Let’s face it, motorcycles are all about how they make you feel. Being overworked and underpaid, I can’t befriend every stray motorcycle I see at the dealership and give it a good home. Before signing on the dotted line, I devote hours to careful consideration and studiously ticking every mental prerequisite that I’ve built brick-by-brick to act as a financial firewall. A precious few have ended up in my garage, and there’s one thing they all have in common — they’re just downright fun.
The 2021 Benelli Leoncino focuses on the simple pleasures of motorcycling. First, it catches your eye with its unique retro-nouveau styling, then sweetens the pot with a decidedly sporty Italian chassis and seals the deal with an affordable $6,199 price tag. Like the original Leoncino, a humble 125 released in 1951, there are no fancy electronics to get lost in and no stratospheric horsepower figures to threaten your license. The “little lion” — mi scuci — Leoncino, runs with the premise that less is more and promises an uncomplicated, refreshingly carefree riding experience that can satisfy entry-level and experienced riders alike. It also doesn’t hurt that this roadster’s personality brims with youthful exuberance that always prompts me to give the lion ornament on the front fender a post-ride pat of approval.
Benelli has the kind of history and cultural significance that some other manufacturers can only dream of. With such a rich pedigree to draw from, Stefano Casanova, Benelli’s Lead Designer, didn’t take the easy way out. In reviving a name like the Leoncino, Casanova and his team could have created a retro-reproduction and then kicked their feet up for leisurely midafternoon espresso or two. Instead, they reimagined quintessential Italian design cues (like those in the “Silver Shotgun” feature on page 18) for the modern age, creating a unique offering.
In the U.S., the Leoncino is part of a two-bike lineup, which includes the standard street-biased roadster model shown here and the Leoncino Trail, a scrambler variant with more suspension travel and spoked wheels with a 19-inch front and 90/10 adventure tires. Both share a liquid-cooled, DOHC, 500cc parallel twin has the eagerness and playful nature of a kitten, with a friendly disposition to match. Our recent test of Benelli’s TRK502X, which has the same powerplant, put down 38 horsepower at 8,900 rpm and 29 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm on the Jett Tuning dyno. Those modest performance figures only go to show that relying on spec-sheet numbers alone can be misleading. With a good splash of bottom-end torque and decent midrange power on tap, the Leoncino is happy to prowl the urban sprawl or comfortably zip along the freeway. When the opportunity arises, it doesn’t shy away from a good sprint through the canyons, either. It all adds up to a machine that won’t rip the grips from a newly minted rider’s hands yet still delivers enough pep to hold a seasoned pilot’s attention.
Tipping our scale at 460 pounds wet, the little lion could stand to shed some baby fat, but its weight is distributed well. The only time you’ll notice it is when lifting the bike off the sidestand or pushing it around the garage. Still, the 500cc twin feels like it packs more of a punch on the Leoncino than it did on the full-size, luggage-laden TRK502X. Some vibrations are felt when you’re wringing it out, so short-shifting and settling into a groove is the way to go. Relax and enjoy the pleasing exhaust purr that takes on an almost triple-cylinder sound at high rpm. The 6-speed gearbox shifts almost too smoothly and would benefit from a more positive feel at the shift lever. Do be mindful of the lean angle on the right side since you can begin scraping the exhaust heat shield — even before touching the footpegs down — at a brisk pace.
All the Leoncino’s bits are bolted to a steel-trellis frame paired with an elegant tubular-steel swingarm, creating a taut chassis that practically waves the “tricolore” flag with pride. The Italian design team couldn’t help themselves, bolting on a stout 50mm USD fork that seems more fit to challenge the legendary curves of Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello than your daily commute. A laydown shock with an equally sporty setup drives the point home. Suspension adjustability is limited to rebound damping at both ends and spring preload in the rear only, the latter with a convenient hand-knob adjuster. The unbranded suspension feels firm when bopping around abused city streets, but middleweight motorcycles are rarely this poised when hitting corners at a decent clip. What it lacks in outright agility it makes up for with stability, which boosts confidence.
A wide handlebar provides all the leverage needed to push the little lion around, and its 30.9-inch seat height makes it feel petite, without the cockpit becoming too cramped for my 5-foot, 10-inch frame. Those with shorter inseams would be wise to give the Leoncino a closer look since its narrow chassis and low seat will help get your boots on the deck. Toss in a decently plush saddle and a neutral, upright seating position and you’ve got a winner.
For a bike at this price point, some trade-offs were made. The aforementioned heft is due to an abundance of steel rather than aluminum, but there’s no arguing with how solid the Leoncino feels. The LCD instrument panel looks cool, but the information is fairly basic (the gear indicator is appreciated) and difficult to read in direct sunlight. On the other hand, you get LED lighting all around and a bright headlight that performs well at night. Benelli-branded 4-piston radial calipers assertively squeeze big 320mm discs, switchable ABS is standard and the cast-aluminum wheels are shod with grippy Pirelli Angel GT sport-touring tires. All on a bike that costs just $6,199.
The Leoncino certainly has the fun factor that’s high on my list for any bike, and it’s well within this working man’s budget. Here, kitty kitty….
2021 Benelli Leoncino Specs:
Base Price: $6,199
Warranty: 1 yr. or 12,000 miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 69 x 66.8mm
Compression Ratio: 11.5:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Adj. Interval: 16,000 mi.
Fuel Delivery: EFI
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 3.17-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Frame: Steel trellis w/ tubular-steel swingarm
Wheelbase: 56.8 in.
Rake/Trail: 24.5 degrees/3.4 in.
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Suspension, Front: 50mm USD fork, adj. for rebound damping w/ 4.9 in. travel
Rear: Single shock, adj. for rebound damping & spring preload (remote) w/ 4.4 in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm discs w/ radial-mount opposed 4-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 260mm disc w/ 1-piston floating caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Cast, 4.50 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Wet Weight: 460 lbs.
Load Capacity: 415 lbs.
GVWR: 875 lbs.
Horsepower: 38 horsepower at 8,900 rpm
Torque: 29 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm
Fuel Capacity: 3.6 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 47.3 mpg
Estimated Range: 158.3 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 4,500