Premium Mileage for Regular Riders | Fuel’s Paradise

Street Savvy

By Jerry Smith, Photography by Kevin Wing & Joe Neric

Back when you justified buying a motorcycle to your significant other, parent, or whoever you needed to butter up to get the go-ahead, you might have said something about what great gas mileage bikes get, and how much money you’d save. Depending on how long ago that was, it might even have been true. But now the price of gas is going up faster than the body count in the latest Die Hard sequel, and you’re looking for ways to squeeze even more miles out of a gallon of dinosaur juice.

Start with the easy stuff. Slow down, brake earlier, accelerate smoothly. Keep your engine in tune, inspect the air filter, and check your tire pressure often. Low tires put down a bigger footprint, increasing drag, lowering mileage, and, at the same time accelerating tire wear—another yawning money hole you don’t need in addition to being mugged at the pump.

For you touring types, look in the trunk and saddlebags and jettison anything you’ve been carrying around that you don’t use. Replace cargo with smaller, lighter versions. Swap those steel tire irons for titanium ones (or get cocky and leave them at home!), for example, and toss out that souvenir rock you brought home from Alaska jammed in the radiator. Dare we say you could stand to lose a few pounds yourself? (Yeah, okay, so could we. We’ll start tomorrow.)

Every little bit helps, but you’re probably not going to fill a tank bag with the money you save with these easy tips. For bigger fuel savings you need to get serious, and nobody is more serious about high mileage than Craig Vetter, whose Fuel Economy Challenges in the 1980s helped put hyper-miling motorcycles on the map. Those bikes used radically streamlined fairings and small-displacement engines to push mileage well past the 100-mile-per-gallon mark. But Vetter knows few street riders want to go that far, so he has a couple of what we’ll call Stage 2 tips. The first concerns gearing.

“The slower your engine turns, the less gas it burns,” he says. “On any standard streetbike you want to gear it as high as you can. The higher you can gear it the more fuel you’ll save. But what limits overall high gearing is the lack of streamlining. If you sit up on a big bike with a big windshield you come to a point where the engine is out of its power range and can’t push you down the road because of the wind resistance.”

Wind resistance is a function of frontal area, which you want to minimize for maximum mileage. Vetter says lose the barn-door windshield, switch to a low handlebar, and get your chin closer to the tank. “With your head down and your chin on the tank or a tank bag, you can get a little better mileage. The key is frontal area. The less you have the easier it is for you and your motorcycle to go through the air. But you’re not really going to ride that way because it’s not a lot of fun.”

It seems there’s no magic bullet for significantly increasing mileage––at least not on the bike you own now, especially if it has a high-performance and/or large-displacement engine. As Vetter points out: “On big bikes the engines are tuned for maximum power, which you get only by burning more fuel.” So maybe it’s not how much frontal area your bike has, or what it weighs, or how you ride it, but the bike itself.

If you’re the type who says they can have your Hayabusa when they pry the grip from your cold, dead throttle hand, we’re done here. Thanks for coming. The rest of you, consider this: Gas mileage is no longer just an excuse to buy a bike, it’s a growing concern with new riders, and therefore motorcycle manufacturers, too. Look at gas-sipping middleweights like Honda’s CBR500s and NC700X, Kawasaki’s 300 Ninja, and Suzuki’s 650 V-Strom, and ask yourself whether you’d rather be the first one on the ride to arrive at the gas station, or the one who rides right on by.

Quick Facts
If tight money is prompting you to look for ways to improve mileage, think twice about spending it on modifications that promise more miles per gallon. Ask for proof from independent testers, not the product’s manufacturer, and double-check claims that sound too good to be true. And remember that even if the claims pan out, it takes time (often quite a lot) to earn back the purchase price in gas savings.

By Jerry Smith
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