The Benelli motorcycle brand was born in Italy in 1911, and after becoming a popular marque, consistent race winner and one of the most prolific bike makers in Europe, Benelli stumbled in the face of rising Asian competition and essentially dissolved in the late 1970s in a merger with another Italian icon, Moto Guzzi.
But before the lights went out, Benelli produced some impressive machines, including two roadsters with inline-six cylinder motors, the 750 and 900cc Seí models. Both are now valuable and sought-after icons of the era.
Jump to the mid-1990s and Benelli surfaced once again, producing the stylish and unique Tornado Tré line of modern sportbikes, based on a 900cc and then an 1,130cc 3-cylinder motor coupled to an innovative frame and a fan-driven under-seat cooling system. Benelli even got back into racing, briefly, before funds ran out again.
Now, Benelli has returned once again, and while the brand is still little-known in the U.S., its future may be more assured, but it’s also… complicated. At least new bikes are beginning to emerge, including in the U.S., and fortunately, one of the 350 U.S. dealers is close to Portland, and I recently picked up a zero-mile Leoncino 500 street bike for an extended review period. It was right during the heart of Oregon’s winter and my riding time was limited by snow, rain, fog and freezing temperatures, but once the weather cooperated, it was always fun to go for a spin on the friendly Leoncino 500, which was first introduced back in 2017 and has had few changes since.
Leoncino 500 Hard Parts
At the heart of the $6,799 Leoncino 500, of which there is a street and nearly identical “Trail” version, is a liquid-cooled, fuel injected 4-valve parallel twin that makes 48 horsepower and just over 33 pound feet of torque. Power flows through a six-speed gearbox and chain drive. Wheels for the regular “street” 500 are cast aluminum while the Trail gets spoked hoops, but the price also rises to $7,199. An LCD instrument panel (below) includes the regular speedo and tacho bits but also includes gear position, coolant temperature, ambient air temperature, a gas gauge, clock, trip meter and the usual warning lights.
The front “upside down” forks are preload adjustable through small screwdriver-accessible adjusters in the somewhat comically large fork caps, while a handy preload adjustment knob allows quick changes to the rear monoshock. A trio of Benelli-branded disc brakes with ABS provide stopping power, and bright LEDs light the way forward. My review bike came in a snappy red and black finish that got more compliments than I expected, and both riders and non riders were interested in the machine. A small figurehead, the Lion of Pesaro, rides proudly on the tip of the front fender.
As noted, the Leoncino 500 had no miles on it when I received it, so I followed break-in protocols and kept the RPMs down early on, which isn’t easy since the bike is geared very short. The 499.6cc P-twin is a revvy but smooth motor and as the miles added up, I explored the more northern reaches of the tachometer. With the short gearing, acceleration was brisk in most every gear without being terrifying, and I often found myself tooting around the neighborhood in 5th or 6th gear at 35mph, so there was a lot of shifter dancing with the Leoncino, although the engine seemed happy to troll around town and pull from low RPMs in tall gears without complaint or bogging, thanks to a well-sorted EFI. While regearing the bike would be something I’d do if I owned it, the short gearing also means easy clutch work from a stop for new riders.
Despite the gearing, the Leoncino is smooth enough and powerful enough for highway riding, and flows down the road with stability and a compliant but firm ride. The seat is firm and mostly flat, with plenty of space for two normal-sized adults. Riding solo, I could have used a bit more leg room, but that’s not unusual with my 34-inch inseam, and overall the bike was comfortable even on longer rides, with the fairly flat saddle allowing me to move around as needed so I could stretch out a bit. Even with the stock gearing, I never balked at freeway riding on the Leoncino, and in a pinch, the bike easily cleared triple digits while dispatching some semis on a long uphill passing maneuver.
Most “urban” bikes in this price range go with what seems like a minimum of braking hardware (typically one disc front and back), but the Leoncino’s triplet of rather large (for this kind of bike) semi-floating discs were both powerful and had surprisingly good feedback and progressive feel with no surprises. I had to lean hard on the binders when a car rapidly slowed ahead of me unexpectedly and I avoided a collision with room to spare, and I never felt the ABS kick in except when I purposely triggered it by trying to lock the back wheel.
Suffice to say, the ABS worked as expected, but overall I was thankful for such prodigious braking power on a budget bike. Other nice bits included adjustable levers, a fairly stylish 2-1 exhaust stack and overall high levels of fit and finish. I never had a problem or issue with the Leoncino 500 despite riding in very cold and wet weather much of the review period.
Conclusions (and That Issue)
Overall, the Benelli Leoncino 500 is a fun, functional and even stylish motorcycle, and riding it brought back some memories of my first “big” bike, a 500cc Honda from the 1970s. Back then, I was coming from a 50cc scooter, and the move up to a 500 was like going from a Pinto to a Lambo, and even today, despite the constant escalation in displacement, a 500cc machine is still an excellent choice for a first “big” bike. A 500 is harder to outgrow than the resurgent class of sub-400cc “beginner licence tier” bikes out now and the mini-moto 125s that are so popular now but can’t be ridden (legally) on expressways. The slim Leoncino strikes a good balance between a lithe urban commuter and a longer-legged steed capable of taking a rider (and passenger) across borders without feeling like it’s working too hard.
In truth the Leoncino is probably geared “correctly” for its motor, which loves to spin but does not vibrate at anything close to an annoying level unless it’s getting close to its 9,000rpm redline, which in top gears puts it at extra-legal speeds anyway. Dropping back down to 70mph in 6th has the engine in its sweet spot for passing, but I’d still add a tooth up front or drop a couple out back to make in-town riding a bit less of a tap-dance, and make 6th more of a touring-capable overdrive. Yes, that would take some shine off the Leoncino’s acceleration, but this isn’t a motorcycle you’re going to race Ninja or CBRs with anyay, and it has enough pop to smoke most any car off the line, regeared or not.
The Leoncino 500 is not ground-breaking, exotic, or fragile. It’s a solid mid-size machine with enough poke to get riders across town or whole states without issue. The motor seems thoroughly modern and reliable, the brakes stand out above the competition, which would include the (much less stylish IMO) Honda Rebel 500, all those sub-400cc bikes out now, and the zillions of used EX500 and GS500 classics all over the used markets. Fuel injection, ABS, LED lights, mondo brakes, a zippy motor and a modern look all are big plus points for the fun, affordable Leoncino.
The “issue” Benelli and the Leoncino has, of course, is that it is made in China. In 2005, Chinese scooter and light motorcycle maker Qianjiang Motor Group, also known as QJ Motor, bought the Benelli name and began making home-market Benelli scooters and light motorcycles, while the signature Tré big bikes soldiered on until 2012 in limited numbers. In 2015, Chinese automotive megacorporation Geely, which also owns or controls Volvo, Polestar, Lotus and others, acquired Q.J./Qianjiang, and began production of larger Benelli motorcycles that could be sold internationally, with Qianjiang/Geely strongly noting that Benelli bike design is still focused at Benelli’s Italian facility in Pesaro, Italy. The motorcycles are physically built in China, with Qianjiang saying they are produced under the watchful eyes of Benelli’s Italian QC personnel. Geely/Qianjiang clearly understand the Made In China label may be a liability in some places and only quietly mention where the bikes are made on the website. Yes, you can buy Chinese motorcycles in the U.S. right now, but those are mostly very lightweight playbikes, not serious open-road machines like the Leoncino 500. But clearly, that is changing.
To my mind, it is hypocritical to immediately cast doubt, aspersions or assumptions upon a Chinese-made motorcycles. Chinese companies make engines aplenty for other marques such as Honda and BMW and no one seems to be complaining about it – or at least not much. But visit most any online motorcycle forum and you’ll find plenty of pushback around whole motorcycles made in the PRC. While discussing the Benelli in one riding forum, one commenter posted “Made in China? I just stopped reading.” I encountered similar sentiments when I drove a Chinese-made Polestar 2 EV in 2021 and finally revealed to a man admiring it that was from China. “I’d never buy that car,” he suddenly and angrily told me after photographing it with a smartphone clearly made in China. He no doubt went home to watch his TV, use his computer, and listen to his audio system, all products that were likely made in China, and are bought by Americans and others without a second thought, or at least not much of one. So why not cars and motorcycles if they are competent, engaging machines?
The answer: geopolitics and hypocrisy to a significant degree. I encountered similar sentiment decades ago when attending a motorcycle rally on my Japanese motorcycle, where it was called “jap crap,” “rice grinder” and other insults while being superior in almost every way to most of the motorcycles around it. But Japan’s relationship with the U.S. is very different than that of China. Japan, the once-sworn enemy, largely adopted democratic systems and western manufacturing concepts – and eventually improved upon them – following defeat in World War II. Over time, the performance and quality of Japanese tech, cars and motorcycles overcame much (but not all) of the ill-will initially directed against them, so much so that Japanese car companies now operate huge assembly plants in the United States, and have for decades.
But despite China expanding their manufacturing footprint inside the U.S. and Benelli having a 350-strong dealer network in the U.S., Benelli and other Chinese car and motorcycle brands have a harder time of it due to the current contentious, almost cold-war trade-deficit mentality in the U.S., which isn’t helped by legitimate concerns around human rights, press and religious freedoms, intellectual property protections and other issues in China. Why cell phones, TVs and other expensive Chinese goods get a political and retail pass while cars and motorcycles don’t is a complicated, emotional issue potential Benelli buyers will have to work out for themselves.
The bottom line for the Benelli Leoncino 500, once you remove the political noise and focus on the machine itself, is that it’s a capable, comfortable, technically sophisticated, affordable and even stylish middle-weight standard-style motorcycle that’s a solid tool for getting around town while also extending a rider’s range to the open road. Riders will have to decide if those qualities are enough to convince them to spend their money on a motorcycle made in China.