameter double discs with radial caliper 4 pistons and ABS (R) 260mm diameter single disc with double piston calliper

WHEELS: (F) 19” x 3.00” (R) 17” x 4.25” // Aluminium rims with steel spokes

TYRES: (F) 110/80- R19 (R) 150/70 – R17 // Metzeler Tourance

GROUND CLEARANCE: 185mm

WEIGHT: 170kg

SEAT HEIGHT: 815mm

FUEL TANK: 15 litres

PRICE: £5299 + OTR

CONTACT: www.unitedkingdom.benelli.com

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