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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

So You Want a Motorcycle: A No Frills Guide to Selecting Your First Ride

After all the feedback I got on my last motorcycle-related post, and having had to answer a lot of requests from folks since about which is the best first bike to buy, I decided to make a handy flowchart to determine exactly which bike is right for you.  Just work your way down the chart to motorcycling bliss.

1.    2005-2010 Suzuki DRZ400SM

The Suzuki DRZ400SM is the perfect urban commuter. It is a modified version of the Suzuki DRZ400s dual sport bike with improved suspension and street tires.  While it won’t win any beauty contests, it is also the go-to motorcycle for San Francisco city cops for riots and protests so it can deal with anything you can throw at it.  Replacement parts are plentiful and it has rich aftermarket support to tweak it to your heart’s content.  Freeway performance is less than stellar, so it’s not great for long hauls at high speed, but occasional rides on the freeway it’s more than adequate. At 40-50mpg, it even gets great gas mileage.

2.    2001-2008 Triumph Bonneville

The Triumph Bonneville is a solid update to a classic design.  Pairing retro good looks with modern technology it is a good first bike despite its seemingly intimidating 800cc displacement engine.  The parallel twin puts out respectable but not terror-inducing 58 horsepower with a flat power curve that is easy to ride.  Handling isn’t going to keep up with more modern designs, but should be fine for most riders looking to enjoy a spirited jaunt to their local crumpet shop.

2.  Cheaper Alternative - 2001 Kawasaki W650 

Though it was only made for one year, this is an extremely authentic-looking Japanese take on the classic Limey twin.  It may have lower displacement at only 650cc but boasts better reliability than the English original.  They were only made for one year which makes them somewhat collectable, but consequently hard to come by. 

3.  2002-Present Ducati Monster

The Monster is the archetypical Italian naked bike.  It is pure functionality made beautiful.  The 2002-2006 Ducati Monster 620ie lays down respectable power (especially low in the rev range) for its size.  The short seat height makes it a good choice for shorter riders and the high pegs give plenty of cornering clearance.  The suspension is better than much of what you will see in the same class from Japan.  The only downside is that parts are expensive and the Desmo valves need regular adjustment.

Perhaps you can excuse the more modern version’s looks, but I can’t recommend the newer Ducati 696 aesthetically though it has many great features.  The styling has abandoned the raw minimalism of the earlier models and now seems like it’s trying too hard with its combination cast and tubular frame and the inexplicable ornamental aluminum cladding across the headlight.

4.  2003-2010Suzuki SV650

With its fuel injected twin, this is the emblematic UJM (universal Japanese motorcycle). This is the bike that you will have a hard time outgrowing.  The motor is bulletproof and with a lively racing community aftermarket parts are plentiful.  The riding position is comfortable and upright.  Among the very short list of downsides to this bike is the suspension which has been rather unflatteringly compared to a pogo stick.  Still, unless you’re dragging a knee at the local racetrack it is fine – especially for a newer rider.  Photos don’t do the bike’s lines justice.

4. Cheaper Alternative 1999-2002 Suzuki SV650

The earlier version is carbureted and has a little less power, but is still a great choice.  See if you can get a good deal on a model n which the previous owner upgraded the forks and rear shock from its cousin - the race-inspired GSX-R.  Just make sure that the candidate bike hasn’t been punished on a track.

5.  2011 CBR250R

250cc bikes are generally complete performance snoozefests paired with dated styling, but Honda rewrote the rulebook with this little screamer using state of the art technology throughout including in the fuel injected 250cc engine.  The littlest CBR is small and light, but the low weight gives it unparalleled handling in this class.  It even looks great borrowing styling cues from the Honda flagship VFR1200F.  At almost 70 miles per gallon it should pretty much pay for itself.

5. Cheaper Alternative 1988-2007 Kawasaki Ninja 250R

With a design first penned during the Reagan administration, the Little Ninja is both a great beginner bike and a popular platform for 250 racing. So many have been produced that spare parts will probably run you less than on your pedal bike.  In stock trim, you aren’t going to be getting modern styling nor the performance of larger sport bikes, but that is also a good way to keep a new rider out of trouble.

6. 2004-2009 Yamaha FZ6

Long known as the Fazer on the  other side of the pond, this is a middleweight bike with a 600cc inline four engine that can be docile for newer riders at lower revs, but really gets exciting when you wind it up.  The FZ-6 sports an upright riding position and a  half fairing which keeps the wind off you at freeway speeds.  Sonically, it’s tough to beat the screaming sound of an inline four like this one near the top of its rev range.  Solid Japanese reliability and relatively affordable parts make this a practical choice for a new rider.