Small bore two-strokes are not the off-road weapon of choice here in the U.S., but on the flowing grass tracks across the pond, these little bikes are quite popular. TM has taken the traditional 125cc two-stroke and beefed it up slightly to create the 144 EN model, which is actually street legal in Europe. Just one look at this little machine reveals incredible attention to detail and raw Italian style that makes for pure eye candy, even in stock form; as if that’s not enough, TM offers a host of accessories—similar to how KTM has a hard parts line—that can enhance the trickness of this bike even further.
This TM started first kick, every time, and the power on this two-stroke was not unlike many other 144cc two-strokes that I’ve ridden; that is, mellow down low and downright explosive up top. The main exception is that the TM has phenomenal lugging capabilities for off-road. I discovered this on some dry, rocky, nasty trails, including one uphill creekbed that had a bead of water trickling down the middle. There, the bike could be stuffed into first or second gear and would crawl—clutch out, RPM just above stalling—with absolutely zero wheelspin. It takes some finesse of the throttle and you must maintain forward momentum (feet on the pegs!), but the TM will lug every bit as well as a KTM 200 XC-W. Off-idle jetting was responsive and clean, and—best of all—the bike is so quiet at this low RPM range that you could lug by a line of sleeping bears and not wake them up (take my word for it, please don’t try this).
Lugging the TM 144 EN was a better approach on low-speed, AA-level terrain than winding the bike out, as hitting the midrange produces as much excitement as you would encounter if you accidentally woke up a slew of sleeping bears! Once at the midrange hit, the TM’s engine immediately and assertively begins screaming in a strong, steady delivery of power that will consistently loft the front wheel, particularly if the Mitas rear tire is gorging itself on ample traction. The strong pull flattens off a touch toward the top end, and then offers one last little step before it completely signs off. However, none of this is possible if you are not in the right gear for the given piece of terrain that you’re on, since the TM has a nasty habit of falling out of the power if your gear selection is off. Part of this is the fault of the wacky stock gearing—12/52—though a lot of it is just due to the 144 being...well, a unique-sized two-stroke!
On more wide-open, GP-like terrain, here’s a play-by-play of what the TM 144 EN feels like: Hit the powerband, hang on for dear life as the front end comes up. Loft over a small, uphill rise and accidentally allow the rpm to drop, causing the bike to fall off the pipe and booooooog on the landing. Remind yourself to downshift over the next jump. Click down a gear, hang on for dear life as the power hits again, grab the next gear, loft over another small rise and click down a gear, just as you promised yourself. Land in the meat of the power and enjoy a small, satisfying power wheelie that lasts until the next corner. Change directions. Repeat. While none of this is abnormal for a two-stroke, the 144 takes a bit more time to adapt to than, say, a stock KTM 125 SX, primarily because the power hits so aggressively and the difference between off-the-pipe and on-the-pipe is so vast.
The TM’s shock—which is a TM brand, built in Italy alongside the rest of bike—can best be described as plush, with good mid-stroke feel and decent bottoming. The initial part of the stroke is extremely soft, giving the bike a low-in-the-rear feel, even when the sag is set to a standard level. About the only time the bike is not squatting is when you’re hard on the front brake going down a hill; otherwise, the rear end settles a few inches just about everywhere[is this good or bad], being most noticeable on heavy acceleration and when shoving the bike into corners. Off-road, this initial plushness eats up small chop and creates a surprisingly pleasant ride through stutter bumps and small rocks. Because the shock isn’t deflecting, the power gets to the ground readily. On larger hits, the mid-stroke has better hold-up and will absorb impacts in a balanced manner, while the bottoming resistance is acceptable for all but the hardest of flat landings. At first, my instinct was to try speeding up the rebound on the shock to keep the rear end from getting into the mid-stroke so quickly, but a consistently fast/kicky feel at the bottom of the stroke helped me decide to leave the stock setting in place. If this shock had both a high and low speed rebound, I most definitely would have tinkered with the settings more.
The KYB fork has a fast feel to it that is rigid (part of this is the solid-mount handlebar, which translates into a stiffer front end feel) compared to the shock. On paper, that would seem like a recipe for an unbalanced bike, but the TM pulls it off for a few key reasons: first, the overall low weight of the machine makes it feel as though it skips over—not through—large bumps, so even when the too-soft rear end piles into a large hole that the front end has just gobbled up, there doesn’t seem to be enough mass and inertia to really disturb the attitude of the bike. And secondly, the TM feels short front-to-back, so there’s much less of the perceived feeling of hitting something first with the front, then with the rear. This is likely due to the frame geometry, which somehow allows the bike to function cohesively despite seemingly opposing suspension settings. It’s an odd combination, but it works.
This lightweight TM changes direction easily once you start to get it turned, but the precision on corner entry isn’t amazing. Given that the soft initial feel of the shock makes it feel sacked-out, the front end just doesn’t bite all that hard. At a lean, the TM is stable and the Mitas tires work surprisingly well (straight-line traction seems to be their weak point). The clutch is as stiff as a Japanese 250F (an odd trait for a small bore two-stroke), although it’s very precise. Beyond that, we noticed that the front brake is slightly lacking in power, the headlight is weak, and the ergonomics have a somewhat Euro feel, with a hard seat, tall handlebar, and thin overall feel. All together, the TM 144 EN is a unique off-road machine that is difficult to compare to anything else out there, and like anything, the bike becomes more familiar over time.
Of course, one of the biggest eyebrow-raisers in the TM specs sheet is the MSRP; clearly, the cost of bringing just 50 units into the country is passed along to the customer through the pricelist. But if you’re craving a different flavor of motorcycle that works well and will stand out in the usual crowd, check out www.tmracing-usa.com; you may just find that the exotic Italian brand is what you’ve been looking for all along.