If you’re looking to acquire your first sport bike on the journey to becoming a confident and competent motorcycle rider here is a list of can’t miss bikes and tips just for you.
Pick a Good Fit
By this I mean pick a bike you feel comfortable sitting on and can reach the ground flat footed or nearly so. This small detail helps riders feel confident in keeping the bike rubber side down and speeds learning. Often overlooked in favour of other criteria, I promise that putting comfort as priority one will be the best guideline to follow in making your choice.
Go Low to Start
Keep your engine size in the 250 to 400 cc size ideally. Bikes in this range are strong enough to move you around easily if you’re average size, and also very lightweight and maneuverable. Don’t worry about outgrowing the bike. This likely won’t be the last one you buy, and a quality learning bike is easy to resell when you’re ready to move up.
On the other hand, none of these sport bikes are lacking for power and performance so don’t get too cocky when riding these machines. Most of them have a dose of borrowed tech from their super bike siblings after all.
Look for a Bargain
Brand new has its charm in that you’re not inheriting someone else’s blemishes or problems, but on the other hand, bikes depreciate quickly so why spend more than you have to?
Plenty of owners take good care of their bikes and wisely keep up with the maintenance. Those are the bikes you’re after and they can usually be purchased for $4000 (or even half that in earlier model years).
Chances are good your first bike is going to fall over as you learn to handle it. Even seemingly harmless, low speed tip-overs leave scars. It’s not nearly as painful to add another scratch to a “previously loved” paint job rather than putting in the first one yourself.
Without further ado, here are my favourite used beginner sport bikes under $5000.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R / Ninja 300 / Ninja 400
I doubt there’s a more popular sport bike for learning on than the acclaimed Ninja 250R. It’s been in the rotation for Kawasaki since 1986 and really didn’t change a whole lot until 2008. Even then it was mainly just updating the outward appearance of the body panels fueling the changes.
They are mainly carbureted (the only possible downside to these bikes), with the exception of the last two years when Kawasaki produced some fuel injected specimens. ABS and clutch assist technology were also added in the last few model years, making the 250R easier and safer to ride.
The Ninja 250R morphed into the new Ninja 300 model for 2016 in some markets, so feel free to pick up just about any year 250 or 300 Ninja you can find for under $5000 and know that you’ve picked a great bike.
The bikes produced before 2008 would redline at 14,000 rpm making them absolute screamers. The more recent ones have undergone some gearing and tuning changes, dropping the redline down in order to gain more lower end torque. For the new rider, this means a more learner friendly linear power band.
While the Ninja 300 was an immensely popular motorcycle, and is still a great used bike, the 2018 and later Ninja 400 replaced it on showroom floors. With just under 50 HP with a 12,000 redline, the only major difference between the 300 and 400, apart from displacement and 10 more HP, was the introduction of the steel trellis frame that was introduced across the entire Ninja range. It became the de-facto starter bike in the Kawasaki range, and as it sold for $5,000 new in 2018, you can find some lightly used ones for around $4,000 or thereabouts.
Super lightweight, outstanding handling, low to the ground, and light clutch pulls make these bikes very forgiving for learning on. With a long heritage like the 250R and its successors has, parts are readily available and affordable. Reliability is good and insurance is inexpensive and usually easy to get.
The Ninja is known all around the world by different names such as the ZZR 250. GPX 250, GPZ 250 and EX250. A rose by any other name would still smell sweet… sweet like a Ninja that is!
First available in 2015 the slim and sleek, the R3 newcomer has really caught on not only with new riders but also with experienced ones on the track. That’s a sure sign you’re looking at a very lightweight, nimble bike perfect for learning to push your performance limits.
Recently I spoke with the owner of the Too Cool Motorcycle School – Trevor Dech – about what beginner sport bikes he was recommending to his students. Trevor first told me the Ninja 250R as I expected, but the next bike picked was the Yamaha R3. He says the bike is a nice mix of power and handling and is great fun on a track. It also doesn’t look like a beginner sportbike.
The R3 has noticeably more horsepower and torque compared to the Ninja 250R and the 300, but lacks the clutch assist and ABS options found on the Ninja 300.
Yamaha builds bulletproof and very low maintenance bikes. The R3’s simple design is no exception to this, and that point is a good one to remember when sizing up other bikes.
One obvious example is that valve clearances only have to be checked/adjusted every 43,000 kms or 27,000 miles. That’s hard to beat.
If you want to spend more time riding rather than working on your bike, the Yamaha is a strong contender for your money.
321 cc Liquid Cooled Parallel Twin, DOHC engine
Closed loop fuel injection system
30 inch seat height
42 hp @ 10,750 rpm
21 ft lbs torque @ 9000 rpm
6 speed transmission
368 lbs wet
56 mpg fuel efficiency
Brand new price is $4999 USD so it can be had used for somewhat less used
So now we have a comparison within this list between these two very sporty offerings from Austrian builder KTM. They are also my current favourites when it comes to pint sized sport bikes for a few different reasons.
These sexy beasts only came to North America in 2015 but were available overseas two years earlier.
While they are unfortunately the most expensive and maintenance heavy choices, they are also the flashiest when it comes to styling and are equipped with fuel injection and ABS.
Even though they are relatively inexpensive machines, they don’t look like it thanks to the very cool styling KTM has put into the Duke and RC.
KTM likes to build bikes that outperform all others unapologetically, even when it comes to beginner bikes. One example of this are the WP inverted front forks. This lowers unsprung weight and allows for better handling, especially considering the Duke and RC are lighter than the other bikes to begin with. None of the other bikes listed have inverted front forks, so this is an obvious way to get better quality for your money.
The fun factor riding these two is off the charts. These bikes provide excellent low end power that also will entertain in the higher rpm band. Of all the bikes listed, I think these two are ones potentially a rider could stick with long term- especially if they are primarily city riders.
The 390 Duke is essentially the naked sport bike version of the RC390. Same frame, same engine and transmission- just with different packaging.
In the Duke, you’ll get a much more upright seating position and better rider comfort, while on the RC390 you get a little better aerodynamics and performance… but only just slightly better.
Here is a video of a couple of guys showing the difference in an informal and unsanctioned showdown I found online.
Remember what I said about putting comfort first? It applies here and so I would lean towards the Duke over the very alluring RC that way.
Additionally the full fairing on the RC tends to inflate the price right up to our budget’s $5000 limit, even on the used market. Not to mention that if you damage the fairing, it’s not cheap to replace- that’s not a problem at all on the Duke.
I’m going back in time for my last pick of best used beginner sport bikes to a truly awesome machine produced by Yamaha from 1986 to 1994: the FZR400.
Logically, I should instead talk about the Honda CBR300R because it’s another very good modern option that can be had used for under $5000, but it’s also too similar to the Ninja 300 and R3. If you like the Ninjas and R3, but prefer it in red, definitely have a look at the Honda- you won’t be disappointed.
That’s just too predictable (and you deserve more out of me than that), so here you go… something different.
If you’re a confident learner who wants a machine that will stand out in a crowd, yet easily keep up with the aforementioned bikes and even leave them behind, it’s the FZR for you. You also have to like to work on your bike, because these FZRs are collector items these days (and carbureted). Parts for it are still readily available, but it’s old school and won’t have ABS or clutch assist technology on it.
If you’re up for it these, Yamahas were and still are outstanding and exciting bikes to learn on. This bike has an inline four cylinder engine, as opposed to the twins and singles I’ve talked about so far. That means it will sound just like the bigger superbikes we have today, but slightly higher pitched, as it will rev considerably higher to a 14,000rpm redline.
With twice or even 4 times the number of cylinders than the other bikes I’ve talked about thus far, the FZR is a totally different animal.
Specifications (look at those numbers!)
399cc Inline four Liquid Cooled DOHC engine
Carbureted with four 32mm Mikunis
60 hp @ 12,500 rpm
31 ft lbs of torque @ 9500 rpm
6 speed transmission
Fully adjustable monoshock rear suspension
31 inch seat height
352 lbs dry weight
36 mpg fuel efficiency
I remember a guy I went to high school with back in 1990 having one of these FZR400s as his first bike. He grinned widely whenever describing how fun it was to ride. He ended up getting rid of the 400 thinking to move up to a bigger bike, settling on a Yamaha FZ750.
I couldn’t believe it when he told me his new 750 was boring to ride compared to the 400. How on earth could that be true?
It all comes down to the fact the 750 was quite a bit heavier and the power band much tamer than the racing-influenced 400 was.
The power band on the FZR400 kicks in at about 7000 rpm and the bike will almost fly. Having most of the power up high in the rpm range means you have to wring the throttle aggressively to make it really perform. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re learning, though. You just have to be ready for the action once you start twisting hard on the throttle.
It’s very much at home on the race track because of its great handling, flickability and adjustable rear suspension (if you’d like to get into that racing world).
The FZR came equipped with an all aluminum frame surrounding the engine to help keep weight down and things stiff and sporty feeling. Yamaha’s DeltaBox frame was ahead of its time and made all their sportbikes a real force back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
If you’d like something a little more retro in your sportbike, and you’re patient enough to track down one of these fairly rare FZR400s, it will be well worth the effort.