By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
One of the virtues of motorcycles is they’re cheap transportation compared to a car — they cost much less to buy and they’re (mostly) a lot easier on gas. But some bikes are cheaper — and easier — to own than others. If you’re new to all this — and maybe shopping around for a first bike — you may want to think about:
Air-cooled vs. water-cooled
An air-cooled bike has no radiator, coolant, hoses, thermostat or cooling fans to worry about. This eliminates a lot ofpotential expense and hassle (such as being stranded after the system springs a leak) as well as the certainty of necessary regular maintenance. With an air-cooled bike, you’ll never have to replace a $400 radiator (yes, motorcycle radiators can be that much) or have to worry about getting at a stuck thermostat that’s buried so deep inside the engine you have to take the bike half apart just to get at it. The engine will also be easier to work on because there’s less stuff in your way.
Ok, so what are the downsides? Functionally, there are few. Air-cooled bikes are simple, rugged and usually very reliable. But the choices available to you — in a new motorcycle, at least — will be fewer because most modern bikes, beyond small CC beginner bikes and dirt bikes, are water-cooled. And the reason for this is that with water cooling the bike manufacturers can build more powerful (and more reliably powerful) bikes. Still, there are some great all-arounders like the Honda Nighthawk 750 that are still air-cooled and if you like the looks of older bikes — especially bikes built before the 1980s — you’ll find that many of them are air-cooled, too.
Shaft drive vs. chain
Many bikers would likely agree that one of the few real hassles of riding a motorcycle (other than getting wet if it rains) is dealing with the chain — and chain maintenance. Chains have to be periodically adjusted to the correct tension, cleaned and lubed. After awhile, they wear out and have to be replaced — along with the sprockets they ride on, too. Plus, they make a mess. The chain is exposed and it throws grime onto the bike’s frame/suspension. With shaft drive, you have none of these hassles. All that usually needs to be done is check the lube level once in awhile and replace it every now and then. And there’s never any mess to deal with. Shaft-drive bikes are also known for being smoother than chain-driven bikes.
So how come all bikes aren’t shafties? You’ll notice, if you shop around, that shaft bikes tend to be larger, cruiser/touring-type bikes. One reason why is weight. Shaft drive adds weight — which is less a concern with larger touring/cruiser bikes than with, for example, sport bikes. Shaft drive also adds expense; a chain and sprockets is much simpler and so a lot cheaper. But the main reason why most sport bikes still use chains is something called the “shaft effect.” This refers to the tendency of the rear end to “jack up” when decelerating a shaft-drive bike rapidly. (The reverse can happen during aggressive acceleration, especially when coming out of a corner.) BMW deals with this via a sophisticated “paralever” system on its shaft drive sport bikes — but as you know if you’ve shopped BMWs, these bikes are not inexpensive.
Another thing about shaft drive bikes: You can’t alter the bike’s final drive ratio for more aggressive acceleration (or higher top speed) which you can easily do with a chain system by replacing the original sprockets with a set that has more (or fewer) teeth. But probably the biggest single potential downside to owning a shaft drive bike is that if it does break down you are probably not going to be able to fix it by the side of the road in 15 minutes, as you could almost certainly do with a chain/sprockets. Shaft drive systems are generally extremely reliable, but if something does go wrong…
PS: Some larger cruiser bikes have neither system. Instead they use belt drive, which operates on the same basic principle as a chain but without the mess (and noise) of a chain. These systems are also very smooth, like shaft drive. But like shaft drive, belt-driven bikes tend to be higher-end, more expensive machines.
Hydraulic (self-adjusting) valvetrain vs. not
If you’re new to bikes, you may not know that many of them require fairly frequent checks — and adjustment — of the valvetrain. This is necessary to maintain the correct clearances; it’s also a fairly involved and technical job that requires special tools, at least some mechanical knowledge/aptitude — and often, a lot of patience. Valve clearance checks are typically needed every 7,000 to 10,000 miles or so. If you don’t want to do this chore on your own, you’ll have to pay someone else to do it — and the cost will usually be at least $150-200 or so, along with whatever other maintenance is being done at the same time.
But there are bikes that have maintenance-free valvetrains (just like most cars). The downside is that most bikes don’t — and those that do are (typically) milder/beginner-type bikes with less powerful engines. However, for ordinary just-riding-around/commuter-type bikes, this will likely be a non-issue. One of the most enjoyable bikes I ever owned was a 1983 Honda CB550 SC. It wasn’t the fiercest thing on the road, but it hardly ever needed more than gas and the occasional oil/filter change — and it never needed its valves adjusted!