By far the most popular type of bike worldwide, in America it constantly fights against the cruisers for market dominance. This is because there are so many types of motorcycles that fit under the sportbike umbrella. You have everything from fully-faired sportbikes, monstrous streetfighters, and stripped-down nakeds.
The downside of sportbikes is that they are often the most powerful motorcycles on the road. Starting off on the wrong bike can have dire consequences, up to and including being your final ride. We don’t say this to scare people out of pursuing having a sportbike, but more to emphasize that starting out on lower-powered sportbikes designed for new riders will allow you to learn how to handle them before moving up to the big bikes.
For 2021 we’re going to go over more than just recommendations. We’re going to explain why each bike is a perfect beginner bike, and at the end of the article will have a section regarding our recommended steps up the sportbike ladder.
2021 KTM RC390
The 2021 KTM RC390 is the only bike on this recommendation list that has a single-cylinder engine as its powerplant. With a 373cc liquid-cooled single, it puts out a modest 41 HP and 26 lb-ft of torque. At about 340 lbs wet, that is ample power.
Where the RC390 slots in as a perfect beginner bike is for its refinement. Because of KTM’s tagline of “Ready To Race,” and multiple years in motocross, supercross, and now MotoGP and WSBK, they know exactly how to engineer a bike to be both friendly at typical commuter speeds, and a demon on the track when you want to twist the wrist.
The RC390 is extremely agile, something more experienced riders call “flickable,” as you can flick it over from leaning into one corner into leaning into one going the other way. It also helps the new rider learn about how a bike “talks,” the little vibrations, judders, wobbles and such through the frame that lets you know exactly what the bike is doing. It is the quintessential starter that will lead to a longtime enjoyment of sport standards with the ability to get some fun going.
2021 Suzuki SV650 ABS
Every segment of the motorcycle spectrum has its halo starter bike. Cruisers get the Honda Rebel 500. Adventure bikes get the KTM 390 Adventure. And sportbikes get the Suzuki SV650.
While the engine displacement is a significant 645cc, and the power sounds scary at 75 HP and 47 lb-ft of torque, the engine is actually a V-twin. What this means is that you get predictable, linear power, a very stable center of gravity, and, when you need it, enough response to get you out of dangerous situations.
It is often touted as the best of the “jack of all trades, master of none” sportbikes, and it has become even better with each year. This year, ABS is standard on the SV650, and it has a well-known, bulletproof 6-speed gearbox with an assist-and-slipper clutch. It is agile, planted, reliable, versatile, and it even has personality with a V-twin burble from a sportbike!
2021 Yamaha YZF-R3
The 2021 Yamaha YZF-R3 is one of those strange motorcycles that really shouldn’t be a beginner bike. And yet, here it is. A tiny, lightweight beast of a sportbike, it has a parallel-twin, 321cc engine that will produce up to 50 HP, will carve any corner you throw at it, and through it all, it’s surprisingly controllable.
The R3 also has a well-deserved reputation as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners motorcycle that will, if you let it, teach you the ins and outs of how supersports handle. It’s raw, carnivorous, the wolf snarling and baring its canines to show dominance. It is immensely agile and loves to devour straights, letting you know exactly what each individual atom of the bike is doing.
You simply cannot beat the R3 as a starter if serious and real interest in progressing to supersports or potentially even joining a racing club is on the cards. Treat it with due respect, let it talk to you, and you will know exactly what a supersport is capable of, in the care of a beginner-friendly sportbike.
2021 Honda CB500F
If the Yamaha YZF-R3 above is the class of the field, the 2021 Honda CB500F is the bike that is flicking its ears and then whistling innocently when it turns around asking who flicked them. The CB500F mysteriously disappeared from Honda’s lineup in 2020, and has come back in 2021 with a bit of a snarky attitude. It’s got its sleeves rolled up, fists up, bouncing on the toes, ready to get punchy.
That is because, during that year off, the Honda was not in detention or sleeping the day away in its room. No sir, not this bike. Instead, it studied its streetfighter opponents, the Yamaha MT-03, the KTM 390 Duke, and the like. It picked up the attitude of the MT-03, the punchiness of the 390 Duke, and mixed in some of that Honda magic that only they seem to be able to infuse their bikes with.
What you get is a beginner bike that has a 500cc parallel-twin that puts out a healthy 50 HP, but applies that power smoothly over the entire rev range. Many streetfighters seem to have two powerbands, one for low rev cruising, then peaking over into performance with a sharp surge of grunt. Honda, however, has it sorted, and just smacked a ruler across the Yamaha MT-03’s knuckles for good measure. Class dismissed, fight by the bike racks.
2021 Kawasaki Z650
The atypical image of the sportbike rider is that of a fit person wrapped in a set of full leathers and an aerodynamically aggressive helmet. The truth of the matter is that sometimes sportbike riders are of the big-and-tall variety, and carry more weight from the size of their frame. A prime example is one of our team members that rides a sportbike (that they say is more of a sport-tourer) being 6’3” and weighing around 210 lbs. And that’s just by the nature of them being a fit individual carrying a lot of human on their skeleton.
This is where the 2021 Kawasaki Z650 comes in. Through some wicked engineering and design, Kawasaki has made a sport naked bike that can accept those big and tall riders without it being detrimental at all to the responsiveness and agility that come with the Z tag adorning the sides of the tank. In fact, it seems to enjoy having more weight placed in the seat, as through that same engineering magic, the seat is directly over the pivot center of the bike.
This allows the big-and-tall rider to feel how the bike moves and responds to how they shift their weight, an essential part of cornering either on the street or on the track. The 67 HP 649cc parallel twin is also gutsy, giving great acceleration away from a stop, and with standard ABS, assist-and-slipper clutch, and a light but oh-so-communicative clutch feel, it is the dream bike of those of us who are the walking giants.
NOTE: The Ninja 650 is a viable sport standard as well, but laid out slightly differently with the rider a little behind the pivot center.
Where Do Each Of These Bikes Lead?
The whole point of having a new rider or beginner-oriented sportbike is to get said rider prepared for the challenges of handling bigger, more powerful, and much, much faster machinery once they’ve mastered the basics. There are some people who will immediately go out and buy a Yamaha YZF-R1, a fearsome supersport that is a scalpel in the right hands. In the wrong hands, it is lethal. And we’re not saying that to dramatize it. The R1 is a very serious bike. As a new rider, you cannot handle it. Period.
Now that we’ve effectively crushed your dreams, let’s build them up again!
For those that chose to go the naked standard route (SV650, CB500F, Z650), the next step in the path of gaining experience while having fun would be to something like the excellent Yamaha MT-07 or its snarling, rowdy big brother, the MT-09. Both are fierce streetfighters that are also comfortable commuters when not brawling through corners.
For those that went with the sport standard KTM RC390 or mini-supersport with the Yamaha YZF-R3, a great bike to move to for experience would be any of the middle-class sportbikes that are distilled down from supersports. Examples of these would be the bulletproof Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, the legendary Honda CBR600RR, or the razor-sharp Suzuki GSX-R600. These are serious bikes infused with the DNA of their liter-bike parents, but will only try to bite your head off once in a while, not all the time.
We would recommend moving to supersports only once you have a few years of experience. Any of the liter-class or V4 supersports will actively try to bite your noggin clean off your shoulders if you so much as sneeze incorrectly on them. They are not, and we will repeat it endlessly, NOT beginner bikes.