When you first start riding, finding the right bike to start out on can be tough. In the best-case scenario, your motorcycle or MSF course will have let you try out different styles of bikes throughout so that you can get a feel for each type. In the worst-case scenario, you were stuck with one bike throughout and have no idea what other styles feel like.
On top of that, we here at BBM realize that almost everyone that is starting out on motorcycles wants to buy a good quality, reliable used one. This is both because while getting used to the rope, you will most likely drop your bike once, and because you want a bike that will potentially last you a season or two before you move up into the new bike owners club.
Worry not, then, new riders! We’ve put our heads together here and between all of us, have come up with a list of 10 bikes that will see you through thick and thin. Some are what we would call generic starters, others are more specialized in the model subsets. But all of them are worth finding used!
The Suzuki SV650 has attained near-mythical status as a great beginner bike, and even one worth hanging on to, with good reason. It has a narrow frame and engine thanks to being a V-twin, which allows almost anyone and everyone to flat foot the bike at a stop, but it is also relatively lightweight at just over 430 lbs wet, depending on which year and model you get.
As well, the SV650 has a multitude of styles. There is a full naked, a half-faired version, a fully-faired version (also known as the Gladius that lasted for a couple of years only), and all of them have plenty of get up and go from the 645cc V-twin. And when we say that V-twin is bulletproof, you can quite literally hit the engine with a sledgehammer and it will still run smoothly.
We recommend looking at the 2004 and later versions of the SV650, as the first generation had a higher seat, carburetors, and a slightly more uncomfortable, sport-aggressive seating lean. The SV is all about learning and finding out how a standard bike with some sporty leanings feels, and it is still the benchmark by which all other beginner bikes are measured, even in 2021.
Kawasaki Ninja 250/300/400/650
Those interested in going down the sportbike route towards potentially getting a supersport have the Kawasaki Ninja line of bikes to get them started off with. To alleviate confusion, keep in mind that these bikes are named “Ninja ###,” and not “Ninja ZX-##.” The ZX models are the supersports, and until you’re comfortable on a regular sportbike, we suggest staying away from them.
First, they are incredible value-for-money, with robust, high-quality parts, excellent riding position, accessible and easy-to-understand controls, and in recent years, the latest in anti-wheelie, skid control, and dual-zone ABS.
Second, they are as reliable as a wood-burning stove. It may be because Kawasaki Motors is a part of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, meaning that redundancy and reliability are crucial. It may be because the Japanese have a sixth sense about how to make unbreakable engines. Whatever it is, as long as you do your maintenance on schedule, and have your valves adjusted every 10,000 miles or so, you can keep a Ninja going literally until the end of time.
Much like the Ninja above, the Kawasaki Z line at the lower end is packed with value. While the Z300 is no longer made, it is widely available in used marketplaces across the USA. The Z400 and Z650 are the recent Z bikes, and are both stellar beginner bikes.
What makes the Z bikes different from the Ninja is that the Z bikes are naked sport standards and that there are no supersport versions of them. There is a larger displacement Z900, Z900RS, and Z1000 models for those wanting to keep with the naked bike and move up once comfortable with their Z’s, and there is also the ridiculously powerful Z H2, which we recommend you have at least 5 years of riding experience before even sniffing at. A 200 HP supercharged 998cc inline-four is definitely not for beginners!
No matter which Z bike you choose from 300 through to 650, rest assured that you are getting one of the best pure naked bikes on the market. Yamaha may call their MT line the “hyper-naked,” and Honda’s CB line are close contenders, but you simply do not get as much of a complete package as you do with the Z branded bikes. And did we mention that they’re usually quite cheap used as well?
If you haven’t heard of the Suzuki DR-Z400, then in all likelihood you are not looking for a dual-sport bike that loves to be on the streets more than it does the dirt. It comes in two main models, the S and the SM. The S model has a big 21-inch front wheel, a decent 18 inch back wheel, compliant but firm suspension, and is an absolute laugh to ride with its controllable and available power and torque.
The SM variant, or SuperMoto, however, is where you travel from laughing to grinning like a madman. With 17-inch wheels front and rear with street tires on, it is the perfect “friendly hooligan” bike. Consider: 322 lbs wet, 37 HP. In layman’s terms, the DR-Z400 in either guise is a bike that is infinitely agile, very sure-footed, and can hit 90+ MPH in SM form.
We recommend, if you are looking for a DR-Z400 to learn and keep for a couple of seasons, go with the SM variant. You will have hours of fun, it will carve corners with the best of the sportbikes, and it will also pootle along quite happily as a commuter. You will get 55 to 65 MPG on average, with the 398cc single thumper whacking away under your butt to give the bike a great sound and a great feel.
Suzuki V-Strom 650
The Suzuki V-Strom 650 is a corner-cousin to the SV650, using the same engine and ABS modules, but not much else. Often (and lovingly) nicknamed the “Wee Strom” to differentiate it from the V-Strom 1000, it takes that 645cc engine and tunes it to give most of its power in the low to midrange of the rev band, between 4,000 and 7,000 RPM.
This is because the V-Strom 650s primary market is not the adventure market, despite it being an adventure bike. Indeed, the V-Strom 650 is meant to demolish the miles on long tours or commutes in comfort, style, and with gas to spare. In fact, you will not often find a V-Strom 650 on any sort of dirt, except if it’s a hard-pack dirt road.
There is also a massive fanbase and third-party aftermarket collection for the V-Strom 650. Everyone from beginner riders to riders with 30+ years of experience under their belts love the Wee Strom, and for many, they’ve had the bike for 3, 5, even 10+ years and love the hell out of it. So if you pick up a V-Strom 650 as your beginner bike, you may not ever need buy another bike if it becomes the one you love the most!
Yamaha V-Star XVS650
Interested in learning how to ride a cruiser, but don’t have anywhere near the money to afford an American brand bike? Yamaha answered your call years ago with the V-Star XVS650. Discontinued in production for a few years now, they are still excellent starter bikes if you’re looking to get into the big-V style of cruisers.
The 649cc V-twin is air-cooled for the classic cruiser rumble, is carbureted, and delivers 40 HP and about 35 to 40 lb-ft of torque, on a bike that weighs in about 515 lbs wet. It has a very forgiving throttle, some would even potentially call it lazy, but keep in mind the big-V cruisers aren’t about out and out acceleration or top speed, they’re about cruising in mid-revs and looking good doing it.
Being carbureted, these bikes will require a bit more wrench time than most reliable used bikes. Conversely, put in that wrench time once a month, keep the carbs nicely tuned, do your seasonal maintenance, and you will have a cruiser that will carry you for thousands of miles quite happily. As well, the V-Star XVS650 uses a shaft drive, so as long as you keep the oil changed according to Yamaha’s recommended mileage schedule, it’s almost impossible to break.
If you’re looking for a rough-and-tumble dual-sport that hisses at the sight of a road and much prefers to rough it, the Yamaha TW200 is the bike for you. Not only is it immensely popular, but it has also been around since approximately the Bronze Age. This means that you will find bikes from almost any year from the late 1980s to 2021 for sale in used ads, at widely varying prices but almost always under $5,000.
What makes the TW200 legendary, however, is just how bloody unkillable it is. TW200’s have been used to get to the North and South Poles (Shinji Kazama’s epic early 90s adventure), has been modified and run as a Dakar Rally bike, has been used by Search and Rescue organizations across the world who cannot afford a breakdown… you name it, the TW200’s seen it, done it, been there, got the t-shirt.
There is a famous quote about the TW200: “If you’re patient and persistent, the TW200 can take you almost anywhere on Earth.” You will have to enjoy getting a little wrench time in for maintenance, however, as up until the mid-2000s, it was carbureted. Granted, you could throw the bike off a 1,000 foot cliff, climb down, hop on and it’d kick over no issue, but still… keep it tuned up and it will outlive you.
So far on this list, we’ve covered the dual-sport that likes streets more, the dual-sport that likes being off-road more. But how about one that’s just damned good at both? Enter the Honda CRF230L and CRF250L. The 250 model was actually just discontinued this year as a new CRF300L has come out, but we all know what that means for the used market… everyone will be selling their older models to jump aboard the newest model.
What makes the CRF-L models so good as reliable beginner bikes is just how lenient they are, a common theme among Honda’s entry-level bikes. Twisting to a quarter-throttle won’t send the bike looping backward with you planted flat on your ass. Nor is the clutch especially grabby and will rip your arms out if you don’t slip it perfectly. It’s just a little dual-sport that is like a golden retriever. It will laze around happily sleeping, but mention the word “walkies” and it’s up and bounding about, excited to get going.
As well, there are Rally versions of the CRF-L models, which add adventure style windscreens and luggage attachment points, so you can turn your dual-sport into an all-purpose adventure-sport. In fact, if you follow some rider blogs and YouTube vlogs, the famous ItchyBoots has traveled to South Africa and is touring the country on her used Honda CRF250L, and already has about 1,500 worry-free miles under her right wrist in just over a month. And when we say she puts serious miles on her bikes, consider that she rode across Eurasia (all of Eurasia) back to Europe on a Honda CB500X (named Ronin, appropriately) a couple of years back!
Quite possibly the newest bike on our list, you might look at the picture above, tilt your head, and go, “really?” Hear us out, though.
The Honda GROM has been around for a few years now and has actually just undergone its first full refresh to be released into a generation 2 2022 model. With a 125cc engine and enough power to get the little minimoto to 50 MPH, however, the GROM is anything but a slouch. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.
GROMs are absolutely a hoot to ride. With a short wheelbase that makes them corner beautifully, brakes that can stop a bike twice the weight without issue, and a generously low 30-inch seat height, anyone can ride a GROM. As well, being light, they are also extremely agile, and will ride literal circles around some larger bikes.
There are also a ton of them out there. With their brand-new-off-the-dealer’s-lot price starting at under $5,000, many riders will pick up a GROM for short trips or weekend fun runs, while the bigger commuter bike rests. Many more experienced riders will pick up a GROM new or used instead of a scooter for the same reason, such as a quick jaunt to the grocery store for some milk and bread to go in the backpack. This means that no matter where you look, you’re almost certainly going to find a GROM for sale.
And if you can’t buy used, this is the one bike we would recommend picking up as new as well.
Suzuki Boulevard S40
The Suzuki Boulevard S40 is one of those cruisers that has been around since the dawn of time, but under a different name. Older folks looking to start out riding may recognize the bike as the Suzuki Savage LS650, but for the past two decades, it has been known as the Boulevard S40. It is an interesting cruiser, aimed more towards the sport cruiser crowd, with a very interesting engine configuration.
Your eyes are not deceiving you with that picture above. This is a single-cylinder sport cruiser, with one massive 652cc air-cooled thumper banging away under the fuel tank. Despite that, it pushes out 31 HP and 35 to 40 lb-ft of torque. In a bike that weighs 400 lbs soaking wet holding a brick.
To say that it has some get up and go is not understating it. The S40 is tame and friendly when rolling away from a stop, but if you are in traffic and need to get out of a blind spot, the mid-range pickup on the S40 needs to be felt to be believed. It simply surges forward, riding a wave of torque that doesn’t throw you back as much as get your heart pumping just that little bit faster.
With a single-cylinder, one overhead cam, and about four other moving parts, simplicity is what keeps the S40 reliable. As well, it uses a belt drive instead of a chain to transfer power to the rear wheel, so no oiling, lubing, or an hour spent with a wire brush cleaning the chain to worry over. Add on top that you will rarely find an S40 over $5,000 used, even recent model years, and you have a reliable, approachable sport cruiser with a unique sound and engine that will put a smile on your face, guaranteed.