Best Motorcycles for Newer Riders

This 400 pound 2000 MZ Scorpion 660 single makes 48hp and served as my daughter’s first street bike…and my road race bike. It cost $2,200

Surf any motorcycle forum or Facebook group and you’ll invariably find a thread asking for advice about the best motorcycles for new riders. Read the comments and you’ll see a very wide range of arguments for and against certain sizes, styles and models. You will also read discussions about whether the newbie will outgrow a 250cc “starter” bike too soon, followed by well-meaning people reassuring the new rider that they will be fine buying a 600cc super-sport machine or 1200cc cruiser.

You’ll even come across suggestions that a 1000+cc superbike or 1800+cc cruiser is just the ticket. These dodo birds can be identified by their native call: “I learned on a 195hp Hayabusa and did just fine, so don’t be a wussy.” Ummmm. okay.

One thing to consider when filtering advice is that people who have been riding a while seem to forget what it is like to be a newbie and view this issue through their own experience. And their advice is further skewed if learning to ride came to them easier than the average person. This leads to inappropriate advice that does not apply to most average beginners.

Here are my thoughts on the topic:

Size and Power Matters

I don’t care what the internet “experts” say, with few exceptions a new rider is better off starting on a physically smaller bike with modest power.

Newer riders use most of their bandwidth just staying upright without whiskey-throttling themselves into a fence. Toss them into the real world and their heads explode trying to juggle the controls while negotiating blind curves, distracted drivers and surface hazards they never had to worry about as car drivers.

You could argue that these challenges are present no matter what bike the beginner is riding. This is true, but a smaller, less powerful bike is easier to control and is much less likely to intimidate. The odds of a newer rider sticking with riding are greater if the bike they ride is fun…and fun to a newbie means easy to ride…and that means less weight and power.

Fit Matters

This older Honda Rebel is a popular bike for new riders with short inseams.

Alright, there are times when a larger , more powerful bike makes sense like when it has to haul around a large human. In this case, I suggest a mid-sized bike with just enough power to comfortably maintain 70mph with adequate legroom and reach the handlebars.

The type of bike chosen needs to match physical limits. A person with a bad back should choose a bike with more upright ergonomics. Despite common belief, cruisers aren’t good for most people who have back issues, as the riding position rounds the spine, causing discs to bulge. People with neck or shoulder problems may need to stay away from race-replica sport bikes. I choose to ride a Triumph Street Triple as my track day bike, because it has most of the capability of a pure super sport bike, but with higher handlebars.

Reader Bruce A. pointed me to this cool site that can help you visualize how a person your size might fit on certain bikes. Click on the Options tab to see if your inseam will allow you to stand flat footed.

Seat Height

Suzuki 650 Gladius (a version of the SV650)

A big concern of most new riders (and a lot of experience riders, as well) is seat height, or more precisely, “can I touch flat-footed?”. This is understandable if the person is anxious about balancing a heavy motorcycle. The lighter the bike, the less concerning it is to have only the balls of your feet on the ground.

Most smaller riders choose cruisers because they typically have low seat heights. If you’re “inseam challenged” but want a bike that is more versatile than a cruiser, like a sporty standard or perhaps a small sportbike to carve curves to do track days you’ll have a few good options.  Harley, Triumph and BMW offer low versions of certain models and many manufacturers have low seats and other components to help smaller riders feel more secure.

It may be possible to lower the chassis of some bikes using aftermarket suspension links and by slipping the forks higher in the triple clamps. You can also have seats cut down or find a lower aftermarket seat.

Learning Balance

Here’s one thing to consider…after some time learning how to balance the bike while stopping and starting, then not being able to touch flat-footed becomes much less of an issue. Once you become familiar with the balance of your bike and learn the slow speed techniques, you will be surprised how easy it is to keep a bike upright.

This means that eventually, you will be able to consider almost any bike on the market. Just don’t go crazy…you may drool over a big cruiser, tourer or adventure bike, but be realistic that the bike is a good fit.

Case in point, any capable dirtbike has around a 34-inch seat height. Few people I know have an inseam that long, meaning that all dirt riders must manage while only touching tippy-toe. Dirt riders quickly learn how to balance, and their dirtbikes are very light. Sure, a dirtbike can still weight over 300 pounds, but that is manageable by most reasonably fit individuals. Another example of light makes right!

New?

Ninja 250- sporty, comfortable and capable. This generation bike can be found cheap.

It’s tempting to throw down your money on a shiny new motorcycle. This option eliminates the stress of buying a used machine from some potential Craigslist scammer and you get the benefit of modern amenities and safety features, like ABS and traction control. Not to mention the pride of owning the newest model on the road.

However, dropping $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 on a bike that will likely get dropped puts a lot more stress on the new rider. Too much attention will be put on avoiding that first scratch on those shiny chrome or plastic parts. And stress does not create the best condition for fun or open learning. That’s why it’s almost always better to buy a cared-for used motorcycle that isn’t as precious.

Used!

Buying used means you need to do your research about whether an older model bike is appropriate, which includes being patient in your search for the right motorcycle. Unlike cars and trucks, most motorcycles do not rack up very high miles.

You will also likely need to do some maintenance tasks before the bike is fully up to snuff. Depending on whether or not you live in an area with long riding season, it’s not unusual to find a five year old bike with only 5,000 miles. That means that not too much will need to be done to make it roadworthy. However, a frequently ridden motorcycle five or more years old will have more 10,000 or more miles. Here are a list of components that often need replacement:

  • New tires (worn to the tread wear indicator, or older than five years)
  • Chain and sprockets (most OEM units last about 12-15,000 miles)
  • Brake pads (anywhere from 6-12,000 miles).

Of course, a oil and filter change and brake fluid replacement, as well as general lubrication needs to be done. Read more about motorcycle maintenance HERE.

Keep in mind that whatever bike you buy (new or used), you want easy access to service and parts. Exotic bikes are cool, but it sucks if you have to drive hours to get it serviced and even worse if you have to wait too long for parts.

Mo Money

Another reason to buy used is so you have enough money left over in your budget to buy good protective gear. It is said that if you can’t afford a good helmet, jacket, pants, gloves and boots, then you can’t afford to be a motorcyclist. While that may sound draconian, it is a smart rule to follow.

You will also have money left to pay for advanced rider training. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that once you know how to operate the bike that you know how to “ride”, which involves much more than simply being able to control the machine.

Ken racing an old 50hp Kawasaki EX500 Ninja worth less than $2,000. Photo: Jonas Powell Photography

Ride a Slow Bike Fast

I want to emphasize that the bikes I am listing below are not only “beginner bikes”! These bikes are appropriate for new riders, but are also entertaining enough to captivate experienced riders who know how much fun it is to ride lightweight machines. Unfortunately, most people think that moving up to the large displacement as soon as possible is the way to go. It’s not.

Take me for example. I have ridden almost every large and small motorcycle on the market and still choose to stick with my middleweight Triumph Tiger 800 (streetbike) and Street Triple (track bike).

Speaking of track day bikes, I constantly caution track day riders from buying larger and more powerful bikes, and instead, stick with the smaller bike they started on and learn to ride it really well before considering a move.

Even riders at the top of their game don’t often find benefit in owning a bike with more power. Believe me, it is quite possible to ride faster on board a 600cc sportbike, or even a well-setup SV650 than someone struggling to manage the power of a liter-sized superbike. Lower-powered bikes push the rider to ride more efficiently and corner with greater precision. Big power tends to be a crutch that slows down skill development. As the saying goes, “it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast, rather than ride a fast bike slow”.

The video shows the Intermediate (Yellow group) session with Tony’s Track Days. Before anyone asks; the suspension and every other component on the 250R is stock. Thanks Younia, for the ride!

One last thing to consider are the benefits to riding off-road for new and experienced riders to learn traction management, body positioning and throttle control where there are no texting teens to punt you off the road.

Best Bikes for Beginners

So, here is my list of street bikes appropriate for new or newer riders, by size and category:

250-400cc

Kawasaki KLX250s

Dual-Sport

Dual-sports are used on pavement and dirt. They have tall seat heights, but are very light compared to other street-legal bikes.

Nighthawk 250

Street Sport/Standard

Cruiser/Classic


500-800cc

Dual-Sport

  • Kawasaki KLR650- The Swiss Army knife of motorcycles. Big and heavy but a workhorse with good balance and power for all riders.$$
  • Suzuki DRz400s/sm – A larger dual sport for long-legged riders. The SM is a supermoto street version.$$
  • BMW F700/800GS- The slightly lower, street-leaning version of the more off-road 800GS. $$$

Street Sport/Standard

A mid-sized cruiser

Cruiser/Classic

Other bikes to consider:

This is a list I came up with, but I know I’m missing some options, like older bikes. Please include your thoughts in the comments below and I’ll consider adding it to the list.

What You Won’t See On My List

A lot of beginners eye bikes in the 600cc class of sport bikes, thinking the engine size makes it manageable for a newb. But, 600s are shar edged tools that can cut a rider whose skills aren’t developed enough. Yes, beginners survive starting on a 600, but why put the beginner through the stress of having to manage a machine designed for experienced riders?

You may wonder why there are several 650cc and 800cc bikes on my list. Well, those bikes are designed to be easy to ride by average riders wanting a bike that is comfortable and practical for all types of riding. The engine displacement may be greater, but the power delivery is more mellow and user-friendly.

Cruisers are sized with big displacement engines, but they are tuned to lug around town and produce less power per cc than standard or sporty models. That’s why it’s not unheard of to find a newb riding a 1000 or 1200cc cruiser as their first bike. But, these bikes are still not great starter bikes becasue they are heavy with forward controls and a long wheelbase, making them unwieldy at slow speeds.

Suzuki SV650

Bottom Line

Get a used Ninja 250/300 if you’re small and like performance machines. Get a Honda Rebel 300 or 500 if you like cruisers and have a really short inseam. Score a Honda CRF250L or a Kawi KLX250s if you lean more toward off-roading and have long legs or get a XT225/250 if you have shorter legs. Get a Kawi 300 Versys if you like adventure-bike styling and capability.

A step up in size may be just fine for a lot of beginners. In this case, the Honda CB500 series makes a lot of sense. I like the Vulcan S for a mid-sized cruiser and a cheap, used DRz400s for a bigger dual-sport. KLR650 are other more off road worthy option.

For someone who is pretty comfortable on two wheels, a Ninja 650 or SV650 are my most recommended bikes becasue they are capable of touring, commuting and doing track days. You can even ride dirt roads pretty well on these bikes.  The Versys 650 is another great option, as is the Yamaha FZ-07.

For bigger dudes, A BMW 700/800GS or F800R may work. For cruisers, you may get away with a Harley 883 or even a 1000 Sportster, but I’d seriously look at the Indian Scout. For sport bikes, I’d steer you to, you guessed it…an SV650.

 


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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, New Rider Zone, Product Reviews, Riding Technique & Tips, Women and Motorcycling
3 comments on “Best Motorcycles for Newer Riders
  1. Craig says:

    Great article. After my basic riders course, I purchased a used Buell Blast to get my feet wet on the road. Not until I was comfortable riding did I decide to purchase a new bike. Best decision I ever made.

  2. Ron Ahlstedt says:

    I really agree with you on starting on a smaller bike. From age 16 to 25 I owned many different types of bikes. I rode to Canada twice from Los Angeles. Another trip six weeks around the U.S. solo and many other long trips on large touring bikes from the mid-70’s. I always wanted another bike and just not any bike….I wanted a large touring bike. I looked at
    H-D’s, Gold Wings, and the BMW 1600. I took the silly class in GA to get your motorcycle license on a small 150 bike…I don’t remember the brand. I thought I was prepared to ride my brand new touring bike home 4 hours on mountain roads. That was my first mistake. I’d planned to trailer the new bike home but the dealer and friend talked me out of it. That was my second mistake I listened to them. After leaving the dealer I came to the first intersection….I pushed the bike through it and many more that day I simply could not turn it.I was very lucky I did not kill myself that day or anyone else. I was really scared. I realized my skill level was near zero. So the next two years Ive took many riding classes. MSF, GWRRA, MotoMark1, Ride like Pro, StaynSafe, and others. My skill level now is just average in my opinion. It took me about one year to get comfortable on that new bike. My advice if you have been away from riding for many years like I was (35 for me)don’t listen to the dealer or friends. Start on a smaller bike your skill level will improve faster than go get large bike. That bike for me was a 2014 Gold Wing and I love it. BTW I’m going to Tony’s Track day in May and hoping to improve some skills and learn some new ones.

  3. Neil Tolhurst says:

    That’s a good and comprehensive article.

    Some additional points to consider for first bike purchase decision making –
    Throttle response to small movements, especially from idle to slightly above idle. Some of the modern fuel injected bikes have issues with abrupt, not smooth or gradual throttle response. It’s an issue for both new & experienced riders.

    Engine vibration transmitted to the rider that can be either annoying, fatiguing, or both. Honda’s 500cc twin powered bikes are known for their lack of vibration and may be the best on this point.

    A good, reliable local dealer or repair shop for service & parts availability for whichever bike you choose.

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