Even in these days of $16,000 Harleys and $20,000 Ducatis, there are plenty of options out there for the financially challenged. Road test that new credit card, rack it up to the limit, and you can still buy yourself new wheels for under six grand.
The budget contenders are many, and they aren't all Japanese imports. BMW, Ducati, Triumph and Moto Guzzi didn't make our $6000 budget, but Harley-Davidson did, with the basic 883 Sportster. And we had one German import, the Saxon Tour from the former eastern-bloc company MZ . Other entrants included Honda's CB750 Nighthawk, introduced four years ago as a bargain bike and still qualifying, Yamaha's 600cc Seca II and Suzuki's bright red Bandit, this year's hot new bargain sport machine. It was a toss-up whether to include Kawasaki's EX500, which qualifies as a bargain but we decided to cater to cruiser fans with the Kawasaki EN 500 Vulcan which uses the same engine as the EX, albeit in a radically different chassis, with the value enhancing benefit of a low-maintenance belt drive.
We'd thought about including two new contenders for the budget bike title, the Russian Ural 650cc twin and the Enfield 500cc Bullet single. Both are available as 49-state machines (which means that neither pass the stringent California emissions control standards), and both are copies of very old designs. The Ural is a clone of BMW's wartime (as in 1939-45) sidecar puller, and the Enfield is a true-blue replica of the 1950s British single. We promise we'll test them soon, but neither made it into this test. They're both fun bikes, bikes that enthusiasts will love, but they're not commuter bikes, and maintenance on both is likely to be much more intensive than truly modern machines.
The Motorcycle Online test included a glorious weekend's sport tour to a destination that seemed one million miles away from Los Angeles, the Kern River. It was more like 180 miles of serpentine mountain roads combined with high desert sweepers that ended just north of Lake Isabella. Once there, six highly qualified test riders whiled away idle hours in the 90 degree temperatures by riding up and down mountain roads and cooling off in the icy river with creativity-enhancing beverages, meanwhile constructing a matrix of value bike features. In other words, we rode 'em, we rated 'em, this is what we thought. The envelope, please.
Sixth Place: MZ Saxon Tour
MZ is a new name to most riders, although it's long been familiar to European motorcyclists. The East German company is famous over the pond for their cheap and cheerful two-strokes. Now, MZ is building a line of four-stroke powered machines, including the Yamaha 660cc-engined Skorpion, which is a beauty but carries an ugly price: At over $7,000 it's out of our budget league. Still, MZ offers several other models, including the Saxon Tour we rode. The 500cc single is powered by an Austrian-made Rotax engine, long familiar to enthusiasts as the power behind ATK dirt bikes, Wood Rotax racers and Harley-Davidson military bikes and flat-track racers.
The four-valve single has been in production for more than a decade, but is rarely seen on the street in the US. It's a simple, compact design with belt drive to its single overhead camshaft and a single Bing CV carburetor. As a reminder of MZ's utilitarian reputation, a plastic and rubber cover completely encloses the chain, guaranteeing long chain life. Each exhaust port exits to its own individual pipe, but other than that duplication of weight, the motorcycle itself is sparse and light.
MZ is so new in the US that the distributor, American Jawa, doesn't have facilities on the West Coast. So when we picked up the Saxon Tour from a local shop, we might have expected a flat battery and a misaligned chain. The chain was easy to fix -- the toolkit that sits under the lockable side cover is comprehensive, and has to be, considering that the MZ combines Japanese, German and Austrian components. But in an effort to start the neglected MZ using its kickstarter, one staffer leaned his full weight on the right footpeg. The kickstarter is on the left, and awkward to use for anyone used to a right-side starter. The cast alloy footpeg plate broke, sending our staffer flying and the brake pedal into orbit. Luckily, an emergency weld by Marina Suzuki fixed the break, and an overnight charge raised the Dekra battery's spirits enough to fire the single on the electric starter.
Once running, the MZ is a delight around narrow, congested city streets. It's torquey, light, and short. It wheelies with alacrity, and stoppies are just as easy, thanks to the tiny but amazingly efficient Grimeca front disc. The clutch is light and smooth, although the gearshift can be notchy. There's enough ground clearance to ride over any curb, and enough power to get to the front of any traffic jam. On the open road, the MZ comes up short compared to the other, more powerful machines. The long travel suspension is a little under-damped for high speed sweepers, yet the bike's light weight permitted full throttle cornering without too much adrenaline. The standard Metzler tires are narrow and on rough roads the little bike went "boing boing, wobble wobble." The single runs out of steam at high speeds, sustained cruising at 70 mph being about the practical limit on mountain roads or the freeway.
Ergonomics are good, although the thin, narrow seat soon becomes uncomfortable on long rides. In many ways, this bike feels like a late 1970s enduro bike. It's not the bike for serious long-distance riding.
Overall, we liked the MZ but its longevity is an unknown factor; our test bike was already turning its black-chromed exhaust pipes a sickly shade of green, and rust spots showed on the fork tubes between the triple clamps. Despite its price, the lowest of the bunch, it's not the best bargain, but it sure is fun to ride.
Fifth Place: Yamaha XJ600 Seca II
No surprises here. The Seca has been around a while, is a smooth, well finished piece of kit, offering rakish good looks with its slanted-forward engine and single-color paint scheme. Simplicity is the theme, and it extends to minimally adjustable suspension, a single front brake disc and that rounded off, air-cooled engine, a 600cc four-cylinder with double overhead cams and two valves per cylinder.
The 600cc Seca was no doubt the inspiration for Suzuki's Bandit, and comparisons are useful. Both offer semi-naked good looks, with half fairings and exposed engines. Yamaha offers a bright red Seca for those that like the panache of the Bandit, but also a nicely muted black, shown here, for those whose tastes run a little less loud. The rounded, air cooled engine makes less of an impression than the Bandit's powerful air- and oil-cooled mill.
The tastefully slanted forward engine is the most radical looking of all the test bikes' powerplants, yet it's one of the simplest, with just two valves per cylinder (a trait it shares only with the Sportster, which has been around far longer). Easing maintenance costs, those two valves are designed to go 15,000 miles between adjustment intervals, and when adjustment is needed, the shims are located on top of the bucket, so cam removal is unnecessary.
It is, however, a cold-blooded engine, requiring several minutes of warm up before the Seca will tolerate any rider at all on its back. Once it is on the move, don't expect superbike performance. "Gutless" complained one tester. Carburetion is by tiny 26mm carburetors, which explains the Seca's lack of top-end power. The low 10:1 compression and 9,500rpm redline explains the rest: It's a full 2,500 rpm lower than the Bandit's. Fuel economy, you'd think, would be sensational, given a significantly lighter weight (the Bandit is a good 30 pounds heavier, as is the CB750) and smaller carburetors, but that again is surprisingly average, at around 45 mpg, or about the same as the Bandit.
One of the only areas where the Seca bests the Bandit -- but an important one -- is in riding comfort at speed. The Seca's seat is lower by a good inch, allowing the rider to duck down beneath the fairing airflow. The low-geared Bandit buzzes its handlebars irritatingly with high-pitched secondary vibration at higher freeway speeds, while the Seca is much smoother at speed. Gearshifting is light and positive, perhaps the best of the lot, and the clutch action is easy.
In the bends, the Seca's soft suspension repays a smooth riding style. The rear shock offers preload adjustment only, the front suspension is non-adjustable, and both ends are too soft for serious bend swinging. Both front and rear wheels are narrow by sportbike standards, both come equipped with less than wonderful Yokohama 209 tires, and the rear tire is a comparatively rare 3.5x18" a size for which finding replacement rubber in years to come may prove more difficult than the more common 4.5 by 17 inchers used on the Bandit. But here's the kicker: the price is fully $500 less then Suzuki's red offering, although adding a centerstand -- stock equipment on the Suzuki -- will knock the Seca's price close to five grand. If low price with high style matters to you, then the Seca is the one.
Fourth Place: Kawasaki EN500 Vulcan
Kawasaki's tiny Vulcan doesn't have a kick in the butt like their 1500cc V-twin, but that means it's less likely to flatten your wallet. It's affordable because it's been around for years, and that fact has good points, too.
If there's a prize for longevity in this test, there's no question about the winner: Harley's smallest V-twin has been around since 1958, so it's older than most owners, believe it or not. Those years have given Milwaukee plenty of time to smooth out the wrinkles, without smoothing down the Sportster's rebel image.
Make no mistake, this is very much an entry-level Harley-Davidson. Most of the Motor Company's products cost thousands more -- a Road King is three times the price. And Harley doesn't make much money on the bargain basement Sportsters it sells. The parts and accessories departments make their money later, when Sportster owners trade up, or start buying Screamin' Eagle parts to uprate their bike. Experienced owners know they can uncork a significant amount of power with a few modifications. If we considered resale value alone, the Harley would easily win this comparison: Try finding a late model used Sportster for less than its sticker price. Depreciation is almost nonexistent in the Harley world right now.
The 883, surprise, is the heaviest bike in the test, while its horsepower is at the lower end of the scale. The Sportster is famously solid. The weight and heft of the no-plastic-here Harley are still manageable thanks to the ultra-low seat height and pullback bars. The air-cooled, rigidly mounted V-twin engine shakes noticeably at all engine speeds, but not objectionably so. The rider's feet are insulated from the vibes by big floppy rubber pegs, which some riders disliked because they reduced feedback.
Around town, you've got to get into the Harley feel, using high gears and low revs to torque away from stops. Braking is not impressive, merely adequate, but the engine provides a bunch of braking all by itself.
Handling is in the "different" category. The Harley is high, narrow and heavy, with soft, sloppily damped suspension. It demands a different riding technique from any of the other bikes in the test. The big front wheel must be muscled into turns, but once this technique is adapted to, it's possible to go surprisingly fast, especially on smooth roads. Ground clearance is better than the only other cruiser in the test, the Kawasaki EN, although the sidestand will ground below crazy speeds.
Ergonomics are true cruiser style, with low seat, high bars and slightly forward footrests, a style some riders love. Gear shifting is good, though the return spring is quite stiff, and the somewhat heavy front brake and clutch are actually quite easy to use, thanks to the wide, sculpted levers.
Most importantly to the cash poor, servicing shouldn't cost a bunch of bucks for the Sportster, although the lack of a center stand complicates maintenance. Valves are hydraulically self-adjusting, and over the years Harley-Davidson reliability has improved by quantum leaps, so there should be no problem commuting with this machine. Only caveat is to check tail-light and headlight bulbs often, because vibration may shorten their lives.
Power is moderate, but the Harley offers the biggest chance for the rider to customize the bike to his requirements. You can change a Sportster around, quite easily, to whatever power level you can afford. Cheapest modification is the open pipes that may or may not give more power, but the most effective mod is to rebore or swap cylinders to the 1200cc version. Do that, add a cam -- actually, add four cams, one for each valve -- and adjust carburetion to suit, and you'll have a roadburner that could compete with any of the budget bikes listed here. Of course by then you'll have busted the budget...
PAGE 2Second Place: Suzuki 600 Bandit S
It was a tough fight, but somebody's got to be number two. Suzuki's Bandit came oh so close to winning. It was second only because limited availability of the new bike means price is unlikely to be lower than sticker -- we're thinking budget here. Honda's CB750 lists at $5199, a couple hundred less than the Bandit, but demand has been so high for the bright red Suzuki that real, out-the-door prices are likely to be much lower for the been-around-a-while Hondas.
On paper, the Suzuki looks identical to the Yamaha Seca's specification sheet. DOHC, 599cc engine, 6 speed transmission. On the road, it ain't even close. The new Suzuki, virtually a naked 600 Katana with different valve operating mechanism (screw and locknut, instead of expensive-to-adjust shim) looks faster, is faster, and handles slightly better than Yamaha's offering.
The air-oil cooled Suzuki engine has been around for years, usually hidden under the full-coverage bodywork of the Katana series, but it looks just fine out in the open. The Bandit has brutal good looks, helped by the single-color paint scheme in `arrest me' red. The pressed steel and round tube frame may not he the most modern chassis around, but one knowledgeable onlooker mistook it for Ducati's new four -- until he saw the name on the tank. It's that good looking.
Warming the engine up from cold takes a couple of minutes, and it's a good mile or three before the air-oiled cooled engine is warm enough to pull cleanly at any throttle opening. Once warmed up, performance is stellar. Thanks to six low gears and a 12,000 rpm redline, the Suzuki is by far the best performer of the bunch. The gearchange is slightly notchy, and indeed the whole gearshift linkage nearly self-destructed at the dragstrip, which would have been a first, but once in gear and wicked above 4,000 rpm the Suzuki takes off, fast.
Braking is just as outstanding, with the fade-free twin front discs, the only one of our group to sport them, offering linear feel and the ability to lock the front wheel with a hard squeeze. A single disc handles rear braking duties.
Limited as it is by non-adjustable front suspension and preload-only adjustment on the rear, handling is the best of the bunch, and little short of spectacular on smooth roads. On rough tarmac, the soft suspension shakes, shimmies, and may even bottom out at times over deep ruts and potholes. It's shod with quite competent Bridgestone Exedra tires on its wide front and rear rims, which are the right size to accommodate most of the modern tire compounds offered, and the right size to do a little weekend canyon carving.
Comfort is good. The wide, well padded seat stays comfortable on long rides, although it's a little on the high side for short-legged riders. Like the Seca, standard handlebars are mounted in risers cast into the fork yokes, allowing easy adjustments and even the possibility of handlebar replacement. Comfort at freeway speeds is only marred by high-frequency vibration which is enough to get your fingers tingling after a hundred miles or so. Higher gearing would help here, at the expense of a little less acceleration.
In short, with a little work on suspension and gearing, the Bandit would compete with most 600cc Sportbikes on the market, raising it far out of the budget category. If performance alone is your main criteria, the Bandit rules.
The Winner: Honda CB750 Nighthawk.
The story has been told many times. How a quarter century ago, Honda took over the big bike market with its revolutionary 750cc four cylinder, and paved the way for the Superbike revolution. Then, just as the cost of Superbikes was heading for the $10,000 mark, Honda brought back the CB750 as a budget sportbike, hoping to entice legions of forty year old born-again bikers back into the fold and kickstart the fading motorcycle market.
Sales have been less than stellar, and the market has expanded because of attractive new designs, but the Nighthawk is still around because, we think, it's the best value for money out there.
Part of its charm is the price, another part is the insurance savings -- the Nighthawk isn't affected by Sportbike surcharges, and it's not one of the most coveted bikes out there, so thievery is low.
To keep comparisons easy, we installed a small handlebar-mounted screen on the Honda for our weekend tour, and it was enough to keep the wind off riders' chests at medium speed cruising, and provided the same level of protection as the Seca and Bandit's fairings.
It's amazing, in a quarter of a century, that small motorcycles don't exist in the US anymore. When the CB750 appeared, it was a big bike. Now it's perceived as medium sized, and quite suitable for any learner to jump on. While it would be easier to learn on a smaller bike, only the MZ is actually physically smaller than the Honda, the monetary loss involved in buying a smaller bike (for the same, or even higher price than the Honda) and then swapping to the CB750 means that many first time riders are going to learn aboard this machine.
The good news is that despite its weight and size, the broad spread of power and easy handling make the Nighthawk an easy bike to handle for inexperienced riders. The Honda is higher geared than the Suzuki Bandit -- which partly explains why the Suzuki was better in top gear roll on performance -- and is redlined several thousand rpm lower. If budget performance is your aim, buy the Bandit. If all-round performance, ease of commuting and low yearly maintenance costs are your aims, the Nighthawk is all but unbeatable.
There's no area where the 750 shines. The brakes are adequate, the single disc up front not being especially powerful, and the rear drum being smooth. Off the line, there's a little burble, probably caused by a slightly lean mixture before the motor comes on strong. When it does, power is not of the arm stretching variety.
Suspension too is adequate not outstanding, and the rear suspension is slightly under-sprung, and will bottom out with two people or one rider plus a bunch of luggage.
Riding comfort is good, although without the fairing the sitting-up stance promoted by the high and wide handlebars will have you acting as a parachute into the wind. The seat is well padded, and comfortable on longer rides.
Best of all, for the budget conscious, is the servicing bill. With self-adjusting valves and a simple, air cooled engine, there's no apparent reason why the Nighthawk won't go on forever, as long as you change the oil and lube the chain occasionally.
The CB is the bike you won't regret buying because it was cheap. It's a bargain bike for all the right reasons, but when you want good honest performance -- for a ride into the mountains, or a thousand mile weekend -- you can get it with this bike.
There you have it. Each bike is best in one area -- the Harley has the best resale value and the best gas mileage, the MZ is nippiest in town, the Seca most stylish, the Kawasaki the best passenger accommodations, the Suzuki best performance, and the Honda best maintenance costs. Pay your money, take your choice. But before you shell out for a brand new bike, consider non-currents.
We stopped in at a California motorcycle dealership, Motorcycles Unlimited in Corte Madera, CA, to get some tips on canny bike buying from the store's Scottish-born owner, Alex MacLean.
Even in California's mild climate, seasonal factors prevail. Poor early summer weather led to low early-season sales, even of previous best-sellers like the CBR600, one of Honda's top sellers. Priced at well over $7000, the CBR is out of the value bike league, but at this time of year, you may find a dealer very willing to haggle over any '95 model bike sitting on the dealership floor: he doesn't want to keep last year's model over the winter, and keep paying finance charges every month.
Most buyers want new bikes. They just won't buy 1995s if the 1996s are out. Yet, sometimes the only difference is the decals. If you can get past the 'old' bike phobia, you can save much cash. The price of a non-current CB750 can be a thousand dollars less than a brand new bike (although we're talking about at least a two-year old bike here), and the dealer will fall over himself to give you a good deal.
Consider the benefits of buying a year-old (or older) motorcycle. It is still functionally a new machine (not until a bike is several years old, or if it has been used as a demo, should you worry about corrosion or decay), and is still covered by the original factory warranty. Service bulletins and recall instructions should all be already complied with. Initial depreciation is lower. If you get a good enough deal, you could even afford a paint job to make your drab Dudley into beautiful Bertie.
Suzuki's Bandit is an early-release '96 model, and the first batch flew out of the dealerships, but you'll get the same engine and more performance from a 600 Katana, some of which are still herded together on dealership floors, waiting for buyers. If you deal hard enough, you may be able to get a Katana for less than a Bandit, even though the sticker price is several hundred more. Good luck and good hunting!
1. Brent Plummer, Editor-in-Chief
If I had sixty bills to spend on a new motorcycle, I'd get the Harley. Why? It's practical, with the lowest maintenance of any bike in the test thanks to a sturdy belt final drive, hydraulic lifters and easy-to-reach oil tank (I hate crawling under hot engines). It's economical, with the best fuel mileage of the lot. Most important, it's exciting: The handling is surprisingly agile, and the vibration sends shivers up my spine and other places too. So I'd take all the money I'd save on maintenance and gas and bolt on an aftermarket pipe, air filter and Screamin' Eagle ignition box, which bumps the 883 up to 60-plus horsepower potential and lets it run with the (relatively) big boys, providing you can stand spine-tingling vibration over 5000 rpm. Maybe I'd bolt some apehangers on now and then and cruise Sunset Strip, or go 883 dirt track racing at Del Mar, or 883 Twins Sports roadracing at Laguna Seca. Add a backrest so my girlfriend will go riding, too, oh and my ego would make me fit a 1200 Sporty gas tank so no one would know I was riding an "old lady's" bike.
The point is this: The Harley wouldn't get boring after a year. It's the only bike I'd buy. The Bandit is buzzy, and the shift lever kept bending on me. And it's not as fast as a Katana 600. I liked the optional backrest on the Kawasaki and its engine was surprisingly smooth and perky, but the wheelbase is too long and the low-speed handling is awkward. Whatever, when it was time to vote for the winner, I gave my nod to the Honda 750 Nighthawk, especially since you can buy a leftover 1994 model for under five grand and I realize that -- even though the Harley is probably the best-selling bike in this test -- not everyone likes Harleys as much as I do, or at all for that matter. The Honda is flawless in every aspect, so if you're looking for a new value bike, you owe it to yourself to test ride one. Just don't pass me on my Harley with it.2. Andy Saunders, Editor
The bikes that six big ones can buy cover the gamut from laid back cruiser to frenetic sport bike. What was my favorite? That's easy. The best looker, and best performer, the Suzuki Bandit.
I've never much liked the Katana 600, the bike the Bandit is based on. Funny how just stripping a few plastic pieces off makes the bike look so much better. Okay, it's more than that. Suzuki has done a complete styling redesign on the Bandit while keeping the performance that's kept the Katana on the best seller list for years. It looks great (apart from the tacky chrome instruments and the egg shaped mirrors) and it goes great too.
Low gearing means it's a buzzy motorcycle, but that doesn't translate into discomfort. At 70 mph on the freeway, the tach needle is on the wrong side of the 6000 rpm mark. The redline is another 6000 rpm away, and it's amazing how smooth the red machine will cover those extra r's. You can cruise at 60 or at 90, and it feels just the same. The handling is on a par with many sportbikes, despite its non-adjustability. It's a winner for me.3. Mike Franklin, Managing Editor
I would have to agree with Editor Saunders. I actually bought a Seca II a few years ago for general purpose riding and have been quite pleased with its performance. Until I rode the Bandit. It flat smokes every bike in the comparison, straight line or twisties. Yet it also has the characteristics that were so endearing in the Seca; comfort, style and ease of maintenance. And the Bandit comes stock with a centerstand.
The MZ was probably my next favorite ride, because of its short wheelbase, light weight (80 pounds less than any of the others!), and its affinity for wheelies. I wouldn't buy one, not new, but the grin factor was definitely there.4. Todd Canavan, Editorial Assistant
The Honda is an excellent commuter, has low maintenance due to its hydraulic lifters, and can even get fairly sporty. So I recommend the CB750 as the best overall value, while the rest fall into a niche of some sort. The Bandit is a pseudo-sport bike, but it's too buzzy for me. The Seca II is almost a bandit, but much slower and doesn't handle nearly as well. The Harley is a good cruiser, but the thing is slow and shakes badly enough to numb my butt and disturb my bladder. The MZ would be a great bike if it was about half the price, and if there were parts that you could put on the bike without first having an engineering degree and a lathe (I was the one who broke the footpeg mount on the first day, and it required major surgery and a great welder to fix). The Vulcan is a decent all-around bike, can carry two people comfortably, and runs like a champ, but the raked out front end makes for heavy low-speed steering that might be imposing for newer riders.
The Honda is clearly the best out of the box, and would be even better with good tires. I would also opt for some premium front brake pads, because the stockers can fade with moderate effort. For more gains, I would rejet the bike to help clear up the bottom end.
It's too bad the Bandit wasn't a bit nicer. It has the best performance, and can be easily modified. After tweaking the motor you could gear it taller and get rid of the buzz that is ever-present on the freeway. Some of the details were tacky: The footpeg brackets are rubber mounted -- which I really disliked -- as well as a shift linkage that is weaker than most coat hangers. I recommend that Suzuki go back to the parts bin and dig up some GSXR stuff to give the bandit the extra edge and detail that it needs to push it over the top. Even more interesting, Suzuki should take a clue from the Japanese and Euro markets, and make a 750cc or 1100cc naked Bandit. Hmmm...
5. Bill Bartels, Jr., Guest Tester
Going in, I thought there was no way that I would pick anything other than the Harley, but I did. The stock Sportster was a dog. I'm used to my 60 horsepower 883 that I ride every day. Harleys are built to be modified, but enough hemming and hawing: I chose the Vulcan.
In its completely stock form, the Kawasaki Vulcan carries a bunch of luggage, has a backrest for your passenger, and forward controls. The six speed transmission allowed it to cruise at 80mph. The low center of gravity made it very easy to throw into a corner, very laid back, and comfortable to ride. While this is not the bike I would buy, we are comparing stock bikes, so it was the best of the bikes offered.
I chose the Sportster second, because it is so modifiable, and it will hold its value better than any of the others. A definite plus for people on a budget. I liked the Honda next -- it's all-around prowess impressed me -- and the Bandit placed fourth on my score card.