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China’s Jialing JH600 dual sport is not quite ready for the U.S.A.

(Photo by: Claude Pauly, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Riding 1,700 miles in eight days isn’t anything I’d normally brag about. But I was riding a Chinese motorcycle. In China. Over pavement and gravel. Across the Tianshan mountains and the Taklamakan desert. From elevations of 13,400 feet to sea level. In temperatures from freezing to 100-plus degrees. So forgive me if I seem a little self-congratulatory for trekking the Chinese wilds on a Jialing JH600 dual sport.

Considering my stateside experience riding a few Chinese death traps and China’s recent mishaps with poisoned pet food, lead-tainted toys and bad tires, my expectations when I saddled the bike were so low as to be underground. I really didn’t think the JH600 would survive the trip with anything more than the handlebars intact. I wasn’t sure I was even going to survive, but I was curious.


FOR THE RECORD:
Motorcycle review: In last week’s Highway 1, a torque figure for the 2007 Jialing JH600 was incorrectly listed as 12 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. The bike’s maximum torque is actually 37.6 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. —


I’d signed up for a motorcycle tour of the Silk Road and noticed that the tour group -- Edelweiss Bike Travel -- was offering a Chinese bike in addition to the usual BMWs. If one of the world’s largest motorcycle tour companies was using the bike on one of its most challenging trips, it couldn’t be that bad. Could it?

Like most people in the U.S., I’d never heard of Jialing. It turns out Jialing is one of the oldest and largest motorcycle manufacturers in its home country. China Jialing Industrial Co. makes 20% of China’s motorcycles, scooters and mopeds, or 2 million vehicles a year.

Like most Chinese motorcycles, Jialings are made in the Southeastern city of Chongqing, an area best known for its panda bears and hot-pot cooking. Jialing is the name of the river that runs through the city. What the JH stands for in JH600, that’s not clear, but it could be Jialing Honda. Since 1981, Jialing has been working with Honda Motor Co. on its technology, and it shows on the JH600. The 600 cc single has four valves and is liquid-cooled. It gets about 60 mpg and meets Europe’s E3 emissions standards.

Because Europe’s standards are tougher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s or even California’s, the JH600 could, in theory, be certified for sale in the U.S., but Jialing hasn’t tried that -- yet. According to the company’s U.S.-based rep, Jialing hasn’t figured out whether the cost of meeting U.S. government requirements will pay off in sales. Jialing bikes are relatively small, and Americans, who are significantly larger than people elsewhere in the world, continue to want large-displacement bikes.

It’s just as well. When you buy a motorcycle in the U.S., you aren’t just buying its technical capabilities or its fit or its style. You’re buying into a culture and a brand’s rep and status. Riding a Chinese motorcycle in the U.S. has zero status. Basically, you’re telling everyone you’re cheap.

A growing number of people don’t seem to care about that. While the Motorcycle Industry Council doesn’t track sales of Chinese bikes, per se, it’s seen a 4.3% increase in sales of non-MIC brands in 2002-05. In 2005, they accounted for 13.7% of the market.

The JH600 is a surprisingly good bike, but it costs too much. The JH600 sells for about 30,000 Yuan in China, or $4,000. To succeed here against dual sport faves like the Kawasaki KLR650, which costs $5,350, it would have to come down in price by at least half or seriously ramp up the refinement.

The JH600 is a dual sport, but the suspension is not adjustable, unless you want to take the fork apart and futz with the oil. The styling is passable, but it won’t win you any compliments. Then there’s the name and the logo, which both look as cheap as the packaging on a toy from the 99-cent store. If I were in charge of the world, I’d change the make and model names to something more playful, bold and provocative. Anyone for the CJ Taskmaster?

New for 2007, the JH600 is one of the largest-displacement Chinese bikes on the market. It may also be the first Chinese bike with fuel injection, which worked perfectly, adapting to dramatic changes in altitude and temperature, though the idle speed setting seemed off. Whenever the bike slowed to stop, it conked out. It did, however, start right back up again every time.

My biggest issue with the bike was its lack of power. It wasn’t at all fun trying to keep up with the autobahn-loving Germans in my group, who all had 1200 cc BMWs. The JH600’s maximum torque is just 12 pound-feet, and horsepower is only 40 at 6,500 rpm. Claimed top speed is about 100 mph, but I only got it up to 94 mph, which is faster than I should have been going anyway. In the province of Xinjiang where I was riding, you can break the speed limit by 50% but you’ll say goodbye to your Chinese driver’s license if you go any faster and get caught.

By the time I got the JH600 up to this sort of speed, it had pretty much won me over. It didn’t shake at high revs as I raced toward mirage after mirage on desert freeways. Taking corners in the majestically snow-capped mountains bordering Tajikistan, it didn’t flop.

Dodging the numerous taxis, donkey carts, scooters and veiled pedestrians that strayed into my path on the streets of Kashgar, Korla and Urumqi, it was agile. And stopping, the single-disc front brake with the dual-piston caliper was sufficient for the numerous times I was forced to slow for goats and other livestock.

For the 100 or so miles I rode through dirt, the suspension also worked well. I wasn’t taking jumps as I did battle with soot-spewing dump trucks, but the fork never fully compressed as I barreled through ruts. Even better, the pegs didn’t snap off.

If my 1,700 miles with the 2007 Jialing JH600 proved anything, it’s the adage that expectations are your worst enemy.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

2007 Jialing JH600 Base price: 30,000 yuan, or $4,000Powertrain: SOHC, four-stroke, single cylinder, four valves per cylinder, fuel-injected, water-cooled, five-speedDisplacement: 600 ccMaximum torque: 12 pound-feet at 4,500 rpmMaximum horsepower: 40 at 6,500 rpmSeat height: 32 inches


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