Everyone has an opinion on the best starter bike for beginner motorcycle riders. From the epic adventurist supermoto YouTuber Dankwheelie to the “Jay Leno’s Garage Uncut” car channel Regular Car Reviews, seemingly every person with a platform to shout from has talked at length about this topic. And to our ears, most of them are on the right track.
In a recent post we talked about how, unless you really like pissing money away, your first motorcycle should be an abject pile of crap. But we didn't mention any specific starter bikes to look for, so this time we’re getting to the nitty gritty with a countdown of the best starter motorcycles available today.
These are all objectively great motorcycles to start on regardless of what you plan to ride later on. But wait, someone out there just said, “My local Ducati dealer’s got a great deal on a 2014 899 Panigale!” So before we go any further, I’m going to tell you why that’s a terrible idea.
Why a Shiny New Ducati is a Bad Starter Bike
When I worked at a Ducati dealership I met plenty of people, young and old, who thought it was a great idea for their first motorcycle to be a sexy Italian seductress with big power, red plastics, and a price tag well north of $15,000.
If you don’t know, that’s insanely expensive for a bike. The most expensive motorcycles in the world rarely exceed $25,000. Paying 15 grand for one is like buying a Ferrari: sure, there are Koenigseggs and Paganis that outrank it price-wise, but it’s certainly nothing to scoff at. But unless you’re a professional racer you’ll go just as fast – and have just as much fun – with a 15-year-old Honda.
Considering you’re way more likely to damage your first motorcycle than your first car, it stands to reason you would want one that won’t lose half its value when something happens to it.
The golden rules of a beginner motorcycle are:
Good balance and handling
Light weight and low power
Not prone to depreciation
So while it’s tempting to snipe that $3000 Yamaha R6 on Craigslist, even that bike is probably better as your second than your first.
The Best Starter Motorcycles Available Today
Kawasaki Ninja 250: The Stalwart Choice
The OG Kawasaki Ninja 250 was built from 1988 to 2007 without any major changes. It sports an inline twin-cylinder carbureted engine with about 35 HP and a top speed of around 100 MPH. It has full fairings, a center stand, and fuel economy which can exceed 70 MPG if ridden conservatively. They were available with or without loud graphics, but either way this starter bike is as much about fashion as a beige Toyota in a church parking lot. It’s coming back around, though, as everything does.
Parts are cheap, maintenance is easy, and ride quality is smooth and balanced. But there’s one very good reason to buy a Ninja 250 over something else: they don’t depreciate. They rarely cost more than $2000 – most cost half that – and it’s been that way for over ten years. Shoot, they were rarely more than $3000 new. Combine that value with a narrow design which prevents minor accidents from damaging anything critical, and you can ride a Ninja 250 as a starter bike without constantly worrying about your investment.
The Kawasaki Ninja 250 is so capable that there are entire racing leagues dedicated to them. Once you gain experience you’ll be able to corner just as fast on a Ninja 250 as a Ducati Panigale, maybe even faster, and you’ll do it for less than a tenth of the price.
The verdict: Parts are cheap, the bike is cheap, and damage won't set you back much on resale value. It’s the starter bike everyone should consider.
Also consider: Hyosung GT250R
Honda Rebel 250: The Nuns of Anarchy
Like the Kawasaki Ninja 250, the Honda Rebel 250 didn’t change much between its inception in 1985 and its end in 2016. The Rebel is an inline twin-cylinder carbureted bike with 16 horsepower (yeah, 16) and a top speed of about 70 MPH. Rebels usually go for $2000 or less, even in mint condition, and like the Ninja 250 the Rebel’s narrow design means you won't cause much damage if you lay it over gently.
The obvious difference is that the Honda Rebel is a cruiser. Sure, it’s fallen victim to a certain negative image thanks to people with Loud Pipes Save Lives bumper stickers and barbed wire tattoos. But unlike picking your starter Pokémon, you’re free to change sides later on: it’s fine to start riding on a Rebel and graduate to a different style of bike down the road.
There's one major reason you would pick a Honda Rebel over a Ninja 250: you have a short inseam. The Rebel’s 26.6” seat height makes the 29.3” Ninja seem tall, though riders over 6’0 may feel cramped on either one. Someday you’ll be able to ride like a stunter, balancing the bike without ever putting your feet down, but for now you need the stability of having both feet flat on the ground.
The verdict: Like the Ninja 250, the Honda Rebel 250 is respected the world over as a great starter bike. The Honda Rebel is a perfect beginner motorcycle for anyone with a short inseam.
Also consider: Suzuki Boulevard S40, Honda Grom
Honda Shadow 650: The Highwayman
Everyone has an opinion about whether it’s okay to start on a larger bike, but in all honesty it’s fine as long as you take your time.
While the Honda Shadow 650 weighs far more than a Ninja 250 or Honda Rebel, the handlebars are up high and the weight is down low. That means this comfy highway cruiser is still maneuverable enough to ride around town. Power is smooth and generous, brakes and suspension are crisp and responsive, and resale value is low across the board. If you need your first motorcycle to be highway capable, this is the one – and it won’t tempt you to push its limits like a sport bike would.
In fact, each of these cruisers makes a great first motorcycle:
Kawasaki Vulcan 650
Honda Shadow 600/650
Harley Sportster 883
Suzuki Boulevard S50/M50
Yamaha V-Star 650
Expect to see 2000s-era examples of each of these bikes selling for $3000 or less.
The verdict: For a beginner bike with a little more oomph, a midrange cruiser is a perfect choice.
Also consider: Kawasaki Ninja 500, Kawasaki Ninja 650, Suzuki SV650
The Best Starter Motorcycle is A Moped
Okay, okay, bear with me.
You’ve probably been conditioned to think that 49cc mopeds are punishments for people who had their driver’s license revoked. But in most of the world the moped is a revered form of transportation, one that entire countries would shut down without. Sure, they aren’t the safest thing to ride in gridlocked Los Angeles or through the backwoods of Kentucky. But they make a great starter motorcycle if you’ve got the moxie to pull it off.
Scooters are stellar first motorcycles because they’re light, nimble, reliable, slow, and cheap. Most cost under $1000 new, and while you won’t learn how to handle gobs of power you will learn all the basics of counter-steering, throttle control, and judging corner entry speeds. That’ll keep you busy for at least a few weeks, and it will let you get your feet wet to make sure you even like riding before you get in too deep.
Crank the throttle as much as you want, lay ‘er over a few times, then sell it for exactly what you paid 3 weeks ago and move up to a bigger machine.
The verdict: A moped is the perfect beginner motorcycle to test the waters with.
Also consider: Honda Ruckus, Honda Grom
Which Beginner Motorcycle is Best?
If this is your absolute first experience with a motorcycle and you’re on the fence about riding in general, buy or rent a cheap moped. That way you won’t be invested into something you’re not sure about.
The best all-around choice for any beginner rider is a Kawasaki Ninja 250.
If you're into cruisers or you’re vertically challenged, get a Honda Rebel 250.
For something with more highway legs, get a Honda Shadow 650.
And if you’re King Dingaling with more money than sense, go ahead and get that brand-new Ducati off the showroom floor. Just promise you’ll call me when it’s time to part it out.