Tiny Explosion: 2018 Benelli TNT135

By Surj Gish
Photography: Max Klein
Rider: Fish

Remember when Hyundai first came to America in 1986? It took people a while to catch on that these weren’t just mispronounced Hondas, and decades later, though many car buyers still don’t consider the South Korean brand’s cars to be quite at Toyota or Honda levels, perception has improved along with market share—CarSalesBase.com puts Hyundai’s 2017 market share in the US at 3.86%, not quite half of Nissan’s 8.35% or Honda’s 8.62%.

Hyundai faced opposition similar to what the now-gold standard Japanese brands (cars and motorcycles) faced upon entering the US market: a mix of nationalism and racism, bolstered by lingering World War II enmity, blended with perception by many Americans that Japanese vehicles were nothing more than “Jap crap.” The difference: Hyundai, and later Kia, were up against the customary American meatheadedness and the Japanese brands, which by the mid-Eighties had begun to build trusted reputations as high-quality automakers. Hyundai succeeded by offering exceptionally long, comprehensive warranties to help assuage concerns of potential buyers and very favorable pricing, but also made their cars better and better each year, slowly improving Hyundai’s perception and reputation. That shit takes time.

“Come on, man. How’s this econobox history lesson wanking have anything to do with motorcycles?”

Stick with me for a minute, ok? (Or if this is just too much, go read some of the inane “lifestyle” shit that passes for moto-journalism elsewhere.)

Benelli, a formerly-Italian brand established in 1911, was acquired in 2007 by the Qianjiang Group, one of the largest motorcycle makers in China. The brand is distributed in the US by SSR Motorsports, a company that started out in 2002 as a distributor of pit bikes, and now sells a variety of small-ish, inexpensive motorcycles and scooters. Recent moves with the Benelli brand, along with Kymco’s seemingly endless trudge toward legitimacy and acceptance by the motorcycling community may point to a coming Hyundai scenario in the motorcycling world—after all, most, if not all, of the Japanese and European majors have long been building bikes outside their homelands for years now, with mostly good results, like Honda’s Thai-built models.

Benelli isn’t employing Hyundai’s longer warranty approach—the TNT135 has a one year warranty just like the Grom and Z125 Pro—although Kymco’s comically named K-Pipe, a pseudo-mini we rode (and raced!) a while back, has double that, at two years. But Benelli’s pricing on the 135, which started at $2,499 and now stands at $2,649, is $750 cheaper than a non-ABS Grom and $550 less than a Z125. Further, the company has clearly next-leveled everything from design to materials on this model, and we’re told to expect the same from the TNT300 and TNT600. Fish loves to bitch about switchgear, wire routing, and the like, but after his first look at the TNT said: “Nothing looks or feels cheap. The switchgear and gauges are solid.”

This is all very interesting—at least to nerds like me—but the critical question here is whether the TNT135 competes with—or beats—the Grom and Z125 in the all-important urban thrashing these bikes inspire.

Dyno-mite

Benelli’s approach to the TNT135 was surprisingly “American,” in the sense of how American auto companies used to do things. It’s a little bigger, a little heavier, and most importantly, faster and more powerful than the incumbent Grom and Z125.

The TNT is built around a fuel-injected, air and oil-cooled, dual-spark, SOHC 4-stroke single displacing 134.7 cubic centimeters, which delivers a claimed 11.3 horsepower and 7.4 foot-pounds of torque to its tiny rear wheel via a five-speed tranny. All this motivation is nestled into a typically Italian-looking trellis frame with a 41 mm upside-down fork on the front and a single shock out back. You get 120 mm of travel in the front, and 126 mm in the rear, and the wheelbase is 47.8”. All this weighs in at 266 pounds wet, according to the press materials—although the SSR/Benelli website shows the bike’s weight as 255.7 pounds.

It looks the part, exuding Italian design and soul in ways that must have the Ducatisti vomiting their bike night fashion show pizza in ristorante restrooms. Hell, it looks like a goddamn MV Agusta—just look at that pipe, those taillights. There are a few lumps here and there—like the massive license plate carrier—but overall, the styling is impressively attractive.

That the styling is so heavily inspired by the Benelli name’s Italian heritage is a bit contentious for some. There are disingenuous little green, white and red graphics on the TNT that obviously mimic the Italian flag, and for a lot of people that’s enough to trigger an assumption that the bike is Italian-made, and therefore cool like all those other storied Italian brands. It’s funny, and a little sad, that pointing out the bike is actually made in China still brings a crestfallen look to the formerly enthusiastic face of someone who just said, “Italian, huh? Cool!”

But forget about the socio-economic stuff. The bike works. I liked it so much I was sneaking away from my desk every afternoon for giddy runs up and down Redwood-Pinehurst Raceway, which I should point out is not Redwood and Pinehurst Road, but rather the name of CityBike’s private testing track hidden in the hills east of Oakland.

The suspension is very good out of the box. We usually say “off the showroom floor” or something like that, but this racy little thing could hypothetically come in a box. Yes, it’d be a big box, but still. I should also point out that “very good” is relative. No one will mistake these springalings for Öhlins, but SSR/Benelli’s claims about the suspension performance aren’t just marketing—the beefy fork in particular is significantly better than the Grom’s applesauce-damped front end. Max said, “It blew the Grom out of the water, and while lightly sprung, felt a bit better to me than the Z.”

For all the talk about the bigger engine and greater power, the comparison here is a little less clear. Yes, the TNT has at least ten MPH more at the top end but between gearing and engine feel that Fish characterized as “a little tractor-ish,” it feels a slightly lacking in the low end—that’s why his feet are on the passenger pegs in the wheelie photos.  The trick with minis is carrying all your speed through the corners, and the Benelli’s running gear lets you do that—take advantage of that elevated ceiling, and your Grom-mounted adversaries will only know the sting of defeat henceforth.

I wonder if Benelli put extra effort into making the bike look really good from the rear, because that’s the part of the bike other mini riders will mostly see. Hell, each of us showed those titillating taillights to bikes with literally ten times the horsepower more than once in tight stuff, where longer wheelbases (and smaller balls) negate the horsepower advantage. Glorious, that.

The only issue with running all out all the time is the kickstande (Italian for “large kickstand”), which looks like it’d serve equally well on a Road King. If you get lazy and lean the bike too far to the left, you’re gonna drag the shit outta that hunk of metal.

Fortunately, the bike corners best if you leave it mostly upright and simply hang your monkey ass off in the direction you want to turn. I’m sure it looks pricelessly hilarious, but it works, and it’s fucking fun.

The brakes are fortunately up to all this man-sized monkey business. Fish, whose playa name is Boiler of Brake Fluid, had no real complaints: “I could drag the rear all day and not suffer any fading. Initial bite and overall power in the front is not lacking, but also not overwhelming.”

Despite the bike’s diminutive size, ergonomics are surprisingly accommodating to non-miniature people. We’d be overstating if we used the word legroom, but you’re not overly scrunched up, there’s room to move around on the seat, and the bars are well-placed for a natural, comfortable bend to your arms.

Complaints? You betcha, sport. Realistic ones? Maybe.

I’d like the TNT to be a little lighter—260-ish pounds is still pretty svelte compared to full-sized motorcycles, but it’s significantly more than the Grom (229 pounds) and the Z125 (226 pounds). Yeah, yeah… the quickest way to lighten a bike is to shut my pizza-piehole and eat less. In that case, there are some serious horsepower-to-weight gains to be had here.

But my real point of bitching may have simply been an issue with our press loaner. You’d think that with so many lights up front—two projector low beams, two daytime running lights, and an LED high beam—there’d be sufficient light, but the thing’s headlights were abysmal. Max rode it home one moonless night and said he “navigated on memory alone” for a few sections. I ended up at the far end of Redwood after sunset one night and the ride home was terrifying, like some kind of rolling Blair Witch experiment. The low beam gave me a little spot of visibility right in front of the bike, and switching to the high beam got me a tightly-focused circle of light way down the road, but too high to be useful. Neither provided enough light for safe riding (oh, the hypocrisy!) and I almost gave up and walked the bike home.

Our contact at SSR told us that our bike’s headlight was probably just out of adjustment, but I’m not sure that changing the position of the assembly would have solved our night blindness. He also noted that our bike has Euro-spec lights, but admitted that the DOT lights are not appreciably different. I will say that if the high beam’s light was a little more dispersed, it’d probably be ok.

Vs. Gromplestiltskin & Zeelzebub

There’s simply no way to talk about the TNT135 without comparing it to the Grom and Z125—the bike exists to go into battle against these two. Honda’s beloved Grom has basically defined the world of modern minis—it’s well supported in the aftermarket, and so recognizable that dealers selling Z125s call them the “Kawasaki Grom.” The TNT135 is cheaper, faster, and looks damn good—but is that enough to overcome the Made in China stigma? Can the TNT’s impressive capabilities dethrone King Grom?

That depends. While the Benelli’s reliability has yet to be proven, there are no obvious signs that the bike’s quality is substantially lower, despite the tendency of some to dismiss it as “cheap Chinese junk.” Yes, we actually heard that from some people.

Here’s how it breaks down.

Want a fun mini, but you’re a little strapped for cash? Get the Benelli. Even new, it’s still cheaper than most used Groms, and there aren’t many Zs on the used market—although we’ve seen dealers listing ‘em for $2,799, which really makes the Z or TNT choice about top speed versus lighter weight.

Don’t care about the price difference? It’s really down to personal preference. They’re all seriously fun bikes, and we don’t really think you can go wrong. If the increased top speed is tempting, go Benelli. But if you’re mostly going to be thrashing around skate parks, stairs, curbs… basically all the places you’re not supposed to be, a lighter Grom or Z might be a better choice.

Sorry, we just report, only you can decide.

Editor Surj doesn’t care that these little bikes make him look King Kong on a bowling ball. But yes, riding Redwood in the dark is dumb—stay away!

This story originally appeared in our August 2018 issue.

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