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Cruising on into California

IN recent years, small-displacement street bikes have become as rare as natural blonds in Playboy. Sure, they exist, but not in significant numbers. For every 250 on the market, there are dozens of 1,200s and 1,800s that could run them off the road.

It’s this gap that Korean manufacturer Hyosung hopes to fill when it enters the California market next month with a line of 250 cc and 650 cc cruisers, sport bikes, half-faired and naked bikes. That’s “hee-yo-sung” for those of us who don’t speak Korean.

Hyosung isn’t a name that exactly rolls off the tongue for most Americans. The company has been manufacturing motorcycles for the Asian and European markets since the ‘80s. But it was only in 2003 that its bikes began washing up on U.S. shores and in 2006 that the bikes passed California’s emissions requirements -- a hurdle few other Asian manufacturers have been able to swing, except for the Japanese.

There are, however, a few things the company still needs to work on. English, for example. The Avitar, as the GV650 is also known, is a nice name, but it’s misspelled. And the warning sticker on the tank is written ESL style, with sentences such as “do not be touched on muffler because it is hot.”

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It wasn’t exactly confidence-instilling to mount the bike and see these things right off the bat. If the company couldn’t bother to hire a competent translator, could it really be trusted to engineer a bike that wouldn’t drop parts all over the asphalt?

I was a little suspect when I pulled the choke. Waiting for the Avitar to warm up, I took in a few other things that made me feel as if I’d just jumped on an undependable knock-off rather than the real deal. The finishing details on the bike seemed second rate, like an Isaac Mizrahi jacket designed for Target versus a Mizrahi original. The plastic on the dash and grips seemed a bit chintzy. So did the chrome; compared to a nearby Harley, the Hyosung’s looked superficial and of a lighter shade. I wanted to throw a rock at it to see if it would chip.

But my book-jacket superficiality was blown away as quickly as I got up to speed. The throttle was fast on the draw, thanks to dual Mikuni carburetors that increase the velocity of the air charge in each cylinder to pump out more power and a roller-bearing crank and rods, which create less drag and more oomph. An exhaust-pipe crossover made the Avitar sound more like a hairdryer than a hog, but the two-in-one exhaust squeezed out even more juice. So 77 horses aren’t exactly Pony Express material. But that ups this 650’s power plant to that of a 750 or 800.

In corners, my little Avitar pal was a lover, not a fighter, at both low and high speeds. The boot scraping wasn’t only because of the bike’s low-slung weight. Hollow-spoke wheels translate into less rotation weight, making the bike faster and more agile in turns. The suspension was snappy as a rubber band.

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That was surprising since the Avitar tips the scales at 441 pounds. The perimeter frame is made of steel, rather than aluminum, but the sumo wrestler-esque weight is deceiving; it was scrappy as an ultimate fighter out on the road.

Riding the Avitar really was “romantic sailing to make beautiful recollection,” as the website boasts, though the $6,200 pricetag dampened the love affair. It was more than I expected for an aesthetically challenged, unproven product, even if on par with similar offerings from the Japanese. In fact, the Avitar will soon be on sale at Japanese dealerships, including Honda Kawasaki KTM of Santa Monica and Hahm Motorsports in Anaheim.

Until now, Hyosung has been playing in the minor leagues. Its bikes have typically been sold at small, niche dealerships and lawn and garden centers. Many of the bikes are still sold through such outlets. The Hyosung Avitar, for example, is the exact same bike as the UM Cruise offered through your favorite weed whacker dealer -- a strategy designed to keep production numbers up and costs down as the company finds its foothold in the U.S.

With competitive pricing and even better coverage should something go wrong, Hyosung’s strategy may well succeed. The Avitar comes with a two-year, unlimited-mileage, bumper-to-bumper warranty. If something breaks, the dealers that will be selling the bikes will also be trained to work on them. They’ll also be stocked with parts.

If the folks at Hyosung enroll in a Berlitz course and upgrade their cosmetics, within a few model years Hyosung may be a word more Americans learn to pronounce, and maybe even spell.

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Contact Susan Carpenter at susan.carpenter@latimes.com.

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2006 Hyosung GV650 Avitar

Price as tested: $6,199

Powertrain: Water-cooled, four-stroke, V-twin, DOHC

Displacement: 647 cc

Transmission: Five-speed

Bore and stroke: 81.5 mm by 62 mm

Maximum torque: 61.6 at 7,500 rpm

Seat height: 26 inches

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Dry weight: 441 pounds


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