What to Consider Before You Buy a Motorcycle
Jonathan Welsh is a freelance autos writer with LendingTree. As a transportation writer, his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section, TODAY.com, Wired Magazine and others.
In a reversal of the bigger-is-better marketing approach of recent decades, motorcycle makers are betting on lighter bikes with smaller engines to woo new customers, especially folks who have been on the fence for years over whether to ride or not.
Companies including BMW, Honda and Husqvarna are rolling out new models this year with engines in the 200 to 400 cubic centimeter size range; this is tiny compared with the 1000cc, 1200cc and larger bikes that have been popular with riders for several years. However, bike manufacturers say they designed the smaller machines to be less intimidating and easier to ride than larger models. They also offer more comfort, convenience and technological features than previous beginner bikes, which tended to be stripped down to keep prices low.
“Beginner bikes” have changed
Most surprising is how stylish the new crop is — something one couldn’t previously say about most entry-level motorcycles. In the past, companies focused only on making small bikes as simple and inexpensive as possible, assuming owners would quickly trade them in and move up to bigger, pricier models. Now they’re designing smaller ones with attractive styling and optional equipment that could make them long-term “keepers.”
Moving somewhat “upmarket” with small starter bikes is a gamble that reflects the motorcycle industry’s desperation to diversify its audience to include women, urban dwellers, people in their 20s and just about anyone looking for efficient, inexpensive — and fetching — transportation. To turn these people into customers, marketers have to convince them that motorcycles will improve their lives beyond simply adding the occasional fun of weekend rides. They may also have to overcome negative elements in the overall image of motorcycling, from the danger and expense inherent to riding to the idea that only “certain types” of people own motorcycles.
Industry experts say small bikes are a good way to make inroads with potential customers who are tentative about taking the plunge into motorcycling because they are generally less expensive and more fuel-efficient than larger models. Reduced size and weight also make them easier to handle while riding, parking or wheeling them into and out of the garage. The smaller machines are also easier to pick up if they accidentally tip over, which is a scenario that causes anxiety for many riders.
Riding is still risky
While lightweight models might alleviate some of the stresses of owning and riding a motorcycle, they cannot change the fact that riding a motorcycle is considerably more dangerous than driving a car. A study of traffic fatalities in 2015 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that based on the number of miles traveled, the number of motorcycle rider deaths totaled almost 29 times as many as car drivers and passengers. And while fatal car accidents have generally decreased – from 35,026 in 1979 to 23,793 in 2016 – motorcycle fatalities rose to 4,976 in 2016 after dipping to a low of 2,056 in 1997.
Fatality figures are daunting, but bike makers are likely even more focused on sales numbers. For years total motorcycle sales in the U.S. have hovered around 500,000, down sharply from the 2006 peak of around 1.2 million motorcycles sold, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. The biggest sales year was 1973, when Americans bought more than 1.5 million bikes.
Should you buy a motorcycle?
The decision of whether to buy a motorcycle is more complicated than buying a car because a bike is almost always a discretionary purchase — something you want but don’t need — while a car is more often a transportation necessity.
However, motorcycles tend to evoke more passion and other emotions that drive people to treat them like must-haves. Riding a motorcycle is more physically and sensually engaging than driving a car because you are out in the open where you see, hear, feel and smell things you would miss behind the wheel of a sedan. Many consider riding an indispensible activity.
Motorcycle manufacturers are almost always offering deals on financing, so prospective buyers should compare these with motorcycle loan offers from banks, credit unions and other lenders before walking into a dealership. And, of course, ideally, you’d skip financing altogether and buy with cash.
There are also many used bikes on the market that are worth consideration. Unlike the typical case with cars, people often buy motorcycles but wind up riding them very little. It’s not unusual to find used bikes selling at big discounts with just a few hundred or a few thousand miles on the odometer. Some buyers may find that they simply do not enjoy motorcycling as much as they thought they would and eventually just want to get their bikes out of the garage. These can often be among the best deals, but it helps to be familiar with the bikes you are looking at and their market values.
Here are four of the latest small bikes and some of the features and details that could make them attractive to new riders:
BMW G 310 GS
Price tag: $5,695
BMW is known for building bikes that are reliable, technologically advanced and very expensive, so it might surprise shoppers to find one of its latest models starting under $6,000. The G 310 GS is a lightweight sibling to the company’s R 1200 GS, a so-called adventure-touring model that starts at $16,895. Adventure touring – the notion that you can strap gear to your bike and travel the world in the style of Easy Rider or The Motorcycle Diaries – is appealing to new riders seeking excitement on two wheels. The BMW makes the trip safer with standard anti-lock brakes. The IIHS says the rate of fatal crashes for motorcycles with anti-lock brakes is 31% lower than for the same models without anti-lock systems.
Husqvarna Vitpilen 401
Price tag: $5,600
For decades this Swedish niche player has specialized in off-road bikes that are fit for elite competition or weekend outings over extreme terrain. In the early 1970s, when off-road racing was in its infancy, Husqvarna was already building specialized bikes to tackle motocross and long-range “enduro” competitions. Now the company is tailoring bikes for urban riders. Styled like a modern café racer, the Vitpilen 401 has a compact single-cylinder engine that helps keep the bike slender to slip easily through city traffic and past double-parked trucks on narrow streets. At 148 kg (approx. 326 lbs.), the 401 is the lightest machine in this group, which is noticeable when compared with 178 kg (392 lbs.) for the Suzuki and 183 kg (403 lbs.) for the Ducati.
Price tag: $4,499
Safety experts say sport bikes tend to be especially dangerous, with higher death rates among riders compared with other categories. But Suzuki still liked the look and went for all-out sport-bike styling with the GSX250R. Its aerodynamic bodywork envelops the bike’s frame, engine and most of its mechanical workings, plumbing and wiring, while other bikes in this comparison are largely “naked,” with few body panels to cover their innards. Suzuki says the new bike is “approachable” with performance that is responsive enough for carving curves on back roads, yet smooth and easy to control while commuting or running errands around town.
Ducati Scrambler Sixty2
Price tag: $7,995
Ducati rolled out its Scrambler line of small bikes in 2014 after finding itself without any real entry-level machines to offer to new customers with limited budgets. Many versions of the company’s previously inexpensive Monster bike had grown to more than $10,000. But the Italian company had barely begun selling the 800cc Scrambler when designers added a bigger model, with an 1100cc engine and a $100,700 price tag. To keep the bike attractive to young riders the company introduced the Sixty2, which has a 400cc engine and a price more in line with an older Monster from several years ago. The teardrop-shaped gas tank and “atomic tangerine” paint (though also comes in “shining black” and “ocean grey”) give it a retro look that contrasts with the modern looks of other bikes in this group.