Motorcycle advice
April 15, 2005 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to buy a motorcycle sometime, so I'm trying to educate myself on the options. I've ridden a fair amount, but never owned anything more than a 150cc scooter. What I need is really just a bike for getting around town (Austin, TX, for what it's worth), but I'd like to be able to take to the highway when necessary. So, I'm looking for advice, be it specific models, "types" of bikes, or whatever.

It would also be great if the bike were able to go longer distances (i.e. ~200 miles) easily. Discussion of issues of comfort, suitability to a particular riding environment, noise, etc. would be great. One specific question I have is what a larger engine buys me, besides a higher top speed. I guess this is a bit open ended, but other threads indicate that MeFi has a wealth of motorcycle knowledge.
posted by abingham to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First off, let me preference this that I'm tall. This rules out a shockingly large percentage of bikes.

If you're indeed serious about riding more than a few miles, the first thing you should do is cross off virtually all (I've never ridden a V-Rod, so I won't say) Harley-Davidson bikes. They are bone shaking. There's something about a Harley that will leave you in agony on anything more than a hundred mile ride.

Personally, I recommend BMW. In my opinion, no finer bike is made, but that's my opinion. They're smooth, powerful, have lots of nice storage, which you will use if you ride to or from work.

Some people swear by Gold Wings, but they're just too much for me, both in bike, capabilities, and cost.

Oh, and one more thing. In my opinion, a larger engine buys you a larger bike, up to a point, at which it just gets in the way.

posted by kungfujoe at 6:47 AM on April 15, 2005

One thing a larger engine buys you is weight. If you'll spend a lot of time in stop-and-go traffic, if your driveway slopes, if parking will be a pain (sorry, I'm not familiar w/ Austin) then you might want to choose a lighter bike. (Especially if you don't have long legs or much upper body strength.) So, in that spirit, how about a Suzuki Savage? This is a single-cylinder 650cc engine, it's very light and popular for beginners and commuters. Because lots of people use them as learner bikes, they can usually be found used for not too much $$.

Alternatively, the Honda Nighthawk, while not the sexiest of bikes, is rock-solid reliable and comes in sizes up to 750cc (I think). Also, to my knowledge it's one of the quietest bikes you can buy, this side of an $18,000 BMW.

Check out that site I linked to, I bet you can answer a lot of questions there.

Yay, more bikes on the road! Have fun shopping!

On preview: Harleys are not "bone shaking." I should know, I ride one, and ride it hard. 300-mile rides are pure joy. However, they are very expensive and a high theft risk, therefore not so great for commuting.
posted by scratch at 6:51 AM on April 15, 2005

(Honda Nighthawk.)
posted by mendel at 7:10 AM on April 15, 2005

I'm a big fan of the Kawasaki KLR 650
posted by Marky at 7:24 AM on April 15, 2005

Marky: The Kawasaki KLR50 has intrigued me since I saw it on CoolTools a while back. However, I immediately got the impression that it's not so great for short riders; at 5'6", I probably fall into that category. What are your (or anybody's) thoughts on that. That bike really seemed to fit the bill when I looked at it, except for the height issue. IIRC, I even went to see one at a dealership, and it did seem pretty tall.
posted by abingham at 7:32 AM on April 15, 2005

The Suzuki SV650 is a light weight and reliable V-Twin. It has a comfortable seating position, plenty of torque (which is good for the city), and will also easily get into the 90mph zone and beyond on the highways.

There are many online communities and enthusiast sites for the bike. You could say it's developed a cult following.

I own the "S" model of the bike which has fairings. In 5 years of riding it has never let me down, and I doubt I'll ever sell it. It truly is a little gem.
posted by de void at 7:43 AM on April 15, 2005

Usually the bikes with larger engines (i.e. 1200cc and up) are just compensating for being insanely overweight. I'd stick with something between 500 and 800cc for a lightweight traveler. A plain old street bike or cruiser is what you're looking for. Go out and test a few (used, private seller) to see what you prefer. Most dealers won't let you test drive a motorcycle.

I ride an old Honda Interceptor, and I can tolerate it for a couple hours but it's not the best long distance bike, comfort wise. So basically, it sounds like you want to avoid anything sporty.
posted by knave at 7:52 AM on April 15, 2005

If you're interested in something like the KLR650, but think it's too tall, you can talk to a shop about lowering the bike by putting on smaller wheels and a shorter suspension. I have a short friend who's done this with his Honda XR650L.

I think the Nighthawk was a great starter bike (a 19 year old Nighthawk 650 was my first bike), but Honda has stopped making anything bigger than the 250 (which is a favorite of some of my short friends). There are still *tons* of Nighthawk 750s out there, though, so you can probably pick one up used, which is great for your first bike (since you *will* make mistakes on it). The bikes that have taken its place are the 599 and 919, which are more modern, sportier Standards. I have a 919 now and love it, but it's a little much for around town.
posted by aneel at 8:05 AM on April 15, 2005

Have you taken a Motorcycle Safety course? Besides being a really good idea, and saving money on insurance, mine here in CA also had a chunk of the class devoted to the different kinds of motorcycles and how they differ.
posted by aneel at 8:10 AM on April 15, 2005

Oh yeah, how could I have forgotten that!?

Absolutely take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Beginner's Riding Course if you've never ridden before. Consider an intermediate or advanced course even if you have. In many states, you get your motorcycle license at the end of the course.

I credit the MSF course for my 10+ years of riding with only 1 accident (Elderly drivers with Florida plates can't be avoided indefinitely).
posted by de void at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2005

Definitely take the MSF class, very helpful.
posted by knave at 9:08 AM on April 15, 2005

I have taken an MSF course, and it was a great experience. While they did cover the differences between major types of bikes, I was hoping to get (and have in bucketfuls!) more detailed information and "real-life-experience" from you guys :)
posted by abingham at 9:24 AM on April 15, 2005

I learned on a 1983 Kawasaki 550LTD. I wanted to go two-up with my wife, so after I felt I'd learned enough about riding, I purchased a brand-new Triumph Trophy 1200.

I still own the 550.

The Trophy, while absolutely beautiful, exhilarating when twisting that throttle, and usually a joy to ride, had three almost insurmountable drawbacks: 1) it's very, very heavy. 2) it's very, very hot, and 3) When one breaks it, one PAYS dearly.

After 5 years of love, hatred, and many, many $$$$, I'm back to my (t)rusty 550. A little pokey, a little short, and not the least bit sexy, really, but I've never dropped it while pushing it around my garage, or gritted my teeth while sweating behind a big touring fairing. Costs less than $50/year to keep on the road.

It all depends on what you want out of motorcycling, IMHO..and unfortunately you won't really know until you've been on a few bikes...
posted by dragstroke at 9:44 AM on April 15, 2005

200 miles is a lot more on a bike than in a car. It takes a lot more concentration to ride a motorcycle, and on longer trips that concentration can lag. It will be a while before you should feel comfortable enough riding that long in a day.

But what you really asked was for a bike. Get an older bike that can take a drop or two without you feeling too bad. No pristine plastic to get cracked (street motorcycle plastic is EXPENSIVE to replace), no fancy chrome parts to get scratched etc.

Generally that means either get a 10+ year old boring standard or an older sports bike (F2 maybe?) that has cosmetic damage. You also might want to look at the Kawi 650 enduro, I hear that's a great street bike and you can get older ones for fairly cheap. If you do keep riding you will probably want a nicer bike in a year or so. But that's ok because you should be able to sell that bike for about the same price you bought it. And when you do drop it (which you probably will, not at any speed, but a drop is a drop) you won't do 5000 dollars of damage to some bike that you are still making payments on.
posted by aspo at 9:47 AM on April 15, 2005

Speaking of BMW, there's someone in Austin (or at least there was when I lived there) who fixes older BMW /5 motorcycles, either as a hobby or for some professional interest. As a result, there are a lot of parts and a very active community of riders in the area.
Alas, I don't know anything more specific than that, but you might see if a /5 suits your needs.
posted by willpie at 10:03 AM on April 15, 2005

Yes, take the MSF class - Here in Austin they do the classroom part at murcheson middle school and the riding at Tony Burger Stadium.

I am 5'4" and about 120lbs and size is a BIG issue for me. I don't know how much you weigh but I have to say the bike I got was a Kawa Vulcan 500. Perfect size for me - not too much weight. However, I would like a little more juice - about 750 would be perfect (mostly for carrying a passenger - it just bogs down if I have a rider with me)

However - The 750 just makes the bike too heavy or in some cases too tall for me. I can pick up my bike - but anything heavier and I cannot do it alone. Also slow handling/turning is much harder and tip prone any heaver than my current bike. (about 500lbs wet)

Because of this (and a few other reasons) I went from being two wheels only for two years to never riding anymore. I am going to sell my bike and buy a dirt bike.

As for long distance comfort - a windscreen is a big help, as is a more relaxed rising position.

Finally, don't blow your budget on your first bike - you will drop it - probably multiple times. Spend a year or two learning then buy the more expensive bike that you want after you figure out exactly about what weight/speed/style you really want.
posted by jopreacher at 10:05 AM on April 15, 2005

Also - if you are under about 175 lbs feel free to email me - I'll make you a great deal on my Vulcan if you are interested. Its not sexy and needs some work - but for a first bike it's perfect. I think it would be to little of a bike for someone over 175.
posted by jopreacher at 10:07 AM on April 15, 2005

Abingham -- Some people have given you good advice here, but if you really want to get some great bike opinions from enthusiasts that live all over the states and REALLY REALLY like bikes (including some people, like me, that put north of 10k miles on per year...) check out It's a group of older riders, mostly, people that are new and don't have bikes to people that have decades of experience as riders and mechanics. This is, by far, the most bike/brand/style-agnostic forum that I've ever encountered... there's pepople that ride everything from the biggest, fastest sportbikes ('Busa and a guy that turbo'd his ZRX... himself...) to people that have Silverwings and similar scooters. (They do a lot of Harley and 'squid' bashing, but you see harley riders bashing harleys in the harley-bashing threads and squids bashing other squids in the squid-bashing threads, so... *shrug*)

Scooters are good experience for riding. I'm dating a girl now that has and rides a scooter in all weather. I own a Honda VFR now, but I started out on a Yamaha Seca II that I picked up for $1000 and sold (after a lot of mechanical work that I did myself) for $1300.

I don't think standards are boring, personally. I loved my Seca II and if it wasn't so underpowered and had no wind protection at all, I would own another. I'd advise something that's in the 50 HP +/- range for your first bike... generally this means lower-class 600-700 standards. I would look in the early 90's for a bike you like that doesn't have a lot of plastic, like the aforementioned Honda Nighthawk. Even though you've been riding a scooter for a while, a bike's a lot heavier and the center of gravity is very different. ;) You'll drop it, beleive you me...

Re: 200 miles being a lot more on a bike than in a car: ... I willingly will ride 200 miles for breakfast. It's all about attitude. I fell much more alive on a bike than in a car, but I choose a motorcycle and riding style that doesn't scare me and allows me to enjoy the curves but doesn't exhaust me. So there's that choice to make, too.
posted by SpecialK at 10:16 AM on April 15, 2005

For around town + some highway I would recommend at least a 500cc bike, but honestly, when I had a Suzuki GS500 I just felt it didn't have the balls for the freeway. Way too buzzy and not a lot of pull when you're already doing 65 or so. Perhaps a Ninja or Nighthawk would be a different story?

My suggestion would be what has been mentioned above already - an SV650. I have the S, like the poster above, but I understand that the geometry on the non-faired version is a bit less aggressive and this would probably make the bike more fun in the city. Either way, I absolutely love the feel of the twin and the SV has more than enough power for almost anything. It's also a great "tuner" bike - you can upgrade the suspension & etc. for not a lot of money and have a bike that totally kicks ass in the twisties, if you get interested in that sort of thing. Stock, you should still be pretty happy with it as a commuter.
posted by gkostolny at 10:28 AM on April 15, 2005

If it's still available in the USA, the Kawasaki Super Sherpa 250 is a fantastic little do-anything bike. It has a billy-goat can-do attitude that will have you laughing your ass off as you ascend gnarly two-stroke trails, then hit the highway for the ride home. It's got a great seating position for in-town commuting, it's able to go as fast as you're likely to want to go, it's stable at all speeds, it handles superbly, and it's built like a tank.

The KLR650 is also an excellent, bomb-proof Urban Assault Vehicle. And for all its weight, it is an amazingly adept bike: as long as you're in balance, the damn thing seems capable of anything. I've taken my KLR to hell and back, and it has been a killer ride all the way. More power and more space than the Sherpa, but a bugger if it tips over; I call it a toss-up between the two. For balls-out fun, I'd take the Sherpa simply 'cause it's so small and light that falling over is a non-issue; for distance and curves and camping I'd take the KLR.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:56 AM on April 15, 2005

My first bike was a XS500 yamaha, went cross country on it and never had a problem cruising at 75 all day (500-750 miles a day). It did have a problem with 2 heavy people and strong head winds (30 mph), hard to go over 60 mph. Put > 50K miles on that bike. Then had a xs650 for a while. Bought a Harley ('66 xlch, magneto ignition, kick-start only, a real beast) and never looked back. Currently I'm riding a Harley sportster, 883 converted to 1200. I put 40 miles a day on it commuting to work, it goes like hell, only cost $4000 used, gets 55 mpg and I can sell it for what I paid for it. I don't know if there are non-sport, non-cruiser, non-dirt japanese bikes still made, but a used one would be a good starter. Used bike dealers near military bases are good spots to look (guys in the military buy a bike to get around town, then sell it when they ship out). I've heard that the Buell Blast is a fun little bike (I know, sport bike guys like to call it the "Be-last", but you're not racing, just getting to work).
posted by 445supermag at 12:00 PM on April 15, 2005

The Buell Blast is awful. It is woefully underpowered compared to other same-displacement bikes. Neutral gear is about four inches wide, making it a complete bastard to shift from 1st to 2nd. It makes awful plastic-rattling sounds while riding. The driver position sucks donkey balls. It has awful vibration problems even for a single. It is the opposite of a "fun little bike" and should be avoided at all costs.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:56 PM on April 15, 2005

OTOH, if you want a fun little bike, you could do worse than a Ninja 250. I know, I know: 250 isn't macho. But I'll warrant you'll find the bike a squidly little number, eager to be thrown into a hard-leaning turn, nimble and agile like nothing else. More than enough power to leave all four-wheel cages in the dust, more than enough power to let you squirt out a pass in tight traffic conditions, cheap like borsht, and above all, fun.

My ideal bike would be a slacker-styled 450cc dual-sport. The Suzuki DRZ 400 has the right engine, but the wrong chassis: it's a dirt bike gone soft, not a cruiser gone dirt. As such, the DRZ is loads of fun off-road, but the only asphalt you'd ever want it to see would be between your home and the nearest dirt.

Me, I love exploring old fire roads and trails and stuff, but I put more miles in-town and between towns than I do on actual hardcore dirt, so I want something that has long-distance comfort and lets me relax. Super-size the Sherpa (or shrink the KLR) and I'd be in seventh heaven.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:05 PM on April 15, 2005

I second the Ninja 250. It looks good, it's very quiet in town, it gets 65+ miles per gallon, and it can go 200+ miles on a full tank of gas. As for the highway, it does 80-90 easily, and is remarkably stable at that speed. Also, the seat is pretty low for a sportsbike, so it's perfect for short riders (I'm 5' 8"). This bike has been around for 20 years, and they really have worked all the kinks out of it, so it's very reliable. Finally, it's cheap. You can get a new one for about $3000. No, you won't be able to keep up with the 600 cc bikes, but it's got plenty of power, especially if all you've ever ridden is a scooter.
posted by epimorph at 9:29 PM on April 15, 2005

All the advice in here's been good, but one thing no one's said that should be aired out -- Statistically, no matter who you are, you are very, very likely to lay down your first bike. I feel really sad for people who buy their dream bike (or what they think is their dream bike) as their first bike, only to find that in a month, two months, or a year they fall over at a stop sign or something.

Whatever you get, realize that even with some good experience you're going to at the very least scar it up, and plan accordingly.
posted by wolftrouble at 10:28 PM on April 15, 2005

I own a KLR 650 and I love it. As you can see, it's pretty tall, but you can have it lowered. I could link you to tons of threads where I give MC advice, but this one will have to suffice for now. Whatever you decide, I wish you luck. I'm contactable if you need advice; just hit my username at livejournal dot com.
posted by Eideteker at 10:35 PM on April 15, 2005

Larger engines are good for higher speeds, more torque (for carrying passengers or luggage), and for generally not having to be at as high of an RPM for the same power as a smaller bike.

That said, I strongly recommend that you look at the Suzuki SV650. New or used, naked or with fairing, it's really one of the best bikes on the market for good reason: it's good for just about anything. It's a great commuter. It's good as a club racer. With some effort, you can tour on it. It's really a fabulous motorcycle with a large cult following.

Generally speaking, I'd recommend a "standard" style bike first, and after you first year or two, you'll start to gravitate towards a more niche type, be it a racebike, cruiser, dualsport, etc.

Finally, be sure to budget appropriately for high-quality safety equipment. My riding gear (boots, gloves, helmet, riding suit) cost a lot more than the first few bikes that I had owned. My Aerostich just passed the 12 year mark and I've finally broken down and purchased a new one because the old one's reflective panels are disintegrating. If I amortize the cost over 12 years, and tens of thousands of miles, and protecting me in one crash, that suit was WELL worth the cost.
posted by gen at 11:28 PM on April 15, 2005

I'll 2nd the 'stitch, and for spending a lot of money on gear. Good gear does two things: It protects you in the case of a crash, and it makes riding a lot more comfortable. It protects you from bug strikes, spit globs from rednecks' windows, wind buffeting, atmospheric changes, rain, hail, sleet, snow, etc.

A good Shoei, Arai, or HJC helmet that FITS (don't buy your buddy's used one or order one blindly off of the internets in other words... get one that's the right shape for your head, which should be determined by a trained helmet fitter.) is priceless. A decent set (note that I did not say 'pair') of riding gloves ... one that's waterproof and warm, one that's waterproof/windproof, and one that's light perf leather for hot climates ... with good protective qualities (armor, knuckle covers, etc.) are also necessary. Riding jackets and pants should be selected depending on your riding style... as a commuter and a tourer, I prefer a one-piece textile, but most people prefer 2-pieces for buzzing around town. Do wear boots that are designed for riding and have armored protection around the sensitive parts ... if you crash or get hit by a car, your unbroken ankles will thank you. All told, I bought a $1000 Seca II for my first bike, and spent $1500 in gear before I even got on the bike.
posted by SpecialK at 1:19 AM on April 16, 2005

Yah, expect to spend a hefty chunk o' change on gear, and don't skimp.

You don't dress for the ride, you dress for the crash. And you only have to crash once to make it worth every penny. Joe Rocket makes excellent reasonably-priced gear.

Sneakers and blue jeans will do *absolfuckinglutely nothing* to protect you in a crash, so don't get only the jacket: get the entire set of gear, from top to bottom.

I've read only good things about the SV650 as an all-around asphalt bike. Me, I know myself well enough to know that I will inevitably go beyond the end of asphalt, so it isn't an ideal choice for me. For most people, though, I think it'd be one of the best possible bikes.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 AM on April 16, 2005

I didn't post this question, but thanks for everyone's input. I read this on Friday and have spent the weekend reading beginner websites, locating the local safety course, and shopping for a first bike!
posted by mendel at 8:40 PM on April 17, 2005

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