Few vehicles encapsulate open road freedom like a motorcycle, but you have to start somewhere. From cruisers to three-wheelers, here are our picks for the best motorcycles for beginners.
It’s that time of year again, when warmer temperatures begin to waft over the frozen land and the urge to leave our Netflix hibernation cocoon starts to itch like a mild case of hives. Ah, spring: the season that assures us that life does indeed go on and that eventually, it’ll be summer.
Clearly, the first way to celebrate the (hopefully) imminent rise in atmospheric warmth is to start shopping for motorcycles. Okay, maybe that’s just me. But if you’ve been thinking about getting your own two- or three-wheeled adventure going as well, here are some best bets to get started riding right.
Go for a cruise(r)
There are a huge number of cruisers out there, but if you’re just starting out, Yamaha’s approachable Star Bolt series — hey, I didn’t give it the goofy name — is a great way to get rolling. With a simple fuel-injected air-cooled 942cc V-Twin, belt drive, a low seat, and good road manners, the Bolt is a good fit for beginners who want one bike to learn on and grow into.
The bigger powerplant means it’s not going to have spasms out on urban freeways or the open road, and the low seat makes it easy to paddle around town for learners. Plus, it looks great right out the door for a hair under eight grand. And once you get some miles under the saddle and feel like personalizing it a bit, there’s a deep Yamaha parts catalog and aftermarket for the bike. Be sure to budget for some boots, gloves, helmet, and appropo leather jacket. Notable options from other makers include the Harley-Davidson Street and Sportster series (the 48, 883 Iron and T bikes), and the Indian Scout series.
Cruiser not your thing? Love the aero look and dash of a more sporting machine but worry about the cost, complexity and tempting performance of a full-on sport bike? Stop worrying and check out Honda’s CBR500R. It’s a full-size bike that looks the part but lets you wade into the sporting waters an inch at a time. The capable but manageable 471cc parallel-twin engine is liquid-cooled and fuel-injected, and if you give it even a modicum of care, it should last for decades. Everything else is there — 6-speed gearbox, the rakish good looks (we suggest the red color option), low but not too low bars, and hey, there’s even a passenger seat. And at $6,599, you’ll have some cash left over for some stylish gear to ride in. Want something a bit bigger? Check out Kawasaki’s 650 Ninja (also a P-Twin) and Yamahs’s FZ6R.
Motorcycling is an all-in activity — you use your hands, feet, brain, and balance to ride. Recently however, Honda has had success with a new kind of beginner bike, this time featuring an automatic transmission. It’s not your run-of-the-mill auto though.
The Honda CTX DCT machines (there are three trims to choose from) use a 6-speed, computer-controlled dual-clutch transmission to do the shifting for you. These aren’t scooters; the CTX line consists of full-sized, full power bikes with engines derived from the Honda Fit car powerplant. And if you do feel like shifting, you’ve got options. Manual shift buttons on the handlebar pods let you take over gear changing duties, but there’s no clutch lever on the bike. You can even get the CTX with a real manual clutch-and-all gearbox, but that’s kind of missing the point. Oh, and if you do opt for the DCT automatics, you get ABS brakes in the deal, so we suggest you go full auto.
Prices start at just over $7,000 for the CTX line, and models run from a stripped-down “naked” look to a full-on light touring option. Just twist and go! For a bit different take on the look of the CTX bikes, check out Honda’s NC700X machine. Same heart, different style.
We don’t need roads
Do you have visions of exploring far-off lands on an-off-road adventure machine, just like a movie star? Well now you can with the current crop of go-anywhere motorcycles known as dual-sport machines. Just remember, movie stars often have limitless budgets and support teams nearby.
In all honesty, most dual-sport bikes get ridden on good old pavement 90 percent of the time, but if you’re down for getting dirty, consider the VERSYS-X 300 ABS, a new bike from Kawasaki that blends low weight, agility, and a measure of off-road worthiness in a machine that costs less than $6,000. Actually, a fair bit less. The fuel-injected 296cc liquid-cooled engine isn’t going to win any races on the street, but when the street ends, you have the option to take the trail less travelled, and trust us, that’s a whole different kind of two-wheeled fun. They’re not called “adventure bikes” for nothing. Need something a bit bigger and more off-road capable? Level up to Kawi’s venerable KLR650, and tour the world just like this guy.
Back in the day, motorcycle makers would put upswept exhaust pipes and knobby tires on a road bike and call it a dirt-worthy “scrambler.” In truth, these pretenders were barely trail-worthy as sold, but buyers would change up the suspension, add bash plates and so on until the dirt-worthy road-going motorcycle was a thing that actually worked. We call them dual-sport bikes today, but the scrambler idea — a road bike that can make it down a Jeep trail — has hung on, and it’s had a popular resurgence as of late.
Today, it seems like everyone makes a scrambler of sorts, but perhaps the most authentic shout-out to the old bikes is the aptly named Triumph Street Scrambler. Sure, it’s nearly $11,000, but you get a 900cc P-twin fuel-injected engine, ABS, traction control, uprated long-travel suspension, and more. Plus, you can customize your ride with a wide range of goodies. The Street Scrambler isn’t a small bike, so make sure you fit before you buy. Bonus — it says “Triumph” on the tank. Not a britbike lover? Then check out the Ducati Scrambler and hey, even BMW makes one now.
The perfect number: 300?
There’s been an explosion in the number of motorcycles in the “300 class” as of late. We touched on one earlier (the Kawasaki VERSYS-X 300 ABS), but that’s just one of many new bikes that combine a full-size riding experience with a 300cc-ish engine. That’s more than enough to get your pulse moving without instantly sending you into a triple-digit speeding ticket situation. They’re easy to control, inexpensive to buy (usually), simple to maintain, and fun to ride. For many riders, a 300 is the gateway drug to a larger bike, while for others it’s a perfect fit now and for the future. Check out Honda’s 300 Rebel model, Kawaski’s lineup, this sport machine from KTM, BMW’s new 300, Suzuki’s GSX250R, and Yamaha’s sexy R3. Just pick one already, you won’t go wrong.
Let’s get small
Small motorcycles have a storied history, but until recently, you had to pay top dollar for a clean and rideable one, even if it was sitting in a garage since 1973. No more. The little bike wars are back on, and Honda and Kawasaki are the first to cross their little swords. Honda got things going with its 125cc Grom, a fuel-injected small-wheeler that actual adults can ride — and legally at that. Kawasaki joined the fray with the Z125 (check out our full review here), giving the Grom a drag race and skate park buddy. Yes, both are street legal, although you’ll want to refrain from attempting any freeway riding. Around town? Nothing is more maneuverable or flat fun to ride than these new-think minimotos, and they’re thoroughly up to date with fuel-injected engines, dual disc brakes, electric start, and great modern style. Wheelies? Check! Stoppies? Check! Price around $3,000? Check!
Down for the long haul
Let’s face it, many of us have visions of long-distance travel by bike, but actually doing it? Intimidating. You need big-time gear, a bigger, more comfortable bike, saddlebags, a windscreen, and a long list of smaller bits. But a perfect starting point? The Harley-Davidson SuperLow 1200T ticks a lot of those boxes right up front. The 1200cc fuel-injected V-Twin has the passing power, waves of torque to ferry your gear, and that sound. Capacious saddle bags suck up your rain gear and French press (hey, essentials), there’s a quick-release windscreen, a comfy seat, and miles of style. Did we mention it’s a Harley? You may need some new ink after a few rides.
When you get home from your grand tour, the windscreen and bags pop off to give you a lean and mean street machine you’ll be proud to ride anywhere, any time. Sure, it’s not cheap at almost $12,000, but this is real deal American steel we’re talking about, and it’s built to last, so consider it an investment that will pay off in years of fun, style and adventure.
Rock on, you Rocker you
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain was wracked by violence between rival gangs of motorcycle riders — “Rockers” — and scooter pilots known as “Mods.” The result? An opening for The Who (and Sting!) to make Quadrephenia, of course! But if you’re wanting to properly show off that vintage Langlitz leather jacket (festooned with the requisite patches and pins, of course), you’re going to need a Triumph Street Twin, a modern incarnation of the bikes many Rockers rode into warfare.
Perhaps the simplest bike in Triumph’s inventory, the Street Twin is still bristling with modern touches including fuel injection, ABS, traction control, liquid cooling, an informative speedo with LCD panel, and back-to-basics (and plain comfortable) ergonomics. At 900cc, it’s no lightweight, but as long as you can touch your toes down on both sides, the Street Twin is an easy bike to ride and grow into. Because it’s a bigger bike, you can add on some soft bags, a bug screen, and a sleeping bag to cover distance without a problem. At $8,700 out the door, that’s a lot of bike for the buck (or Pound or Euro). We suggest the sweet silver finish, and remember to roll up those pant cuffs just so.
Have you always hated those snobby Rockers on their thudding Triumphs and Nortons? Scooter style more your thing? Lucky for you, Vespa is still churning out classy scoots that are also stuffed full of modernity. Choose from models ranging from 50cc city machines and up, but for our dosh we’d go with the freeway capable 300cc GTS series, with several variations to choose from. And if you really want to push the style envelope, pick the 946, a stunning 125cc city scoot with traffic-stopping neo-retro looks. Prices vary according to options you decide to load up on. Ciao bella!
Third wheels welcome here
Vespa owner Paiggio stunned the scooter and motorcycling world back in 2006 with the MP3 series of scooters, which featured a novel and until then untried trick for a production machine — three wheels that lean. The Piaggio MP3 features two hoops up front and one out back, and when you roll around a corner, you lean it just like a regular bike/scooter, except you’ve got twice the traction (and brakes!) in front if things get slippery. Initially dismissed as a novelty, the MP3 tri-bike quickly won over riders with its confidence-inspiring handling abilities and extra stability. Oh, and it’s fast too, with a 500cc liquid-cooled and fuel-injected powerplant providing freeway speeds with no problem at all. Get the craziest ride on this list for a buck under $9,000. Totally worth it.
Picked a favorite? Good, now make sure you’re safe to ride with a course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (mandatory in many states before you get your license endorsed, and no motorcycle required), and the right gear. Just ask a dealer or anyone who rides about what you should get.
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