It has been an interesting 2018 for Malaysians, especially with the change in government and many coping with the rising cost of living, stagnating salaries and general malaise in both the cabinet and the economy. But, there is an outlet from the daily drudgery and for the author, 2018 has been a fun year for riding motorcycles, with this year’s Top Five bikes list.

With a new transport minister at the helm, many readers would have perhaps noticed there has been something of a sea change in the way Malaysian roads are being administered. The crackdown on motorists infringing the law has been much in the news and police roadblocks have become ubiquitous in the last few months.

Whether this means the “New Malaysia” as promised will come to fruition remains to be seen but in the meantime, we remain cautiously optimistic that there are better things ahead for our country. What needs to be done is that Malaysian motorists, two- or four-wheeled, must continue to be considerate, safe and courteous road users.

As always, choosing the best five bikes out of the 60 or so review machines that passed through our hands during the year is no easy task. Every rider expects different things from a bike and the rider wanting a reliable daily commuter that is frugal has different needs from a rider who wants to get his knee down.

We had the chance, this year, to extend the range of our test rides somewhat, with several international and cross-border jaunts. This allowed us the chance to sample several different bikes in environments for which they were both suited and unsuited.

The overwhelming criteria for this year’s list of top five motorcycle is fun. While some of the choices we made are not exactly bikes the ordinary Joe Rider might be able to buy or afford, the one thing all the bikes in the list did was make the author giggle inside his helmet.

One is a work-a-day scooter which performed admirably well on a work trip, loaded two-up with camera and video gear. Another is a strange mash-up of motorcycle and scooter that spelled ‘fun’ in capital letters.

So, here are the 2018 Top Five bikes

5. 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe

The current market taste for retro styled motorcycles seems to be plateauing with most every major manufacturer having an old school design in the catalogue. With the Z900RS Cafe, Kawasaki took the base Z900RS, slapped a bikini fairing on it and gave it the famous lime green paint and somehow came out with something that evoked the right mix of nostalgia and modern efficiency.

Never mind that the company wants a RM4,000 premium over the base model bike for it, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as it were. We liked the inline-four with the peak torque shifted 1,000 rpm lower down the rev range and the handling package biased towards all-round riding without being overly harsh.

That the Z900RS Cafe came with radial-mounted brake callipers was a plus. Our pillion liked the rear seat accommodation and enjoyed the smoothness of the four, making the Z900RS Cafe a strong contender for inclusion into the author’s 2019 buy list.

4. Triumph Tiger XCx

As Triumph’s answer to the market dominance of the BMW F 800/850 GS, the Tiger XCx received a major update in 2017 with five model variants in the XR and XC range. The Tiger’s electronics suite was also brought up-to-date with a colour TFT-LCD screen and LED headlights.

What we liked most about the Tiger XCx was its ride comfort and handling, in part due to the fully-adjustable front and rear WP suspension. A single 1,100 km journey done in 11 hours from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur at extra-legal speeds proved the Tiger to be a very capable mile-muncher.

Coming as it does with the Hinckley inline-triple, we found the XCx to be a balance between the torque of a twin and the outright power of a four-cylinder. Truth be told, we would have a hard time choosing between the Tiger XCx and the alternate German middleweight.

3. 2018 Yamaha XMax 250

Regular readers will know the author lauds Yamaha’s small-displacement bikes, simply because it produces a quality, well-put-together package. Another prime example is the Yamaha XMax 250, which brings a measure of up market quality down to the quarter-litre scooter class.

Taking design cues from the larger TMax 530, we liked the XMax for its futuristic looks and ease of use. With our review unit coming in a fetching shade of bronze brown – this colour is now discontinued and replaced with matte blue and matte red for 2019 – the little liquid-cooled single-cylinder mill had a lot of heart.

As mentioned earlier, a one-day work trip involving some 600 km return journey, fully-loaded, did nothing to faze the X-Max when pressed into duty. All modern conveniences are included with the XMax 250, including a charging port, ABS and storage for two full-face helmets under the seat.

2. 2018 Honda X-ADV

Being a crossover between the motorcycle and scooter worlds, the Honda X-ADV took our fancy when we first laid eyes on it. Coming with Honda’s dual clutch transmission, the X-ADV is essentially an automatic adventure bike, except someone in Hamamatsu decided to turn it into a scooter.

And we’re glad they did, because the X-ADV falls smack dab in the middle of a bike you buy for fun. It can take corners reasonably well and the two-cylinder 745 cc power plant will take you on long highway journeys with no issues, helped by that adjustable windshield, under seat storage and all the other things modern riders have come to expect from motorcycles.

The flat rear seat accommodates a passenger well and the X-ADV is well built for taking long jaunts as well as doing the daily commute. We liked the X-ADV simply because it shows Honda is not afraid of making bold decisions when it comes to building motorcycles and that is was, quite simply, fun to ride.

1. 2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S

So, the bike of the year. This would really come as no surprise for those who know the author well, with his penchant for things that go fast and around corners well. The Ducati Panigale V4 S is a bold design move for Ducati, moving away from its traditional V-twins.

We only had a brief acquaintance with the Panigale V4 S, but the new Stradale four-cylinder did more than enough to impress us, being strong, smooth and controllable all at the same time. Coupled with the electronics suite, the Panigale V4 S has more than enough capability for the “normal” rider, while being cutting edge track weaponry at the same time.

Some will balk at the buy-in price though, and we do not blame them. Ducati is asking a lot of money for a superbike and the ‘R’ version goes for half as much again. But, if you want the very best in road-going motorcycle technology, the Panigale V4 S takes it all.

Special mention – 2018 Yamaha YZF-R1M

While we had the million-ringgit Honda RC213V-S as a special mention in last year’s list, this year sees something much again the same, this time in the form of the Yamaha YZF-R1M. Though a limited edition superbike based on the YZF-R1, the R1M takes the very best in suspension technology and puts it all together in a road-going package not far removed from Yamaha’s MotoGP and WSBK machines.

Coupled with carbon-fibre bodywork, the R1M is everything it is intended to be, a razor-sharp, sweet handling, precision corner carving motorcycle. It makes no pretence to being accommodating and will take no prisoners, including the rider if he or she is unwary.

We did want to add the R1M to the stable, but Hong Leong Yamaha Malaysia is not bringing it in officially, the only alternative being the grey market which comes with its own set of hazards. However, based on pricing listed overseas, we would hazard a guess at the YZF-R1M being significantly more affordable than its other rival, the Panigale V4 S.