In life we’re often given the choice to stick with what we have or move on to a new challenge. Some people like myself, embrace change while others prefer familiarity and live by the motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it.” There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but I think with anything new you have to give it a fair shake before making a switch.
When choosing a new motorcycle I always commit to keeping it at least one year in order to get to know what I’ve got and what potential for modification there is. It’s rare for me not to buy a used bike every couple of years just to see what else is out there or to take on a fixer-upper project. It’s fun and the exposure to different riding styles and classes of motorcycles improve my rider skill set too.
As a new rider you can embrace this same approach, but for a different reason. Many people really seem to agonize over buying “the wrong first bike” and take ages to pick one. To that I say: relax! All modern motorcycles are high quality and will endear themselves to you when given a chance. Flipping them isn’t hard either if you take care of them, but quite often I get a little attached and am sad to see them go when I sell them to a new owner.
The Key Questions
Having said all that, if you pick one that has a little more power and a few more comfort features than a typical learner motorcycle usually has, chances are good you won’t outgrow it in one season.
Really learner-centric bikes like the Yamaha V-Star 250 or Honda CBR 125 are underpowered for highway riding and shy on comfort so as not to be intimidating, distracting or expensive. They’re designed with moving up in mind fairly soon after cutting your proverbial teeth on them. Some riders cling to them all the same for different reasons, be it general satisfaction, nostalgia or possibly fear of the unknown.
The important questions that need answering in order to get a bike you’ll keep at least a year comfortably are:
- What kind of riding are you MOSTLY looking to do with this bike? Strictly on road or 50/50 off road/on road?
- Long distance highway touring, city cruising/commuting or sport riding with the possibility of some time at the track?
The four I’ll be recommending come from several different classes of motorcycles, and so will fit different roles. Some will cross over into more than one type of riding too, which can make the decision easier. All will at minimum meet the criteria for keeping them long term if not permanently.
Suzuki DRZ400SM: Dual Sport Class
The DRZ is legendary in the motorcycling community. It’s been around for 17 years and still going strong. It’s a bike that potentially can grow to match up with the learner because it is so easily upgraded with aftermarket parts and a little elbow grease on the owner’s part.
Two Models To Pick From
It’s available in the S model or the SM (SuperMotard). The S is geared more to suit off road riding with its 21 inch front wheel while the SM has 19 inch rims front and back. The SM is the better pick of the two mainly because of the inverted front forks which giving it better overall handling.
The DRZ has gobs of learner friendly torque to work with right out of the box which is forgiving when it comes to learning clutch control. That same torque is a treat when riding in traffic downtown, blasting down dirt trails, or with the SM model many bring it to the track and race it. Some owners opt to install tires with steel studs and ice race it in the winter too.
Incredible versatility coupled with excellent reliability, low cost of ownership (until you get addicted to buying parts to upgrade it!), long service intervals and the ability to ride at highway speeds make this Suzuki the best dual sport motorcycle for the money. No other bike comes close in the bang for your buck department.
Many very experienced riders never let their beloved DRZ400 go even when they put other fancier and faster bikes in their garage beside it. It’s that good.
- 398 cc Liquid cooled, Single cylinder, dual overhead cam
- 37 hp and 25 foot lbs of torque
- 322 lbs fully fueled
- 35 inch seat height
- 5 speed transmission
- 94 mph top speed
- 55 to 60 mpg fuel economy
- MSRP $7299 brand new and about 50% of that used
A full review of the DRZ400SM is available here.
Kawasaki Ninja 400: Sport Bike Class
The newly created for 2018 Ninja 400 looks like the new king of the small sportbike market. I haven’t had the opportunity to take one for a rip yet, but have spent quality time stalking it at the local dealership while staring at it with a critical eye. All I see is win-win-win and I’m really excited about this one.
This bike has a newly designed 399 cc parallel twin powerplant. It’s physically equal in size to the Ninja 300 engine it replaced, but makes 6 more horsepower and weighs 2.2 lbs less. 400 cc is the perfect sport bike engine size to learn on because the torque and power are exciting, but not overwhelming as it can sometimes be on bigger sportbikes.
Excellent Build Quality
This Ninja has a Trellis style frame like on its big brother the H2, giving it sport appropriate stiffness and helping to drop the overall weight to 366 lbs fully fueled. That’s about 20 lbs less than the old Ninja 300 was. This new baby Ninja was built to perform and it shows. It will be at home on the track and on the street.
The display unit for the gauges was stolen from the Ninja 650 and it’s a good one. Clean, clear and easy to read being half digital and half analog. Optional ABS models are available, but all Ninja 400s come with LED lighting and a slipper clutch (makes the lever easy to pull in and engage for new riders).
It’s a Keeper!
Even after you’ve mastered this sport bike you’ll hesitate to let it go because it’s so light and nimble it could easily be your gateway to racing with some modifications. Many experienced riders will undoubtedly buy a Ninja 400 and use it to learn how to drag a knee around a racetrack and so could you.
The price is really reasonable on these bike too with the fully equipped ABS KRT model coming in at only $4999 US brand new.
- 399 cc Liquid Cooled Parallel Twin DOHC engine
- Fuel injected
- 45 hp and 28 ft lbs of torque
- 6 speed transmission
- 70 mpg Fuel economy
- 31 inch seat height
- $4500 to $4999 USD
Indian Scout Sixty: Cruiser Class
I love a cruiser with classic styling and nobody is doing it better this year than Indian with their lineup of Scout cruisers. They are absolute eye candy with the blacked out body work and engines accented by chrome highlights exactly where they belong.
Indian would be an authority on what makes a “proper” lowrider considering they’ve been building bikes since 1901. That longevity is a big part of the draw for many owners along with the sleek look and attention to detail put into every Indian motorcycle.
The 2018 Scout Sixty look is reminiscent of the 1920 Scout triangular frame design. What a cool, retro appearance and link to the birth of motorcycling in America it is.
Show and Go
The Scout Sixty has a proven liquid cooled, V twin engine for a heart, offering you 60 cubic inches (983 cc, 78 horsepower and 65 ft lbs) of torquey goodness to command. This much engine married to the relatively low weight of 546 lbs means the Sixty has some definite punch off the line and new riders will need to be cautious when getting to know it at first.
The dual exhaust note will put a smile on your face with its distinct rumble and you’ll be in Easy Rider heaven in no time.
Cruisers aren’t considered nimble, but the Sixty is arguably the highest performing cruiser in its class. The pegs will scrape if you get really rammy in the corners, but the bars are at just the right height to make it a breeze to whip around on. A 29 degree rake on the front end helps too. Sport cruiser, maybe?
Don’t worry it isn’t beyond a confident learner to master this Scout. The seat is super low to the ground at 25 inches and the weight is carried very low in the frame too. The seating position on a Sixty feels so right but the seat itself may need to be modified or swapped out for something better if you plan on doing long rides.
There is only standard information on the gauge cluster (speed, rpm, odometer, trip, temp and low fuel light) but the Sixty does come with ABS.
This is definitely a cruiser that will keep a rider interested for several years even if it’s just kept around as a piece of garage art. There are a good number of aftermarket add ons to keep your baby looking good over the years as well.
One Size Fits All
Using the Indian dealer sizing system the Scout can be modified to fit riders ranging in height from 5’0” all the way to 6’4”.
- 983 cc Liquid Cooled V Twin
- Fuel injected
- 78 horsepower and 65 ft lbs of torque at 6500 rpm
- 25 inch seat height
- 546 lbs fully fueled
- 48 mpg fuel efficiency
- MSRP $8999 US
More information found on the Indian website here.
Suzuki DL650 V-Strom: Adventure/Touring Class
The V-Strom 650 is one of the best bikes to take touring on road or off road and will suit a beginner or experienced rider’s needs indefinitely. It’s not the fanciest or flashiest adventure steed, but it’s got plenty of moxie and ability.
Owning a solid reputation built on excellent reliability, low maintenance and great value it’s easy to see why this 650 is so popular amongst the adventure biking community. People are usually very reluctant to part with their “Wee-Strom” unless it’s for a newer model.
The 2018 V-Strom has a great package of technology and features on it. It’s also the lightest V-Strom produced to date.
3 levels of traction control to suit terrain and conditions. 1, 2, and off selectable positions going from highest to lowest setting.
Easy Start System
The rider pushes the start button momentarily instead of needing to hold it in for the bike to start cleanly. They don’t even have to hold in the clutch lever as long as the bike is in neutral.
Low RPM Assist
This feature alone makes the V-Strom most beginner worthy. One of the biggest challenges for beginners is learning how to use the clutch and throttle for smooth take offs and low speed maneuvering. Quite often people will either stall the engine or take off wildly throughout the learning process.
Low RPM Assist takes the worry out of the equation by controlling the throttle electronically in such a way as to make up for a rider’s sloppiness. It’s so good that you can just let the clutch lever out and the bike takes care of the rest. It’s still possible to stall the engine even with the computer’s help, but much harder to do.
This bike is set up for low end, linear power which is just what learners and off road riders want and need. The six speed transmission keeps things torquey until top gear is reached which is all about highway speeds and good fuel efficiency.
Comfort for Long Rides
The upright seating position is made for touring and the seat is adequate as is, but most people will likely go to something more plush over time. It has a narrow frame thanks to the V twin engine and aluminum frame design which helps offset the slightly tall seat height of 33 inches.
The standard adjustable windshield is a nice touch. Most riders swap out stock ones for adjustable or taller windshields, but Suzuki took care of that wish right from factory.
Factory and aftermarket luggage is readily available for the V-Strom and can be had for reasonable prices in hard and soft options.
Optional crash bars, engine guarding and heated grips from factory are also readily available.
Really the only thing left wanting on this motorcycle is cruise control for those really long highway adventures.
- 645 cc Liquid Cooled V Twin DOHC engine
- 66 horsepower and 44 ft lbs of torque
- Fuel Injected
- 6 speed transmission
- 490 lbs full of fluids
- 33 inch seat height
- 54 mpg average fuel economy
- ABS, Easy Start and Low RPM Assist technology
- MSRP $8799 to $9299