Ten Worst Motorcycles of the Modern Era

John Burns
by John Burns

An open invitation to get many, many panties twisted

Right, this is my list. Okay, my list with quite a bit of input courtesy of a little social media crowdsourcing and consultation with my Motorcycle.com brethren. Some things to bear in mind include that as motojournalists, we never lived with any of these for more than a few months at most, so the list isn’t about long-term reliability or cost of ownership. It’s more like dislike at first ride that gets no better with time. Most of the things that relegate a bike to Ten Worst of the Modern Era might be remediated, given enough time and money: Every worst bike here, with the proper amount of love, money, and squinting, could be transformed into someone’s else’s dream bike – just not mine. If one of the bikes on my worst list is your baby, I humbly apologize in advance. Post pics in the Comments at the end to prove I’m a MOron.

Also, I’m going to define “modern era” as when I came to work in the “industry,” circa 1988, because it’s my article. In that ⅓ of a century, it was harder than I thought it would be to come up with ten bikes we can mostly all get behind truly detesting. Also, we’re only picking on motorcycles from major manufacturers.

Shall we arrange them from oldest to newest?

Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster, pre-1991

I’m not a Sportster hater, dammit, I’m not I’m not I’m not. Not after they gave it a five-speed transmission in 1991, at least. Before that, the old four-speed 883 engine was turning as hard as it could to propel you along at 80 mph, and you didn’t mind at all that the 2.1-gallon tank was dry after only 80 miles because the vibration was so bad you had to get off and have a smoke to let your hands unclench and your nerve synapses re-separate. It was a Sportster of 1989 vintage that caused me to write, even when I was relatively new to motorcycles, “if this was the only motorcycle there was, I’d rather drive a car.”

I don’t think anybody even got angry when that made it into print, because even the Harley PR people knew it was true. After the five-speed made the bike tolerable at speeds above 50 mph, it only took another 14 years for H-D to make the 883 really rideable, with a new rubber-mount frame. Since then, I’ve been a Sportster fan (excluding the Sportster Low, which AFAIK is the only motorcycle designed to be ridden only straight up and down.)

1997 Bimota V-Due

Up until 2002, MotoGP racing (and 500cc World Championship racing before that) was all about exotic lightweight motorcycles powered by 500cc two strokes. We American Puritans weren’t even supposed to look at pictures of the street-going replica Suzuki RG500s and Yamaha RZV500s that were sold in other parts of the world, which made them all the more coveted. So when Bimota launched its clean-burning stroker for the world in 1996, we were all Pavlov’s dogs. Early reports from Europe from elite motojournalists reinforced that the bike was everything you’d expect and more.

To add insult to injury, the Bimota USA rep charged me $10 for the t-shirt. Probably should’ve gone XL…

When the day finally came for a ride, at Willow Springs raceway, I pulled in after one lap: I think it needs gas. Flipping open the cap revealed a full tank. I did another lap on a bike that still felt like it was running out of gas – jerking and stalling and sputtering between random spurts of hard acceleration. The V-Due was utter, unrideable crap, undone apparently by Bimota’s failed attempt at its own direct fuel injection system.

Promises to return with new FI mapping in a week or two and whatever never happened, our phone never rang, and Bimota wound up being bankrupted buying bikes back from disappointed customers; this after a decade of developing the bike. Sad. Weight was claimed to be 320 pounds, horsepower was said to be 110.

Still, the zero-miles example pictured being uncrated at Iconic Motorcycles gavelled down recently at $34,500 (about $4500 more than the 1997 price). Somebody still loves the V-Due, and there are ways to put them right.

1998 Victory V92C

This one I’ll withdraw, since Brasfield, the Cruiser Expert, says he loved it even though it was “a little rough around the edges.” [And by rough around the edges, I mean that every gear change sounded like the engine used a ball-peen hammer instead of a shift fork. Still, I rode it halfway across this great continent on the Lincoln Highway. So, yes, I do carry fond memories of the V92C. – EB]

I remember when it appeared in our subterranean test-bike garage at Motorcyclist mag. It was so homely I hoped I wouldn’t draw the assignment (at a time when the cave was also overflowing with brand new R1s, ZX-9s, etc). There was no need to worry, as Polaris had sent us a bike with a bad clutch or broken transmission or, I forget? But it was unrideable. It took up room and gathered dust for a month or two, and then was mysteriously gone, like the patient in the full body cast in Catch 22.

I thought of the V92C again last month, when I rode (drove, actually), Polaris’s new Slingshot. The new paddle-shifter automatic trans is much better, but still takes most of a second to process every upshift request. Ahhhh… why not get a thing right before you hand it over to the press? First impressions and all that. Is it just me, or are American manufacturers the only ones that occasionally present us with new motorcycles with glaring faults?

2004 Kawasaki Vulcan 2000

In terms of looks and function and engineering, this is not a bad motorcycle at all. But in terms of marking the apogee of a ridiculous arc of ever-bigger Harley wannabe cruisers, the Vulcan 2000 takes the cake. With 5.5 gallons of fuel on board, the claimed weight was 820 pounds, and just lifting the thing off its sidestand was a good test of whether or not you should ride off on it. Its 2053cc V-twin – 125 cubic inches – was the biggest you could get at the time and maybe still is, and as usual, the talk was all about the 121 ft-lb of torque at 3200 rpm, which meant you never had to downshift. Left unsaid, of course, was that you had to be constantly upshifting to stay out of the 5250-rpm rev limiter, and you needed a helluva grip to operate that clutch.

The seat was only 27 inches high, but so wide it wasn’t easy for shorter people to touch ground, and so thin it was painful in short order. The taller people it seemed designed for also hated the cruel seat. The handlebars seemed designed for a horse-drawn plow or jetpack. Why, Kawasaki, why?

A ship in search of an iceberg, the housing bubble implosion sank the Vulcan 2000 in 2010, along with most of the custom cruiser business, the end of a ridiculous era. Kawi will still sell you a Vulcan 1700 Voyager or Vaquero, which are even heavier. But now they’re touring bikes, for God’s sake.

2005 Hyosung GT650R

If Hyosung is such a big manufacturer, rumored but never confirmed to have built entire engines for Suzuki and other reputable manufacturers, why couldn’t they ever get it right with their own motorcycles, ever? Every test, including MO’s, is filled with mealymouthed conclusions like this particularly mealymouthed one in a six-bike shootout in Cycle World in 2015:

Big surprise was the Hyosung, even if it finished last in everyone’s book. “The expectation, I think, was that the GT-R was going to be truly terrible,” opined Hoyer. “In fact, it worked quite well. Yes, the transmission is vague, high-effort and even pops out gear occasionally, the brakes and clutch have zero feel, and fit and finish leave a lot to be desired. But overall function is not tragically far behind its Japanese counterparts.”

Maybe not tragically behind, but certainly monumentally behind, and equally tragic for the rest of your body and soul. But no one ever wanted to admit it. It reinforces the idea that you can have all or most of the right pieces, but if you don’t know how to blend them together into a motorcycle, you’ll wind up with an overweight, malfunctioning Hyosung GT650 – but hey, it is $4 or 500 cheaper than a real Suzuki SV650!

Second opinion? It’s ugly too. You expect this from China, but not South Korea, where they build Hyundais and Kias. Doesn’t look like they’re trying to sell motorcycles in the US anymore, though there are a lot of 2016 GT250Rs for sale for $3k. Run away.

2008 Suzuki B-King

2008 B-King production version

This is a really good motorcycle deserving of the cult status it may be lately achieving, but it makes the worst list based solely upon what might’ve been: When this naked version of the Hayabusa appeared as a concept bike at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, it was said to have a supercharged Hayabusa engine and like 240 horsepower (way too much, of course, but we want it anyway now that you brought it up).

Also, lots of carbon fiber, stainless steel, aluminum and leather. An advanced computer system with self-diagnostics, advanced telemetry, and GPS-based weather warning system were going to be accessible via mobile phone (what’s a mobile phone?) – and you were going to see it all on the helmet Suzuki was going to build using the visor as a display.

You were going to start it using a fingerprint recognition system, and the alarm system would alert you immediately if the bike was started or moved, again via mobile phone. The microphone and speaker built into the bike would let you speak with the thief by the phone: I say, old chap…

My iPhone can do all that now, of course, but in 2001 it was pure sci-fi.

This is how it was supposed to look: the 2001 Tokyo Show concept

My biggest problem, though, aside from the missing supercharger, concerns tire sizes. The concept bike wore 150- and 240-section tires. When the production B-King finally arrived, it wore a conventional 120 front and a 200-section rear. Which looked, and still looks, completely ridiculous under those tremendously huge cartoon dual exhausts. So close, and yet so lame.

2009 Honda DN-01

Come to think of it, this one’s out there far enough I think I’d probably like it if I’d ever ridden one. But it was hard to come up with ten bad motorcycles, and this automatic Honda emerged as a crowd favorite to hate. “Two parts scooter; one part cruiser; and one part sportbike,” is how EiC Duke described the DN, his personal transpo during Daytona Bike Week 2009.

Dream New – Concept 1 was powered by a 680cc, 52-degree V-Twin derived from the old Transalp, working through an advanced HFT (Human Friendly Transmission). “This is a continuously variable, hydro-mechanical design that is a big leap in technology above the simple belt-drive CVTs (continuously variable transmission) in scooters. Honda says its HFT provides comparable performance and efficiency to a manual gearbox.”

The DN reminds me of the Honda NM4 we tested a few years ago, which was equally intriguing until the new wore off rather quickly, leaving behind only the weird, and the gnawing realization of all the other cool things you could’ve bought with $14,599 in 2009. Or the new VFR1000R Honda could’ve been designing.

2014 Honda CTX1300

I don’t know why, when I heard Honda was making a cruiser/bagger using the old ST1300’s excellent V-four, I expected/hoped for some kind of roarty V Max-style power cruiser deal. The bike looked pretty sporty in the video Kevin Duke sent back from EICMA 2013 and the dual exhausts looked like an engine that meant business.

When it got here, we learned Honda had decided the way to the bagger rider’s heart was to emulate an H-D Street Glide’s powerband. “The reengineered 1261cc V-4 motor differs from the ST1300 by way of camshafts, valves, throttle bodies and compression ratio to deliver more low- and mid-range power than its ST counterpart. Like the CTX700, the 1300 has a low, 7,000 rpm redline, which for traditional motorcyclists is a rev ceiling that takes some getting used to,” wrote Tommy Roderick.

At no point in its powerband did the poor V-four approach anything like “roarty.” The bike also had a low, blustery windshield, no cruise control, and all the charisma of a toaster oven. It was also heavy (732 pounds), not that comfortable, and expensive ($16 – 17.5k). American Honda was embarrassed enough that they didn’t want it in a comparison, so they sponsored my boy and me to a fishing trip feature story! One hates to bite the hand that feeds, and yet… the CTX did have self-cancelling turn signals, and it was a pretty good fishing bike.

Yamaha YZF-R1 2015 – current

Maybe I haven’t ridden one since our 2017 Superbike Street Shootout, but in that contest the Yamaha finished sixth of seven, behind only the EBR 1190RX, due almost entirely to a sadistic ergonomic layout that would make the Marquis de Sade jealous. A 76.4% on the MO scorecard in Ergonomics may be the lowest of all time. Next lowest in Ergos was the Buell, with an 84.6. The winning Aprilia RSV4 scored a 90.0 in the category: BMW S1000RR, 91.8; Honda CBR1000RR, 91.1: It is entirely possible to make a reasonably comfortable supersport bike.

The R1, with its high footpegs, buckboard “seat,” and long reach across its cruel shark-infested tank to low clip-ons, may be the most uncomfortable motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. Yes, it’s won all but one American Superbike championship since 2010, but it’s won exactly zero MO Superbike shootouts in that time, and it’s largely down to the ergos. If only Yamaha could design an underseat exhaust furnace like the Ducati Panigales have, the R1 would be unapproachable as a mobile discomfort device.

Lately we spend a lot of time wondering about the demise of the sportbike. And we’ve always talked about how few sportbikes ever make their way to the racetrack… did anybody ever connect those dots? Hello? If you’re thinking about buying one of these, please have a sit on an MT-10 first. Unless you’re going racing, which 99 of 100 of us aren’t.

2017 Harley-Davidson Street Rod

At least they had the foresight to put a little rubber pad on top of the exhaust pipe so your boot heel wouldn’t melt to it, a thoughtful touch. Back brake lever is down there somewhere impossible to find…

As the lone MO defender of the earlier, potential-laden H-D Street 750, I was excited when news of the new Street Rod came down: 18% more power, triple disc brakes, 4.6 inches rear suspension travel, inverted fork, 17-inch rubber, increased cornering clearance – they’ve built a real sportbike around that sweet little V-twin! As soon as I swang a leg over it on Main Street in Daytona, I knew I’d been had. This is the first Harley with aluminum footpegs, the chief engineer enthused. Unfortunately, the insistence on using the same exhaust system as the Street 750 meant that said pegs had to be mounted in places not consistent with the layout of the human anatomy. And the flat handlebar that won out in committee only made the ergonomic situation worse. In my First Ride Review, I had no choice but to give her a 4 out of 10 in Ergonomics, and that was being kind. I really wanted to like the Street Rod. Alas…

As of 2021, there are no more Streets – 500, 750 or Rod – on H-D’s US website; “no longer available in the US outside of dealer use for rider training.” The Street 750, after they put a functional front brake on it in year two (see ’98 Victory V92C, first impressions, above), really was a sweet little motorcycle. So sad.

Let us go forward from here, and strive to sin no more.

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 132 comments
  • Dokie88 Dokie88 on Apr 01, 2021

    Just picked up a Honda CTX 1300 in perfect condition with 3,500 miles for a song....no demand because apparently it was a flop? Yep, it's like an Accord on 2 wheels, V-4 absolutely purrs...quiet and efficient. Taller aftermarket screen works fine. Very respectable torque. Won't pick up chicks at the tattoo parlor for sure, but I do have to disagree with two of the listed shortcomings...1) it's very comfortable for an average size guy, and 2) any operator who has a problem with the 7,000 rpm redline given the way this motor is tuned has NO concept of mechanics.

  • AJTascione AJTascione on Jun 04, 2021

    Might have added a few more Harley’s but it would be difficult to bump any of your worse ten picks, perhaps we could call the DN-01 a scooter