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Motorcycles for beginners

2012 Honda CBR250RA

There are quite a few bikes that are suitable for beginners. I suggest starting on something that has modest power, is not too big and heavy, and is easy to maneuver at low speeds. Start off easy, gain some experience and skill without being intimidated by the machine you’re on. Small bikes are fun. You can move up to something bigger and with more performance later if you desire. You should stay clear of the high performance street bikes, such as super sports, off-road racing bikes, the big touring bikes and large cruisers. A lot of street motorcycles have extensive plastic bodywork. If these bikes fall over, often the plastic body panels break. On some bikes those plastic pieces can be quite expensive, which is something to keep in mind. There are a number of websites that list replacement parts and their costs. You might want to look up some part prices for the bikes you’re interested in. It’s nice to know in advance what parts are going to cost if you have to replace a few things in the event of a tip over.

What kind of motorcycle should I get as my first bike? Well, what kind of riding interests you? Do you want to ride only on the street, only in the dirt or on the trails, or do you want to do a combination of street and trails? Personally I think it’s a good idea to get some dirt bike riding experience before venturing onto the street. Your riding skills tend to improve quicker when riding off-road, and generally riding off-road is safer than riding on the street. You can get hurt riding a dirt bike, just like you can get hurt doing many other things like skiing, but the chances of getting seriously hurt in an accident while casual dirt bike riding are much smaller than if you’re in an accident while riding on the street where the speeds can be much higher and there are many other vehicles to contend with. When you’re learning to ride a lot of your attention is on the basic operation of the motorcycle – changing gears, braking, steering, coordinating the clutch and the throttle, balance, etc. It's better to develop these skills away from other traffic and preferably in an open area free of other hazards as well. Consider taking one or more riding courses, and always wear proper riding gear.

Model Availability

The specific motorcycle models listed in this page are ones that are available in Canada and or the US. Model choices vary from country to country. For example the current Honda VTR250 and CB400 (street bikes) are not available in Canada or the US, but they are available in Australia and some other countries.


Honda CRF230F

If you’ve decided on a dirt bike, I would suggest finding something that “fits” you in the recreational off-road bike category. A bike with modest, but adequate power and a lower seat is a good starting point. It will be easier to learn on if you can touch the ground with both feet (near flat footed) at the same time. This will make it easier to maneuver the bike when stopped, especially in rough conditions or on a steep hill. Of the current new offerings I suggest taking a look at bikes like the Honda CRF150F and CRF230F and the Yamaha TTR230. I have owned three Honda XR200s which are similar to the CRF230F, and I’ve ridden a CRF230L. The XR200s were dependable, easy to maintain, easy to ride and a lot of fun. If you’re a larger / taller rider, then you may need to look at bikes with a taller seat height and perhaps more engine performance. I would still suggest starting with a recreational dirt bike or perhaps one of the milder enduros. Likewise, if you’re a smaller / shorter rider, then you may need to look at smaller bikes. Other bikes that you may want to consider if you’re buying used are the Honda XR250, Yamaha TTR250, Suzuki DRZ250, Kawasaki KLX300, KDX200 and KDX220. The first three have air cooled motors while the Kawasakis are liquid cooled. The KDX200 and KDX220 are 2-strokes; the others are 4-strokes. All are trail / enduro bikes and are a step up in terms of performance from the CRF230 / TTR230 class of bikes.

Dual Sport

2010 Suzuki DR200SE

In the dual sport class, size (yours and the bike’s) and intended use will often limit your choice in a bike. Most of the Japanese dual sport bikes would be good starting points for street or trail riding. If you’re smaller in stature, take a look at the Suzuki DR200, Yamaha XT225 (discontinued) and XT250, Honda CRF230L (discontinued) and Kawasaki KL250 (Super Sherpa, also discontinued). These bikes are quite similar in size and performance. One may be slightly better in one aspect than another. All of these bikes are fine for in town and easy (low speed) trail use. They have enough engine performance to ride on the highway, but they don’t have a lot of speed / power in reserve for passing or going up long steep hills (your speed may drop), especially if you’re a larger rider. The XT250 is fuel injected for 2013.

If you’re taller (have a longer inseam), heavier or you just have to have more engine performance and / or more off-road capable suspension, consider the Kawasaki KLX250S (I've owned a 2009), Yamaha WR250R or the Suzuki DRZ400S. The Kawasaki has the lowest seat height, the least power and is quite a bit less expensive than the other two. The DRZ400S has the highest seat, is the most powerful and is about 20 pounds heavier than the other two. The Yamaha fits in between in terms of seat height and power, is the most recent design (new model in 2008) and is the only one with fuel injection and an aluminum frame. The Yamaha and the Suzuki are priced within a few hundred dollars of each other. Although they haven't been available new for several years, you might keep your eyes open for a Yamaha XT350 or Suzuki DR350S. The DR350S was particulary popular and has a lower seat height than the DRZ400S that replaced it in 2000.

There is a new dual sport available from Honda - the CRF250L. It replaces the CRF230L. It has liquid cooling, fuel injection, inverted forks and modern styling. The CRF250L uses a slightly modified version of the engine found in the Honda CBR250R, but peak horsepower is down from that of the CBR250R, but may be a bit more than a stock KLX250S. Unlike the KLX250S, the suspension is non-adjustable except for the rear spring preload. It's a nice little bike and good value (lower list price than the KLX250S which is not fuel injected). The seat height is similar to the KLX250S, so it may be too tall in stock form for some (a lowering kit is available from Honda, at least in some countries). I think it would be a great bike for easy trails, dirt roads and running around town. It might make a good light weight adventure touring bike too.

If you’re a bigger rider and, or want a bike more suitable for some extended highway riding then you might want to consider the Kawasaki KLR650, Suzuki DR650SE or the Honda XR650L. These bikes will likely be too tall in stock form, and / or too heavy for smaller riders, especially for off-road use. Because of their weight, these three are not the best choice if you plan to ride rougher or tighter trails. Of these three, the KLR650 is the heaviest and most street oriented; the Honda is the lightest, tallest and most dirt oriented; the DR650SE is somewhere in the middle.

There are also other brands of dual sport bikes available, like KTM and Husqvarna. They tend to be more expensive, have higher-end components and higher performance. Some are essentially racing bikes made street legal, and as such, they are not the best choice for a new rider, but you might want to give them some consideration after you’ve gained some riding experience. A bike like the Husqvarna TE250 might be fine for some newer riders. The TE250 is more dirt oriented, higher spec and lighter than the Japanese dual sport bikes; the list price is also quite a bit higher than a Yamaha WR250R. For 2012, the seat height on the TE250 was reduced by about two inches. New for 2013 is the Husqvarna TR 650 Terra which looks like it's more street oriented with a curb weight of 183 kg (403 lbs); that's light for a street bike, but heavy for a true dual sport. I personally would not consider it a beginner bike, though.

As a side note, many motorcycles can be lowered to better fit a rider with a shorter inseam. The best way (also the most expensive) is to have the suspension modified professionally. A simpler and less expensive way is to slide the fork tubes (front suspension) up in the clamps a bit (maybe an inch, but make sure you have adequate clearance between the front tire and the inside of the fender), and install lowering links in the back. Lowering links compromise the rear suspension some. If you need to lower the bike quite a bit, especially if you’re a heavier rider, it’s generally best to have the suspension modified. You can also reduce the seat height my modifying the stock seat (removing the cover and cutting out some foam) or replacing it with a lower cut one (from the original manufacturer or after-market). Some bikes have a built-in provision to lower the suspension (Suzuki DR650SE, Yamaha WR250R) or the seat itself.

There are a couple of Japanese Super-moto style bikes that would be suitable for a new rider: the Kawasaki KLX250SF and the Honda CRF230M. If you’re a bigger rider or must have more performance, say for the highway, then take a look at the Suzuki DRZ400SM or Yamaha WR250X (discontinued), but I don't know if I would really consider them beginner bikes, but it depends on the individual.


2011 Kawasaki Ninja 250R

In the street bike class there are a number of bikes suitable for new riders. I would look for a standard style bike rather than a cruiser or a pure sport bike. To me, the riding position of a cruiser in unnatural and is not optimal for controlling a motorcycle (others may disagree). A pure sport bike, while offering great handling, braking and engine performance, can be uncomfortable to ride, especially in town. Also, as mentioned earlier, sport bikes tend to have a lot of plastic body panels that can be easily damaged in a tip over, and that can be expensive. In my opinion, super sport bikes in the 600 cc (3 and 4 cylinder motors) and above classes have too much performance for new riders. Of the current street models available, I would recommend looking at: Kawasaki 250, 300, 400 and 650 Ninjas, ER-6N, Versys, Honda CBR125, CBR250R/RA, NC700, Suzuki TU250, SV650, Gladius and possibly the DL650 V-Strom if it fits you. Honda has introduced three new 500cc street bikes for 2013 which would be suitable for new riders: CB500F, CBR500R and CB500X. You may also want to consider the Yamaha FZ6R and Honda CBF600. If you are set on buying a cruiser style motorcycle, then there is also the Yamaha V-Star 250 and 650, the Suzuki Boulevard S40 and GZ250 and the Honda Rebel and Shadow. There are others including non-current or used offerings: Suzuki GS500, Bandit 600/650, Kawasaki EX500 (Ninja), Yamaha FZ6 and Honda 599. Some of these motorcycles are easy to find on the used market.

2012 Honda NC700X

Some of the bikes in the list above may be too much (too powerful, too heavy or too tall) for some new riders, but an adult male of average height and weight should be able to manage them just fine after gaining some riding experience. It’s still best to learn and gain some experience on one of the smaller bikes, though. You will find them less intimidating and easier to maneuver around parking lots. Even a small bike will have no trouble keeping up with traffic in town. A 125 may be underpowered for extended highway riding (or maybe not even legal for highway use in some states or provinces), but it would be fine in the city. Motorcycles like the Kawasaki Ninja 250R, Ninja 300 and Honda CBR250R have more than enough power to cruise at highway speeds and above. Small bikes are light and fun to ride. Even some experienced riders enjoy riding some of the smaller bikes. You can even go touring on them. They are generally less expensive to purchase, insure and operate (low fuel consumption). In some areas there may be restrictions on the engine size of a motorcycle that new riders (or even experienced ones) may be permitted to ride. I've ridden a 2012 CBR250RA and was quite impressed; it’s a fun little bike and has more than enough power for the highway. The Ninja 250R has more peak horsepower than the Honda, and the new for 2013 Ninja 300 has even more performance (the reviews have been favorable). These small street bikes may be cramped or too under-powered for some large riders, however.

2011 Suzuki TU250X

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