Best Beginner Motorcycles – A Buyer’s Guide
Passing any sort of test is exciting, but one that allows you onto America’s highways and byways, unsupervised, riding the motorcycle your heart desires or your fancy takes… that’s one of life’s greatest post-assessment elations.
Although you now have your license, though, you’re still effectively a brand newbie to biking. While the examiner’s questions have ended, yours may well have just begun: “What type of bike is most rider-friendly? What safety gear do I need? What further training courses would I be well advised to take?”
All the answers are here.
Which Motorcycle Type to Choose?
The major considerations that will help you choose the best first motorcycle begin with type. Types of ride are commonly codified by describing the use the machine is put to; the designer’s intent.
Most dealers and reviewers refer to the following six main classifications:
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- Dirt (or “adventure”)
Cruisers mimic – or may indeed be manufactured by – classic American marques.
Cruisers are large, heavy, typically running large-displacement V-twin engines and styled for a feet-forward, hands-high riding position. Cornering is inhibited by low ground clearance, and exotic styling cues all combine with the dimensions and cost to make cruisers a fairly poor bet as learner machines.
Dirt (off-road; adventure) bikes are relatively simple machines, and rugged build quality usually means they walk away unscathed from minor spills.
A high center of gravity, coupled with a tall seat and suspension featuring a lot of travel are all viable for covering rough ground, as are heavily-treaded tires on wheels with large rims. None answer to a new rider’s need for easy control, however.
Further, without a lot of work a dirt bike can’t be used on the road, and that’s the very reason why you qualified in the first place.
Dual purpose (dual-sports; on/off-roaders) are street legal machines designed to cope well with off-road adventures. There’s a potential disaster waiting in the wings, however, when the inevitable tumble is taken.
These machines are usually built around dirt bike chassis, with road-necessary components bolted on. Instrument clusters, lights, mirrors and signals are thus very vulnerable to damage, and we all know the “Supply & Demand” rule: if it’s easy to break, and gets broken a lot, replacement parts won’t be cheap.
Sport bikes are built for top-end speed, sprightly acceleration, and for aggressive braking and cornering. The hands-forward, feet-back configuration leans the rider down over the fuel tank, typifying streetfighter style.
The image may indeed look glamorous, but a high performance engine twinned to a lightweight frame combine to make it easy for inexperienced riders to exceed limitations. Further, complex fairing/windshield combinations are costly to replace, while a long reach to the handlebars can cause arm and wrist fatigue.
Touring motorcycles (baggers; dressers) encourage a relaxed seating position, but that’s where their usefulness to beginner riders starts and finishes. Large-displacement engines and elongated frames are extremely heavy, while fairing/panniers/screen combos are easy to damage and expensive to replace.
Standards (naked bikes; roadsters) are general-purpose street motorcycles. Design encourages an upright riding position, with handlebars which place the rider’s shoulders above the hips, and pegs also located on that vertical line.
Standards are generally absent both fairings and windshields, which simplicity makes them ideal as a first bike; it keeps the price down, and there’s less to damage if a fall occurs.
Proper safety gear – equipment that’s designed and manufactured to protect the rider, not just styled to look that way – is an absolute must.
The most basic kit should include:
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Fit is far more important than smokin’ hot graphics. Ensure there’s a DOT approval sticker, that it isn’t noisy underway and that visibility is excellent.
Gloves and Boots
Not only must these items be sufficiently well armored to resist road abrasion, they should be waterproof, comfortable in all temperatures and, again, great fit is imperative.
Protective Jacket and Pants
Functionality eclipses the urge to emulate Marlon Brando. Jackets and pants must eliminate climate extremes, and protect vulnerable body parts while allowing a full, free range of motion.
Motorcycle Training Courses
Ongoing education saves lives. From a strictly controlled curriculum put together by police riders, through to more casual – but equally valuable – meet-ups and rides organized by clubs and at rallies, all input should be welcomed.
Particularly recommended is any program put together with the help of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF).
What to Consider When Choosing Your First Bike?
Once you’ve come to a decision on the type of bike you need, there’s some fine-tuning to be done.
Your original decision to purchase a full dresser trike may have been based on sensible consideration of the relative likelihood it’ll stay upright through your amateur era, but those abilities will detract from your riding experience if rush hour traffic jams are an everyday occurrence. Dual-purpose machines might sound like great fun, but won’t work if you aren’t blessed with John Wayne walking equipment. Nothing’s fun when you’re worried about money all the time, nor is trying to maneuver a machine that’s simply too large or heavy for your abilities.
It’s important to have a fixed idea of the bike’s primary use. The demands of commuting short distances regularly are very different from taking long trips once in a while, and off-road equipment simply isn’t enjoyable when you’re traveling distances on the tarmac.
The bike’s predominant function is no more important than your personal riding style. It may be that, although you’ve only recently obtained your highway license, you’re in fact an experienced rider who’s been involved in racing or off-road trials since you were knee-high to Evel Knievel.
All levels of skill can be accommodated by today’s array of available machinery, so think long and hard about whether you want to put the bike back in the garage feeling:
- Relaxed and rejuvenated
- Thrilled, drained and emotionally exhausted
- Having enjoyed a mid-point experience
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It may seem obvious, but the machine’s height and weight must be suitable to your physical proportions and level of strength. No matter how much you envy the extreme sports guys doing double back-flips and mile-long wheelies, if you’ve had a back operation or shy away from strength-building exercises, those considerations must impact your choice.
Less facetiously, but of equal importance, is simple comfort; the ergonomics of a sportbike are very different to that of a cruiser. While racers hurtling around the Isle of Man may look fantastic with their knees to every corner, your wrists won’t thank you for emulating them if your arms are too short to comfortably reach low-slung, forward-thrusting grips and controls.
Another subject which may at outset seem too obvious to bother with, but isn’t: the costs of purchasing and using the new bike. As already observed, your rides won’t be as much fun if you’re worrying about making payments every mile, or if that massive big-block V8 unit – which sounded great, and looked awesome – sucks down a gallon of gas every 18 miles.
Insurance is another biggie; the tab to keep it legal can be dreadful for inexperienced riders on a thirty-grand Wide Glide. The costs of safety and anti-theft equipment, along with ongoing training, all have to be factored in, too.
In a happy departure from one of life’s rules, a cheaper motorcycle is not necessarily a worse motorcycle. Novice riders have a nasty habit of falling off, and machines can sustain quite as much damage as egos. Being able to repair or replace a bike which didn’t cost every penny you could muster may be a pleasant surprise.
Smaller vs Larger Engine Displacement
While smaller engines sip at gas, and make commission-only insurance agents wince, larger motors can certainly pull the rider out of trouble with more agility and – often – with better road manners and responses.
Again, it’s all a matter of personal priorities and style, but the following lists should help in the decision-making process.
Pros of the smaller engine include:
- A smaller engine usually equals lighter weight, making control easier for novice riders.
- Today’s small displacement engines can keep up with most traffic flows without straining at the top of their rev range.
- Fuel injection, lengthened strokes and liquid cooling have all worked wonders for increasing longevity and reliability in modern smaller engines.
Pros of the larger engine include:
- Better equipped to withstand the stresses and strains of a regular commute or an all-day, cross-country or statewide trip.
- Carrying passengers is safer, more convenient and less work for both bike and rider.
- There’s an indefinable, but very real, sensation of accomplishment that comes with “mastering” the challenges of your regular ride. When a smaller unit no longer demands your utmost concentration and skill level, it may mean the time has come to trade up to a bigger bike.
New vs Used Motorcycles for Beginners
New machines bought from reputable outlets come replete with factory and dealer warranties, which can be invaluable both when using the machine and when the time to sell comes round (so long as you’ve kept your paperwork all up to date). Dealership test rides are usually less grief to arrange, also, given private sellers are loathe to let prospective purchasers simply ride out of eyesight for an hour.
All that said, you shouldn’t be afraid to choose a used bike. If your mechanical expertise isn’t up to much, take along a friend whose knowledge balances out your lack thereof! Great deals can be had with sufficient research, and the Internet certainly opens up a far broader scope of opportunity than the local paper used to.
Best Motorcycles for Beginners by Type
Armed with a general understanding of what bike may suit you best, let’s detail some specific choices.
Standard Bikes for Beginners
For the complete novice, consider the 2015 Suzuki TU250X retro cruiser, coming in at $4,399 with a classic single-cylinder engine, chrome spoke wheels and swept-back muffler.
More advanced beginners may wish to test ride a SFV650 from the same stable. With an MSRP of $6,499, you get a much larger motor, alloy wheels and more modern design.
Sport Bikes for Beginners
The all-new Honda CBR250R, with price ranges hovering around the $4,000 mark, is a single-cylinder sportbike with a fine power-to-weight ratio and handling that won’t horrify the very beginner.
Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 benefits from sharper, more challenging lines and a more authentic rider position; expect to open bidding at $4,999.
Cruiser Bikes for Beginners
Priced at $8,390, the Yamaha Star Bolt boasts a slim, bobber style which lends itself well to the least inexperienced rider’s skillset.
The 2015 Harley-Davidson Street 750 weighs in at a perhaps surprisingly low $7,499, for which you get a full helping of the factory’s blacked-out attitude (and that all-important shield-and-bar banner on the tank).
Adventure Bikes for Beginners
The Kawasaki Versys is more “styled for adventure” than died-in-the-wool off-roader. Its comfortable, upright riding position and smooth handling character can be yours for $7,999.
More accomplished riders may prefer the BMW Sertão, a thoroughbred with all that entails; great performance yet a handful to master. Tabs open at $8,650.
Scooter Bikes for Beginners
Small scooters, with engines of 50cc or less, can return 100+ MPG and start at around $1,000. Consider the SYM Mio if you’re entirely without riding experience.
Midsized scooters, in the 125- to 150cc range, keep up with traffic flow less effortfully, yet still return close to 80 MPG. Prices run from around $2,500 to $4,500; the Vespa GTS 300 Super is a stylish example.
Heads up! Visors down! Armed with all this information, you really could buy the best first motorcycle for your purposes, budget and skills.
Take a willingness to be honest about your limitations to each inspection, make the time to take test rides, be sure you’ve factored in all peripheral costs, and the road will be opening up above your headlamp before you know it.