Yamaha Virago 250
The Yamaha Virago 250 is a solid choice for an entry-level cruiser, with its smaller size a less intimidating beginner bike than its larger cruiser siblings.
The Ninja rose to the top in our four-bike comparo due to its overall refinement, but depending on what the individual rider was looking for, the other three machines were solid options. It isn't fair to compare the runner-ups straight across the board, so we'll call it a three-way tie for second, with the tie-breaker depending on what kind of machine the newbie is looking for.
If you are looking for an easy to ride entry-level cruiser, the Yamaha Virago 250 represents a solid, reliable choice. Powered by an air-cooled 60-degree V-Twin engine the Virago delivers a manageable amount of power, with a more low-end torquey feel than the high-strung Ninja. An undersquare cruiser bore and stroke of 49mm x 66mm account for the gruntier bottom end and add up to a 249cc displacement. A solitary 26mm Mikuni carburetor controls the air-fuel mixture and its choke did an admirable job starting things up in the morning, although it ranked just above the DR in that respect. Dispensing the power to the chain-driven rear wheel is a five-speed transmission.
The Virago was in a dead heat with the DR200 for second-place in acceleration, with the dual-sport Suzuki seeming to have more zip down low but the Yamaha gains the advantage on the top end and is able to achieve higher speeds overall. Next to the Ninja, the Virago was the most street-capable machine, with the small cruiser able to handle most anything you can find on the road. Freeway seat time on the backroad-oriented Virago won't endear you to the Yamaha, but you can motor along in the slow lane at a respectable 70 mph. Freeway commuting is not its forte, yet the 250 Yamaha is an efficient transporter getting at least 55-plus mpg figures, with our last tank of gas calculating an impressive 72-mpg figure.
The air-cooled 60-degree V-Twin powering the Virago 250 provides a more low-end torquey feel than the Ninja, which makes for easy acceleration and a capable, controllable powerplant for the street.
The classic air-cooled Twin delivery provides just what the cruiser-oriented newb is looking for, albeit in a smaller package. The diminutive size of the Yamaha cruiser is both its strength and weakness as a machine, with the Virago boasting an inviting 27-inch seat height to encourage smaller-statured men or women who would be ill-matched to ridiculous size of some of the larger cruisers available. The low seat wasn't comfortable on longer rides, however, and the reclined riding position didn't feel as good as the Ninja's. These judgments are a matter of personal taste, however, as one of our test riders found himself surprised by how enamored he became with the Virago's riding position.
One glaring problem with the Virago's ergos, however, are its smallish foot controls. The shifter required a contortion of the left foot to make an upshift. This annoyance was complimented by the rear brake pedal, which was so high up that just resting your right foot in a normal position felt like you were actuating the rear binder. To counter the problem on the right side control, the rider had to either hold his right foot poised above the pedal in a maneuver that would soon tire their flexed right shin muscle, or you could rest your foot sideways and unavailable to initiate an immediate stop - not the best thing for a new rider.
The Virago's small foot controls were a problem for even the most diminutive of our testers, like the 5'1" Rachel. A rider's right foot must be lifted In order to reach the high brake pedal.
At first I thought the small foot controls on the Virago were exaggerated by my Lurch-like size 12 sleds. At 6'1", I felt like maybe I was just too big for the little cruiser, so it was somewhat of a surprise when even the daintiest of our female riders lodged the same complaints about the Virago foot controls. Examining the shifter and brake closer didn't reveal any quick fixes to the foot control dilemma, so it is a concern the potential rider will have to evaluate for themselves on a test ride.
The Virago took a lot of abuse from the more experienced riders here in the office as it sat in our garage. It looks small and it feels small when you are on the machine. Yet the funny thing about the Virago was in spite of the knocks it was taking, when turning laps around the kart track I felt it was neck and neck with the Piaggio in pure fun factor. Out on the street I noticed the same phenomenon, where in spite of my initial impressions, the Virago started to grow on me. Even the uncomfortable riding position became more bearable once I dived head on into the cruiser mindset and leaned back, letting my hands pull on the high handlebar to take some of the weight off the small of my back.
Tipping the scales at 317 lbs and with the longest wheelbase of the group at 58.7 inches, the Yamaha offered up a stable ride and low-center of gravity. Out of the four, it was the least agile in compact maneuvering, but that's in comparison to bicycle-quick steering on the other bikes. It was an able performer out on the road. Ground clearance wasn't great, with even our green test riders able to drag the pegs on the kart track, but a true newb shouldn't need to pull out the insane lean angles while they get their feet wet.
The Virago's 58.7-inch wheelbase is the longest of the group and, weighing in at 317 lbs, the Yamaha provides a low center of gravity and a stable ride.
The lack of wind protection assures the newbie will get to experience all the elements, but isn't unbearable by any means. With the rider seated so low to the ground and already leaning back, the wind buffeting doesn't effect the stability of the bike, like it does on the DR, but it is not as good as the minimal protection offered by the Ninja. The Virago's utilitarian instrumentation ranks in the back half of our test bike and doesn't come close to measuring up to the Ninja, but gets the job done.
Aside from the much-complained-about foot controls, there isn't any great weakness on the Virago. The clutch and transmission don't throw any curves and the suspension components, a telescopic fork and preload-adjustable twin rear shocks with a respective 5.5 and 3.9 inches of wheel travel provide more than adequate stability. The Yamaha's front disc brake was second-best in my book, with the 282mm front and rear drum delivering all the stopping power a bike like the Virago could conceive of needing.
Providing an easy-to-ride package, the Virago is a great fit for the cruiser beginner, although the small machine might have a short shelf-life in the garage of a 5'10" rider like MCUSA's Marketing Manager, Erick Barney.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Virago was revealed by its biggest supporter out of our batch of testers, who felt he might outgrow the 250 Twin too fast to justify a purchase. We had a Harley-Davidson Sportster along with our group (since we had more testers than bikes) and a couple laps on the 883cc Sportster got our Virago supporter's wheels to turning: "Why settle for the Virago when I could jump straight up to the Sportster?"
"The 250 wouldn't last me long, maybe six months at most," explained MCUSA Web Merchandiser Jamison Challeen, who picked the Virago as his favorite. "More power would be needed from, oh, I don't know, say a Harley 880 Sportster for instance."
The quick answer to the above question would be the $3000 jump in price for the H-D than the $3499 Virago, but the earlier point is still valid. Even with the potential rider outgrowing it, the Virago is a solid option for smaller beginners who want an entry-level cruiser to learn the ropes before making the leap up to the bigger machines.