“Cool is being able to afford a bike that looks good and makes the owner feel good, but does not break the bank,” said the guy who designed this bike back when he first showed it to us in 2010. Finally, the Cleveland CycleWerks Misfit is available in the US. It’s not hard to define its USP —  the $3,200 price tag — but, for that price do you still get a real motorcycle? HFL is the first publication to in the world to ride the Misfit and, we’re extremely pleased to report that yes, the Misfit is fun, well-made and would make pretty much anyone feel good. It’s as real as any motorcycle gets, but we’d go further than that. The Misfit achieves something virtually no other motorcycle does. At any price.

Photos: Grant Ray

What’s wrong with the modern motorcycle?

Motorcycles today are wonderful things by any objective standard. Take the Honda CBR250R for example. Possibly the most significant bike of 2011, it packages all the traits Honda motorcycles are known for — performance, user-friendliness, quality, economy and a general cohesiveness no other brand really manages — into a $4,000 product that’s light, extraordinarily easy to ride and pretty much perfect for any new rider or heck, anyone on a budget or just looking for a fun little economical commuter.

The CBR250R’s problem isn’t the objective, it’s the subjective. Particularly in the styling department. A worldwide product, it was styled to appeal to the massive motorcycle markets in Asia first, European tiered licensing second and the US about a distant 20th. Honda sells more than 19 million motorcycles a year worldwide, but less than 100,000 street bikes a year in the US. It’s no wonder the company doesn’t choose to chase trends in the US, which creates a viable niche a company like Cleveland CycleWerks can fill.

Aside from styling, there’s also the question of involvement and character. A modern performance bike is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Even a 600 is faster than a GP bike from 25 years ago. For around $10k, you can get a vehicle that’d give any race car in the world a run for its money not just in performance, but in technology too. Ferrari got its five-valve head from Yamaha, a technology you can now find on the used market for around the price of this new Misfit. But, to fully appreciate even a 10-year old 600, you’re going to have to have nearly the talent of a GP rider, be willing to possibly put your life at risk and definitely your license. To enjoy riding a modern performance bike, you have to travel at least warp speed. Should riding a motorcycle really be about speed for speed’s sake?

Boom, bust and doing the ton

So the trend that Honda doesn’t want to chase is this whole cafe racer thing. Sure, cafe racers are bullshit bikes more about mimicking a trendy look than they are about achieving any mechanical function. And, as trends tend to do, they’ve reached their peak and are now on the decline. But, there’s no denying that they are popular, and popular amongst a subset of people who aren’t otherwise riding motorcycles — people under the age of 49.

The term cafe racer comes from 1960s England, where skint, spotty bikers would huddle around a cup of tea while wearing unfortunate white socks, attempt to emulate American culture, then tear all the unnecessary stuff off their bikes and tell tall tales about riding them fast. Back then, it was supposed to mostly be about breaking laws on fast bikes, but now it’s more of an excuse to dress up in questionable clothes and be all high and mighty about simplicity of purpose while being a slave to fashion.

Chasing young people buying their very first motorcycle, the cafe racer look is killer though. It’s hard enough to convince a member of a risk averse society, raised by their mother, to spend money on a motorcycle instead of an iPad anyways, so giving them something that looks like what they see in fashion magazines and in cheesy movies is just one less hurdle to clear on the path to bikerdom. Can you do the ton on a Misfit? Just about.

Classic looks, classic performance.

So the Misfit looks like an old motorcycle. And, it performs like one too. That it’s slow should come as no surprise. People complain that the 26bhp CBR250R isn’t as powerful as the 31bhp Ninja 250. So 14bhp is going to be even slower. That’s right, 14bhp, 12lb/ft and 296lbs (dry), none of which is impressive and all of which is only good for about 75mph.

But, the Misfit doesn’t feel slow. At least once it’s warmed up. Spoiled by all the fancy new motorcycles we get to ride, I haven’t had to operate a choke in over a year. So, when the Misfit was cutting out at every stop sign, just minutes into my test ride, I was initially pretty crestfallen. Well, until I realized that the petcock was off and there was a big |∅| symbol on the left bar. Fuel on, choke out and things were good to go. I could have made life easier by using the electric start, but I was trying to recapture a classic experience by using the kickstarter every time. Probably not the best idea stalled in the middle of a busy LA intersection. At least the Misfit starts easy.

Up onto the 405 and top speed was the least of my concerns. Heading up the on-ramp, every full-throttle, clutchless upshift had the bars wagging as the power kicked back in. Onto the concrete rain grooves and the skinny 90/90-18 front tire was tracking and wandering like it was possessed. In between bumper-to-bumper traffic, the tiny dimensions and low seat had me fearing people couldn’t see me. It’s as white knuckles as I’ve been since the last time I rode an RSV4 flat out at over 150mph. If riding a motorcycle is supposed to be about expending your brain’s capacity on nothing but riding, then just a simple A to B trip through west LA was really riding a motorcycle.

What you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

The $3,200 solution to the modern motorcycle

Part of the reason that first ride was so involving and so much fun was because I wasn’t going 75mph, I was going 95mph. That’s because our tester wasn’t exactly stock. CCW has two bikes in LA this week and, suckers for fast motorcycles that we are, we asked for the modified one first.

The two big add-ons, performance wise, are the tidy megaphone full exhaust system ($406) and its accompanying alterations to fueling (a 105 jet and a little labor). There’s also a Clubman bars ($120, but they’re really nice) and a little porting and polishing (performed by Tom Weaver) was done to the head as well. So equipped, this cafe racer will do the ton. Invest a little more and Scott Colosimo, who runs Cleveland, reports a GPS-verified 112mph top speed is possible. I wouldn’t want to do that on the 405. Not on the stock Duro tires.

The unique 250cc engine is based on Honda CG architecture, but modified to CCW’s specs with a unique head design and counter balancer. The cam is allegedly profiled for “performance,” a word you use loosely when 14bhp is being discussed. In modified guise, the power band is wide, with a decent rush at the top end. It’s also smooth, but characterful, feeling much more like the engine of a 1960s Brit bike than anything currently being churned out by a major manufacturer. Despite its lack of power, it’s extremely fun to use and you quickly try and see how long you can keep it on WOT without lifting, trying to carry as much speed as possible because regaining it takes so long.

The company plans a full catalog of accessory and upgrade components, all of which will be made in the USA. Eventually, motorcycle assembly could take place here. Remember that Scott’s original plan was to make the motorcycles domestically, only going to China when every American factory was so afraid of the liability, they refused to make motorcycle parts.

Speed is as speed does.

The $3,200 solution to the modern motorcycle

I tweeted a picture of the Misfit on Sunday, to which someone promptly replied, “My Thruxton doesn’t even have remote reservoir shocks!” This is where the Misfit starts to get really exciting. Those remote reservoirs aren’t just there for looks either, they really work. The spring rates are a bit heavy, but there’s good damping, so the ride is firm and responsive. The USD (yes, upside down forks on a $3,200 bike) are much the same. Bounce your body weight on them and they compress, then extend in a controlled, well-damped manner. It’s not quite Ohlins, but it’s better action than, say, a Gladius or Ninja 650.

The quality of that suspension is mirrored on virtually all the other components too. The dark chrome finish on the motor is deep and lustrous, the plastic parts are thick and sturdy, the switchgear moves with reassuringly solid feel. The foot pegs and levers — made from el cheapo pressed steel on the CBR250 — are here reassuringly thick and sturdy. The only sources of disappointment are if you look very closely at the paint, there is a little bit of orange peel; the CCW tank logos are stickers, not lacquered in; and there’s one or two bolts that are slightly longer than necessary, protruding a bit beyond their threads. I was not expecting anything like this quality of finish. It looks and feels like a decent European motorcycle.

The $3,200 solution to the modern motorcycle

Making every stock Japanese motorcycle look silly, the brake lines are stainless instead of rubber. When we got the bike, it had 22 miles on it and the pads weren’t bedded in yet, requiring a big handful of front lever to stop it. But by the 10th mile, they were mated to the wavy 290mm disc and you could trail them through a corner with two fingers and plenty of feel. There’s more than enough power too.

Get over the pint-sized dimensions and scrawny tires and the Misfit becomes a surprisingly able companion. It changes direction incredibly quickly and holds a line with confidence and without wobble. CCW is planning accessory rearsets, these stock mid-mount foot pegs do limit ground clearance a little.

A classic motorcycle for the modern world.

The most surprising thing about the Misfit? I never once found myself qualifying something with “for the price” or “for a first effort.” This is a genuinely good motorcycle, one with unique character, that just happens to be surprisingly cheap. In a world of monthly payments, it might be hard to get your mind around how cheap $3,200 is, so maybe this will help — CCW, a tiny company, is offering finance at $85 a month with $0 down. I don’t need to apply any adjectives to that.

The Misfit isn’t going to be for everyone. It is slow, it is small and it is made in China. But if you’re looking for a bike to learn how to ride on, one to provide impossibly cheap transportation or a fun little basis for a project, then it’s going to give you all the benefits of a modern bike — real brakes, reliability, a warranty and monthly payments — combined with the character, involvement and looks of a classic.

But yeah, for the price and as a first real bike (or a first with rear suspension anyways), the Misfit is simply stunning. As a sign of things to come, it couldn’t be any more positive, but it’s also a realistic, appealing product right now. You’re right Scott, this is cool.

Cleveland CycleWerks

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