2 wheels, to be specific. That’s what we’re looking for and there’s a good chance it’s the only thing that’s been on your mind since finishing the rider training course – at least it was in my case. Even several weeks prior to taking the course I was scouring websites and forums trying to glean as much information about my potential first motorcycle. I kept price as an important metric in the back of my mind. However, after having ridden a motorcycle for two short days my criteria changed and I felt as though I was starting my search all over again. In Part 2 of this series we’ll discuss what to look for in a first bike and how to begin riding.
(Note: if you haven’t read Part 1 you should do that first. Find it here.)
Before we continue let’s take stock. I mentioned that I had an unrelenting itch of wanting to be on a motorcycle ASAP. Do you feel the same way? Are you excited, hesitant, or really don’t care one way or another? In the world of entrepreneurial business there is the philosophy of ‘fail fast’ – prototype something and make a decision if you’re going to continue with the development of that product sooner rather than later. I believe that applies to motorcycles as well. If you did not enjoy the safety course what difference awaits you on the road? If you weren’t already convinced what else would entice you? Anyone who falls into this camp should mull it over before making a choice to stop or continue.
The Premise of a First Bike
As always let’s start by looking at the bigger picture. You’ve succeeded in proving that you have the skills necessary to operate a motorcycle… in a parking lot. I am not trying to sound condescending but ultimately a big limitation of the rider training course is that it is conducted on a closed course void of a motorcyclist’s sworn enemies: everyone else.
Furthermore it’s doubtful that the machines you were given had enough grunt to hit any kind of substantial speeds within the confines of the small space. Riding a motorcycle in the real world presents many obstacles and challenges. Personally I do not enjoy riding in the city core where you are surrounded by cars drifting into your lane or errant pedestrians darting into the streets, and having to contend with traffic lights on every block. It’s possible that you may find the riding experience doesn’t quite fall in line with what you had envisioned, or that there are certain creature comforts in a car you cannot live without. Perhaps the noise and buffeting effects at highway speeds won’t be to your liking either. Whatever the reason may be there is the potential that riding simply won’t be something you want to pursue.
The above sounds pessimistic but in fact it is only realistic. As such, your first bike represents a trial run in the world of motorcycles. It will help you become acquainted with the intricacies of street riding. You will use it to gradually push the envelope of your abilities. Other riders will see it and automatically start conversations with you. However, it will not be your only bike. This stepping stone will give you a lot of insight as to what your next bike will be, by which point you will have formed many personal opinions about riding.
Your first bike should match certain criteria which are discussed below. There is one thing I’d like to say in advance: unless you have a lucrative reason or some undying affiliation, don’t be a brand snob! Just because your friend’s ’89 Civic finally kicked the bucket after a year of giving them one problem after another doesn’t mean you should discount any of Honda’s bikes. Likewise, if a coworker told you their new R1 track bike isn’t as quick as the Gixxers and they’re never buying a Yamaha ever again doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (and it also tells you quite a bit about their riding abilities). Your first bike does not need to be perfect and it does not need to have the pedigree of a thoroughbred. Now, let’s see what to look for!
Price and Cost
By tackling price first it makes it possible to set upper and lower boundaries which will inherently limit the possibilities of what you can buy. With motorcycles one can get a lot of bike for not a lot of money and my recommendation is to spend no more than $5,000 (CAD or USD) on your first bike. This isn’t an arbitrary number either – a quick look online will reveal this figure falls in line with what many manufacturers are asking for their new entry-level bikes, and if you play the used market (more on this in the next section) you can stretch those dollars out much further.
As an upper bound, $5,000 will of course restrict the types of bikes you can buy – no Ducati Panigales or Harley-Davidson Road Kings – and that’s exactly the point. You want something that is simpler which will not only make it easier to ride but also cheaper to maintain; you will also exert less pressure on yourself when riding an inexpensive bike. As well, when you decide it’s time to move onto your next bike you won’t have to worry about losing money since there isn’t much space for the price to go down. Lastly, you should pay the purchase price in full – do not get stuck financing your first bike. If it turns out that riding is not for you you will have an added complication when you try to sell it because it’s not yours until all the payments have been made.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are cheap used bikes, often sold privately. Don’t forget the time-tested adage: if something is too good to be true it usually is. For instance, you may find a decent example of an entry level bike for $1,000. The seller might disclose some issues requiring small fixes but may ‘conveniently forget’ a more costly one. A month after the purchase the inevitable occurs and the bike leaves you stranded on the side of the road with a seized engine. Now, instead of riding and gaining experience, you end up wasting time and money fixing the problem or worse, you take this as a sign from above that motorcycles are not for you.
Unless you possess the expertise or know somehow who does stay away from fixer-uppers for your first bike. This isn’t to say that cheap bikes cannot be good but once you dip below the $1,500 mark you may be getting not just a motorcycle, but headaches to go along with it.
The second part of this section is ‘cost’ which is different from price. The bike’s price is what you pay when you go to pick it up; its cost are the fees associated with keeping it on the road. A used 600 cc supersport can be found within the aforementioned 5k budget but it will prove to be a totally different beast when it comes to insurance. A charming old Italian cruiser will put you on a first name basis with your mechanic and help put food on their table. Call around and ask for insurance quotes, and be diligent about researching different models online to get a sense of the reliability you can expect.
New vs Used
Buy a used bike. Simple as that. Next? Alright fine, let’s delve into this topic a bit more. Buying any used vehicle means you are not faced with as steep a depreciation hit as the first owner, and at some point down the line that curve begins to flatten. Ideally you will sell your first bike a year or so after getting it for nearly the same amount as the purchase price. You’ll also hear stories about riders who snag a deal and sell their first ride for several hundred bucks above asking. This is a fun scenario to dream about… but don’t get caught up in the fantasy. Once you find something that meets all your criteria it is advantageous to pick it up and start riding rather than focus on a relatively small price difference and lose out on time.
How old should you go? In the interest of reliability and less maintenance I would recommend aiming for a motorcycle with fuel injection as opposed to a carbureted fuel delivery system. Many entry-level bikes kept their carburetors around for a while because of cost so be wary as you may encounter model years as late as 2013 with the older technology.
Another metric people obsess over is the number of previous owners the bike had. I understand that a vehicle’s history is important for rare and vintage machines – your first bike will possess neither of those two designations. Fewer owners does not necessarily mean the bike had an easier life; it just as easily could have been stuck for a long time with someone who rode poorly and performed no maintenance. When a motorcycle switches hands it (usually) requires a safety inspection which can at least bring some peace of mind.
Dealer vs Private Sale
If you heed my advice and purchase a used motorcycle you will have two options: a dealer or a private sale. Which is better? Although several factors can come into play many people have an inveterate tendency to assume that buying from a dealership is more trustworthy. Unlike Joe Shmoe selling his beater bike, a dealership does have a reputation to uphold however don’t translate this idea into the notion that they have better quality bikes. In fact, Joe can just as easily trade his bike in at the dealer for something newer, at which point they check it over and maybe do an oil change, then put it up for sale with a decent markup. For your first bike do not dismiss the idea of buying privately. If possible bring a friend that knows something about motorcycles. Make sure it runs, all the switches work, the chain is not loose, and tires are good. Depending on your local laws the bike may need to pass a safety certification before it can be sold – insist the owner gets this done beforehand. When buying privately there is the potential to save quite a bit of money on a great bike.
I bought my first bike from a dealership because they had an asking price significantly lower than I could find anywhere else, including private sellers. It didn’t hurt that they did all the necessary work to get it plated and offered a 30 day warranty. It was located about 1 hour away and two of my friends graciously offered to come with me to check it out and ride it home. I was fortunate to stumble across that listing – YMMV.
I’m sure when you decided to write the test for your motorcycle license you had an image in your head of your ideal bike carrying you along your ideal road. Be it a mean streetfighter or a classic cafe racer, presentation is no doubt part of the motorcycle ownership experience.
However, perhaps now is not yet the time to live out that fantasy. That streetfighter sure looks cool but is twitchy and has no windshield. The cafe racer will turn heads but will also leave you sore. Your first bike should be, above all else, comfortable. It will become an extension of yourself and you will ideally rack up many miles on it. Similar to a helmet that’s too large an uncomfortable motorcycle will make it difficult to focus on the road and improve your street riding skills. So, what type of bikes are left to consider? Here are my recommendations:
Sport – low handlebars mean you are raked forward in a tucked position, perfect for aerodynamics and going quick. Leaning the bike over and dragging your knees on the ground… eventually.
Sport touring – a combination of the nimbleness and stability of a sport bike with the more upright riding position found in touring bikes. The engines are usually tuned a bit differently compared to their sport bike counterparts.
Naked – a sport bike without fairings and generally a less aggressive geometry. This style statement has become its own segment and often manufacturers grab the mechanicals from their sport touring bikes to create these.
Classic/standard – a catch-all term used for motorcycles with a comfortable seating position and flat bars. Many maintain an old-school appearance.
Dual-sport – a street legal dirt bike that has great manoeuvrability but is not the ideal machine for eating up highway miles.
Cruiser – big, beefy, all-American motorcycles. While the segment is defined by expensive options from Harley-Davidson there are smaller, lighter, and more beginner-friendly models available.
Some other types of motorcycles I decided to keep off the list include: touring, adventure, supermoto, and power cruiser. These do not make ideal first bikes.
This might be one of the most sensitive topics on this list. When people discuss… oh, who am I kidding? When people shout at each other about power figures you will hear every single possible response, from “a bicycle has too much oomph” to “I jumped on a litre bike right away and was perfectly fine, you pansy”.
Think back to your motorcycle safety course. Did the bike you were on feel quick? It sure did to me, and after I received my certificate I thought to myself “if that’s what a 125 cc motor can do… I probably don’t need anything greater than a 250”. However, as I explained in one of the opening paragraphs, those little 125s made short work of a parking lot; I aver that real world roads are very different. Too much power for a beginner is a bad thing but too little means it will be difficult to use speed to your advantage as a safety measure and get out of the way of inattentive drivers. Before jumping into any numbers it is important to consider that engines produce power differently. A 600 cc supersport is somewhat docile at anything under 8,000 RPM but gives the rider 7 – 8k more in the rev range where the majority of the power is produced. On the other hand there exist cruisers that can make approximately the same amount of horsepower as the aforementioned 600 albeit with engines twice as big. However, they produce gobs of usable torque down low and don’t need to rev nearly as high because of the way the power is brought on. Ok, enough talk, let’s see some numbers.
Engine Size (cc)
300 – 500 30 – 50 Sport touring & Naked
300 – 650
30 – 75
250 – 650
25 – 75
250 – 450
20 – 35
250 – 650
25 – 55
I want to make one addition to the list: there is a resurgence for small 125 cc bikes (see the Honda Grom and Kawasaki Z125) that make around 10 HP that I didn’t want to lump in with an existing group on the table.
These are my recommendations and are meant to serve as guidelines. Notice how the biggest engine displacement, 650 cc, appears for three types of bikes. Large sport-touring machines can be heavy but if you go for something within the bounds you will get a peppy motorcycle you can grow with (although a 650 cc sport-touring has more power than a beginner needs it’s an acceptable option for a confident rider). A similar reasoning can be applied to classic/standard bikes. Cruisers have different engine characteristics and rely on low-end torque so the engine size can be big yet without the horsepower numbers to match.
Sport bikes are lighter and rev higher – this invites more throttle action which in turn results in higher speeds. Definitely remain at 500 cc or lower; as soon as you enter the world of 600+ cc sport bikes (supersports and superbikes) it becomes a different ballgame. Last on the list are dual-sports. These are the lighest of the bunch and don’t require much power to get around. They’ll get you to work during the week and grant you access to off-road trails on the weekend.
Motorcycles are incredibly bareboned when compared to cars. Obvious omissions include things like A/C and a concert hall’s worth of speakers, but some might not have a gear indicator or even a fuel gauge! Some of these options are “nice to have”s but several features can impact your safety, like ABS. This is an acronym you should strongly consider making a requirement when purchasing a bike as few people will argue that it’s not worth the extra price premium. Even though your first bike does not need to have all the bells and whistles it is important to ride long enough in order to graduate to your second one. Also keep an eye out for: traction control, a slipper clutch and a power mode selector.
Good First Bikes
Let’s recap what we discussed so far about the ingredients for your first bike:
- It will be your introduction to the world of riding. It is not something you keep forever. Ideally you practice, gain experience, and sell it in 1-2 years.
- It should not be very expensive to purchase and maintain on the road.
- To help satisfy the previous point, it should be bought used.
- It should be of a type of motorcycle that is conducive to learning for beginners: sport, sport touring, naked, classic/standard, dual-sport, cruiser.
- It needs to have an adequate amount of power to get up and go but not so much that it incites dangerous riding.
- There should be ABS.
I’ll present the following bikes without any dollar amounts because prices fluctuate so much based on location, condition, etc. However, everything on the list can be attained new or used within the $5,000 budget.
Skip the 250’s and go straight for a 300. The extra boost in displacement does wonders for the bike’s compliance at low speeds and will make it a better choice for commuting. However, this isn’t the ideal mileage muncher as the little engine will be singing at 7000+ RPM on the highway. If you want something more powerful that can last at least several years before you’ll feel the need to upgrade, step up to a 500 cc.
Kawasaki Ninja 300/Honda CBR300R
These are the two quintessential starter bikes any rider must consider. Both are good for commuting, can be bought with ABS, and can be found new at around the $5000 mark. The Honda has a single cylinder 286 cc engine whereas the Kawi offers a twin (2 cylinder) 296 cc power plant – however it weighs about 20 lbs more. They have slightly different seating positions in terms of aggresiveness so try sitting on both to see if one is more comfortable than the other. Otherwise it’s pretty much a coin toss between the two and the decision should come down to availability and price.
The R3 is Yamaha’s answer to the first two bikes on the list. It makes do with a two cylinder 321 cc engine yet weighs the same as the CBR300R so expect it to be a bit quicker. Personally, if I had to start all over I would choose this as my first bike. It has a nice tucked riding position and is a good way to establish a future relationship with Yamaha sportbikes. Note the lack of ABS.
This Honda stands on its own as there is no competition in this range of displacement. To be exact you get a 471 cc engine (kinda stretching the ‘500’ name there) with two cylinders but at a significant 60 lb weight penalty compared to the 300s. There is a lower redline than the previous bikes and horsepower figures are not that much higher than the R3, but you do get way more usable torque which can make a significant difference in daily riding. The price difference is also apparent so do your due diligence and find a deal in order to justify this machine.
The bikes in this category have strong ties to the aforementioned sportbikes, but many people impart that the touring versions are more comfortable. Do your own empirical studies – go out and have a seat. Yes, you ride in an upright position but after a while I did not find that to be comfortable. I couldn’t tuck when it was windy and I sort of felt like I was on a horse. I actually prefer riding on my sportbike as opposed to my sport touring, but to each their own.
We begin with this 286 cc single cylinder bike from Honda… if this sounds familiar then you’ve been paying attention because it’s the same engine as in the 300R. It might not be very creative but why fix what’s not broken? Suspension, tires, fuel capacity and dimensions are all the same yet it in fact weighs 9 lbs less than its ‘R’ ABS-equipped counterpart.
Kawasaki Ninja 400R
This was my first bike and I’m giving it an honourable mention. Effectively a lower output version of the popular Ninja 650, this was a fantastic motorcycle on which to learn how to ride. The 400 cc engine size is not very popular with manufacturers and the bike was only sold in Canada and New Zealand so for many of you it might be unobtainable. To be honest, I could have handled the power of a 650 as it only took a few months for me to feel completely comfortable pinning the throttle on the baby Ninja-tourer.
Not much to say here: it’s a CBR500R turned into a naked bike. As is the case with its 300 cc sibling the specs are identical to the ‘R’ variant with the exception that ABS comes on both wheels as opposed to only the rear on the ‘R’ and feel free to have that extra burger at lunch because this bike went on a diet resulting in a 5 lb weight drop.
Kawasaki Ninja 650/Suzuki SV650
Ok, this particular recommendation comes with a big disclaimer upfront: a 650 cc sport tourer can be seriously fast and has the potential to be too much bike for a beginner, so only consider this option is your sense of self-preservation is high. If you stick to the lower half of the rev range for the first while you’ll be fine and will have plenty of room to grow as you become a better rider. Many people upgrade to these bikes and keep them for a long time, so that should convince you that this is no joke. I’m also mentioning these two because, due to their popularity, there should be plenty of examples to choose from which can mean getting one for a good price.
As is the case with fashion trends, these bikes are making somewhat of a comeback. New, smaller-displacement retro-looking machines are being targeted towards beginner riders. There’s nothing ‘offensive’ about these bikes – you won’t be labelled as a squid and you probably won’t do anything crazy on them.
I’ve never been on a TU250X but I do like this bike. It reminds me of the classic Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) but with a beginner-friendly single cylinder 249 cc engine. Do not expect to break any speed records with this machine; instead, enjoy relaxing rides around town and on back roads. It is very lightweight and will return great fuel economy. You do get a drum brake in the back… all part of that oldschool vibe.
The SR400 offers a decent amount of power which means it will be a bit more forgiving when you are learning to smoothly enter the clutch’s friction point. It also gives you a kick starter which can be a 1) nice touch, or 2) an annoyance, depending on how you percieve it. All-in-all, a good starting point for the rider wanting some power and a bunch of style to go along with it.
Royal Enfield (multiple models)
Royal Enfield was a British manufacturer until the name was scooped up by an Indian company. To be perfectly honest, I am including this as an entry on the list to introduce a bit of variety to an otherwise very Japanese-centric collection of motorbikes. If you look at reviews online you will see mixed reactions to these bikes. It may not make a perfect first motorcycle, but if you are gung-ho about owning something that has a retro look to it this is worth considering if the price is right. Have a look at the Bullet and Classic models which come equipped with a 499 cc single-cylinder outputting a fantastic 41 Nm of torque.
Unlike the previous ‘classic’ bikes in this section, the CB500X does not look like it’s from a former generation. Honda’s website lists this one as an ‘adventure’ bike however due to its close resemblance to the CB500F I’m including it here. At 432 lbs it is a bit heavier than Honda’s other 500-class offerings as a result of larger overall dimensions that may appeal to bigger riders.
I never pictured myself on a dual-sport until I tried out dirtbiking and quickly fell in love. These bikes are not for everyone as the seat is usually quite high, they’re not ideal for highway riding, and they will have very little in the way of electronics. However you’ll be able to tackle potholes and curbs in the city and get off the beaten path as well.
This is the lightest bike mentioned in the article weighing in at a miserly 291 lbs. Its 249 cc single cylinder engine will help it scoot around town but only a 5-speed transmission means you’ll have trouble keeping up with cars on the highway. If top speed is not a top concern this is a great bike that can introduce a novice to trail riding as well.
Honda’s 250 entry is a little pricier than the XT250 but that manifests itself in the form of a more exciting engine, larger brakes, better suspension, and – crucially – that 6th gear. All this bling has a side effect: an extra 30 lbs added to the bike.
The DR-Z400 is a staple of the dual-sport world. A 398 cc single-cylinder engine is mated to a 5-speed transmission which may be dated but I guess is lightweight because this bike weighs as much as the Honda before it.
I like the idea of a cruiser and the fantastic burbling noises the engines make at idle. The first time I tried one out I fumbled a bit with the riding position but eventually figured it out and sat back to enjoy a relaxing cruise. These bikes are somewhat similar in appearance to the classic bikes but tend to have forward foot controls and an outstretched riding stance.
Yamaha V-Star 250
I hope you’re not in a rush. A bit of an under-powered ride, the V-Star 250 has a V-twin (two cylinder) 249 cc motor and is very lightweight which leads Yamaha to claim you will see 90+ mpg. This V-Star looks the part as well and does sound quite nice.
Honda Rebel 300/500
Honda has two entry-level cruisers both of which can be optioned with ABS. You will have seen these two engines mentioned previously in this article (a 286 cc for the 3, and a 471 cc for the 5). All other specifications and dimensions are the same with the exception of weight, where the 500 is a significant yet acceptable 45 lbs heavier than the 300.
Suzuki Boulevard S40
The Boulevard is the 650-class cruiser I’ll recommend because of its value. Kawasaki and Yamaha do have competing products but those sell at higher price points and weigh so much more they make the S40 look skinny. The S40 is the only motorcycle on this list with a belt drive rather than a chain and it also stands out for having just a single cylinder. On top of the rear drum brake there is one more unfortunate distinction – a carburetor. These prehistoric features help keep costs down but I did suggest avoiding these if at all possible. If you are ok with periodically maintaining the carb (look up the procedure ahead of time) then this might be the cruiser for you.
Yup… pretty much. With the exception of the Royal Enfields, every bike on this list is either from Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, or Yamaha. I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting that American and European bikes are bad, simply that they’re not cheap. And, as we discussed in the beginning of this article, not cheap is not good for a beginner bike. However if you take a look at your local used listings you may find suitable machines from other brands and start off your motorcycle resume with a BMW F650, Buell Blast, or KTM 390 Duke.
First Motorcycle Next Steps
Find a motorcycle dealer in your area and go visit them, preferably one that sells all brands. Do not be afraid to talk to a salesperson and tell them you are looking for your first bike so they can quickly recommend some options to you. Now put your ass to use and sit on as many of them as you can! Even if you’re leaning towards a sport bike take a seat on a cruiser; get a feel for different riding positions and you may surprise yourself by finding out you like a different style. Pick your favourite two bikes, get a best offer from the salesperson, and go back home to do more research. Read reviews and forums to make a better decision about which bike is best for you and continue the search for good examples.
When you find something which meets your requirements go for it! If your situation allows for it don’t fret over a hundred dollar difference. After all, would you rather spend your time negotiating or be out riding? One last thing to keep in mind is where you will be picking up your bike from. As a novice rider you do not want to face a long journey back home on your own, and this is what the next article in the series will go over.