America's 50 Best Used Bikes

Finding buried treasures in the want ads

(PART 2--CRUISERS & Buying Tips) 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.

TOURERS
Large-scale luxury on a lite-beer budget

32. HONDA ST1100, 1991-2002
Going Rate: $5600 for 1994 models. (add $965 for an ABS-TCS-equipped bike)


Honda's ST1100 is the bike of choice for resolute Iron Butt Association members. Long-distance disciples revere its land-yacht luxury, cargo capacity and relatively athletic chassis. Powered by a transverse-mounted, 1084cc V-four that pumps out 90-ish horsepower, the ST1100 is a paragon of reliability and durability. After an 11-year production run, Honda replaced it with the 2003 ST1300. The 1100 changed little during its tenure, so mid-'90s versions are quite similar to '02, but thousands of dollars cheaper. The only problem is finding a clean, used 1100 with an odometer that doesn't show six-figure mileage.

Sore Spots: Deficient alternator for heavily accessorized Iron Butts. Hearty appetite for front tires. Short-lived, leak-prone fork seals.

33. KAWASAKI CONCOURS, 1986-2004
Going rate: $4000 for 1995 models.


Appearing during the Regan era and still part of Kawasaki's 2004 lineup, the Concours has had an even longer run than Honda's ST1100. Although its technology was old school a decade ago, the Concours is still a rational ride for pragmatic sport tourists. Its 997cc liquid-cooled four is mostly bombproof. The removable Samsonite-esque bags aren't pretty, but they're lockable, and they work. Shoot for a '94 or later model. The venerable platform received its only substantial upgrade that year, gaining new instruments, a wider front rim, better brakes and an upgraded fork. Beyond that, the Concours soldiers on essentially unchanged to the present day. Go for the cheapest, cleanest one you can find.

Sore Spots: Inaccessible engine internals make maintenance expensive. Fuel tanks can rust at rear edge, causing leaks. Feeble stock brakes necessitate aftermarket pads and lines. Buzzy engines until 1994.

34. 1998 Honda GL1500 SE $10,825
La-Z-Boy on wheels, down 300 or so cubes on modern GL1800s, but still plenty of power (and equal luxury) to carry you happily through your AARP years.

35. 1996 BMW R1100RT (ABS) $7710
Ninety horses plus a great fairing and sure handling make this Boxer-powered tourer more athletic than the similarly priced K1100LT.

36. 1993 BMW K1100LT (ABS) $6330
BMW's best luxo-barge before the K1200LT, the 1100 has solid luggage and an electrically adjustable windscreen.

37. 1997 Triumph Trophy 1200 $5960
Revel in big power from a booming, 1180cc four, great ergos and an effective windscreen. The only drawback is pesky chain final drive instead of de rigueur shaft.


MIDDLEWEIGHT CRUISERS
Cool for the cost-conscious

38. HONDA VF750C MAGNA, 1994-2003
Going Rate: $4750 for 1999 models.


In April 2000, our friends down the hall at Motorcycle Cruiser magazine put Honda's unassuming Magna cruiser at the top of the heap in its seven-bike sport-cruiser comparison. Here's a textbook example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The Magna combines an otherwise odd mix of components--a 748cc V-four engine, average brakes and suspension--into a refined, well-developed package that's a hoot to ride on all sorts of roads. The V-four makes useful power from 3000-9700 rpm. With relatively compact dimensions and easy maneuverability, the Magna makes a nice platform for a variety of riders. The Magna is relatively inexpensive to begin with. A new '03 sells for $7499. Unorthodox styling of that V-four engine keeps the pool of interested buyers small, which means used examples go for reasonable prices. The current iteration debuted in '93, and has hardly changed in the intervening decade. Save bucks and buy a clean, mid-'90s bike.

Sore Spots: Top-end knocking on 1994 models; Honda issued a fix--drilling the cam holders. Poor cruising range; industrious owners adapt Valkyrie fuel tanks. Worn water-pump bearings cause coolant leaks.

39. YAMAHA V-STAR, 1998-2004
Going rate: $3825 for 1998 models.


You've got two choices here, both excellent. There's the chopper-esque V-Star Custom with cut-down bodywork, pullback bars and a 19-inch front wheel, or the V-Star Classic with full fenders, a 16-inch front wheel and a wide-glide-look fork. The same proven, 649cc V-twin with two Mikuni downdraft carbs powers both. The Classic is in higher demand with most cruiser buyers, so expect to pay approximately $500 more. The Classic also handles slightly better thanks to its fatter front tire. Both bikes are excellent choices for new riders, persons of smaller stature or any unassuming rider who enjoys a smaller, lighter, sharp-handling cruiser.

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. Vibration blurs rear-view mirror images. Gearbox needs another cog above 70 mph. Tank-mounted speedo is indecipherable at speed.

40. 1995 H-D 883 Sportster $4995
An American original since 1957. Slow, heavy and shakes like an off-the-belt Maytag, but still the cheapest (and perhaps most authentic) way to enter the Harley fray. 883cc or 1200cc models available.

41. 2000 Kawasaki W650 $4475
If you celebrate the 1965 Triumph Bonneville, not the '48 Harley FL, as the epitome of classic motorcycle design, dig this.

42. 1995 Triumph Thunderbird $4040 Looking like an old Bonneville back from theTwilight Zone, the T-Bird uses Triumph's stout first-generation 885cc triple.

43. 1995 Honda shadow VLX $2735
You won't find a nicer middleweight cruiser for less than $3500. The tough, 583cc air-cooled V-twin is asthmatic, but runs forever.


HEAVYWEIGHT CRUISERS
All hefty metal--no sticker shock

44. Harley-Davidson DynA
Super Glide Sport, 1999-2003
Going Rate: $13,295 for 1999 models.


Five years ago, the demand for Harley-Davidson cruisers exceeded the supply of new bikes, and the used market was raging. Used Harleys that were four or five years old sold for more than the sticker price of a new bike. Since The Motor Company increased production to nearly a quarter-million bikes per year, waiting lists dried up, and the used-Harley bubble burst. Classified sections in most newspapers are crammed with late-model Harleys. They still aren't cheap, but they are below the original MSRP--more affordable than they've been in years. Hold out for a good deal on a 1999 or later big twin. 1999 was the first model year for the Twin Cam 88 engine. The extra money buys more power, less vibration and a much-improved transmission compared with earlier big twins. From there, Softails still rule. The Deuce and Fat Boy are still on the high end of the used-bike price scale. For the best deals, consider the Dyna platform. They're less in demand than Softails, and more affordable. And the twin-shock Dyna chassis out-handles the Softail, too. Our pick is the sporty FXDX Super Glide Sport with fully adjustable suspension and dual front-disc brakes. Check out the Dyna Low Rider if you prefer more classic cruiser looks.

Sore Spots: Stiff clutch-pull. Clunky shifting into low gear. Numb brake feel: Steel-braided lines are a must. Blackout engine finish deteriorates faster than natural aluminum.

45. HONDA VT1100 SHADOW, 1985-2004
Going rate: $4465 for 1996 models.


Want Harley-Davidson style without the Harley mystique? Honda's VT1100 series is your best bet, mixing classic American looks with modern, liquid-cooled engines and legendary Honda durability. They usually sell for less than a third of what you might pay for a used Softail. If you're a fan of chopper styling, you'll dig the Shadow Spirit, with its stepped saddle, slash-cut pipes, tiny headlight and pullback bars. The VT1100 engine is a 52-degree V-twin that uses an innovative dual-throw crankshaft to fool the motor into behaving like a 90-degree twin, greatly reducing primary vibration. Avoid the fat-fendered American Classic Edition, a.k.a. ACE. Thinking a classic cruiser buys more vibration, Honda gave the ACE a single-pin crank. They shake, and they're slower, so take a pass there.

Sore Spots: More vibration than acceleration from single-pin-crank ACE version. Painful passenger accommodations. Few available aftermarket accessories, especially for Spirit models.

46. 1997 Yamaha Royal Star $6990
A milder version of Mad Max's V-four in classic cruiser clothes. Infinitely more refined than its twin-cylinder competition.

47. 1996 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 $5315
Got cubes? The big Vulcan has plenty, plus stying that's vastly improved over it's homely predecessors.

48. 1997 Honda Valkyrie $7390
Breaking the V-twin mold with its 1520cc flat-six, the Valkyrie is faster and more fun than V-twin altenatives.

49. 1996 Yamaha V-Max $5630
V-Max: the shortest distance between you and no driver license. Welcome to the world's baddest-bike-for-the-buck, bar none.





Five foolproof tips

Buy SMART

1. Take your time. Be patient. Some sellers are desperate to sell. Some buyers are desperate to buy. Seek the former and don't be the latter. Name your best price, and be ready to walk away. An anxious seller will call back and take your price or counteroffer. If not, keep looking. Sharp sellers turn desperation against you, holding out for the high price they know you'll pay. Desperation also makes you overlook problems, so never buy on first sight. Thinking first saves heartaches later.

2. Pitfalls en route to the perfect used bike. Avoid fixer-uppers. With shop rates approximately $60 per hour, wreck refurbishing is a losing proposition. That goes double for anything more than a decade old. Even if you do the work, ancient replacement parts are outrageous. Try $36.95 for a set of CB500 ignition points. Bottom line: $2000 spent reviving a $300 KZ650 leaves you with a $300 KZ650. Like Internet start-ups, most old motorcycles are bad investments. Safety wire or ground-down footpegs mean retreat. Racebikes, especially ones with amateur number plates, have had a hard life. Be excruciatingly leery. Extensive motor mods, raked frames and such typically mean a temperamental, unreliable or dangerous ride. A pristine stocker is more expensive--and worth every nickel.

3. Ride before you buy. Test rides are vital. The buddy system helps: Sellers are more likely to allow one if you leave a friend behind. If that doesn't work, let the seller lead the way.

4. It's simple stuff, stupid! A service history tells you how or if the bike has been cared for. You can't check valve clearances in someone's driveway, but appraisals by a good shop or technician reveal much about mechanical health. Look at the oil-sight window and see if what's inside is clean. Pop hydraulic reservoirs and see if the fluid is clean. Is the engine clean and leak-free? Check around the head and base gaskets, and where the carb boots meet the head. Check the fork seals. Do the lights and switches work? The battery should turn the bike over with authority at first push. Visible tire-wear bars point to a careless owner. Can you pull the chain away from the sprocket, or draw blood from sharpened points on the sprocket teeth? Are the brake pads thin? Are the brake rotors warped, scarred or discolored? Are plastic bits blemished? All of this stuff should be square before the sale, or used to leverage a lower price.

5. Shop smart. Expect more demand for used motorcycles in the spring. Fewer shoppers mean anxious sellers in fall and winter. You'll pay more for the same bike from a dealer, so dealing with a private party is best. And money talks. Nothing heats up a lukewarm seller like a fat roll of dead presidents. Use the buddy system there, too, and avoid dark alleys.





Online, on paper or in person

WHERE TO SHOP


eBay Motors: Name your price on thousands of motorcycles. You need to deal with buying by remote control, and it takes a quick return finger to outsmart the Bid-Bots dominating online auctions. Still, virtual bidding is fun. www.ebaymotors.com.

Cycle Trader: Available at nearly every convenience store in America, Cycle Trader gets a huge variety of bikes. Regional editions mean you don't have to travel too far. Search Cycle Trader's classifieds online at www.cycletrader.com.

Power Sports Network: The bike-buff Web portal lists a wealth of pre-owned motorcycles and dealer overstocks. Participating dealers are contained in a database that's easily searchable by make, model, age, price, geographic location or all of the above. www.powersportsnetwork.com.

Local Papers: Try the classifieds in your local newspaper for good deals close to home, especially the weekend edition. Hot deals can disappear by 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning, so set your alarm early.

Bike-Shop Bulletin Boards: Motorcycle shops often post private-party ads. Listed bikes are often by good customers, so shop staff may vouch for the condition of an advertised bike.

Walk the Neighborhood: Open garage doors often reveal bikes buried under old golf clubs and gardening tools. Knock on the door and lowball a price. It's amazing how cheap some people will sell to make an old bike disappear.

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