The Bajaj 220F is an interesting contradiction in terms. Mechanically it's old-school, with proven technology and impressive levels of build quality.
Indian bikemaker Bajaj has actually gone backwards from the liquid cooling and electronic fuel-injection of its previous 220cc Pulsar to an air/oil-cooled setup with a big, old-fashioned oil cooler and a 32mm slide carburettor - but peak power is up almost a kilowatt to 15kW, while torque is marginally increased at 19Nm.
Yet here's little or no mechanical clatter and the little single revs way beyond its redline, running with impressive smoothness (thanks to two balance shafts) up to about 8000rpm and only beginning to sound a little stressed above 9000rpm.
And since peak power comes up at about 8500rpm, you shouldn't have to go there anyway.
But the make-or-break factor of any third-world machine is the transmission, the most difficult part of any motorcycle engine to get right.
And here the Pulsar gets full marks for a soft clutch that goes home as smooth as butter, making it difficult for even ham-fisted novices to stall the bike, and a crisp-as-breaking-glass five-speed gearbox with a light, short throw, positive enough to handle clutchless changes in both directions without misbehaviour.
But electronically, the bike is a disaster. There's a big red side-stand warning light that won't go off, an equally bright shift-light that won't come on until 500rpm on the wrong side of the 10 000rpm redline (take my word for it, you don't want to go there) and an automatic choke that doesn't work.
Sure, the bike will start at the first press of the button, but it won't idle when it's cold, so you have to keep it alive on the throttle until the engine has warmed up.
Then there's the self-cancelling indicators, which sometimes do and sometimes don't, so you always have to look down to check whether they have or not, and a neat bar-graph fuel gauge that stubbornly indicates above half until there's less than five litres left in the 15-litre fuel tank and then drops like a stone.
The clean LCD display on the right of the neat instrument pod has two trip meters, but no clock, and the little icons on the switchgear that tell you which is the start button and which the hooter are backlit like the dashboard of a car - which is cute but silly, because the quicker a novice rider learns to know which is which without looking, the safer for him.
The only things that work properly on the dashboard are the speedometer and
rev- counter - ignore everything else.
WRINGING ITS NECK
But that beautifully crafted, old school drivetrain took me up to a true 127km/h at 5am on a cool, windless morning, with 137 showing on the digital speedometer and 9000rpm on the superbly legible analogue rev-counter, and seemed happy to hold an indicated 120km/h (actually about 111) at 8000 revs all day.
It dived into corners, singing a harsh soprano on the overrun, and picked on the throttle with no jerking and seemed happy to pull evenly in any gear, anywhere above 3000rpm and all the way to three times that, without any discernable powerband, all the while returning a creditable 4.1 litres per 100km despite having its neck wrung throughout performance testing.
The first third of our ride and handling section is uphill; the Pulsar would pull no more than 113km/h until the road levelled out, restricting its average to a somewhat pedestrian 118km/h, but giving it the dubious distinction of being the first motorcycle to run through the sections twists and turns with the throttle pinned, flat out all the way.
VERY SHORT WHEELBASE
The chassis is also old school, a classic double-cradle steel frame with dual rear shocks on an unbraced swing-arm of elliptical steel tubing, but the sturdy 37mm forks took the bike wherever I pointed, albeit with some wallowing from the rear, while the simple disc brakes pulled its 151kg down effectively when needed.
The Pulsar coped well with the first half of the bumpy test section but then began to bounce like a pogo stick as the suspension oil overheated; nevertheless, 10 minutes on a smooth road and things were back to normal.
The bike has a very short wheelbase (only 1350mm) and the seating position is well forward, so the handlebars are closer than they look and the seating position quite upright. The seat is, however, surprisingly well padded, and the Pulsar is much more comfortable than it looks.
The only downside is that the mirror stems are way too short, giving nothing more than a clear view of your own elbows.
The styling of the fairing and tailpiece is very modern, a little at odds with the rounded fuel tank, but it's all held together by superb fit and finish that would do credit to any motorcycle, no matter where made.
The Bajaj Pulsar 220F tries to be too clever for its own good, but underneath the electrickery there's an old-fashioned, very well-built, rather sporty little quarter-litre commuter. As we said: ignore everything else.
Price: R23 499
Bike from: Bird Automotive.
Engine: 220cc air/oil-cooled four-stroke single.
Bore x stroke: 67 x 62.4mm.
Compression ratio: 9.5:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with two overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 15kW at 8500rpm.
Torque: 19Nm at 7000rpm.
Induction: 32mm Ucal UCD slide carburettor with automatic choke.
Ignition: Digital electronic with dual spark plugs.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension: 37mm inverted cartridge forks.
Rear Suspension: Elliptical steel-tube swing-arm with dual gas-charged hydraulic shock absorbers adjustable for preload.
Front brakes: 260mm disks with Bybre twin-piston floating calliper.
Rear brake: 230mm disc with Bybre single-piston floating calliper.
Front tyre: 90/90 - 17 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 120/80 - 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 822mm.
Kerb weight: 151kg.
Fuel tank: 15 litres.
Top speed (measured): 127km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 4.1 litres per 100km.
Service intervals: 5000km
Warranty: Two years or 30 000km.
Price: R23 499.
Bike from: Bird Automotive.