So, the bar-and-shield is calling to you. Maybe you had a dad or uncle (or mom or aunt) who rode one, or maybe you’ve just been binge-watching Sons of Anarchy, and now you’re convinced that a Harley-Davidson should be your next motorcycle. Don’t worry, rider—many of us at BBM (myself included) have been there. The question is: what HD bike will you be able to handle, given your current skills, experience, and budget?
Don’t worry, pardner—we’ve got your back. We know Harley-Davidson backwards and forwards (okay, mostly just forwards) and we’ve put together a list of their bikes that shouldn’t be too intimidating for riders with only a season or two under their belts. With our guidance, you won’t be ridin’ through this world all alone.
Disclaimer for New Riders
Before we go any further, I need to make something abundantly clear: with the possible exception of the very first two bikes on this list, none of these are recommendations for your very first motorcycle.
As a general rule, Harleys aren’t for people who just finished their MSF course. They tend to be big, heavy, and expensive. As a new rider, you should assume you’re going to drop your bike once or twice while you’re still getting used to it—or worse.
The last thing you want is an 800+ pound motorcycle pinning you to the pavement, and the second-last thing you want is to trash a bike you just blew your life savings on. So if you’ve never ridden before and you’re desperate for a badass cruiser bike, we recommend checking out a Honda Rebel or Kawasaki Vulcan instead.
But for those of you who have been in the saddle for a little while already and are ready to make your leap to that first Harley, here are 5 bikes I’m happy to stand behind. Get ready to rip.
Unlike most of the other bikes on this list, the Street series was explicitly designed with newer riders in mind. The Street 500, in particular, is Harley’s attempt to compete with bikes like the Rebel—affordable, lightweight, user-friendly cruisers that won’t toss you off while you’re still learning the finer points of throttle control.
The Street 500 features a liquid-cooled 494cc V-twin engine with mid-mounted foot controls and a low seat height, making it easy to sit on and easy to handle. This is a gateway Harley if ever there was one—but its blacked-out style and satisfying exhaust note do a decent job of camouflaging that fact. And with a curb weight of only 514 lbs (233 kg), you won’t ever feel like you’re wrestling a giant hog down the road.
For riders who need a little more get-up-and-go, the Street 750 offers a similarly approachable experience with a significant power boost, courtesy of its 749cc water-cooled Revolution X V-twin engine. Neither of these are tame bikes by any means, but they’re less likely to dump you on your ass than anything else here.
Unfortunately, HD stopped producing both of these models in 2021, so your best bet for either one is to buy used. Since they’re among HD’s most beginner-friendly bikes, though, you should have no trouble finding an owner looking to part with theirs so they can move to something bigger and badder.
A fair number of those folks we just mentioned who are looking to sell their Street 500 or Street 750 will be upgrading to an Iron 883. These bikes are based on Harley’s Sportster platform, offering a fair amount of power and excellent handling. With an 883cc air-cooled V-twin engine, they’re also more powerful than either of the Street models. Again, if you’re looking for your first motorcycle ever, you should stop reading now and consider one of the bikes we’ve already mentioned.
But for riders who are ready to mix things up a bit, the Iron 883 makes a great acquisition. Firstly, it’s surprisingly affordable for a Harley—the 2022 model has an MSRP of $8,999 USD (or $12,499 CAD). That’s certainly not nothing, but for a brand new Harley, it’s pretty hard to beat.
Other features that make this a (more) approachable Harley include dual-piston front and rear brakes, a 29.9 inch (760 mm) seat height, and plenty of low-down torque, which helps make stalling less of a problem. A good first bike? No. But a compelling choice for your second bike? Absolutely.
Featuring the same engine as the Iron 883, the Harley-Davidson SuperLow is intended to offer balance and comfort to riders who spend lots of time commuting in city traffic. That still doesn’t make it a bike for the uninitiated, but it does make it one of the less intimidating HD choppers you can get your hands on.
A low bucket seat (with a height of 27.8 in or 705 mm) and relatively generous rear suspension make this a smoother ride for many than the Iron 883, and its low center of gravity helps improve its stability as well. It’s a little longer, meaning you’ll have a harder time pulling u-turns, and its lean angles aren’t as generous either—but that’s the trade-off you make for that feeling of being planted on the road.
Okay, now we’re getting serious—so if you didn’t heed the first two warnings, you absolutely need to pay attention to this one: the Harley-Davidson Forty Eight should not be your first motorcycle. We’re not responsible if you buy one of these before you’re ready and hurt yourself.
The Forty Eight has a 1200cc air-cooled V-twin engine. That means it’s powerful. It also has a wet weight of 556 lbs (252 kgs)—considerably lighter than you might expect for a bike with an engine this beefy. For reference, my first bike, an ‘06 Kawasaki Vulcan Classic LT with a 903cc engine, weighs over 100 lbs more.
The light weight and low seat height (28 inches or 710 mm) make the Forty Eight appealing to newer riders, but remember: a 1200cc engine on a 556 lb bike means a considerable power-to-weight ratio. All of which is to say that you should have plenty of confidence in your throttle control before you jump on one of these. Twist it too hard, and you could wind up eating pavement.
Last but definitely not least on our list is the Harley-Davidson VRSC, commonly known as the V-Rod. The engine—a 1131cc (or 1247cc after 2007) liquid-cooled V-twin developed in conjunction with Porsche Engineering offers excellent performance, earning this unconventional cruiser a well-deserved reputation as a kickass modern muscle bike. So what the hell is it doing on our list?
The V-Rod starts to make its case for being a potential first Harley (note: not a first bike) with its low center of gravity and high-performance Brembo brakes with ABS on models from 2006 onward. Make no mistake—this is a high-performance motorcycle, and it will absolutely hurt you if you don’t respect it. But V-Rods are still more lightweight and have less engine displacement than the vast majority of big Harley road cruisers and touring bikes, meaning there’s also less bike to wrestle around on the road and potentially crush you if you drop it on yourself.
Finally, the V-Rod is a bike you can (and should) grow into. It’s going to feel like a lot to handle as a second—or even third—bike, but it’s so versatile that you might never feel the need to upgrade again after you buy one. There’s a reason why the V-Rod was one of Harley’s best-sellers internationally before it was finally discontinued in 2017, and why it stole so many customers from other brands in North America as well.
Consider Your First Harley Carefully
I’ll wrap this up with one more plea for you not to jump on a Harley before you’re ready. These are not forgiving pieces of heavy machinery—they demand skill and constant focus when riding and maintaining them in order to keep you safe in the saddle. But I’m also not going to tell you not to buy one. Let’s face it: Harleys just exude a kind of attitude you can’t find in bikes from other brands, and for many riders, that’s a compelling enough reason to own one.
Assuming you’re still dead-set on a Harley, I recommend considering one of the models above—these bikes, while certainly not for newbies, tend to be lighter, easier to handle, and more forgiving than the rest of what HD offers. Have comments about the bikes above or want to throw another recommendation into the mix? Leave a comment below.