10 Best Commuter Motorcycles

John Burns
by John Burns

Getting to work shouldn't have to be like work

Best commuter motorcycles? It all depends where you’re commuting really, and how far you have to travel every day. If you’re in a congested part of the world that allows lane-sharing, you want something on the narrow side. If you’re in Texas, you might as well go big. If you’re covering 100 miles or more round-trip, you want something reasonably comfortable and with enough power to not get rear-ended. And if it’s going to be chilly, you want some wind protection. Since filling your tank every day gets old, more fuel capacity is better, and so is more mpg. Or electric.

There are two main schools of thought: One is maximum efficiency, as in lowest cost per mile on a workhorse motorcycle toward which you’ll avoid emotional attachment. At the other end, there’s what we’ll call the Joe Gresh school: Life’s too short to ride a boring motorcycle, says Joe. Always strive to arrive at your destination exhilarated, spent, and happy to still be alive. Especially if you’re going to be spending the next eight hours in a cubicle farm.

Maybe we should shoot for the middle ground: reasonably efficient motorcycles that are still a hoot to ride. Here’s our picks. YMMV, and of course commuting on any motorcycle beats being stuck in a car.

BMW R1250 RS

The GS gets all the love, but unless you’re commuting over dirt roads, the RS is the one to park next to the BMW coupes and Teslas to project status. Narrower handlebars make it easier to squeeze through tight spots than the GS, the RS seat is lower, and the whole bike is a bit lighter and more suited to high-speed roadwork. Those protruding cylinder heads are highly efficient at defending your feet from errant automobiles. BMW offers various hard luggage options to carry your stuff, and the 4.8 gallon fuel tank ain’t bad given that mileage is 45 mpg-ish.

We don’t need to tell you you don’t necessarily need the latest model; there are tons of pampered RS’s and unfaired R’s out there looking for new homes (most of which are easier to maintain than the latest Shift Cam-equipped models). And a full-boat RT boxer is fine, too, especially if you live in a colder climate where lane-splitting is verboten.

You can probably find a decent deal on a used R1250RS, but if you prefer a brand new bike, you may want to wait to see if BMW will bring in a new model with the R1300GS' engine.

Harley-Davidson Street Glide

We’re not sure what it is about these things, but there’s got to be something to them since about half, maybe more than half, of the people we see on the SoCal freeway system seem to be on a Glide of one sort or another. A seat 26.1 inches high makes paddling through traffic stress-free, and for being a rather large motorcycle, the SG is light on its feet and responsive, even verging on sporty. Later models have plenty of power, strong brakes, and good enough suspension if you dodge the bumps. The seat’s comfy, the floorboards and passenger pegs offer opportunities for various legular contortions to stretch things out as needed, and the six-gallon tank is usually good for 200 miles.

The other thing that’s nice, if you’re from a higher socioeconomic caste and break down in a bad neighborhood, is that everyone there will love you anyway, and most of them will know how to fix your bike. Americans will always do the right thing, said Winston Churchill, when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Honda NC750X

2018 NC750X

Regular MO readers are sick of hearing me preach the virtues of one of my all-time favorite motorcycles. The NC’s not blazingly fast but it is blazingly everyday usable, thanks to its 60+ mpg parallel Twin, built-in locking bowling ball storage (where the gas tank should be), and excellent standard-bike ergonomic layout. It’s still plenty fast when it needs to be, and if you go for the DCT, you don’t even have to shift gears. Possibly the most practical motorcycle ever built, and if you think it’s boring, you may be projecting.

If you like cruisers, see also Honda Rebel 1100 DCT.

Husqvarna Svartpilen 801

Originally, we had Husqvarna's Svartpilen 701 in this spot on the list, citing its minimalist look, KTM 690 Single, comfortable seat, light weight and tank bag-friendly flat tank. The 701 was discontinued a few years ago, but fortunately, we now have its replacement in the Svartpilen 801.

Now equipped with a 799cc Parallel-Twin, the Svartpilen 801 ticks many of the same boxes, though it now claims a 399-pound weight. With that new engine, however, comes extended service intervals of 9,000 miles, new electronics, and a 5-inch TFT display.

Kawasaki Versys 650

Former MO Editorial Director Sean Alexander had to choose one motorcycle when he left the employ of Kawasaki; that motorcycle was a Versys 650. When Sean bailed for Hawaii, the Versys went to Troy Siahaan, who was commuting from Pasadena to Torrance. When Trizzle came back to MO, the Versys went to ex-MOron Tom Roderick. It hasn’t missed a beat yet. The Versys is just a happy, comfortable little motorcycle that wants nothing more than to serve its master.

The latest version offers a redesigned fairing with a four-position adjustable windscreen to make it even more comfortable, plus modern technology including a traction control system, two selectable rider modes, a TFT color display and LED lighting.

Moto Guzzi V85 TT Strada

Some suggest any modern Guzzi is an ideal commuter, so I went ahead and picked my new favorite one, sorry. The V85TT is meant to be an ADV bike, but getting to work is kind of an adventure isn’t it? Besides, we all agreed it was the least adventurous ADV in our recent 2021 Middleweight Adventure Motorcycle Shootout, so it’s perfect really.

That's probably why Moto Guzzi decided to introduce a more street-focused Strada model in its most recent update, equipping it with cast wheels, a smaller windscreen and removing the skidplate and large rear rack offered on the other variants. That brings the claimed wet weight down a relatively lithe 498 pounds.

Suzuki Burgman 400

For a short commute with no freeway action, just about any scooter is, well, visit any metropolis outside the US to learn the popularity of the scooter. I don’t like to go any smaller than about 150 cc, but if you’re a really patient cheapskate, you can. The Burgman 400’s not quite a maxi-scooter (the Burgman 650 is), but it’s got enough juice to run 90 mph and carry two people in comfort, while still being small enough to work the streets like a sewer rat. It’s a scooter, so you don’t have to shift, and there’s enough lockable storage under the seat for a few days’ provisions. Good brakes are important, and the Burgy’s got triple discs and ABS. Also a 3.6-gal fuel tank, which is sufficient because the DR-Z400 derived DOHC single returns at least 55 mpg.

Triumph Speed Twin 900

2019 Street Twin with Triumph’s “Urban Ride Kit”

The first Street Twins, in 2016, came with a 270-crank 900 cc parallel Twin that was tuned for torque, and it was very good and got 60 mpg. In 2019, Triumph retuned the engine for more horsepower – 65 hp instead of 54 at the same 5900 rpm. And 59 lb-ft of torque was still there, just a bit higher up the rev range – but fuel efficiency slacked off to closer to 50 mpg. Triumph renamed the bike as the Speed Twin 900 in 2023, giving it the same branding as the larger 1200 model.

The latest bike also got a new cartridge-type 41mm KYB fork for a smoother ride, and a more comfortable ergonomics and a thicker seat, making it an even better choice as a commuter than before.

Yamaha Tracer 900GT

I was about to type “maybe you should wait for the Tracer to get the new 890 engine and frame Yamaha just gave the 2021 MT-09,” but I see it’s arriving in dealers this month: Tracer 9 GT Yamaha is calling it, and in addition to that stuff it’s also got new new KYB electronic suspension, an IMU, up/down quickshifter, standard hard bags, a new 3.5-inch TFT panel, cruise control, etc. All for $14,899.

The Tracer 9 GT+ was already a pretty good commuter when it arrived in 2019 as the Tracer 900 GT. The latest version got tricked out with Yamaha's latest electronics, including semi-active suspension and a new radar-based Unified Braking System. UBS works together with the lean-sensitive ABS to provide additional braking pressure if it detects you are not already applying enough to prevent a collision with an object in front of you. The same radar technology also powers the Tracer's adaptive cruise control, which is handy if highway travel is a regular part of your daily commute.

Kawasaki Ninja 7 Hybrid

In the original version of this Top 10 list, we had electric motorcycles in this spot, pointing out that the average American commute is no more than 20 miles each way, and despite the persistent gloom of range anxiety, the latest electric models are more than capable of doing that.

But if range is still a sticking point, may we suggest Kawasaki's new Ninja 7 Hybrid. Along with its naked sibling, the Z 7 Hybrid, the Ninja 7 Hybrid can run on electric energy for the stop-and-go nature of city traffic, while still having a 471cc gas-guzzling engine for more oomph and added range. Plus, the Hybrids offer a low-speed electric walk mode, which is handy for getting into tight parking spaces. The $12,499 price might be too much for a bike that offers a level of performance on-par with the $8,299 Ninja 650, but for an early adopter eager to try a technology that's still very new for motorcycles, Kawasaki's hybrid might just be the ticket.

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 82 comments
  • Tim Moran Tim Moran on Jun 16, 2024

    Maybe overkill, but the BMW RS is a beautiful bike. I commuted on occasion on my R1150R 160 mile round trip. I bought the bike 22 years ago, and it now has 96,000 miles on it. I have a lot of miles one me as well, and I may have to hang up my spurs...

  • Eric Eric on Jun 17, 2024

    This is a pretty good list, but my next commuter is going to be a DRZ400SM. Nothing is more fun for the urban grind, and with proper hand and case guards, they’re really tip over resistant. Super reliable, good brakes, telepathic steering, and long travel suspension for the inevitable potholes. The KLX300 is another great option, but I like the higher power of the ancient battle axe DRZ.