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Motorcycles & scooters

Motorcycle & scooter buying guide

Last updated: April 2014

Getting started

Motorcycles and scooters can be an appealing, and even economical, alternative to a car for solo commuting, running errands, and more. For some, especially urban dwellers, a two-wheeler may be the only transportation they need.

But motorcycles and scooters aren't for everybody. Passenger and cargo space is limited, and riders are a lot more exposed to the dangers of harsh weather, extreme temperatures, poorly maintained roads, and other motorists' errors. The cold reality is that motorcyclists are 30 times more likely to die in a crash than people in a car, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And 43 percent of all motorcycle deaths are the result of single-vehicle crashes. Speeding and alcohol continues to be major contributors to motorcycle crashes. Eliminate those factors and you've dramatically reduced your risk.

Motorcycles can be a lot of fun and provide a more engaging travel experience than a car, making you less isolated from your surroundings and more aware of the sights and scents of the world around you. Many two-wheelers claim about 50 mpg, with some thrifty, small-displacement models boasting upwards of 100 mpg. Before running down to the local dealership with the checkbook, it's important to know if a cycle is for you. Riding and maneuvering a bike is more physically demanding than driving a car, and even getting a bike onto its center stand for parking a can pose a challenge for some. (Read our 10 motorcycle safety tips for new and returning riders.)

This guide is intended as a primer for new riders thinking about getting their first cycle and as a refresher for those who haven't ridden for a while but are thinking about getting back on a bike. We'll take you through the basics of cycle types, safety, clothing and gear, where to get instruction, ownership costs, and everything else you need to know.

Visit our motorcycle special section, and see our report on motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction.

Types

Scooters and motorcycles run the gamut from lightweight, fuel-sipping putt-putts to 200-hp pavement-ripping monsters, with a wide variety of styles and performance levels in between. Some are built for specific types of riding, like models designed for modest off-road use or those meant specifically for long-distance highway cruising. Others are meant for a combination of purposes.

Beginners may find scooters more novice-friendly than motorcycles, thanks to their lighter weight and automatic transmissions. Scooters can also make errand running easier, because most have some on-board storage--something that can't be said for all motorcycles.

If you've decided to seriously consider a two-wheeler of your own, the next step is to figure out which type is best for you. Start by thinking about where and when you will ride, and if you're looking for daily transportation, weekend cruising, or somewhere in between. Then consider:

  • Will you be riding on highways, secondary roads, around town, or some combination of the above?
  • Does the bike need to have sufficient power and seating for a passenger?
  • Do you need storage room for gear or groceries?
  • Is fuel mileage a priority?
  • How much do you want to spend?

Next, give some thought to some features that might make for a more enjoyable, and safer, ride:

  • Saddlebags or racks Thanks to their enclosed designs, most scooters have at least a small storage compartment, and many have a lidded and lockable space large enough to swallow up a helmet or small bag of groceries. To carry anything on a motorcycle, you might want to consider saddlebags, rear "trunk," or a rack, usually mounted over the rear wheel behind the seat. Your dealership can discuss options with you.
  • Antilock brakes Although this important safety feature is now found on all new cars, it has been slow in coming to cycles. ABS is commonly offered on large, expensive models, but it has been spreading to several entry-level sport bikes and midsized bikes, adding at least $500 to the cost. ABS is can be money well spent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has reported that motorcycles equipped with antilock brakes are 37 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than models without ABS.
  • Windscreen or fairing These can help protect you from the wind and rain, and they can make highway riding less fatiguing.
  • Automatic transmission Learning to ride a motorcycle is complicated by the myriad controls that have each foot and hand playing an active role. Honda has been introducing midsized models available with an automatic transmission that could make riding more approachable for beginners.
  • Crash bars Hoop-shaped bars mounted on the frame can help protect riders in a spill by keeping the weight of the bike off the rider's body.

Here's a quick rundown of model types available to help narrow your selection.

Small scooters


These are the smallest, lightest, and easiest models for a novice rider to handle, and the most efficient, returning cruising fuel economy of as much as 100 mpg in our testing. Small scooters (engines 50 cc or less) are also among the least expensive to buy, with prices starting at about $1,000. All have automatic transmissions and electric start, and they offer a more chair-like seating position than a motorcycle. But with top speeds of only 35 to 45 mph, they cannot be ridden on highways and are best suited for putting around town. Registration and licensing requirements vary by state, with some states not requiring license plates at all. To see regulations by state, check the MSF website.

Midsized scooters


Scooters in the 125-to-150 cc range provide more power, making them better choices than 50cc models for keeping up with traffic, carrying a passenger, and for all-around use. Even so, they should not be ridden on freeways and interstates. Like smaller models, they're easy to maneuver and ride, with electric start and automatic transmissions. Fuel economy is not as good as that of smaller models, but some midsized models returned close to 80 mpg in our tests. Tested models ranged in price from $2,800 to $4,400.

Large scooters


Combining the seating position, shift-free driving and on-board storage of a scooter with the highway capability and range of a cruising motorcycle, large scooters (engines 400-650 cc) can be a good choice for travelers who prefer the look and feel of a scooter. While larger, heavier, and less maneuverable than smaller scooters, they provide brisk acceleration and easily can carry two at highway speeds. Prices range from about $7,500 to $10,000.

Motorcycles

Cruiser


With a relaxed riding position and seating for two, cruisers combine the look of a traditional motorcycle with a more stylish, custom appearance and typically longer wheelbase and forward foot pegs. Available in single and multi-cylinder designs, cruisers run the gamut from small, fuel-efficient models to big, large-displacement bikes. Price range: $4,000-$18,000.

Dual purpose


Designed to be ridden on or off-road, dual-purpose models can also be good choices for city dwellers who appreciate their higher ground clearance, all purpose tires, and extra suspension travel as much as trail riders do. Completely street legal with lights, directional signals, and other road-going equipment, dual-purpose models are lightweight and well balanced, and available in a wide range of sizes. Price range: $4,500-$7,500.

Electric motorcycles


Electric motorcycles have been gaining in popularity, especially with city dwellers who can appreciate their economical operating costs, low maintenance, and don't mind their limited range and top speed. A rechargeable battery is included, and it can be charged using household current. Range is typically no more than about 50 miles, and less if ridden at their top speed. Price range: $8,000-$14,000, but government tax credits are available.

Sport bike


With aggressive bodywork designed to slice the wind, high-performance engines, lightweight frames, and a crouched riding position, sport bikes are all about performance. These are not the most comfortable or practical models for novice riders; they are best suited to those with a lot of experience in varied conditions. Models span from affordable, and fun, 250 cc entry-level sport bikes up to exotic performance legends best suited for true expert riders. Price range: $4,000-$16,000.

Touring


Designed for long distance travel or day trips, touring bikes are powerful and comfortable enough for two people to spend a full day in the saddle. They can range from basic models with a minimum of frills to decked out bikes with saddlebags, fairings, windshields, stereo, and even cruise control and heated handgrips. Price range: $14,000 to $24,000.

Traditional/Standard


These are the most well-rounded street motorcycles and the most conventional-looking designs, with an upright riding position. Good for commuting and all-around use, traditional models range in size from economical, lightweight designs with around 250 cc engines to powerful models in the 1500 cc range. Price range: $4,000 and up.

Key things to consider

We can't stress enough that riding isn't for everyone. This is a high-risk mode of transportation best suited to coordinated adults with the ability to focus attention, willingness to master the sport, good vision, and a healthy dose of common sense. And don't think that if you are considering a scooter you are less exposed to danger than you'd be on a motorcycle.

Scooter or motorcycle?

If you want a natural seating position, rather than straddling an engine, and to not be bothered with shifting gears, the flat foot-rest floor and convenience of an automatic transmission define you as a scooter candidate.

It's easier to master a motorcycle if you already know how to drive a stick shift.

Scooters and motorcycles can provide limited storage, but they are not prime choices for transporting passengers or much cargo. While long-distance travel can be a joy for expert riders, new riders are better served sticking closer to home. Short commutes and local riding are well suited to a neophyte, though consider the dangers that these rides may provide. Tackling rush hour in a major metropolitan area demands more concentration and experience than cruising through a small town or exploring scenic, rural roads.

Choosing a bike is often inspired by style and image, but these really should be secondary considerations. Don't pick a bike that's larger than you can handle. A standard rule is to choose a model that allows both your feet to be planted firmly on the ground when stopped, and beginners should be careful not to choose a bike that's too powerful for their ability. It is advised to start with a small-displacement model in the 250-500 cc range, although larger riders might be more comfortable toward the higher end of that scale, or even starting with a 700 cc, depending on confidence level and where they plan to ride. Following this strategy will lead you to a bike that will be satisfying in the long term. How can you possibly pick a bike you'd want to ride for years when you haven't even ridden for a week?

You'll also need a safe place to park your new ride. A garage is best, but bikes can be parked outside and covered. When parking outdoors, you'll want a secure location and/or a means to lock the bike to prevent theft.

Weather is much more of a consideration for riders than car drivers. You're literally out there in it, so be prepared to arrive wherever you're going wet, rumpled, or both, even with protective gear. And consider a short haircut, or "helmet head" will become your nickname.

Licensing is another consideration. No license is required for scooters with engines less than 50 cc in most states. You'll need to get a motorcycle license for anything larger than 50 cc, which involves a written and a road test. A list of licensing requirements can be found on the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) website.

Professional instruction and practice are a must before taking the test, and no new rider should take to the roads without lessons from a pro. Many classes provide entry-level bikes, giving a chance to not only learn, but to sample bikes before buying one.

Even if you're an experienced rider but haven't ridden in a while, a refresher course is a good idea. Classes are available for all skill levels.

Last, remember safety gear. You'll need to invest in a helmet, gloves, jacket, boots, and other protective clothing. In addition to protecting you in a crash, the right gear will help shield you from the elements.

What you'll spend

Street-legal basic scooters can be bought for less than $1,000, and more upscale models for up to $9,000. Small, fuel-efficient motorcycles begin around $4,200, while larger and more fully equipped bikes can cost as much as a well-equipped sedan.

Add to that another $1,000 or more for protective clothing. Don't skimp on the quality of the gear. The trade offs are comfort and safety, two things a rider should not compromise on. Insurance costs vary widely depending on your age, location, driving record, type of cycle, displacement, and other factors. Check with your company or agent for a specific quote.

If you don't have a garage, you'll either need to rent storage space or invest in a cover for anywhere from $35 to $200. Or, you could just leave the bike in the elements and bring along a roll of paper towels when you want to go for a ride--a wet seat is never fun.

While fuel costs are usually less expensive for almost any cycle than they are for a car, maintenance can be just as much, depending on the bike, how many miles you ride, where you get it serviced, and if you do some work yourself. Just like with cars, dealer service is often the most expensive option. Independent mechanics can be a more cost effective, and bikes are generally easier to work on than cars if you choose to do some maintenance yourself, as many owners do. However you choose to do it, motorcycles require oil changes and other service, just like a car. In colder regions, prep for winter storage is a factor.

Safety

Scooters and motorcycles require different skills to operate than cars, and driving conditions that you might not give a second thought in your car can have serious consequences on a two-wheeler.

That's why professional instruction is a must, especially for new riders or if you haven't been on a bike for a while. A motorcycle dealer should be able to steer you in the right direction for local sources of training, and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) lists qualified instructional courses nationwide on its website. More motorcycle safety tips can also be found on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.

If you're new to riding, practice at low speeds in safe areas before venturing onto major roads.

Here are some factors to be aware of when making the switch from four to two wheels:

Be as visible as possible

Automobile drivers who have hit a scooter or motorcycle rider often say they didn't see the person. Wear brightly colored clothing and helmet, always have your lights on, and use your directional signals. When choosing a bike, consider a colorful one.

Watch for debris

A two-wheel vehicle has less contact with the pavement than a four-wheeler. In a turn, sand, wet leaves, or pebbles can cause the bike to slide quickly and unexpectedly with potentially tragic results.

Watch the road surface

Pavement irregularities that might be only an uncomfortable bump in a car can upset the balance of an unprepared bike rider. Railroad tracks, for example, should be approached at as close to a right angle as possible, especially when they're wet, so that the rails don't cause the bike's wheels to slide sideways. Stay away from any shiny surface. Try to maneuver smoothly around broken pavement and potholes.

Avoid riding in bad weather

But if you can't do that, be especially gentle with the brakes, throttle, and steering to avoid losing control on a slippery surface.

Protective gear

Without the benefit of a car's steel cage around you, you'll have to rely on your riding gear as your only source of accident protection. Your comfort and even your survival can depend on having the right gear.

Wear a helmet

Government studies show that riders without a helmet are 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury in a crash than helmeted riders and are three times more likely to suffer brain injuries. The helmet should be a full-face design that's approved by the Department of Transportation. The Snell Memorial Foundation, an independent helmet testing and standards-setting organization, recommends replacing a helmet every five years, or sooner if it's been damaged or has been in a crash. Beyond potential deterioration due to aging and exposure to hair oils and chemicals, Snell points out that there is often a notable improvement over that time in helmet design and materials. Make sure it fits snugly. Do not count on a "novelty" helmet to provide life-saving protection.

Cover up

Even low-speed spills can cause painful "road rash." It's critical to wear a leather or other reinforced jacket, gloves, full pants, and secure over-the-ankle footwear, even in summer. Specially designed jackets with meshed material provide protection without causing you to overheat. Absolutely avoid shorts, sandals, and shoe laces.

Protect your eyes

Flying insects and road debris kicked up by other vehicles can cause a lot of distraction and possible eye injury. Use a full-face helmet with a visor. If you wear eye glasses, try fitment with a helmet before buying.

Be prepared for wind chill

It can be a big factor on exposed skin. As the temperature drops, cover your body completely, especially your face and neck. Specialty clothing is available; a pair of jeans won't suffice. At only 30 mph, a moderate 40 F feels like its below freezing. At 55 mph, the wind-chill factor drops to 25 F, which can quickly become bone chilling and fatiguing.

Maintenance

Like cars, motorcycles and scooters require regular maintenance to keep them performing reliably. The good news is, you can do some of the work yourself if you choose, and some two-wheelers make gaining access to spark plugs and filters easier than it is on many cars. You'll find a maintenance schedule in the owner's manual, and some manuals may even show you how to do basic service. If you live in a colder climate, keep in mind that winter storage may have its own requirements, such as putting the battery on a trickle charger and adding fuel stabilizer to the tank. (See what your mechanic wants you to know.)

Proper maintenance may even be more important for a cycle than a car. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation advises riders to check tire pressure and condition before each ride, as part of a safety inspection that also includes controls, cables, hoses, wheels, brakes, lights, drive chain, suspension and even the frame. (Download a complete check list.)

   

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