Based on years of riding and professional research, these are the motorcycles we’d buy.
Editor’s Note: As long as stay-in-place orders remain in effect to slow the spread of COVID-19, don’t ride unless it’s your only option for food, medicine, or emergencies. Motorcycles are dangerous. Don’t risk a hospital trip until resources become available again.
The last few years have been an unusually good time to buy a motorcycle. Starting after the 2008 recession, manufacturers have increased their efforts to earn new customers and replace the riders who are aging out of ownership. That economic pressure has resulted in affordable, practical, and wonderfully strange new designs. In 2020, that means high-tech safety features such as traction control and even clothing that deploys personal airbags. It means keyless start/stop, transmissions that can predict and prevent you from stalling, and enough options to make choosing an electric motorcycle kind of difficult. Read on for advice on buying your own and reviews of the best rigs out there today.
Assuming that brand loyalty isn’t a factor, the most efficient path to finding the right motorcycle is to start with where and how you will be riding. This is why almost every manufacturer produces at least one model of each genre of bike. Ducati, for example, has an off-road capable city motorcycle (the Scrambler), a race-grade superbike (Panigale V4R), a cruiser (Diavel), an ergonomic adventure bike (Multistrada), and even an electric mountain bike (E-MTB). Once you have a sense of which type of bike will best serve your uses, you can start comparing within that type, which is what we’ve done here.
A motorcycle’s acceleration and top speed are often referred to by displacement, or cubic centimeters (250cc, 600cc, 1,000cc). This refers to the volume of air and fuel all the cylinders can draw in and explode to create power. Nimble, off-road capable dual-sports and learner bikes are usually around 250 to 400cc. Mid-range, retro-style, do-anything bikes that are fun on backroads and comfortable on highways start at 650cc and can go up to 900cc. Dangerously fast superbikes, upright adventure (ADV) motorcycles, and Sons of Anarchy cruisers are usually 1,000cc or more.We don’t say this often, but more power isn’t always better. Most of the time, it’s more fun to push a smaller motorcycle to its limit than to use only a sliver of a race replica superbike’s potential. Be honest about your skill level and riding style, and you’ll be happier with your purchase.
Types of Motorcycles
Beginner: Look for safety tech (ABS, traction control) and a modest engine size. Between 300 and 400cc is ideal. Most manufacturers sell an entry-level motorcycle that looks like a race bike, but it will only have a 400cc single-cylinder engine. These are fast enough to handle highways, yet easier to maintain and less expensive than more complex setups. The major Japanese manufacturers (Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha) do this type of motorcycle especially well. Beginners with patience and restraint can also consider larger engines (650cc) to grow into over time.
Standard/Retro: This is a catch-all category for motorcycles that have a mostly upright riding position and minimal add-ons. Most don’t come with windshields or fairings, those aerodynamic pieces of plastic that cover the front portion. The engine is usually a two- or three-cylinder design, between 600 and 900cc. Retro bikes will have seats, headlights, and exhaust pipes that are designed to look like something out of the 1950s or 60s, but they’ll last thousands of miles between service and meet modern emissions standards. These are excellent all-around bikes for beginner and intermediate riders who need a compact frame to navigate cities but also want comfort on highways. Triumph’s line of Modern Classics almost defines the Retro category, though alternatives from companies like Kawasaki are also great and often less expensive.
Non-retro Standard or “Naked” motorcycles usually have the performance of race-looking superbikes, but with a more comfortable seat position and less conspicuous appearance. Triumph’s Street Triple, Yamaha’s MT-09, and Ducati’s Monster are all excellent examples of do-anything motorcycles.
Adventure (ADV): Tall, with big engines and fuel tanks, these are built for long, far rides, mostly on-road—and through gravel, mud, and sand, so long as they have the right tires. Most have engines around 700cc, though others go up to 1,200cc. Done right, these are the bikes that should make you want to quit your job and ride around the world. (For asphalt-only riding, Sport Touring motorcycles are closer to the ground, more aerodynamic, and lighter than a typical ADV).
Cruiser: You’ll remember seeing these: High handlebars, loud exhaust, slouched riding position, and big engines. The cruiser (or “bagger,” for the saddlebag storage available on most models) is specific to the United States’ abundance of long, straight, flat roads. Harley-Davidson is to cruisers what Heinz is to ketchup, and newer models have fixed the perception that the brand was coasting on history and loyalty. But competition from Indian and Japanese manufacturers like Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha are legitimate alternatives.
Superbike: If you’ve been passed by an idiot going 150mph on a whining motorcycle, it was probably a superbike. These have race bike aerodynamics and big engines but also safety tech that can save you from unintentional wheelies and burnouts. If you can live with not having the most powerful, expensive model in a manufacturer’s lineup, mid-tier super bikes (around or less than 1,000cc) are both thrilling and daily drivers. The major Japanese brands (Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki) have been doing this well for decades, as has Ducati.
Supermoto: We thank the few manufacturers that still produce this style of bike. The design principle is simple: Fit a dirt bike with small, smooth road tires, and tweak the power slightly to make it work on roads instead of trails. The result is a tall, narrow, light motorcycle that is the most fun way to navigate anywhere urban. The wind and vibrations at sustained highway speeds can be unpleasant, but tolerable and worth it so long as the majority of your riding happens at lower speeds and in a dense city or town.
Electric: Instant torque. No heat. No vibration or changing gears (assuming you consider those benefits and not drawbacks). Maintenance requirements: Keep air in the tires, maybe check the brake fluid. Electric motorcycles are fun as hell to ride and easy to own. Same as electric cars, they have been quietly increasing their range to roughly 100 to 120 miles, while hotels and parking structures have been adding fast-charging stations. (Zero Motorcycles, for example, use J1772 chargers, similar to most non-Tesla electric cars). However, same as cars, electric motorcycles are still more expensive than gasoline alternatives, and riding one requires you to be deliberate about how and where you ride. However, if you have a predictable commute, access to fast chargers, and at least $20,000 to spend, electric bikes make a ton of sense. (Though for urban environments, an electric bicycle can be similarly convenient for less money).
How We Selected
Every motorcycle here has been evaluated by our test editor. Our selections were based on over ten years of experience, researching the market, surveying professional and user reviews, interviewing industry experts, and riding (both to review for publication and for personal transportation). For each category, these are the models that we would consider purchasing ourselves. In some cases, that means motorcycles that haven’t been updated for 2020 or 2021 and are still better options than completely new models. For every pick, we’ve also included alternatives that, for certain riders, can be the better fit and are worth test riding.