America's 50 Best Used Bikes

Finding buried treasures in the want ads

(PART 1--SPORTBIKES) If you've been waiting to buy a used bike, stop now. It's time. Five years of booming new-bike sales--and the endless technological escalator the big factories ride--have for-sale signs on more high-quality late-model machinery than ever. Add a flat economy and shake well; it's a buyer's market out there. Sportbikes, standards, tourers, cruise missiles...the deals are everywhere. To prepare you for the pre-owned plunge, we did a little classified scouring of our own, searching the papers, bulletin boards and Internet to find the best deals in the 2003 used-bike market. Our research uncovered some of the best used buys in various categories, plus some tips and tricks for getting the bike you want for the price you want to pay. If you don't mind spending more time than money, read on.

Steal-me deals on pre-owned nudity

1. Triumph Speed Triple, 1999-2003
Going Rate: $5865 for 1999 models.

Thanks to its marvelously unruly 955cc 12-valve triple, Triumph's third-generation Speed Triple is everything a naked bike should be--comfortable, smooth, fast, nimble and unique. What it gives up to Yamaha's Captain Sensible FZ1 in expediency, the bug-eyed British insurgent recoups in sheer attitude. Opting for a 1999 or newer Triple avoids the less powerful, less refined and altogether less desirable second-generation 885cc engine. Most of the oil leaks and driveability gremlins have been exorcised from the newer Triple. Just make sure the bike you settle on has Triumph's latest engine-management mapping downloaded into its black box.

Sore Spots: Occasional gearbox problems; misadjusted CO2 sensor settings cause rough running at low revs; sensitive to throttle-body synchronization.

2. Ducati M900 Monster, 1993-2003
Going rate: $4575 for 1996 models.

As Ducati's most practical two-wheeler (at least until the Multistrada came out), the aptly named Monster combines Bologna's signature 90-degree desmodromic V-twin with comfortably upright ergonomics, great brakes and capable suspension. The result is a hoot on nearly any kind of road. As the original factory streetfighter, the humpbacked Monster is something of a modern classic. The Monster has been in production for a decade with minor changes, which means there's little performance penalty--and great financial reward--for finding a clean, well-mannered example. If you can live with less ponies, 750cc Monsters sell for even less.

Sore Spots: Desmodue valve gear gets cranky without regular professional care, so check those eminence records; noisy rear brake (Ducati has a kit to quiet it); flimsy front-brake rotors; assorted electrical gremlins can blow bulbs and fuses; stiff clutch pull; and dry clutch gets cranky in heavy stop-and-go traffic.

3. 995 BMW R1100R $5085
Big, heavy and gangly looking, but handles deceptively well and is as practical and long-lasting as a Ford F150 pickup.

4. 1999 Kawasaki ZRX1100 $4465
Looks a lot like the early 1980s ELR, but with a motor, brakes and suspension that actually work.

5. 2001 Yamaha FZ1 $6265
There are only a handful of bikes with more power, but none are easier to live with. A "real-world R1" indeed.

6. 1995 Triumph Speed Triple $4315
Although not as fast or as sexy as the current model, Triumph's first-generation Speed Triple remains a solid, durable performer.

Happy hunting for used Ducks and such

7. DUCATI 916, 1994-1998
Going Rate: $7985 for 1995 models.

This is it--the ultimate sporting icon. The dominant superbike of the 1990s. The epitome of motoart. With Tamburini's masterpiece superseded by Terblanche's functionally superior--but aesthetically controversial--999, the '94 original has cemented its classic status. Earlier 916cc examples are down on power compared with later 996s and 998s, but hold a line every bit as well and look identical to last year's bikes--all while costing roughly the same as a new, entry-level Monster. Even converted to euros, that adds up to a great deal. Plus, with an old 916 you get the classic old Ducati logo, which we love.

Sore Spots: Plan on expensive tune-ups every 6000 miles. Premature rocker-arm wear; dubious examples should be checked and/or replaced. Bad voltage regulators (that eat batteries). Worn cush-drive rubbers (that annihilate the rear hub).

8. HONDA VTR1000F SUPER HAWK, 1998-2003
Going rate: $5040 for 1998 models.

Too sensible for hard-nosed sport riders and lacking range for real sport-touring, the VTR is another Honda that never quite found its niche. That's good news for used-bike buyers. The DOHC V-twin is a gem, a character-rich 996cc motor with gobs of torque, and the ergo package is near perfect for Sunday-morning sorties. Criticisms include lackluster brakes--corrected with stainless lines and decent pads--and a 125-mile touring range. But how often do you get out for more than 125 miles on Sunday morning anyway? $4500 buys a lot of wheelies and a lot of Honda reliability. Or, if you've got extra bones laying around, check your local Honda dealer; many still have Super Hawk overstock from 2002 or even '01. They go as low as $7250 for a brand-new bike, compared with an '03 MSRP of $8999.

Sore Spots: Watch for leaky clutch gaskets and corroded magnesium case castings. Incontinent coolant tanks; Honda's fix was a hose attached to the offending weep hole in 2002.

9. 2000 Aprilia Falco $7530
The same basic engine and running gear as the track-ready Mille, but withmore relaxed ergos and half-naked styling.

10. 1999 Aprilia Mille $8185
The bike that put Aprilia on the map: Its Rotax-built 997cc V-twin puts down 110 usable ponies and the chassis steers like magic.

11. 1999 BMW R1100S $8340
BMW's sportiest choice by far, coupling typical BMW comfort and luxury with enough punch from the 1085cc flat-twin.

12. 1997 Suzuki TL1000S $4690
The bike that introduced us to Suzuki's brilliant, 120-hp V-twin. The reputation for tankslappers is bunk--a wheelie great back-road bike.

Screaming deals on yesterday's screamers

13. KAWASAKI ZX-6R, 1995-2002
Going Rate: $4440 for 1998 models.

Kawasaki's middleweight sportbike hasn't won many shootouts, but with lap times right in the hunt, plenty of horsepower, excellent reliability and way-comfy ergos, the ZX-6R is a superb all-arounder, and a great used buy. (Just try riding that Honda CBR600RR or Yamaha YZF-R6 on a three-day trip up the coast.) The best bets are the 1998 models, thanks to a host of second-generation upgrades. Count on the bike's perpetually middling comparo status to keep prices down; expect to pay in the low $4000 range for a nice example.

Sore Spots: Problematic cam-chain tensioner can go south on high-mileage bikes; ignore the telltale rattle and bent valves follow. Hard riding mauls steering-head bearings. Fragile wheel paint peels without meticulous care.

14. SUZUKI GSX-R600, 1997-2003
Going rate: $4590 for 1998 models.

This is the heart of the 600 Supersport class. Maybe it's not the prettiest or the most exotic, but the little GSX-R remains one of the most confidence-inspiring sportbikes ever. The engine is remarkably tough in any well-cared-for example, and you won't find a more steadfast track-day companion. The 1998 model was blessed with various engine upgrades--a larger airbox, revised exhaust system, different cam timing and reshaped ports that improve power delivery make it a best bet on our list. Ferreting out a clean, well-maintained example can be tough, though. Before you get serious, give your prospects a thorough examination. Hammered steering stops mean it's had a hard life, so keep looking.

Sore Spots: Watch for a faulty fuel-tank gasket. Worn contacts in the starter housing can cause ignition failure. Check for regular cam-chain tensioner adjustments after 10,000 miles.

15. 2001 Honda CBR600F4i $6005
More confidence-inspiring than your first college girlfriend, the pathologically forgiving F4i is by far the best introduction to the world of super-sport bikes.

16. 1996 Yamaha YZF750R $3690
Sharp handling and 120 hp from 749cc put this one at the top of the mid-1990s sportbike pile. Still a sweet ride at any price.

17. 1997 Yamaha YZF600R $3805
We called the 2003 YZF600R "tough to beat" and "scythelike in the twisties." A virtually identical '97 model is half the price.

18. 1998 Suzuki GSX-R750 $5320
A sportbike legend, with big power in a compact chassis. 1998 is your best bet, the first year for fuel injection anda new, close-ratio gearbox.

Buying into the Big Leagues

19. HONDA CBR900RR, 1993-1999
Going Rate: $5395 for 1997 models.

Honda reinvented the modern literbike with the 1993 CBR900RR in late '91. Before the RR (known as the Fireblade in other markets), top-dog sportbikes were ridiculously powerful--but also heavy and ill-handling. The 900RR was the first literbike that was truly as light as a 600 and roughly as powerful as the big boys. It took everyone else years to catch up. If you're looking for the best bang for your buck in this category, a late-'90s RR is the way to go. Our pick would be a second-generation ('96-'97) machine, with its bigger engine (918cc, compared with 893cc), smoother gearbox, more compliant suspension, higher bars and reshaped fuel tank. As with any used sportbike, check the steering stops and engine cases for telltale signs of crash damage.

Sore Spots: Good tires are scarce for its 16-inch front wheel. Cylinder vacuum plugs occasionally go MIA, causing a difficult-to-diagnose miss.The RR is hard on voltage regulators and batteries.

20. YAMAHA YZF-R1, 1998-2003
Going rate: $6800 for 2000 models.

Honda ruled the literbike class until 1998, when Yamaha unleashed its YZF-R1. The 998cc superbike demolished the CBR900RR, neutralized the heavier ZX-9R and laid waste to everything else in its path. Yamaha debuted a revitalized R1 in '00 with more than 150 enhancements that made it an easier bike to live with. This is the one to get. The '00 R1's short-wheelbase/long-swingarm frame geometry remains, but the seat is reshaped, the tank narrower and the bars slightly higher. The result is a reasonably comfortable 175-mph road-rocket. Best of all, three years is three decades in a superbike's life, so you can pick up a '00 model for approximately $6800 from some kid who soiled himself one time too many. Buy from the bank that repossessed it and you'll spend even less.

Sore Spots: Missed shifts (first to second) point to rounded gear dogs and/or a worn shift fork. Steering-head bearings loosen quickly. EXUP control cable seizes without routine lubrication.

21. 2001 Suzuki GSX-R1000 $8115
Nuclear power delivery on a budget. Suspension and brakes aren't up to 2003 spec, but upgrades are everywhere.

22. 1998 Kawasaki ZX-9R $5445
Underappreciated and often overlooked, a nice used 9R will do just about everything but blow your budget.

23. 2000 Triumph Daytona 955i $6670
European panache without the tall price tag. The injected triple is well-sorted by 2000, as is the sweet-steering chassis.

24. 1997 Yamaha YZF1000R $5000
It's a little hefty, but the R1's predecessor has a stinky-fast 20-valve four and impeccable handling. A little extra weight is its only real flaw.

Affordable high-speed long-distance service

25. Triumph SPRINT ST, 1999-2003
Going Rate: $6245 for 1999 models.

Nearly knocking Honda's invincible VFR from atop the sporty sport-touring/GT heap, the Triumph Sprint ST is a first-class blend of refined performance and reliability with European style and character. Who doesn't love that three-cylinder shriek? If its fit-and-finish score was a 10 instead of an eight, and its retail price closer to $10,000 than $11,000, Triumph might have had a winner. Nevertheless, in the land of the motorcycle classified ads, those numbers are moot. Unlike Honda's VFR, the Sprint ST can't match the VFR's reputation or resale value. For smart buyers, that's good. Take your pick of clean 1999s--with hard bags--for around six-large. If you rate practicality over investment value, check out the Sprint.

Sore Spots: Erratic fuel gauge on 1999 models; Triumph subsequently issued an improved fuel-level sensor. Faulty gas-tank vent, typically replaced under warranty. Soft, scratch-prone paint.

26. Ducati ST2, 1997-2003
Going rate: $6435 for 1998 models.

After the release of Ducati's desmoquattro ST4 in 1999, the desmodue ST2 slipped into semi-obscurity. Still, tribes of nomadic Ducatisti prefer the less-manic power delivery of the two-valve V-twin. It's not as powerful, but the ST2 engine can be more pleasant and less tiring over epic distances. Styling and ergonomics are identical to the ST4; the only other thing that separates the two bikes on the used market is the roughly $2000 you'll save when choosing the ST2. Shop patiently and you'll find an eager seller. Whittle him down to the low sixes and roll away happy.

Sore Spots:Weak rear-shock seals. Crack-prone mirror stems. Weak clutches can fail in less than 10,000 miles; basket and slave cylinder are the weakest links.

27. 1995 BMW R1100RS (ABS) $6560
Not as sexy as newer models, the RS was BMW's first R259 Oilhead Boxer. It's still a benchmark sport-touring tool.

28. 1997 Kawasaki ZX-11 $5640
Once the fastest thing on pavement. No longer the nastiest Ninja, but still a comfortable, stunningly rapid gentleman's express.

29. 1997 Honda CBR1100XX $5915
Deliciously excessive. Designed to dethrone the ZX-11, Honda's 179-mph, 134-hp XX is faster and more agile. Harsh suspension.

30. 1998 Honda VFR800F $5760
Perfectly balanced with gear-driven cams, our 1998 Motorcycle of the Year is a better all-around motorcycle than the '03 VFR.

31. 1994 Honda VFR750F $4455
Broad power. Reasonable comfort. Neutral steering. The best do-it-all sportbike in America until Honda upped the ante to 781cc in 1998.

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