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.
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.
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 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. Last but by no means least: Hydraulic lifters, air cooling, and belt drive add up to a maintenance schedule that consists of changing the oil.
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.
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.
For the minimalist commuter in a tight, urban environment, this KTM 690 Duke in mufti is hard to beat. Yes, it’s a Single, but it’s a 75-horsepower dual-counterbalanced Single that’s more powerful and smoother-running than many Twins, and it gets 50 mpg-ish. Husqvarna’s dirtbike roots mean it’s got 4.9 inches of great suspension at both ends for ignoring bumps in the road. The broad seat is surprisingly comfortable. And a claimed weight of 349 pounds (before you add 3.2 gallons of fuel) means the Svart can gap the tightest traffic. The flat-topped tank cries out for a tank bag, and Husqvarna stocks various windscreens. (A Svartpilen 401 or Duke 390 are 58% as good, for less than half the money.)
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. Super comfortable, sporty, reasonably lightweight at 454 lbs with 5.5 gallons of fuel and returning around 45 mpg, the Versys is tough to beat as a commuter. Kawasaki wants to sell you a new one for $8,399, but any 2015 or newer will do: That’s the year we got major upgrades including a rubber engine-mount system that really made the medium “versatile system” even more sublime.
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. The seat’s low enough for everybody who’s at least 5’6”, but 6.7 inches of good suspension at both ends laughs at paved bumps. She’s super comfortable and with a windscreen – also cruise control. A wet weight of 540 lbs isn’t too bad, 5.5-gallon fuel capacity is pretty good, and 39 mpg could be better, but she’s so beautiful, no? Bark busters are great when lane-splitting becomes confrontational (never instigate it!), but the TT’s handlebar isn’t too wide like some ADVs. When you start piling up the miles, you’ll learn to enjoy adjusting Guzzi valves, and shaft drive means you can just opt out of all chain lube discussions. See also the new Guzzi V7 Brasfield just rode, similar engine, less motorcycle.
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. The medium Burgman got its last big update for 2018.
For quite a few dollars less, see also Yamaha XMAX.
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. The newer bike also got a new cartridge-type 41mm fork and a few other small things. For sporty riding, the 2019 offers more performance. For commuting, either version is perfectly acceptable, and both are superior to middleweights such as MT-07 or SV650 largely because of the extra torque, comfort, and reduced stress those bigger pistons impart to the rider. Seats are less than 30 inches, weights are around 480 lbs wet, and gas tanks are too small, at 3.2 gallons – but the Street Twin still makes an excellent, skinny, bare-bones commuter.
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.
All that also only weighs 485 lbs wet, says Yamaha, without the side cases. And we’ve got a 5-gallon hat and a claimed 49 mpg. The original 900 GT of 2019 (derived from FJ-09) was conceived as a lightweight sport tourer, and I enjoyed riding it so much at the Portland, Oregon, launch, I wound up riding one back to SoCal and loving almost every minute of it. The same light, skinny, torquey powerfulness that makes it a great tourer should make it a commuter par excellence as well. It all kind of makes me want to go back to an office.
The Zero SR/S seems to be the hot electric setup for now, a fully faired, more humane version of the naked SR/F. At 70 mph, range isn’t much more than 70 miles, but if stop-and-go is part of your commute you’ll do a lot better. And anyway, most reports peg the average American commute at no more than 20 miles each way, which the Zero has no problem round-tripping. If you’re riding 50 miles each way, you’re probably working at least an 8-hour day, and that’s plenty of time for a full charge – preferably on the company dime. And that’s the beauty isn’t it, especially if you’ve already got the Tesla roof and Power Wall at home. No more gas, no more oil changes, no more valve adjustments or any of that.
If you’re heading back to the office, farm, factory, kitchen, duty station, or classroom after this year-long pandemic, I feel like the least you deserve is a new motorcycle. That’s what we call a stimulus package.