Frugal Flyers: A Six-Bike Shoot Out

What's the best bike for your bucks? At Motorcycle Online, the garage is crammed full of new machinery, just waiting for eager staffers to jump on and turn the key. But like everyone else, Motorcycle Online staffers sometimes have to get real. New bikes equal big bucks. What to buy if basic transportation is all you can afford, but the thrill of a new motorcycle is what you want?

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.

The engine in this pocket-sized cruiser is Kawasaki's familiar liquid-cooled parallel twin. It's been chugging along for most of a decade in both cruiser and sportbike (EX500) versions. The staggered crankpins and balancer shafts of this vertical twin guarantee a smooth ride in the higher rpm range -- at the expense of some slight roughness at idle. But the roughness is welcomed by some riders because it makes the bike feel and sound like a cruiser. Once past the low range, (although there is no tachometer fitted to tell you what rpm you're at) the biggest surprise is the pickup of this small engine. The twin will pull quite nicely, thank you, from low rpm and accelerate towards a surprisingly high top speed.

Handling is good on the cruiser scale, meaning that the Vulcan is no sportbike. The 21 inch front wheel, long wheelbase and fat rear tire guarantee that bend-swinging better be of the moderate variety. The low ground clearance reinforces that impression when the bike is pushed around corners. But steering is light (helped by the lack of weight on the front wheel), and the bike is much easier to physically muscle around the bends than the Sportster, although the H-D is more capable around corners.

Around town, the EN's light touch and easy-to-use controls make it a natural for commuting or just a run down to the grocery store. It's user-friendly, but the maintenance cost of the simple twin cylinder may be higher than you'd think, thanks to liquid cooling which requires that the system be drained every time the valves are adjusted, required every 6,600 miles due to the threaded rocker design. Otherwise, the cruiser styling means that most components are easily accessible without removing acres of plastic parts.

The riding position is cruiser standard, with plushly padded seat, high pullback bars and forward mounted pegs. It's comfortable for short- to medium-length rides; Who'd want to ride a 500 mile day on a cruiser anyway? Yet despite all that, the Vulcan got the nod for best passenger accommodation thanks to the standard sissy bar. The short windscreen and taller sissy bar shown on our test model are available as Kawasaki accessories.

The 500cc Kawasaki twin has been around long enough to assure its reliability and dependability. It's not the sexiest bike you can buy under $6,000, it doesn't excel in any field, and its maintenance cost kicks it down to the number four spot, but if its cruiser style with performance that you want, it's a contender.

Third Place: Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster

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...

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