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Mr. Frugal Presents: Seven Bikes That New Riders Won’t Outgrow In Six Months

Posted in General, Motorcycle by Kurt Ernst | April 28th, 2010 | 12 Responses |

If you’re a new or returning motorcycle rider, chances are everyone you know is offering advice on which bike to buy. Generally speaking, this ranges from good (“Buy something cheap, since you’ll probably drop it”) to bad (“Buy a Suzuki Hayabusa. It’s a good bike to learn on”) and everywhere in between. You probably have a few friends who want to give you a killer deal on their low mileage Buell Blast or Honda Rebel 250; run, do not walk away from such offers.

Buying a first bike, especially for those with limited seat time, can be a pretty intimidating thing. Guess wrong, and you wind up with a bike you’re terrified to ride because it’s too big, too heavy or too fast. On the flip side, if you buy a too small bike to learn on, you may have a hard time selling when you’re ready to trade up in a few months. The market for 250cc cruisers is very small, despite what the motorcycle sales guy tells you. Ideally, you want a bike that won’t scare the crap out of you, but that keeps you entertained for longer than the average action flick.

We here at RideLust aren’t in sales, and most of us have accumulated plenty of time in the saddle. Below are our picks for the best seven entry level bikes, in three different categories. Not everyone want to ride a cruiser, and a dual sport can be pretty intimidating if you’re inseam challenged. By category, here are our picks:

Cruiser, First Place: Harley-Davidson Sportster 883

Harley Davidson 883 Sportster Low

Likes: Torquey motor makes clutch easy to master
Dislikes: Pricey for content, neutral can be tricky to find
Buy This Bike If: You’re a new or returning rider and favor a cruiser over other styles
Price New: $6,999.00 and up
Price Used: Ten year old 883s start at around $2,200

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Harley Davidson Sportster 883s are good first bikes. Their v-twin motor makes a decent amount of torque at low RPM, so stalling the bike as you let out the clutch is hard to do. Their low seat height makes them user friendly, even for riders with short legs. The downsides? The price of admission is steep for new ones, which quickly move up in price for the 883 Low’s starting price of $6,999.00. At 583 pounds, it’s the heaviest bike on the list, so you’ll probably need help picking it up the first time you drop it. Finally, like all low-to-the-ground cruisers, you won’t be strafing any canyon roads on the 883 as your skill set improves, since you’ll be scraping footpegs even at modest lean angles. Used examples are out there, but may be hard to find or expensive if the previous owner added lots of chrome farkles.

Cruiser, Second Place: Honda Shadow Spririt 750

Honda Shadow Spirit

Likes: Used examples are a dime a dozen, dealers are plentiful
Dislikes: Lacks personality compared to the Harley
Buy This Bike If: You want Honda reliability in a cruiser style motorcycle
Price New: $6,999.00
Price Used: Nine year old Shadow ACEs should be below $2,000

The Honda Shadow line of motorcycles has been around since the early 1980s. Their 750cc v-twin is small for a middleweight, but offers enough grunt to keep new or returning riders happy. Best of all is Honda’s dealer network; no matter where you end up, chances are good you’ll find a Honda dealer locally. The Shadow Spirit 750 won’t set any styling trends with its blend-into-the-background lines and quirky paint schemes, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ditto on the motor: it’s smooth, but lacks the personality you’ll find with other v-twins. Your trade-off is Honda’s typical reliability, so if you don’t mind the bland, your payback is likely to be low ownership costs. It’s lighter than the Harley, at 536 pounds, and the seat height is a very low 25.7 inches, which makes it easy for riders of all size to handle.

Dual Purpose, First Place: Kawasaki KLR 650

Kawasaki KLR 650

Likes: It’ll get you to the ends of the earth and back, you can fix it with a hammer and duct tape, huge aftermarket support
Dislikes: Those with inseams less than 34” need not apply, top heavy with a full tank.
Buy This Bike If: You want the ability to go anywhere your sense of adventure dictates
Price New: $5,999.00
Price Used: $1,000 and up, depending upon age and condition

The Kawasaki KLR 650 may just be the most versatile motorcycle on the planet. It’s equally comfortable commuting (where the seat height allows you to look over cars in front of you) or bombing along game trails in the Amazon (there probably isn’t an accessible spot on the planet that hasn’t been visited by someone on a KLR 650). The big single motor defines simplicity, and the bike can be fixed in the field with tools at hand. How good is it? The USMC uses a multi-fuel variant designed to run on anything from diesel to kerosene; sadly, we can’t buy those. Down sides? The bike is big and heavy, two very scary things for new riders. Sure, you can lower the seat height by changing the rear linkage, but then you reduce the ground clearance and make it less useful off road. At 432 pounds dry, it doesn’t sound heavy until you realize that a full tank, six gallons worth of fuel, will add almost another 50 pounds of weight at the top of the bike. Still, if you can get used to the sheer size, the KLR650 is a bike you won’t outgrow any time soon. Used examples are plentiful and cheap, but beware of heavily crashed or heavily modified versions.

Dual Purpose, Second Place: BMW G650 GS (Formerly the F650 GS)


Likes: As user friendly and inexpensive as a BMW GS gets
Dislikes: Not as good as the KLR 650 in the rough, quite a bit more expensive
Buy This Bike If: You like the idea of a dual purpose but won’t ride anything more demanding than the occasional fire road
Price New: $7,900.00
Price used: $2,500 and up

OK, try to stay with me on BMW’s naming of this bike: from 2000 to 2007, it was called the F650 GS and featured a Rotax built single cylinder motor. In 2008, it was relaunched as the G650 GS, using a Chinese built single copied from the original Rotax motor design. BMW also has an F650 GS in the current lineup, but it’s now a parallel twin and not included in this list.

No matter what you call it, BMW’s single cylinder GS (Gelaende Strasse, or off road / street) is an alternative for new riders who prefer the look and comfort of a dual sport, but find the KLR 650 too big for them. It’s about ten pounds lighter than the KLR, and has a seat height of just 30.7 inches, meaning that almost anyone will be comfortable riding it. At a starting price of $7,900 new, you’re paying a lot of money for a bike with limited off road capabilities in stock form. For most riders this isn’t a deterrent, and the baby GS has been a regular best seller in its class for the past decade. As with all things BMW, parts and service come at a premium, and their network of motorcycle dealers seems to shrink by the year. Finding a used F650 shouldn’t be all that difficult, and chances are good it will have lived an easier life than a used KLR.

Dual Purpose, Third Place: Suzuki V-Strom 650

Suzuki 650 V-Strom

Likes:Best choice in category for street riding, available ABS
Dislikes: Limited off road capability, high list price
Buy This Bike If: You’ll do 99% of your riding on the street and don’t mind the price of admission
Price New: $7,499.00 ($7,999.00 with ABS)
Price Used: $2,600 and up

I’m including this in the dual purpose segment, as that’s where Suzuki puts it in their lineup. In reality, the 650cc, v-twin V-Strom is the modern evolution of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, a bike that can be equipped to handle everything from daily commuting to long distance touring by changing a few components. I wouldn’t want to take the V-Strom into places I could get a KLR or even a BMW single; still, the V-Strom is a better choice on road than those two, and it’s capable of riding the occasional dirt road without too much drama. Stay off trails and you’ll be fine.

The 650 V-Strom has captured awards from the press in both the US and Europe, so it’s clear that Suzuki is doing something right with this bike. At 485 pounds, it may seem big for new riders, and the seat height of 32.3 inches won’t help its case much. Like the KLR, you’re carrying almost 6 gallons of fuel in the tank, weight that raises the bike’s center of gravity. You’ll know in a showroom if the baby V-Strom feels too big or not; if you can live with the size (and the easy to smash bodywork if the bike is dropped), the small V-Strom should keep you entertained for quite a while.

Standard, First Place: Suzuki SV650

Suzuki SV650

Likes: Great v-twin motor, low price of admission, strong aftermarket support, lots of model options
Dislikes: Hard to find a used one that hasn’t been flogged to death
Buy This Bike If:You want a bike that will quickly improve your confidence
Price New: $5,999; $6,599 with ABS, $7,499 for the fairing equipped SV650 SF
Price Used: $2,000 and up, less for “parts only” basket cases

I’ve recommended the mid-size Suzuki to more new riders than any other bike, and I’ve never heard an SV rider who is anything less than happy with their bike. Sure the bargain bin suspension needs to go, but that’s part of the beauty of the SV; you can spend money on improvements as your riding style dictates. Get tired of street riding, and the SV650 makes a great track day bike as well. As you would expect, there’s plenty of go fast engine and suspension parts available in the aftermarket.

The base model SV650 weighs in at just 370 pounds dry, and the 31.5” seat height should be comfortable for most riders. The bike is surprisingly comfortable, and would make an acceptable touring mount if equipped with a windshield and bags. Still, the SV’s strength is it’s motor and handling; if you’ve got twisty roads where you live, the SV 650 is a sensible choice for a new or returning rider.

Standard, Second Place: Kawasaki Versys

Kawasaki Versys

Likes: One motorcycle, many purposes
Dislikes: Expensive list price, no ABS available
Buy This Bike If: You really want a V-Strom but hate Suzuki
Price New: $7,599.00
Price Used: $4,400 and up

The Kawasaki Versys made its U.S. debut in 2008, so used models are going to be hard to find. Kawasaki doesn’t call this a dual sport, so I won’t either, but it’s meant to compete against Suzuki’s mid-sized V-Strom more than their sportbike influenced SV650. The Versus uses a parallel twin motor derived from the Ninja 650, but re-tuned for more low end power. Like the V-Strom, the Versys is a jack-of-all-trades, suitable for everything you can do with a motorcycle on public roads.

At 454 pounds, the Versus is about 30 pounds lighter than the V-Strom. The seat is a little higher, at 33.1 inches; if you can manage it, it makes for a more comfortable platform over long distances. It won’t keep up with an SV650 in the tight stuff, but that’s not what the Versys was designed for. If you favor parallel twins over v-twins, or if you’d rather buy a Kawasaki than a Suzuki, the Versys may be just what you’re looking for.

So there you have it. I didn’t include a sportbike category, only because they wouldn’t be my first choice for a new rider. If you want to go that route, stick to a 600cc bike to learn on, preferably a used one. Whatever bike you opt for, plan on dropping it once or twice until you learn things like “never park a bike on the sidestand in neutral” or “rain really does make the center part of the lane slicker than owl snot”; it’s all part of the learning curve.

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12 Responses

  1. Excellent list. I love your choices—not the standard list of first-timer bikes. What do you think about the Ninja 650? I’ve read good things and they’re dirt cheap used, considering what you get.

    Reaching further back, the Suzuki GS500e seems like a good choice. So does the Honda Hawk NT650, if you can find one. I may also add the early Honda VFR 700 or 750 to the list. Yeah, it’s devilishly fast, but it has plenty of low-down torque, a flat power band, and is very forgiving to ride. I almost bought one. I should have. But that’s another story.

  2. Kurt says:

    Dustin, the Ninja 650 is a great choice if you want a fully faired bike – in fact, the Versus uses the same parallel twin motor as the Ninja, but retuned for more low end torque. I’m not a huge fan of the GS500E, as it’s too underpowered to be entertaining for very long.

    Forget the Hawk NT650 – any of them that haven’t been beaten to death are collector’s items. It’s a great bike, but an unabused example would be too rare and expensive to justify as a beginner’s bike.

    I’m not sure I’d opt for an Interceptor as a starter bike. It makes most of it’s power up high, so it’s easy to get into trouble if you’re not careful. Also, it’s got lots of expensive plastic to replace the first time you drop it in a parking lot or toss it going wide in a corner.

    Believe it or not, the BMW R1100/1150/1200 R isn’t a bad first bike if you can get over the size and weight. It makes smooth power and it’s easy to manage since the weight’s down low. Plenty of good used examples out there as well.

  3. DaveMofo says:

    So I guess the R6 isn’t recommended as a good first bike? :D

    • Kurt says:

      Not unless you went to the Friedrich Nietzsche “that which does not kill me only serves to make me stronger” school of motorcycle safety. Of course my first street bike was a tuned Suzuki GS750, so I’m not exactly leading by example.

  4. nospaces says:

    what are your thoughts on the Suzuki Gladius?

  5. Kurt says:

    Like the original Hans Muth designed Katana from the early 1980s, the Gladius is an acquired taste. If you can get past the ugly, there’s nothing wrong with it. If I remember correctly, it uses the same motor as the SV650, so it makes decent but not intimidating power. The price is right – the Gladius starts at $6,899, but you’ve got to factor in the cost of paper bags to wrap that thing in. Beauty may only be skin deep, but ugly is to the bone.

  6. Shahroz says:

    i was expecting the Ducati Monster 696 up there
    it’s a great list of starter bikes nonetheless

  7. frank says:

    it looks like it is v-twin gasoline engine, right?

    what is engine brand?

  8. Rod says:

    Er… OK with everything but… what about the sport bikes? They are missing.

  9. Kurt says:

    Rod, excellent point and my omission of sport bikes was deliberate. First, they have too much expensive bodywork; when you drop the bike, it isn’t just a matter of replacing the mirrors or turn signals. Second, mid-sized (600cc) sportbikes tend to make a lot of power at high RPMs, which can be intimidating for those just learning to ride. Remember, the article was targeting those with little to no experience, looking to buy a first motorcycle.

    If you absolutely have to have a sportbike as your first ride, my recommendation would be a Suzuki SV650S, with the quarter fairing. Not sporty enough? How about a Yamaha FZ6R for $7,490 or a Ninja 650R for $7,199? If you’ve got a bigger bank account, you can throw the Suzuki GSX650F into the mix, but it stickers at $7,899.

    If you go the sportbike route, be sure to budget for insurance (which is typically higher on sportbikes) and frame sliders, which are much cheaper than replacing bodywork.

  10. BigRuss says:

    i started out on a 95 ZX11… and it still keeps my cheeks hurting after a long day on the road….

  11. Kurt Ernst says:

    A ZX11 is one hell of a starter bike – like Nietzsche said, “that which does not kill me only serves to make me stronger”.