Which Type of Motorcycle is Right for You?
When you’re just starting in motorcycling, the bike choices can be dizzying. Here’s a handy guide for homing in on what you need.
Ah, the good old days. Back when the Watergate scandal was a big deal, so was motorcycling. The industry had exploded in size and scope to historic levels, thanks to the coming of age for Boomers and America’s appetite for outdoor experiences. And yet…in terms of bike choices, you could only buy a standard bike like a Yamaha XS650, a motocross bike like a Penton 125 Six-Day, an “enduro” (on/off road) bike like Yamaha’s DT3 2-stroke, an Italian scooter, or maybe a big hog straight outta Milwaukee. Needed more from your mount? From there, you really did have to bend brackets and turn wrenches to “make it your own,” as current bike advertisers love to say.
The motorcycle universe we know today is wholly different. Not only are the bikes infinitely better, but there are so many varieties, why, a multi-line dealership looks like an emporium for exotic flora and fauna compared to the mom-and-pop shops of the free-love Seventies. This might seem a bit funny – perhaps if you’ve been breathing too much 2-stroke racing castor in a closed garage – but it addresses a serious point: The motorcycle marketplace now has bikes to suit virtually any buyer's desire.
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Choices, Choices, Choices
Good heavens! Such variety is terrific if you already know what kind of riding you want to do…but what if you’re totally new to motorcycling – or even more elementary, just exploring the idea of buying a motorcycle at all? Then you need this Motorcycle.com handy guide. Just follow the captions below to find the right style of motorcycle. Just remember, it’s a general guide. So, visit multiple stores, sit on everything, test ride what you can, ask tons of questions, and take your time. The more bikes you explore, the more you’ll know when it’s the right one.
Dirt and Street
- Dual Sport – Designed for on- and off-road riding, these bikes are true “do it all” mounts. They tend to be lighter in weight, have taller seats, long-travel suspension, and carry modest price tags starting below $5,000 and climbing to $12,500, depending on brand and model. Chase one of these if you want to explore technical trails and backroads – and still be fully freeway legal.
- Enduro – Derived from motocross bikes, enduro mounts have wider powerbands, wider-ratio gearboxes, electric starters, bigger flywheels, larger fuel tanks, side stands, and tougher tires built for off-road abuse. They are the choice for veteran dirt riders who want to go long distances and conquer whatever comes their way. Figure $8,000 for a 250cc model and $10,000+ for a top model.
- Kids – Just like in skiing and snowboarding, legendary motorcycle champs often started riding early, such as four years old. Chances are it was on the same kind of kids bikes that are on the market today. Ranging from 50cc 2-strokes with throttle limiters to 4-stroke electric-start trailbikes of various displacements (and then there are the new to the scene kids’ electrics), the range of kids’ bikes is as wide-ranging as the kids who like them. Prices are $1,700 up to perhaps $3,800.
- Motocross – The high-flying sport of motocross and supercross is for neither the timid nor placid. Its product range starts with 50cc to 85cc 2-stroke youth racers, and then spikes up to top-shelf 450cc 4-stroke professional-grade machines. With fully tunable suspension, variable engine mapping in some cases, and lightweight, race-proven components, they’re the gladiators of the dirt world. Figure under $5,000 for a fully equipped 50cc kids MX bike to over $12,000 for a topflight 450.
- Trail – If you like easy-going fun, eyeball the wide range of 4-stroke trailbikes. Factory equipped with spark arrestors and good mufflers, they’re legal off-road, and easy to live with, thanks to their electric starters, mild tuning, side stands, and sometimes, standard lighting. Sized from 125cc to 450cc, their MSRPs extend from $3,400 to $10,000. Pick your size, and price.
- Trials – Like magicians, trials bikes can climb anything, hop from tree trunk to building to boulder, and generally defy gravity. Highly specialized by intent, they require highly adept, fit, and trained riders. These serious machines sell for serious money – nearly $12,000.
- Supersport – Usually middleweight bikes as measured by displacement (e.g., 300cc to 700cc), supersports mirror the appearance and general engineering of full-blooded, one-liter superbikes. As such, some are highly capable sportbikes – and truthfully, in the right hands at the right venue, they might take down a superbike in a fair fight. Thanks to their smaller engines and lighter weight, however, they’re typically a friendlier way to engage with sport bikes if you’re new to the genre. Prices can range from $5,000 to $12,000.
- Superbike – These are the King Kong of street performance. Some one-liter superbikes reportedly develop over 200 hp, so as a group they’re rocket-ships on wheels. This positions them for expert riders with the maturity to control the power available with a twist of the wrist. That said, on a track they provide a ride experience like nothing else on Earth. Prices range from under $18,000 to over $40,000.
- Adventure – If you’re thinking Tierra del Fuego sounds good this time of year, or maybe a quick Fairbanks-to-Nova Scotia hop, you might need a big adventure bike, or ADV for short. The darling of the motorcycle industry of late, big ADVs have real off-road prowess, huge carrying capacity, and a purposeful look that gels with purposefully minded riders. Most brands build them, and prices can range from $7,000 to $32,000.
- Bagger – Bruiser, braggart, bagger: They might be all on the same page of the dictionary. A distillation of heavy cruisers and touring bikes, baggers usually feature cut-down fairings and windscreens, low-slung seating, a pair of hard side cases (the saddlebags in the “bagger” nickname), a big engine, and lots of attitude. Prices range from about $11,000 to over 40 grand.
- Sport Touring – When you like to ride swiftly, like a sportbike devotee, but over long distances, a sport-touring bike might be your cup of espresso with extra shots. Half sport bike and half tourer, sport tourers have a sporty riding position and energetic engines, yielding a dynamic approach to touring that registers perfectly with action-oriented riders. Think $14,000 to $20,000 or so.
- Touring – If what’s over the horizon holds great appeal, you need a touring bike. Typically large in displacement with a big factory fairing, side bags and trunk, comfortable seating and loads of electronics such as cruise control, comprehensive instrumentation, and Bluetooth links for mobile devices, touring rigs have what you need to get there in comfort. Prices can be bargain or premium, from $10,000 to north of $50k.
- Electric – A select few companies have managed to launch viable electric motorcycles and then sustain them in a hard market. All things considered, they’re good bikes. Limitations include range per charge (typically under 100 miles), and the need to factor in recharge time (quicker with a fast charger) between rides. But the smooth, quiet operation is a treat, and can positively change your perception of motorcycling.
- Trike – Unique in motorcycling, 3-wheel motorcycles are like the mysterious cousin that few people ever meet or understand – except that they remove balancing from the riding equation. Some trikes have two wheels in front and one drive wheel in back, while others have a single motorcycle-style front wheel and dual rear drive wheels. Still another option is a standard motorcycle with a sidecar on the right side, creating a three-wheeler. Look to spend $9,000 to $50,000.
- Cruiser – Easy-going attitude for urban riding, that’s cruisers in a nutshell. Characteristic of the cruiser archetype is a low seating position – sometimes only 26 in., which makes flat-footing these bikes easy for newer or smaller riders – a focus on engine power and appearance, a kicked-out front end (a remnant of the old “chopper” era), taller handlebars, and mid- or forward-positioned foot controls. The smallest cruisers are 250cc and perhaps $4,700, and the biggest are 2,500cc (2.5 liters!) and $24,000.
- Mini – If “Fun” is your middle name, here’s your deal. Several companies have reinvented the mini-streetbikes of the 1960s in modern form, and they really are fun, fun, fun. Mostly featuring 125cc to 135cc engines, they have modern features such as fuel injection, 5-speed gearboxes, and electric starting. Their low seat heights of about 30 in., low weight of about 225 lb. to 250 lb., and their compact dimensions make them a total blast.
- Naked – Naked bikes are derivatives of supersports and superbikes that were stunt-ridden, crashed, and then stripped of their expensive-to-replace bodywork. Thus, urban hooligans unwittingly created a new motorcycle category a couple of decades ago. Nowadays, naked bikes are serious, embodying superbike performance with a minimalist look and more upright seating position that works great in the city. Plan on $5,000 for a 300cc version to over $20k for a 1,300cc monster.
- Retro – Old souls of any age hold a fondness for the simple designs of the 1950s and 1960s. Fortunately, a few manufacturers execute some attractive replicas of these early bikes. Often single- or twin-cylinders machines, they use spoke wheels, organic design elements, lots of brightwork, and either dual seats or cafe-racer inspired solo seats. Plan on 350cc and under $5,000 to a 1,200cc retro ace for $17,000.
- Scooter – For urban transportation, it’s hard to beat the versatility and value of a scooter. They are designed with “step through” construction, meaning you don’t have to swing a leg over the seat to climb onboard; you also place your feet flat on floorboards in lieu of foot pegs as on a motorcycle. There’s often lockable storage under the seat, good fuel economy, and various other accouterments to improve the user experience. Scooters can be small (50cc and $2,600) or large (400cc and $8,600).
- Scrambler – Warning: History lesson! The term “scrambler” derives from the 1960s term “street scrambler,” which was marketing speak for a street bike with high exhausts, a smaller fuel tank, and maybe a skid plate under the engine. (And that term, in turn, derived from the English sport, “scrambles,” which was the predecessor to motocross. There, now you know!) Anyway, today’s scramblers, ironically, have not moved beyond their forebears. They are still street bikes with upswept pipes, abbreviated bodywork, and other bits to make them look dirt worthy. Scramblers can be found from 400cc for about $5,000 to 1,100cc for $17,000 or so.
- Sport – Remember Charlie Harper’s wardrobe in Two and a Half Men? A bowling shirt and cargo shorts. Okay, a bygone analogy, but that is the casual feel one might infer from sport bikes. Sporty styling, decent engines, brakes, and suspension, but nothing too fancy or exotic – just a good value for a useful sporting motorcycle. Available from 300cc to a liter or more, the sweet spot for these bikes seems to be in the 650cc range, where you can find an array of products from $8,500 to $10,000.
- Standard – What used to be considered a normal motorcycle is now defined as a “standard” and represents merely a slice of the overall market. Which means that most buyers miss out on all the goodness a “standard” bike affords: A comfy, upright, no-frills seating position; a lack of pretentious attitude (sometimes!); and a reasonable price point. Standards can range from 300cc singles to 1,000cc 4-cylinder models with MSRPs ranging from $5,000 to $11,500, respectively.
More by John L. Stein