Commentary: Chinese Motorcycles Are Here In Canada To Stay

The new Moto Morini XCape 650. This machine is supposed to be coming to Canada soon. You would certainly not know it's made in China, if you based your opinion about Chinese bikes on the machines they sold here back in the early 2000s. PHOTO CREDIT: Moto Morini

Once upon a time there was a very young journalist on the east coast of Canada who submitted a story about his Chinese motorcycle to Canada Moto Guide (back then, it was CMG Online). That bike was a Lifan GY-5, and that journo was me. This happened 15 years ago this year, and ever since that first story, I’ve been watching the fortunes—the rise and fall and rise again—of Chinese motorcycles in Canada.

Despite the naysayers, Chinese bikes are everywhere in Canada now, often ridden by people who don’t even know where their bikes came from—and in some market segments, the Chinese are leading the way because nobody else is even opposing them right now. So, despite the hiccups over the years, it looks like Chinese motorcycles are here to stay.

Here’s a look at where we’re at now, and how we got here.

A young Adam Semple interns for CMG back in the day. Myself, Adam and other CMG hangarounds spent a lot of time on this DR200 copy that never quite broke down, despite getting awfully close thanks to hard abuse.

The original Chinese moto-imports are basically all gone

When I started covering the Canadian moto-scene, there was a very wide range of Chinese motorcycle imports, but they were all pretty much the same thing—variations on established Japanese motorcycle designs. The Lifan GY-5 I owned was basically a big-bored Honda CG125 stuffed into a poorly-designed chassis. The Konker KSM200 that I later long-term tested for CMG was derived from the Suzuki DR200.

Both those bikes were mechanically sound, but both had a pretty terrible finish, and the metallurgy was suspect. Neither bike ever left me stranded, but other owners of pre-2010 Chinese bikes had mechanical meltdowns—many because of poor maintenance and improper assembly, but there were certainly horror stories, and parts supply was non-existent in many cases. The parts were always available, if you knew where to look, but most people didn’t know where to look.

Now, the fly-by-night importers who punted low-quality machines are all gone. The companies who built those bikes are very much still in business, but not the companies that brought them into Canada. The only low-budget survivor I know of is Baja, whose dirt bikes and ATVs were once sold through Canadian Tire.

The Baja 125 Dirt Runner, which was sold at Canadian Tire around 15 years ago. Despite the allegations that Chinese bikes are no good, there are still plenty of these things being flogged around the woods. One of the best mechanics I know actually looks for them, as they can be had second-hand very cheap and mostly just need new bearings and other wear parts. PHOTO CREDIT: Baja Motorsports

The lost years

Starting around 2014, the heyday of the cheap Chinese air-cooled bikes came to an end. There were many satisfied customers, but a lot of those customers had moved on to other bikes. Most GY-5 buyers weren’t repeat customers. And worse, there were a lot of unsatisfied customers. Even for bikes like the Baja models, which were mostly fairly solid, a retailer like Canadian Tire got tired of the unhappy buyers.

The Lifan GY-5, complete with “Cool Boy” stickers. Cheap, reliable, and kinda crappy.

And, the government started cracking down. When I bought my Lifan GY-5, I was able to get it street-registered on the good graces of my local DMV. No emissions test, no safety checks. But that came to an end as environmental regulators and other authorities shut down these operations.

This happened just as better Chinese bikes were about to come into Canada. Around 2015, CFMOTO teased two new 650 models that were light years ahead of the rest of the Chinese bikes that Editor ‘Arris and I had seen. When we ogled them at the Moncton Motorcycle Show, we were most excited. Alas, they pulled the plug on all their Canadian motorcycle business months later, leaving a lot of unhappy customers.

The return

Now, about a decade later, CFMOTO leads the charge of Chinese motorcycles into re-entering the Canadian market. Remember that CFMOTO never went anywhere—they’ve had ATV dealers for years, and as a result, they’re positioned much more strongly than Moto Morini and other made-in-China companies that need to build their dealer network from scratch.

CFMOTO is also ahead of every other Chinese-based company in our market because of their partnership with KTM. CFMOTO actually builds bikes for KTM in China, and owns a small percentage of KTM’s parent company. Along with its own designs, CFMOTO also builds bikes that are closely related to KTM’s 790 series. And CFMOTO is expanding quickly.

CFMOTO’s 450 Ibex is a good example of how the Chinese are filling market segments that the other OEMs ignored. PHOTO CREDIT: CFMOTO

CFMOTO introduced the 450 Ibex last winter as the mythical 450-class twin-cylinder adventure bike that riders have demanded for years, and been denied.  The company’s insiders say they’re working on new models that riders wanted, responding to focused research instead of twisting focus group feedback to fit existing models they plan to release. The end result is a bike that a lot of people have asked for.

They’re not the only company taking this approach—consider the Kove 450Rally, an over-the-counter rally raid replica that anyone can buy, here in Canada (you might have seen them on the show circuit last winter). No other company has ever offered that to the average consumer; now a Chinese company does, and there’s a lot of demand.

A Kove factory bike racing at a SWANK rally this winter. Kove’s leadership seems keen to pursue racing success, hard as that is for a newcomer brand. PHOTO CREDIT: Kove

Kove is willing to put its bikes to test at Dakar with a factory team, which is more than three of the Big Four are doing right now, and it’s also moving into other niches, like affordable dirt bikes for average consumers. That’s an idea you don’t often hear bandied about in talks with the big off-road bike manufacturers these days.

The made-in-China Thumpstar TSF 250cc X3. While I haven’t ridden one, I have noticed them popping up at reputable dirt bike dealers. They appear to be a well-built, basic dirt bike that fills a niche for value-minded buyers. PHOTO CREDIT: Thumpstar

In the off-road world, there’s Thumpstar. I don’t have any experience with the brand, but I do see their bikes appearing with reasonable pricing at reputable dealers like Lang’s Offroad in Ontario or Clay’s Offroad in New Brunswick. These guys value their customers enough that they wouldn’t sell junk.

Moto Morini is also reportedly making a play to come into Canada. Originally a designed-in-Italy, made-in-Italy, owned-by-Italians brand, Moto Morini is now a designed-in-Italy, made-in-China, owned-by-Chinese brand. Its X-Cape 650 models appear to be well-liked wherever they are reviewed around the world; they also have a big-bore 1200 ADV coming, and they sell cruisers and neo-retros as well.

Benelli is another company following a similar Italian/Chinese hybrid formula. Although we haven’t heard much about their plans for the Canadian market, they’re going great guns over in Europe and making inroads in the US.

Pierer Mobility
The KTM 790 Adventure is now made in China. PHOTO CREDIT: KTM

A rose by any other name…

There’s another source for Chinese bikes in Canada. KTM is following BMW’s footsteps of a generation back, and selling Chinese-built motorcycles with European badges here in Canada. Just as BMW partnered with Loncin, so has KTM partnered with CFMOTO. The new 790 Duke and 790 Adventure models are actually made-in-China, and no doubt we shall soon see other companies follow this pattern. Suzuki still sells its Chinese-built GW250 and related models around the world, and given the state of our economy, it would be unsurprising to see it return here someday (or maybe we’ll get the 250 V-Strom instead).

The Suzuki V-Strom 250 would almost certainly have a market here, as it’s sold in Euro showrooms as it is. PHOTO CREDIT: Suzuki

In closing

Wrapping this up: Given the complete overhaul of the Chinese motorcycle industry over the past decade, not to mention the rise in MSRP for so many non-Chinese models and the North American industry’s change in attitude towards these machines, it seems these bikes are here to stay. More and more customers are riding these bikes and deciding they’re just fine. The only thing that would likely change this situation is a heavy tariff on Chinese-built machines, and given our political turbulence these days, don’t be shocked if that eventually happens.

12 COMMENTS

  1. These are defeatist attitudes, or just borne out of a need to be a cheapskate. No one has to buy a Chinese motorcycle, it’s not as if they have a smartphone-like monopoly on the industry. Plus, any savings are not hugely significant vs. a truly comparable bike. Truth is, what you end up getting is an inferior often copycat product with a lousy support network and poor eventual resale, while supporting an evil empire that exploits its workers with no regard for the environment. If none of this (and more!) doesn’t bother you, then by all means fill your boots.

  2. CFMoto for one has got to step up their game if they want to sell motos in Canada. They have ATV/UTV dealers that don’t seem to be able to grasp that this is a different customer base.
    More dealers, an assured parts supply and warranty network – then we’ll talk.

    • Good luck with that. How’s your Blackberry working out ? They’re coming whether you like it or not. The question is how quickly.

    • There are plenty who will though, especially given the substantial savings in purchase price over the Japanese and European competitors. Like it or not, it’s happening.

    • Neither will I. Why support Chinese (commie) backed products from a government that supports intellectual theft and copying. They’ve bullied western companies into partnering with theirs or be blocked out of the market. Huge tariffs on western products but now we’re supposed to welcome their products here. They can shove it.

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