Elsewhere in this issue, we've compiled the accounts of numerous riders' first taste of two-wheeled locomotion (see "Mini Memories") and the profound effect it had on their lives. The common thread is that they started on something small and simple, a bike that offered all the excitement, enjoyment, and freedom they desired without undue complications or challenges. That initial exposure can be decisive—more often than not it sets the hook deeply and sparks a lasting passion for the sport. Starting out on the wrong bike can have the opposite effect. Things today aren't nearly as simple as they were in the days of the ubiquitous minibike, and it can be challenging for beginners to make a sound decision when it comes to that first bike. Taking the recommendation of a vest-wearing squid or getting upsold at the dealership can leave a new rider with a first bike that's inappropriate and intimidating. Neophytes face a steep enough learning curve without having an overpowered or overweight bike to contend with. A fire-breathing sportbike or full-size bagger might be the ultimate goal, but that's not the best place to start for someone who's just laid hands on a learner's permit.
Motorcycling has the potential to be a lifelong adventure, so it's important to get off on the right foot. Thank goodness for bikes like these, then. Interminably user friendly and affordable to buy, insure, and own, Honda's CBR250R, Kawasaki's Ninja 300, and Suzuki's GW250 are just the thing for new riders, anyone looking for economical transportation, or those who just like to stretch throttle cables and wring their fun from small bikes.
What we have here is a very credible lineup of cheap, efficient, fun, and easy-to-ride motorcycles. They're all fuel-injected for no-fuss starts and crisp fueling, they emulate the style of premium models, offer comprehensive instruments, and the Honda and Kawasaki can even be had with the added safety of ABS. They're built to a price point, of course, but these 7/8-scale machines are quality items, no longer relegated to second-class status in terms of fit, finish, or features.
The Honda and Kawasaki are familiar machines. The single-cylinder CBR250R was new in 2011, and the only changes over the years have involved increasingly appealing paint schemes, culminating in 2013 with the Repsol-edition bike shown here. Kawasaki's Ninja 300 was new for '13 and represents a substantial rework of the evergreen Ninja 250R, offering bold new styling, fuel injection, and a 37cc displacement increase via 7.8mm more stroke. The Suzuki GW250 is the new player in the entry-level field. Modeled after the B-King street brawler, the GW gets power from a four-valve, SOHC, parallel-twin engine and is the upright standard to the CBR and Ninja's more sporting layouts.
With the addition of the GW and a slew of 500s from Honda, it's clear that the segment is growing. For a long time, it was dominated by two choices—Kawasaki's Ninja 250R and Honda's Rebel 250. Now there's a raw economic need for low-buck bikes. While the pulse on the supersport and open-class market is barely perceptible, emerging markets like Brazil and India are exhibiting an insatiable appetite for affordable small-displacement motorcycles. Manufacturers know it, and they are responding accordingly. The American market has only seen a few of the many little motorcycles out there, but they're coming—exciting bikes like KTM's 390 Duke, Honda's new CBR300R, and Triumph's "Street Single" should all show up here in the near future.
For the moment, these bikes represent ground zero for beginners who want to buy new. If your budget demands a used ride or you just don't want to be the one to put that first scratch on a bike, check out the options listed along the bottom of the following pages. Whatever your expected trajectory in the vast and exciting world of motorcycling, we hope our message is clear: Start here.
Honda's CBR250R deserves some credit for reinvigorating the entry-level market in the past few years. The single-cylinder CBR was a breath of fresh air in a class that had become stagnant, and it's become a best seller for Big Red. Everyone who rode the CBR remarked how positively tiny it felt, yet the bike was also commended for its comfort thanks to a soft seat, supple suspension, and an upright riding position. Narrow between your knees and incredibly light at just 357 pounds with a full tank, the Honda is well balanced and flickable. Its small stature makes it unintimidating for beginners and absurdly easy for experienced riders to chuck around. Find yourself a tight downhill canyon road and the Honda will delight with its quick steering and mid-corner stability.
The Honda's chassis feels richer than the $4,199 price suggests. (Add $400 for the Repsol paint job or $500 for ABS; sorry, though, you can't have both.) The suspension is soft but well controlled and the brakes are the best here, with a gentle initial bite but good power and feedback.
In an urban environment, the CBR's torquey single is in its element. Newbies nervous about learning the basics of clutch control will love the Honda: Just release the lever slowly with the engine at idle and you're rolling. That low-end torque helps the Honda get off the line quickly, but out on the freeway the engine feels stressed—it sends an annoying buzz through the bars and tank sides despite being counterbalanced.
That Repsol livery helps distance the CBR from its VFR family ties, and the bike's fit and finish are really superb. There's a lot to like about the little Honda, but we've got a few nits nonetheless. Our testbike suffered from sticky shifting, and the removable gas cap and the bar bridging the fuel tank opening makes fill-ups a hassle. Thankfully, the CBR doesn't need to visit the pump very often; with an average of 59 mpg, the Honda turns fuel into fun with real efficiency.
Light, fun to ride, and refined, it's easy to see why Honda's CBR250R is in such high demand. It's a great value and an all-around terrific motorcycle for anyone looking to start out in the sport.
KAWASAKI NINJA 300
At first glance, Kawasaki's littlest Ninja is hard to distinguish from its ZX-6R sibling. The 300's sporting intentions are evident in its angular bodywork, and the theme carries over to the ergonomics, which find riders reaching forward to low clip-on bars and hooking their heels on high-set, grippy footpegs. The fuel-injected, 296cc parallel twin fires up without any of the fuss of its predecessor, and the old off-idle lag is gone. In its place is smooth, steady power that builds rapidly beyond 7,500 rpm. You don't have to wring the Ninja's neck to make forward progress, but when you do, it rewards with an exciting top-end rush. The Ninja is the only bike here able to attain triple-digit speeds. Our testbike put down 35.7 hp at 10,900 rpm, more than 10 hp up on the Honda and Suzuki and 2.5 hp stronger than the last Ninja 300 we tested. Out on the road, those extra ponies pay big dividends. The Ninja cruises at 70 mph without breaking a sweat, and unlike the 250s, the 300 still has ample power on tap for passing.
Just 47cc more displacement than the Ninja 250 makes a huge difference.
That strong motor and a full-size, 4.5-gallon tank should make the Ninja the most suitable for longer trips, but a lack of legroom, a hard seat, a shock that seems to be calibrated for heavy riders, and a buzz in the grips encourage you to exit the highway and seek out a twisty route to your destination. This is a sportbike, after all. Just in miniature.
Swapping gears is quick thanks to a short-throw shifter and crisp gearbox, but all our testers found the clutch hard to master due to an inconsistent engagement zone, likely due to the slip-assist clutch mechanism. On the other side of the bike, the front brake lacks bite and the lever has a wooden feel. The suspension, too, misses the mark. The taut shock transfers too much weight onto the undersprung fork, resulting in a rough, imbalanced ride on bumpy surfaces. The Ninja is still a thrill in the twisties and would surely be a real treat with the right springs and more aggressive brake pads.
With a 13,000-rpm redline, sporty looks, and the most power, the Ninja 300 is the clear choice for aspiring sport riders. Its $4,799 price tag is a bit higher than those of the 250s, but that extra cash nets you a lot more performance.
Suzuki is looking to get a piece of the small-bike pie with its new GW250, a quasi-naked standard with spacious ergos, a docile engine, and a number of beginner-friendly features not found on the competition. We appreciate the GW's newbie-friendly parallel twin. It's low-tech and light on power—it cranks out just 21.2 hp at 8,200 rpm—but it's smooth and steady. All three of these motorcycles have counterbalancers, but the GW's works the best, so that the grips, footpegs, and other contact points remain relatively calm at all engine speeds. That's a good thing because the Suzuki is geared low and you'll frequently find the tach needle hovering near redline. You can take the GW on the freeway and keep up with traffic, but there's almost nothing left in reserve.
Around town, the Suzuki is a peach. Its smooth motor and comfy ergos are great for bopping around the city, and when you avoid the freeway, fuel economy jumps from the high 40s to the low 60s. The riding position is a little more upright than the Honda's and overall quite comfortable. The seat is the softest and so is the suspension, soaking up bumps at the expense of some stability in the corners.
Brake function is adequate and would no doubt be better if the bike weighed less.
The dash is the most comprehensive here, with helpful features like a gear-position indicator, maintenance reminder, and large turn signal lights. An adjustable front brake lever lets you tailor the reach so it's easier to keep the brake covered, and the clutch pull is light with progressive engagement.
The Suzuki's styling is polarizing. The little GW clearly inherited its looks from the B-King, and while it's not ugly for the same reasons as the 'King, the fact that it's reminiscent is unfortunate. And there's no hiding the fact that the GW is slow. The bike's wet weight doesn't help. At 405 pounds, it's the heaviest bike here: 22 pounds heftier than the Ninja and a whopping 49 pounds porkier than the lithe Honda.
Suzuki might not have put a huge amount of effort into engineering the GW250, but it still ended up with a competent little bike. It's the least expensive option at $3,999 and also the most comfortable. In the end, this is a good, if not mind-blowing, effort. Mostly, we're just glad to see another manufacturer joining the fray.
Marc Cook, Editor in Chief
Age: 50 | Height: 5’9” | Weight: 195 lb. | Inseam: 32 in.
No comparison. The scrappy Ninja 300 is my first recommendation for new riders who show an interest in the sport (as opposed to people just looking for two-wheel transportation; for them, it’s a scooter). I believe that it’s crucial for a bike to have “interest durability,” to still feel like a fun and slightly challenging ride after the first year’s financing is complete. By my reckoning, the GW is too boring and the Honda just a bit too performance limited to have legs. Despite its pint size—and don’t the best things come in pints?—the Ninja offers kick-ass performance and daily thrills. And because of all that, it shortens the distance to middleweight sporty bikes without asking too much of new riders.
Zack Courts, Associate Editor
Age: 30 | Height: 6’2” | Weight: 185 lb. | Inseam: 34 in.
Everyone is in love with Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, but I’m not sold. Yes, it’s the most powerful of this group, but I don’t like the high pegs or the wooden brakes, and the insect styling hasn’t grown on me. Honda’s CBR is more mature in every way, from paint choices (though I dig the flashy Repsol livery) and styling, to the mellow single-cylinder engine.
Suzuki’s new GW doesn’t stack up to either, unfortunately. It’s too heavy to be a friendly beginner bike, and the motor can’t cope with the extra weight, which is a shame because the GW’s mill is really pleasant. The dash is tidy and the headlight is edgy, but those fenders and exhaust pipes are just awful. Overall it looks like it’s straight off the streets of Taipei, and it isn’t cheap enough to excuse that.
Jessica Prokup, Guest Tester
Age: 38 | Height: 5’5” | Weight: 115 lb. | Inseam: 31 in.
A few miles into riding the Ninja 300, I was confident it would be at the top of my list. It’s sexy, sporty, and practical at the same time. I like the styling, and the motor has the most punch. I was briefly tempted by the easygoing—if overdressed—GW250, but its underwhelming power and short gearing took the fun out of riding it.
Then I fired up the CBR250R, and it sounded and felt the most like a motorcycle should. I love the character of the motor, and while it can’t touch the Ninja in terms of performance, the bike is more nimble and easier to manage. If I had to choose one for my first bike, I think my mother would vote for the thoroughbred Ninja and my bohemian friends would cheer for the son of the B-King, but I would pick the little CBR.
SO, WHICH ONE?
Bottom line, each of these is a reasonable choice. Based on personal preferences for styling and performance appeal, we can accept an argument for buying any one of them. In many ways, the GW is the "safe" choice—least expensive, most benign in terms of performance, softly saddled, and gently suspended. It's a modern iteration of the bike that MSF instructors must fantasize about.
At the other end of the range is the Ninja, which has character and performance to spare within this class. It's the obvious choice for anyone who wants to pursue the performance avenue of the sport. Sure, it requires a greater initial investment, but the Kawasaki is more entertaining and will likely keep its owner's attention the longest. (At least one of our old timers says he'd be happy to own one.) The toughest part of having the Ninja 300 might be keeping your more experienced sportbike friends off of it.
And that leaves the Honda. We find it easy to recommend the CBR as the best all-around entry-level bike with the caveat that its performance might not be quite enough for heavier riders or suburban dwellers who need to keep up with 80-mph traffic. But for everyone else and in every other riding environment, it positively shines, balancing ease of use and performance in ways that will quickly make you forget it's intended to be an entry-level machine. And that, as much as anything, makes us happy to see a renewed emphasis on really good machines in an absolutely critical category.
If comfort is a priority, the Suzuki is your bike: The GW has the softest seat, squishiest suspension, smoothest engine, and the most upright riding position. The Ninja is the sportbike of the bunch, with a hard seat and the longest reach to the lowest bars. It’s also short on legroom. The Honda splits the difference with a moderately upright riding position, adequate legroom, and an acceptable saddle.
The Ninja is on another level. The Kawasaki comes up “on the cams” at 7,500 rpm and positively dominates from there on up to its 13,000-rpm redline. The 300’s extra 47cc offer a huge advantage in the low- and top-end, but the Honda matches the Ninja’s output in the midrange, if only momentarily. That ledge in the CBR’s curves at 5,000 rpm isn’t perceptible from the saddle, yet the drop-off in power toward redline feels greater than it is. The GW’s engine won’t win any competitions, but it spins the smoothest. Long-stroke engine geometry means the GW actually outperforms the CBR in certain places, but an overweight chassis masks any power advantage the Suzuki may have.
||KAWASAKI NINJA 300
||l-c parallel twin
||l-c parallel twin
|Bore x stroke
||76.0 x 55.0mm
||62.0 x 49.0mm
||53.5 x 55.2mm
||Wet, multi-plate slipper
||Tubular-steel semi-double cradle
||Showa 37mm fork
||KYB 37mm fork
||KYB 37mm fork
||Showa shock adjustable for spring preload
||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload
||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload
||Nissin two-piston caliper, 296mm disc
||Tokico two-piston caliper, 290mm disc
||Nissin two-piston caliper, 290mm disc
||Nissin one-piston caliper, 220mm disc
||Tokico two-piston caliper, 220mm disc
||Nissin one-piston caliper, 240mm disc
||110/70R-17 IRC Road Winner
||110/70R-17 IRC Road Winner
||110/80R-17 IRC Road Winner
||140/70R-17 IRC Road Winner
||140/70R-17 IRC Road Winner
||140/70R-17 IRC Road Winner
|Weight (tank full/empty)
||23.8 bhp @ 8500 rpm
||35.7 bhp @ 10,900 rpm
||21.2 bhp @ 8200 rpm
||15.9 lb.-ft. @ 7000 rpm
||18.1 lb.-ft. @ 9900 rpm
||14.8 lb.-ft. @ 6600 rpm
|Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.)
||Black, Red, Blue/Orange/White/Red (Repsol)
||Lime Green/Ebony, Pearl Stardust White, Ebony
||Pearl Nebular Black
||12 mo., unlimited mi.
||12 mo., unlimited mi.
||12 mo., unlimited mi.
Second-Hand Beginner Bikes
WORDS: Aaron Frank PHOTOS: Motorcyclist archives
You wouldn’t know it from the way we’re raving over this year’s crop of beginner bikes, but newbie-friendly motorcycles are nothing new. Craigslist can be the quickest way to get on two wheels for cheap, and an older bike could be more affordable to insure, too. Bonus points for finding one that’s pre-crashed (but still certified safe), taking the edge off that inevitable first drop! With that in mind, here are our top picks:
’87–’09 Kawasaki EX500
Kawasaki’s EX500 exudes the same puppy-dog charm and credible sportbike looks as the super-popular Ninja 250 but is not so quickly outgrown. The 498cc parallel twin is just as obedient but offers better passing power and more relaxed highway cruising.
’01–’13 Suzuki DR-Z400SM
Everything that makes dirt bikes good in the woods—light, narrow, nimble—makes them great starter bikes, too. Suzuki’s DR-ZSM combines dirt bike dynamics with street-oriented, 17-inch wheels for more traction and a lower standover height, too.
’04–’13 H-D XL883 Sportster
With a low seat and abundant low-end torque, the Sportster is the most accessible entry into the H.O.G. fraternity. In continuous production since 1957, used Sporties are affordable and abundant. Engines were rubber-mounted in 2004, improving comfort.
’01–’13 Triumph Bonneville
Love vintage British style but can’t afford a full-time mechanic to keep your commuter running? This is the bike you want, which looks nearly identical to a mid-’60s Bonnie but with a stone-reliable 790cc (or 865cc) parallel twin and modern electrics.
’91–’08 Honda CB250
If you learned to ride with the MSF, you’re probably already familiar with the Nighthawk 250. Legendary on the training range for its reliability and ability to withstand repeated tip-overs, beginners can’t lose with this air-cooled parallel twin.
’89–’02 Suzuki GS500
Suzuki’s long-lived GS-series parallel twins are impossible-to-kill “cockroach” motorcycles, with anvil-like reliability and durability. The post-’88 GS500s, with a steel perimeter frame, monoshock rear suspension, and disc brakes front and rear, are the best values.
’98–’13 Star V-Star 650
Your best bet for a small-displacement cruiser—in this category, 650cc is considered small—this air-cooled V-twin matches classic, full-sized cruiser looks with right-sized ergonomics and a manageable power profile that’s agreeable for most entry-level riders.
’00–’07 BMW F650GS
Previously—and accurately—named the “Funduro,” BMW’s baby GS is the best way to get started adventure touring. Powered by a tough-to-stall 652cc single, the F-GS offers the same outback aptitude of the R1200GS in a manageable package.
’14 Honda Grom
Just like the various Trail-model minibikes that introduced millions to motorcycling, Honda’s adorably awkward Grom combines 12-inch wheels and a bulletproof four-stroke single engine to create laugh-out-loud transportation.
’68–’73 Honda CB350
If your first motorcycle must have carburetors, ignition points, and authentic patina, Honda’s parallel-twin CB350 is the bike you want. Honda sold more than 250,000 of these in the States, so they’re plentiful, cheap, and reliable enough to regularly ride.
’99–’08 Suzuki SV650
Suzuki’s SV650 is a true do-it-all motorcycle. The sharp-handling aluminum chassis, tractable 645cc V-twin, and a versatile character make it adaptable for everything from commuting to touring to winning roadracing championships.
’07-’13 Royal Enfield Bullet
These charming singles provide reliable daily transport for millions in India, where they have been built since 1955; here in America they provide a more fun, less fraught facsimile of the vintage-bike experience. The newer the model, the better.
’88-’91 Honda Hawk GT
In the late 1980s, Honda offered stylish middleweights uniquely suited for beginners, including the Ascot and CB-1. The Hawk GT was arguably the best of this bunch, with its robust, 647cc V-twin, twin-beam aluminum frame, and exotic single-sided swingarm.
’88-’90 Yamaha FZR400
Yamaha’s FZR400 was a two-wheeled unicorn—a small-displacement bike with cutting-edge technology including the super-stiff Deltabox frame and a short-stroke, high-revving inline four. This is what your first sportbike should look like.
’86-’13 Suzuki Savage/S40
Don’t let the name fool you—with easy handling and a curb weight less than 400 pounds, Suzuki’s single-cylinder chopper is a civilized choice for a cheap cruiser with character. Still don’t think it’s cool? A visit to rycamotors.com will change your mind.