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|01-20-2016, 03:26 AM||#1|
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A 5,000-Mile Ride on the Chinese-Built CSC RX3
It’s 103 degrees in the Mojave Desert, and I’m holding California Scooter Company’s (CSC) Zongshen RX3 250 twistgrip wide open. The analog tach needle—situated above a rectangular gray digital speedometer display—settles on 8,200 rpm, a few hundred rpm shy of this Chinese-built 250’s 9,000-rpm redline.
They're Bringing Quality
China is coming and they’re bringing quality—5,000 miles on 10 Chinese-built motorcycles without a single bike-stopping failure. That was impossible a decade ago.
Tucking in behind the oddly shaped adventure-style windshield, I see revs rise to 8,800. We need more speed, dammit. Hiking my onto the passenger seat fills the turbulent gap between my backside and the smallish, rack-mounted plastic top box. I reposition my arm tight against the fuel tank and tuck my left hand into the calm pocket of air behind the shield.
That did it: 9,000 rpm at 88 mph indicated. Factor in an estimated 10 percent speedometer error and this Zongshen and Piaggio collaboration is ripping eastward through super-heated desert air at 80 mph. Which is pretty good considering the RX3 is a roomy, full-size, decidedly un-aerodynamic 250cc adventure-touring bike weighing a claimed 388 pounds dry.
All Together Now
That’s Mr. Peng, Mr. Kong, Mr. Tzo, Mr. Kyle, and Mr. Tony: five Chinese guys who won a dream-vacation contest put on by Zongshen in China, along with a translator, a couple of moto-journalists, and three CSC employees.
I’m not alone on this Sino-thrash. I’m with Mr. Peng, Mr. Kong, Mr. Tzo, Mr. Kyle, and Mr. Tony: five Chinese guys who won a dream-vacation contest put on by Zongshen in China. Hugo, a Zongshen translator/engineer, Gabriel and Juan, two moto-journalists from the Columbian magazine, DeMoto, and three CSC employees round out our entourage. Starting this many people causes a traffic jam wherever we go. All in, we’re rolling with 10 Zongshen riders and a giant yellow Penske box truck containing two spare motorcycles, our gear, and boxes of parts.
Until a few weeks ago I would have said a Zongshen was one of those curved, Nepalese knives, like the kind Gurkhas carry. Turns out they’re one of the largest motorcycle builders in China. Last year Zongshen produced more than 400,000 complete motorcycles and 1 million motorcycle engines destined for use by even lesser known manufacturers.
ADV Styling With A Sweet Price
Fully equipped with bags and top box for less than the price of a few hundred hamburgers. Zongshen hits the ADV-styling/price sweet spot.
A cursory exam won’t find Zongshen written anywhere on my motorcycle. There’s a round CSC emblem and a few cryptic decals saying things like “Speed” or maybe “Freeze.” That’s bound to cause confusion. Slightly different specification RX3s are sold in other countries under different brand names using different graphics. I think Zongshen is needlessly rattling consumer nerves by not projecting a consistent brand, but then again I didn’t sell as many motorcycles as it did last year. In fact, not many people did.
It’s cooled down to 100 degrees in Arizona. Idling at a standstill in the long lineup to enter Grand Canyon National Park I find sweat trickling down my back, down my legs, down my socks then pooling into a salt-water pond in the soles of my boots. I am soaking wet and miserable inside ATGATT. Two small electric fans whir reassuringly behind the Zong’s split radiator system, a setup that would look at home on any modern dirt bike. The engine-temperature bar graph displays five of six squares but goes no higher. Whose bright idea was it to lead a group tour of the western desert in July?
Keeping this many motorcycles together and headed in the same direction was tough. This was one of the few times we could get all the Chinese riders to stand still. They were constantly wandering off to explore America.
It was Joe Berk’s idea. Berk is CSC’s engineer, public relations flack, and all-around frisky sexagenarian. Over the years, Chinese-built motorcycles have earned a terrible reputation; even our Chinese riders don’t own Chinese brands. Berk hopes a 5,000-mile blast around the western US will prove that the RX3 is a better idea than Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
And it’s a lot better. The RX3 sports a clean-sheet design with DNA donated from both China and Italy. This engine is not a knockoff of a 1970s Honda. The engine parts have an expensive, sand-cast look, like a KTM or a Husqvarna. Shift and brake levers are pretty castings. Fit and finish rivals the Big Four, though the older orange RX3s on our ride look as if their paint might be fading.
Rolling into Colorado we make an unscheduled stop to pick up a few batteries from Walmart. The batteries Zongshen supplied as original equipment are developing leaks at the glue seam. Once this seam begins leaking, battery acid dribbles onto the right-side frame rail then—further downstream—the rear brake master cylinder. Hugo is apologizing to everyone, and Berk is on the phone reaming out someone in China about the shoddy batteries. Zongshen promises to use higher-quality batteries in the next shipment of RX3s. When you order your Zong from CSC make sure you ask for the upgraded battery. Tell ’em Motorcyclist said so.
A Clear View
Zongshen’s shield pokes a good-size hole in the world.
The RX3 sports a clean-sheet design with DNA donated from both China and Italy.
Like all high-performance four-stroke 250s this counterbalanced motor loves to rev—6,000 to 9,000 rpm is its sweet spot. As long as you keep the crankshaft spinning near redline you’ll manage highway traffic without much trouble. I rode hundreds of interstate miles WFO and nothing metallic flew out of the crankcase.
The Zong’s transmission is a smooth-shifting six-speed unit with action that’s just a little notchier than the best gearboxes. There’s a rumor that RX3s have a neutral position, and I can now confirm these rumors to be true. At least you’ll never miss the first-to-second shift because you’ll never find neutral from first.
Sturgis, South Dakota, marks our eastern apogee. Now we turn west to the Pacific Coast. After we replaced four leaking batteries and a few headlight bulbs the Zongs are settling into a trouble-free, 300-mile-a-day pace. Berk’s throbbing vein is submerging back into his forehead, and he is actually starting to enjoy the trip. I scramble through this brief window of tranquility and try to figure out Zongshen’s unusual single-level marketing plan.
Sturgis, South Dakota, marks our eastern apogee. Now we turn west to the Pacific Coast.
CSC of Azusa, California, slots into the supply chain as Zongshen’s exclusive importer for all of North America, which surprisingly still includes Canada. CSC-spec RX3s come with Delphi fuel injection (some countries get carburetors), a 17-inch rear wheel (up from 15), a useful bump in alternator output (from 220 to 300 watts), and a special wiring harness incorporating connectors near the dash for an optional (CSC supplied) 12-volt receptacle and 5-volt USB port. Included is a nifty, Off-A1-A2 handlebar switch that supplies 12-volt power to accessory connectors hiding under the seat. The wiring to these connectors is fairly light, and I suggest using a Bosch-type cube relay to operate high current loads like space lasers.
A slightly thicker option seat is slightly more comfortable.
The RX3 is sold online or you can pick one up ready to ride in Azusa; bring $3,495 plus $230 for documentation and assembly. If you buy online, the bike will ship assembled except for the windshield and mirrors. After bolting them on you’ll need to add fuel, check the oil level, and hit the starter button. The Zongshen comes with a two-year, unlimited-mileage warranty.
Since there’s only the one dealership, RX3 riders should be somewhat mechanically inclined. CSC will send out warranty replacement parts for you to install yourself, or if you’re the type who can screw up eating a wonton (note to self: stop with the Chinese jokes), CSC will phone an independent motorcycle shop near your location and contract them to do warranty repairs. Anyway, motorcycle riders are supposed to be adventurous, and the RX3 is as simple to work on as a modern motorcycle can be. Part of the fun of owning one will be learning a new trade.
Our Chinese riders are thrilled with everything American. They stop frequently hoping to find something, anything, made in the US for a souvenir. Sadly, except for rocks and trees, “Made in China” is printed on everything they find, and our halting for shopping is freaking Berk out. To combat the delays he begins our days earlier and earlier, culminating in kickstands up at 5 a.m.
Controls At The Ready
The bar switch for owner-installed farkles is a great idea.
We leave Cody, Wyoming, with the temperature near freezing. Riding through the dark toward Yellowstone the RX thrums a soft patter. This goofy adventure windshield is one of the best I’ve ever sat behind. Quiet noise-wise and quiet turbulence-wise, the RX shield knocks a Joe-size hole in the chilly atmosphere without buffeting my helmet. The rest of the bodywork along with the comfy seat and ergonomics make the RX3 a nice place to spend the day.
There’s nothing like the incredible scenery and dense traffic of Yellowstone to get a Zonger’s blood up, and we start making crazy passes while simultaneously shooting photos backward, sideways, and the ever-popular ride-off-the-side-of-the-road low-angle buffalo shot. A couple of riders nearly get run over by motorhomes, and the rubbernecking—combined with a bit of handlebar-bumping roadracing—causes Berk to stop the convoy at a sloping overlook.
“That’s it! Put the f—king cameras away! You guys are riding like idiots!” Berk’s vein has made a reappearance. “No more photos! No more passing! I’ll load every one of these f—king bikes into the truck if I see another camera!” Hugo is doing a fine job of translating and, if anything, he seems even more upset than Berk. As if on cue, a Zongshen rolls off its kickstand and smashes into the guardrail. Berk glares at the scratched windshield and says, “There’s 15 bucks down the drain.” I can’t believe how inexpensive parts are for the RX3.
Any color you like except black.
Everybody keeps telling me these ADV-styled Soft Roaders are really meant for the pavement. Okay, you guys win. I won’t mention that the Zongshen’s adjustable monoshock swingarm and upside-down fork nail the look but give a jarring ride off-road. I won’t tell you the front and rear suspension tops out with a clang over bigger bumps and that in the dirt you’ll want to keep the speed under 30 mph. On gravel roads the RX3 does much better and on asphalt the RX3 performs great, slicing a tidy line through the twisty highways leading us to Oregon’s Columbia River.
Until you have to stop. The front brake—not very strong to start with—fades fairly easily. In addition, a strange grip-and-release feel develops under light application. It felt as if the disc surface had varying levels of friction and the disc gets coated with a dark munge. I managed to burn the disc clean by dragging the front brake like a maniac, and the problem went away for a while. I suspect better brake pads will be a huge improvement up front. Oddly, the rear brake has none of these issues.
The cool, dense air of the Pacific Coast widens the RX3’s powerband, the engine now pulling strongly from as low as 4,000 rpm. The newfound torque makes burnouts a breeze, and fuel mileage has improved also, at times exceeding 70 mpg.
For riders who want to overload the little 250cc bike even more than the stock luggage allows, CSC sells a huge aluminum system that completely replaces the Zong rack and gear.
Berk is posting up a real-time blog, so all along our route-crazy Zongshen riders have been riding out to meet us. George rode all the way from Arizona to Idaho on his Zong. Rob and Mark are tagging along for two states. Justin did the Idaho-to-Portland portion. Another guy rode southern Oregon to California with us. These Zongers display the kind of zealotry for a brand normally only seen in Harley riders. To a man they loved their RX3s and were swapping homegrown farkling tips like old men discussing their knee operations.
During our ride the Chinese riders have been asking us, “Where are all the people?”
I guess 16 days on the road in a foreign country gets to a guy. The different time zones, the high mileage, whatever it is… The Chinese riders come to blows at our Portland motel. Berk is trying to sort out what the kicking and spitting is about but gets nowhere. There’s a lot of pride involved; nobody is backing down. Hugo is apologizing, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” When you don’t understand the language, all fights seem ridiculous. Berk decides the best course of action is to go have a beer. Hugo separates Mr. Kong and Mr. Tony and re-sorts the riding order by putting them at opposite ends of the pack. Bury it deep into a hard little ball, boys.
Price Point Perks
Considering how inexpensive this motorcycle is, you can actually afford this stuff.
During our ride the Chinese riders have been asking us, “Where are all the people?” We find them Sunday rolling into Los Angeles. Six lanes of traffic at a standstill. This goes on for 30 miles and 100 degrees. The Zongshens never overheat. All 10 of them make it home to CSC surviving 5,000 miles of merciless pounding.
I like riding these ADV 250s. It’s a less-is-more, how-far-can-you-go-on-a-buck philosophy versus throwing money at adventure. Some of the RX owners we met have big bikes at home, but they prefer to ride the small-bore Zongs. More than one told me the RX3 made him feel like a teenager again. Most importantly for Zongshen, Mr. Peng—who has three BMWs back in China—says he will buy a RX3 when he gets home. I’m not sure how that helps CSC in the US, but then again they sold a lot more motorcycles last year than I did.
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