Who dares wins

They look smashing, perform brilliantly and make up the Indian performance biking segment. Bunny Punia rides the four bikes – the Bajaj Pulsar 220 DTS-i, the Hero Honda ZMR, the TVS Apache RTR 180 and the Yamaha YZF-R15 back-to-back and picks the one that justifies the performance tag completely
Photography Sanjay Raikar

The morning seemed unusual for this time of the year. The air was quite nippy and there was a layer of dew on the grass around the roads we were traversing. As we came up a crest, the view of the fog filled the valley in front of us and took our breath away. We stopped to soak in the scenery and switched off our bikes. Suddenly, there was complete silence around us. There was no traffic on the road and the rising sun was still hiding behind layers of clouds. It almost seemed eerie there and hence we decided to do what we do best – ride on!

Our machines for this morning included four of the quickest and most powerful locally manufactured motorcycles on sale in India. These bikes not only look good, they all perform (almost) equally well too. Needless to say, these models are on the wish list of every youngster today. Of the four, in the recent past, we have pitted three bikes against each other – the Bajaj Pulsar 220 DTS-I, the TVS Apache RTR 180 and the Yamaha YZF-R15. The newest (and the fourth) contender here comes in the form of the fuel injected 223cc Hero Honda ZMR. Are we in for a fierce battle for a performance champion then? Definitely.

The first and the most important feature that matters a lot for customers going in for any Indian performance bike today are its looks. Without a doubt, the little supersport offering from Yamaha easily walks away with the crown for being the best looking bike here. With design lines inspired from its bigger sibling the YZF-R1, the R15 looks gracefully sexy and utterly beautiful, no matter which angle you look at it from. The twin cat eyes type headlamps with in-built parking lamps dominates the front. The full fairing flows in nicely, exposing the engine a bit on either side. The black finished exhaust with a silver cap adds a sporty touch, though I personally think, the tail lamp could have been executed in a better way. On the move or while parked on the side stand, the R15 has the ability to turn heads like no other bike in its class. Some probable customers, however, wish the rear tyre was wider which brings me to the bike with the fattest rear here. The Pulsar 220 comes loaded with good bits and pieces to make it look like a muscular and mean bike. Wide tyres up front and at the rear, wide forks, a beefy looking exhaust, a half fairing with projector lamps, an all-black paint scheme to name a few are some of the visual features that Bajaj has incorporated on the biggest bike in the Pulsar stable. This does work wonders and the bike commands a good road presence. The TVS offering, on the other hand, can fool you into believing it is the smaller 160cc variant due to its similar design. However, changes like wider tyres, a stylish RTR font on the tank scoops and a superbike styled rear fender make it stand apart from its younger sibling. We specially like the model in white with golden finished forks and gas reservoir for the rear shock absorbers. You also can’t help but notice the beautiful looking petal discs – a first in this category of bikes in India. The newest entrant in this segment, the ZMR gets a major visual revamp as compared to the current Karizma. A full body fairing is the talking point here. We got our test bike in white and though the ZMR has massive road presence, not all of us appreciated its new appearance. This is one of those bikes whose looks can take time getting used to. There are exceptionally nice details like the LED rear tail lamp, the faired mounted rear view mirrors, golden finished forks and engine cover, the striking two-piece grab rail and the superb fit and finish levels of body panels. But why couldn’t Hero Honda give us a bike with headlamps inspired from Honda’s numerous twin light higher capacity bikes sold abroad?

The R15 – the place to be in if you love riding hard

The Pulsar 220 – the console looks good at night. So does the backlit switchgear

The RTR – racing strips add a sporty touch

Swinging a leg over the Hero Honda brings back familiar memories. The saddle is an inviting place to be in and the ergonomics are topnotch including the working of the fairing mounted rear view mirrors which serve their purpose very well. This bike does feel substantially big and tall. Heavy riders will prefer the way the ZMR makes you feel comfortable once astride it. What really grabs your attention is the fully digital speedometer console that has a display for various mandatory things including other features like speedometer, tachometer, odometers, two trip meters, fuel gauge, time, tell tale lights as well as a welcome and goodbye message which can be tailored by the rider to include his (or his girl’s) name in it. The bike’s sitting posture is comfortable with a touch of sportiness due to the new clip-on handlebars. In fact, the bike is so accommodating that I for one wouldn’t mind riding it for a cross-country run. The Karizma has always had a good suspension set-up with a bias towards comfort. With GRS equipped shock absorbers finding their way here too, the ride quality has only improved especially over bad roads. Push the bike hard around a set of twisties and the improvements in the suspension show their worth. The front tyre becomes a little wider and both tyres are now of the tubeless variety – thumbs up to Hero Honda for this. The handling of this bike can be best described as neutral. It doesn’t feel nervous when the rider pushes it hard, but at the same time, it cannot be ridden with the knee down in a manner as easy as say the Yamaha through corners. What this bike does best is cruise lazily on the highway, munching away miles at triple digit speeds and taking care of the occasional pothole or bump with utter ease. In city traffic, it is nimble, though the bike’s 159kg kerb weight makes its presence felt easily.

On the other hand the R15, true to its inherited genes, has a sporty riding stance. It begs you into crouching down at high speeds, to make full use of the aerodynamic fairing. And even while doing so, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable unless you are a very tall rider. The ergonomics are very good from a sport biking point of view. The seat is exceptionally comfortable for such a bike, the rear view mirrors give a good view of the traffic behind and the clocks look and perform well. Ride the R15 back-to-back with each of the other three bikes and you can go on and on talking about how different it feels. All the efforts that have been put in behind making this mini Yamaha seem to have paid off. This is the bike to own if you love corners. The R15 will happily teach noobs the art of cornering and at the same time, it will keep the experienced owner happy with its ability to make the rider touch down his knees when the tarmac and road conditions allow. On the highway, the bike excels with the only bother being the windblast hitting your chest until unless you crouch down indefinitely. The monoshock suspension is non-adjustable but surprisingly it works very well through a variety of road conditions. The rear holds well through mid-corner bumps as well as over bad roads while commuting in the city. Speaking of which, of the four, this bike loses out when it comes to negotiating rush hour traffic. Your wrists do take a beating in start-stop traffic, but if a fun city bike is what you desire, it is the RTR 180 that you need to look at.


Instant throttle response combined with nimble and agile handling gives the TVS the best characteristics for being a practical yet fun bike for city commuting. Its riding posture might not be to everyone’s liking as it is more on the sportier side. Unlike the ZMR and the R15, you also feel as if you are perched higher on the bike. The speedometer console looks terrific after the sun sets, although the seat feels like it is on the firmer side. This is also a bike that can handle a lot of high speed highway riding. Some of us appreciated the TVS for its ability to be a hoot around corners. It may not be as encouraging to push as the R15 but spend some time with the bike and you soon learn the art of leaning it around curves. You may also be surprised by its abilities to bring grinning from ear to ear moments from time to time. The suspension, however, could have been better we feel.

Jump onto the fourth bike here, the Bajaj Pulsar 220 and you will be surprised. Like the RTR, on this bike too you feel as if you are sitting too high. The seat feels firm and the ergonomics are biased towards sportiness. The console looks great and small features like the back light for the switchgear makes the rider feel that his money has been well spent. This bike too faces issues with the suspension. Lean in hard into a corner with bumps and you can easily feel the rear of the bike giving way. Ride the bike hard over bad roads and again the harsh suspension makes itself felt. This isn’t the best bike here for corners but hit the highways at high speeds and its reassuring solid feel is hard to match in this class. Credit for this goes to the bike’s wide forks and wide tyres as well as its long wheelbase. Inside the city, the 220 feels at home but the wide turning radius can be an issue in tight situations.

The engines on all these bikes are as different as chalk and cheese. The smallest of the four here is the R15 but size doesn’t always matter. It might sport a tiny 149.8cc mill but this one gets liquid cooling, four valves and a host of other technologies that make sure it performs like a much bigger engine. The maximum power output of 17PS might not be tyre shredding but when you have a bike that weighs just 136kg with a nicely worked six-speed gearbox, outright performance does turn out to be nice. A 0-60km/h timing of 4.95seconds and a 0-100km/h timing of 13.85seconds is praiseworthy for a 150cc bike. The beauty of the engine, however, comes alive once you get past the 6000rpm mark. It must be noted that the R15’s engine is imported into India and the level of engineering that has gone into the motor is tremendous. It begs to be revved hard – keep the rpm needle near the red zone and the R15 is hard to catch. The six-speed gearbox also helps when it comes to extracting a good top end. Given the road, the bike achieves a true whack of 130.2km/h. The only downside I see here is the lack of low end punch. This is reflected in the roll-on timings too with the bike being the slowest in the 30-70km/h run in the third and fourth cogs.

The next biggest engine comes fitted on the RTR. The 177.4cc mill is derived from the younger RTR 160 and traces its roots back to the days of the old Apache 150. In this form, it develops 17.3PS of power along with 15.5Nm of torque – almost identical to what the R15 manages. However true to the saying ‘there is no replacement for displacement’, the RTR performs very well managing to fly past the 60km/h mark in under 4.7seconds and taking just 13.2seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint. This bike also boasts a strong midrange that is reflected in its best in class roll-on timings. The only grouse I have with this TVS is the level of vibrations that creep in via the handlebars and the footpegs when you give it the stick. The five-speed gearbox could also do with a better (smoother) gearshift.

The Pulsar 220 has always been the performance king of small capacity bikes in India. With the new carb variant, its power went up to a claimed 21.04PS with 19.12Nm of torque. It does weigh more than the previous two bikes discussed above, but nevertheless, performs impressively when the right wrist is wringed. With a 0-100km/h timing of 13.1seconds, this bike remains the quickest accelerating motorcycle in India. It also registers a good top whack of a genuine 132.5km/h or 140+ on its digital speedometer. The punchy low and midrange reflect in the roll-on figures which are second only to the RTR. This is due to its maximum torque coming at 7000rpm – the highest here. Vibrations and harshness are well controlled on this bike, being significantly noticeable only when you cross the 6500-7000rpm mark.

The ZMR has the same 223cc motor like the original Karizma. It now gets Honda’s well known PGM-Fi unit and along with other minor changes, the maximum power jumps slightly to 17.84PS at a low 7000rpm. The torque, however, remains the same at 18.35Nm. This engine has always been appreciated for its fuss-free nature as well as punchy midrange and this version only betters it. The throttle response is very good without being jerky and the motor feels eager to build up speeds. The speedometer is the most accurate here with no error whatsoever. So while your friends on the other three bikes might end up flaunting videos of themselves doing 130km/h or more on the speedometer, the ZMR will top out at a true 127km/h with a similar display on the console too. The bike’s acceleration has improved but only marginally. This was expected as the kerb weight has been pushed to a porky 159kg. Hero Honda isn’t boasting about any figures in their promotions either. For the record, we managed a 4.7second 0-60km/h dash and a 13.8second 0-100km/h sprint. But this bike has never been about out and out performance. The Karizma has earned a reputation for being a tourer’s delight and this one takes this appreciation to a new level. The bike will happily do Delhi to Mumbai or Chennai to Vizag high speed runs with ease. One thing I noticed was the bike’s increased vibrations at high revs – we reckon this is probably due to improper tightening of engine mountings.

All bikes here fare decently in fuel efficiency runs and there isn’t much of a difference. Yes, the R15 is made for a purpose and hence you do lose out a bit on the efficiency front. The ZMR with added benefits of the FI and a softly tuned engine turns out to be most efficient here.

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