A question that is sometimes asked by readers is why, when Malaysia has a licensing system for motorcycles that is divided into two classes – below 250 cc and above – that bike engines come in various capacities where the threshold for the license is sometimes neither here nor there. A case in point is motorcycles and scooters that come in at 300 cc, for instance, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, J300 scooter and now, the 2017 Benelli Tornado 302R.

As a sports bike offering from Benelli – under ownership by the QianJiang Group of China – the Tornado 302R is meant to cater to the small-displacement market that wants a stylish, sleek-looking machine for the daily ride and weekend get-abouts. The target audience is, indeed, the young lad who wants to go fast on a motorcycle, and do it on something of a budget.

Now, there are those who might scoff at motorcycles originating from China, or designed for the Chinese market, and certainly, we have encountered our fair share of what we might charitably call “motorcycle-shaped objects.” However, efforts are being made on the part of a few China-based manufacturers to up their game, and a quick perusal of offerings reveals that there are, indeed, som gems to be found.

After the recent take-over of the Benelli brand in Malaysia by Penang-based MForce Bike, we wondered if there would be a change in what was previously a budget brand in the local motorcycle market. We first had a look at the Benelli 302R last year, and from outward appearances, it did look good.

It certainly ticked all the right boxes for a small-displacement sports bike, with an appropriate price to match – RM23k. So, when MForce said they had the 302R available for us to review, we decided to take a gander at it.

Despite 300 cc being a somewhat odd size, capacity wise, for the Malaysian market, it should be borne in mind that manufacturing considerations play a large part in what comes to market and it would not be possible to make engines in every conceivable capacity for every country. Thus, 300 cc and about 35 hp falls into the beginner category in most countries, and like the BMW Motorrad G 310 R, the Benelli 302R is what we get.

The thing that struck us on the first approach was, one, this is not a small bike, and two, why was it so heavy? We were taken with the paint scheme though, the silver and green being Benelli’s traditional colours, and matched the lines of the bike.

Getting on the 302R, the seating accommodation was low at 785 mm, and we flat-footed the bike easily. Thumbing the start button, the 300 cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin came to life, with a sound that reminded us of a Kawasaki ZZR250 we once owned, and travelled extensively with.

Setting off, clutch effort was light, and the six-speed gearbox performed adequately. We noted that the lever throw was long, and the movement slightly sloppy, so a firm effort on the left foot is called for.

This was when we noticed the front brake lever effort was… light. The author has a habit of two-finger braking, honed from a lifetime of race and road use, and when the lever hits the ring and pinky fingers on the right hand, then something is wrong.

To Benelli’s credit, when we brought the 302R in the next day, the problem with the brake was rectified, and the sloppy gear lever tightened up. We then took the 302R up the mountain on our usual test loop.

With a claimed 38 hp on tap, along with 27 Nm of torque, the 302R was no slouch storming up the mountain, despite its 190 kg weight. The 41 mm upside-down forks, non-adjustable at this price-point, performed well, and gave good feedback from the front tyre.

At the back, the pre-load adjustable monoshock performed similarly well, and was not phased by this slightly overweight rider pushing hard in the corners. The 302R’s handling was helped in no small measure by the Metzeler Sportec rubber fitted as standard, and we did like the handling of the bike, especially when leaned over.

There is, however, a limit to the leaning over. We found the ground clearance on either side of the 302R to be a tad limited for a sports bike, and frequently dragged toes when the going got fast.

There was no danger of digging in the hero blobs since the 302R wouldn’t let you lean that far, we had already erased the chicken strips and did not dare go any further. You may want to try hanging off more than a butt cheek into the corner in order to get more corner speed, but bearing in mind the words of Shakespeare, discretion is the better part of valour.

After our issue with the front brakes, we elected to err on the side of caution charging up the hill. In spite of being restrained with the brakes though, at the end of our test period, the lever started getting spongy.

We do not know if this is simply a one-off case, or a bad manufacturing batch, but it is something Benelli has to look into very seriously. In other respects, the 302R performed adequately, especially in highway cruising.

Taking the Karak highway back, the 302R’s power plant had enough go to make things, shall we say, interesting. You will have to wind the engine up a little, past about 8,000 rpm, but once there, it does go, enough for a riding buddy to remark, “did you see the cop with the radar gun in the bushes?”

Suffice it to say, in the speed stakes, the 302R is not found wanting. We found the seat a tad firm, but acceptable for hour-long rides, which is about what the 14-litre tank will give you, clocking in at 280 km or so in range, and your mileage will definitely vary.

Riding the 302R on both highway and surface streets, we found the tail end to be a little low, and if we were to have to live with it for a long enough period, we would definitely look into raising the rear end. This would give the benefit of increasing cornering clearance, and a slightly more aggressive head forward riding position, at the expense of getting both feet flat on the ground.

Inside the cockpit, an analogue tachometer is combined with a monochrome LCD readout for speed and the like. No real surprises here, and we found the numbers easy to read at speed.

Lighting on the 302R is done with a twin-halogen unit in front, while turn signals and tail light are LED units, and clearly visible at night. The handlebar pods reflected the price point of the 302R, and while we were not expecting high-levels of quality, we had issues with the flimsiness of the turn signal switch.

So, who needs a 2017 Benelli 302R, retailing at RM23,201, including GST? Well, for one thing, competition at this price level in the Malaysian quarter-litre market is fierce, with choices in this class and price range including the very popular Yamaha R25 at RM20,630 and the KTM RC250 at RM21,081, as well as the Kawasaki Ninja 250 and 250SL, and closer to the Benelli 302R, the Kawasaki Ninja 300 with ABS at RM26,289.

While we did find the Benelli 302R a competent sports bike, with nice performance and handling, it was let down by the spongy front brake. If you’re a young man on a budget, and wanting something with a bit more go than the typical 250, the 302R certainly wouldn’t be at the top of your shopping list, but it might be worth considering.