By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
This article is for the person who hasn’t got a motorcycle — yet — but who is beginning to think about getting one. You may be leaning toward a type of bike that could be all wrong for you. Which could lead to making the mistake of buying the wrong type of bike before you find out it’s not right for you — which is easy to do, because of two factors:
First — and very much unlike cars — the different types of bikes are really different, and not just in terms of their looks. The difference between, say, a Honda Rebel 250 and a custom chopper is much more extreme than going from a Corvette to a Camry. Anyone who can drive a Camry can at least drive a Corvette — maybe not all out or even adeptly, but they can drive it from point A to point B. But the fact that you can ride a Rebel from A to B does not mean you can ride a chopper — or a 980 pound dresser, either.
Second, bike dealers can be touchy about test rides. When shopping a new car, most dealers will let you drive the car before you buy it — and not just one model, but several. With bikes, you might be able to wrangle a test ride of one bike — maybe, if you’ve already given them a credit card and committed to buy. They rarely will permit you to try several bikes.
To be fair, I have to retract my touchy dealer comment. There is a good reason for their reluctance to toss you the keys: liability. Most car shoppers can drive — perhaps not superbly, but they’re assumed to be at least marginally competent by dint of having a driver’s license. An usually, they are. But bike stores have to sweat your ability to ride the bike you’re looking to try out. The fact that you have a motorcycle endorsement on your license does not necessarily mean you can handle a 180 hp hypersports bike. Or a 980 pound dresser. Dealers are therefore understandably reluctant to let you ride it before you buy it..
Which means, it will be hard to compare — and thus, hard to personally experience the different attributes of each type of bike.
And so, here we are. Having myself owned/ridden all sorts of stuff — from scooters all the way up to a full-boogie Indian Chief with leather tassels and the turning radius of a semi-truck — I will give you my Voice of Experience thoughts as to pros and cons:
* Beginner bikes –
These are generally small displacement (250 cc — 650 cc) bikes with not much power and what power they do have being delivered gently — and so, controllably. They’re usually light — and never too heavy. Most are inexpensive, even brand-new. An excellent examples of this type of bike is the Honda Rebel. It’s only about $4k brand new, gets 80-plus MPG and weighs about 330 pounds.
Major pros: Harder to get into trouble with, an important consideration for new/inexperienced riders. A beginner bike won’t throttle wheelie on you — and you’ll have time enough to realize how fast you’re going before you’re going too fast to slow down in time. Being light (most weigh less than 450 pounds) they are also easier to hold up — which means, not drop. The “ergos” (how you fit the bike) are generally good in terms of keeping you alert and not fatigued — the latter being very dangerous on two wheels. They also tend to be simpler — and so cheaper to maintain and repair. Being small/light bikes, they typically deliver outstanding fuel economy, too.
Major cons: You’ll probably outgrow it. Not necessarily physically (though with these smaller machines, that’s an issue, too) but more in terms of your experience and increasing skill. Low resale value. A function of people outgrowing them. This is not a bike to buy new. Let someone else do that. Then, buy his bike — for 50 percent what it cost him new. So that when you sell/trade-up, you won’t lose 50 percent of your investment. These bikes are also often — though not always — too small and too underpowered to be comfortable on the highway, or for longer trips. Minimal cargo-capacity; minimal protection from the elements. “Girl bike” stigma.
* Sport bikes –
These bikes are single-minded performance machines, built to go very fast very quickly. The upper echelon models — called hypersports bikes — are literally race-ready but nominally street legal rides capable of 9 second quarter-mile runs and have top speeds over 170 MPH. Current bikes in this category have few, if any, design compromises that detract from the absolute maximization of performance, both acceleration and handling. In the hands of someone with experience and skill, they can be very fun. In the hands of someone who’s not experienced and skilled, they can be way too much way too soon. Even in the hands of an expert rider, modern hypersports bikes are arguably too single-minded for regular street use — because if you use even half their capability on the street, you will be risking major problems with the law. An example of a modern hypersports bike is the Suzuki GSXR-1000. This “liter bike” (1000 CCs equals 1 liter) has a 999 cc engine that produces 182 hp and spins to 13,600 RPM — with a top speed approaching 190 MPH. Base price is $13,799.
Major pros: A relatively inexpensive way to experience exotic-level performance. $13,000 or so will buy you an elite high-performance sport bike with a power-to-weight ratio superior to a new (and $50,000) Corvette Stingray that can walk away from the Corvette in a straight line and (in the right hands) keep up with it in the curves, too. And unlike the Corvette — or any high-performance car — even 9 second, 200 MPH-capable bikes typically still deliver 40-45 MPG when not being ridden all-out.
Major cons: Their uncompromising design makes them hard to live with as daily riders, even if you are an experienced rider. Their “ergos” (fetal position for the rider) can be tough on your back and their typically minimal wind (and rain) protection exposes you to the elements. Most have little or no storage/cargo capacity, which further limits their practicality. But the big one — even if you have the skill/experience to handle one of these things — is the cost to insure one of these things. Be sure you check out premiums before you check out price tags — or sign a check. It’s easy to be drawn by the (relatively) low, used Corolla MSRPs of brand-new 200 MPH capable sport bikes. But the cost to cover a 200 MPH hypersports bike — even with a “clean” DMV record — can be $2,000 a year. Or more.
* Touring/Cruising bikes –
These are large — and so, heavy — bikes built for long-haul riding as well as “styling and profiling.” They have (usually) better ergos — a more upright seating position and more natural, legs-forward riding position, which makes them very comfortable for all-day jaunts. Some have backrests, or these can be easily added. Touring bikes will usually have full fairings — plastic or fiberglass semi-enclosures around the front fork area, integrated with the windscreen, to provide the maximum possible protection from wind and rain. Cruisers may only have a windscreen — and some don’t even have those. Both types of bikes usually have bags of some sort — either soft (leather or similar, typical of cruisers) or hard (plastic/fiberglass, typical of touring bikes). Most touring bikes will also have comfortable passenger accommodations, too. Cruisers usually have a passenger seat as well, but it will typically be more basic (without arm-rests and so on). The archetype of a full-on touring bike with all the bells and whistles (including an available air bag as well as ABS and a high-end GPS/audio system) is the Honda Goldwing. A good example of a cruiser bike is the Yamaha Road Star S.
Major pros: These bikes are ideally suited for day-long (week-long) rides because they’re comfortable — soft seats, relaxed riding position — and because they protect the rider from the elements (assuming the bike has fairings or at least a windshield). If they have bags, you can also carry a surprising amount of stuff — which makes them more than just toys. Most have heavy-duty/high-output electrical/charging systems, which means you can hook up pigtails for heated riding suits/gloves — which means you can ride on days when it would be miserable to ride other bikes. And while some are over-big and over-heavy for new/first time riders, there are “middleweights” in the 650 cc or so range that are not too intimidating — but not too small, either.
Major cons: With a few exceptions, these bikes are the heavyweights of the two-wheel-world. Even a “light” cruiser such as the fairly minimalist (no fairings or windscreen) Yamaha Road Star S weighs almost 800 pounds before you throw a leg over. A Goldwing is well over 900 pounds — which is why this bike has a reverse/back-up gear. The weight can be unwieldy — especially at low speeds. If the weight starts to get away from you, the bike will go down — and you’ll need help getting it back upright. The turning radius will also usually by considerably wider and overall these bikes are not as maneuverable as smaller, lighter bikes. The middleweights are more manageable, but can be slow-pokey — and may be too small, physically, to be comfortable if you’re a larger guy.
These are one-offs or custom builds with (typically) extended/raked front ends, modified frames and swingarms (to make them lower and longer) as well as custom gas tanks, “ape hanger” handlebars, custom rims, fat tires — the works. A true chopper is almost necessarily American and Harley Davidson in origin. Bikers — back when that word meant something — ride choppers. Virtually no one else does.
Major pros: Not generic because not factory-made. Each one is the unique result of its owner or builder’s imagination and skill. If you have a chopper, no one else will have a bike like your chopper. They’re also the real deal. If you can ride one, you are a biker.
Major cons: Terrible handling due to the screwy geometry; rigid ride and medieval ergos. Zero weather protection. Forget this bike if you are not a biker.
* Nakeds/”standards” –
These are do-it-all-bikes, or at least, bikes that try to do it all. They’re not too heavy — or too light. Not so powerful they’ll scare you — or get you into trouble — but not underpowered, either. They’re big enough — and strong enough — to be considered “real” bikes — so while they’re suitable as beginner/new rider bikes, many experienced riders ride them, too. The current Suzuki SV650 is a good example of one of these bikes and also the Honda Nighthawk 750 (which unfortunately Honda stopped making a couple of years ago but which they made a lot of before the end came — so it’s easy to find one used at a good price).
Major pros: These are first/beginner bikes that can also be lifetime (and everyday) bikes. They are affordable, even new. (The MSRP of the Suzuki SV650 is under $8k). The ergos are typically somewhere in between the relaxed riding position of a cruiser or touring bike — which may be too relaxed for sport-minded riders — and the tucked in, hunched over ergos of a full-on sport bike, which can be too sporty for rides that last longer than an hour. Gas mileage is usually very good — better than a full-on sport bike — and much better than most large touring/cruiser bikes. 45-50 plus MPG is typical. Insurance is also — usually — affordable. You can add accessories such as bags and a windshield to increase practicality and improve long-haul comfort — and up with a bike that does the things a cruiser/touring bike does, but remains more agile and maneuverable.
Major cons: These bikes don’t excel at any one thing. They are like a Swiss Army knife. The blade can cut — but not like a Marine Ka-bar. The screwdriver works — but not as well as the full-size screwdriver in your tool box. These bikes handle well — but not as well as single-minded sport bikes. They’re quicker than most cruisers, but not nearly as comfortable. Etc.
* Dual sport bikes –
These are bikes that look like off-road/motocross bikes — and which can be ridden off-road — but which are still legal to ride on the street — and have features designed to make them viable on the street, such as turn signals and headlights and DOT “street legal” tires. The best-known example is probably Kawasaki’s KLR series, which is available in both 250 cc and larger 650 cc versions.
Major pros: With a dual-sport, you can veer off the pavement and onto gravel/grass/dirt — and forge through mud (and water, too). They are the 4x4s of the two-wheeled world. The smaller units (like the KLR 250) get 60-plus MPG while the larger ones (KLR650) have enough power to handle extended highway riding. They’re also tougher — in terms of the damage you’ll do if you drop one. Because — being intended to go off-road — they are made to be dropped. There’s little to no chrome to scratch — and scratches on the frame/plastic don’t show up as much. This — along with their light weight and easygoing natures — is why the Motorcycle Safety Foundation often uses them for its new rider training courses.
Major cons: The smaller cc ones are too light/too underpowered for extended high-speed riding. The larger cc units are too big and too heavy for serious trail use. None of them are especially comfortable. The bigger ones (like the KLR650) may be too high-seated for shorter legged riders. Not very good in the corners.