Cruiser vs. Sport bike vs. whatever: Motorcycles for dummies

You’re a newbie, and you want to get a motorcycle, but you’re not sure what kind to buy. Some friends say to get a cruiser, others say you should buy a sport bike. You’ve never had a bike before, so you want to know: What’s the difference between these machines? Which will suit you best?

Here’s a quick explanation of the different motorcycle genres, and what’s good and bad about each of them. Except for the dual-sport. There’s nothing bad about dual-sport motorcycles.


Scooters

Scooters have a motor and two wheels, like other motorcycles, but typically have a “step-through” frame and are aimed more at practicality (underseat storage! good fuel economy!) than performance. Most come with some sort of automatic transmission that means you can just twist the throttle and ride off, with no gear shifting to figure out.

Broadly speaking, you could divide scooters into three sub-categories: entry-level scooters, usually in the 49 cc range and mostly sold to kids too young to have a full motorcycle or car licence; commuter scooters, in the 125-250 cc range, built for practical around-town riding and maybe the occasional backroad jaunt; and maxi-scooters, ranging from 250 cc to 650 cc, and built to haul long distances at highway-legal (maybe even illegal!) speeds. Styling ranges from classic (as seen in the title image) to modern and edgy.

Most scooters are viewed as kinda dorky by experienced motorcyclists, but if this is what works for you, go ahead and buy one. They’re affordable, practical, fun and if you buy a maxi-scooter, moderately fast.

You should buy a scooter if: If your mom makes you. If you’re an artsy college student who doesn’t want a macho image. If you’re a sensible urbanite who wants affordable, practical transportation. If you’re a stereotypical millennial motorist who gets all nervous and sweaty just thinking about shifting gears.

Here, CMG’s managing editor shows his racing form aboard the new Ninja 400. Try to stay out of the emergency room this summer, Jacob!

Sport bikes

Sport bikes are styled to look like racing machines, with plastic fairings covering the body and low-mounted clip-on handlebars that put riders into a crouch. That sporty look doesn’t necessarily equal high performance, as many beginner bikes come in sport bike clothes (Yamaha R3, Kawasaki Ninja 400, etc.). The manufacturers like to dress up entry-level machines as faster bikes in order to sell more units. Unfortunately, the insurance companies sometimes use this as an excuse to charge extra cash, so a sport bike may turn out to be an expensive proposition, even if the purchase price is cheap.

Once you get into more powerful sport bikes, there’s an increasing level of danger for newbies (aka noobs). Despite what your friends say, a 600 cc sport bike is not beginner-friendly, as the combination of horsepower and strong brakes can get an inexperienced rider into trouble quickly. But once you know what you’re doing, a full-sized sport bike (ranging from 600 supersports to 1000 superbikes) offers performance that will blow the doors off any other vehicle in the same price range.

You should buy a sport bike if: If you want an entry-level bike that doesn’t look like a complete dorkmobile. If you live near a race track. If you want the look, the power or the handling, and you’ve got the skills to avoid crashing. If you want to be like Jacob Black, and spend your summer weekends in hospital getting X-rays after crashing into straw bales during races.

The Ducati Monster is one of the most recognizable naked bike models, arguably establishing the class as a distinct segment of motorcycling in the 1990s.

Naked bikes

Broadly speaking, a naked bike is a motorcycle with no fairing — but not a cruiser. They can be extremely powerful (BMW S1000R) or relatively noob-friendly (Honda CB300F).

Most of them offer a more comfortable riding position than cruisers or sport bikes, but still have pretty decent handling, no matter the engine size. If you drop them, there’s a lot less expensive bodywork to replace.

Naked bikes are typically more affordable than sport bikes, and cheaper to insure as well.

The only real downside is modern naked bikes are looking more and more like Transformers every year, and the lack of bodywork makes many of them unpleasant to ride long distances into the wind at speed.

You should buy a naked bike if: If you want power and handling, but want a bit more comfort than a sportbike. If you want performance, but don’t want to pay high insurance rates. If you’ve watched a few stunt rider videos on YouTube, and you’re pretty sure you can do better.

The stereotypical cruiser is low and slow, just like Zac as he sails by on the Harley-Davidson Street Bob.

Cruisers

Cruisers come in two basic styles: the classic retro look that harks back to nuclear-age Americana, and the muscle cruiser look the Japanese introduced in the 1980s. There’s a lot of variety in cruiser sizes; you can buy anything from a tiny 250 to a massive 2,300 cc behemoth. The smaller ones are typically cheap entry-level machines, and the bigger ones are heavy and expensive. Many manufacturers build touring bikes on cruiser platforms, and these are probably the best of the breed (Harley-Davidson Road King, for example).

Although many cruisers make massive torque, most are low-revving engines with old-school tech and relatively low horsepower, considering their displacement. Some muscle cruisers (Ducati Diavel is the best example) have pretty modern engines, but those are the exception. Most cruisers have limited suspension travel, big front wheels and low ground clearance, which makes them slow-handling as well.

You should buy a cruiser if: If the cruiser look is more important to you than performance. If you like cruisers, and don’t care about anyone else’s opinion. If you need the low seat height. If you want to be like Mark, and cruise sedately to Tim Hortons with your spouse on board.

Mark straddles his DR600 dual-sport and proves he used to be cool, before he got a cruiser.

Dual-sports

A dual-sport is designed to work on the street but still retain  decent off-road capability. That means it has to be light and have decent suspension. Dual-sports usually have single-cylinder engines in the 200-650 cc range (which vibrate a lot!), and typically have taller seats than most street bikes, so when you fall off in the woods, it hurts more.

There’s a wide range in capabilities, from sedate 650 thumpers designed with highway capability in mind to the street-legal Euro enduros from KTM and Beta, which are really just race-oriented dirt bikes with lights. Japanese dual-sports are typically less performance-oriented, but generally are known for longevity, toughness, and good pricing.

Although they have large front wheels to handle off-road riding, most dual-sports still handle well, due to their light weight. They’re a particularly good choice for riders in areas with bad pavement, as they can soak up a pothole with ease. Insurance companies often see dual-sports as less of a risk than sport bikes, making them reasonable to insure, but you can still hoon on them if you want.

You should buy a dual-sport if: If you want a true do-it-all motorcycle. If capability is more important to you than looks. If you want to be able to ride both the street and the dirt. If you want a lot of bang for your buck. If you want to be like Zac, and spend your weekends camping in the soggy woods, swatting black flies and eating canned beans.

The Triumph Tiger 1200 is a good example of a flagship adventure bike: huge, packed with technology and horsepower, and expensive. Most don’t venture too far off-road, but here, Bert shows the Triumph can handle some gravel just fine.

Adventure bikes

Adventure bikes and scramblers are designed to handle offroad riding, but are more street-oriented than dual-sport bikes, and are typically 650 cc and bigger. Adventure bikes are marketed toward riders who want to travel around the world, bombing through Saharan sand dunes or Bolivian salt flats, but with all the comfort of a touring bike, and hauling a truckload of luggage. (The stereotype is that most adventure bikes don’t make it any farther than the nearest Starbucks).

Increasingly, adventure bikes are filled with the same technology as superbikes — wheelie control, launch control, leaning ABS, huge engines, etc. Modern adventure bikes are pricey, as a result. But if you really want a bike that’s fun to ride super-fast on Canada’s broken back roads, it’s hard to beat a proper adventure bike.

You should buy an adventure bike if: If you want to travel long distances on bad roads in comfort. If you want horsepower that’s optimized for bad roads. If you want to travel the world and bring everything from home with you, including a hefty payment plan.

Although they usually have styling that harks back to the 1970s (or earlier), retro/scrambler models are often marketed toward millennials.

Retro

Almost every manufacturer makes some sort of standard retro model, with lines that hark back to the classic British and Japanese models that were popular in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s a wide range in retro models, from the mild Sym Cub 100 to the wild Kawasaki Z900 RS Cafe. Some retros are extremely affordable (Suzuki VanVan). For others, like the Triumph T120 line, you’re probably going to have to save up for a while.

Scramblers are a retro style that’s really grown in the past few years. They’re a little less high-tech than adventure bikes, and less expensive, but still designed for off-road action. Increasingly, the high-end scramblers are becoming competitive with adventure bikes for offroad capability, but they’re usually marketed with nostalgia in mind, not dirt hoonery.

You should buy a retro bike if: If you want a bike with classic lines, but want more performance or less weight than a cruiser. If you wear skinny jeans and flannel, and drink PBR.

Touring bikes usually come with hard luggage as stock, unless they’re cruisers, which are sometimes sold with leather saddlebags.

Tourer

There are plenty of motorcycles that are meant to do secondary duty as touring machines (most adventure bikes, some cruisers, some sport bikes), but some motorcycles are designed with that as their primary purpose. There used to be more motorcycles in this role, but today, the Honda Gold Wing and BMW K1600 models are probably the best-known. Other more hybridized models include the Indian Roadmaster, Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic and Yamaha Star Eluder (touring cruisers), or the Kawasaki H2 SX, KTM Super Duke GT or Yamaha FJR1300 (sport tourers).

Most tourers tend to have larger engines, to deal with the weight of two riders and their luggage, and they’re usually quite heavy. They aren’t for beginners. New touring bikes are expensive, but older used models (Honda Gold Wing or Silver Wing, Suzuki Cavalcade, Kawasaki Voyager) can be had very affordably. There’s a reason for that — although the engine and chassis may be sturdy, it can be a very time-consuming and expensive job to rebuild the running gear, bodywork, electrical system and accessories on an older touring machine.

You should buy a touring bike if: If you’ve been around motorcycles for a while and you intend to take trips longer than weekend jaunts. If you want to regularly haul a passenger. If you’re running moonshine, and you need the extra luggage space to hide the contraband from the Mounties.

11 thoughts on “Cruiser vs. Sport bike vs. whatever: Motorcycles for dummies”

  1. So Zac, I see that you completely stopped trying to hide your biases. Progress, I guess.

    But let’s be clear – a dual sport IS NOT a “true do-it-all motorcycle” – many (like the DR you show in the pic) are complete shit (power, handling, braking, stability, everything really), but otherwise competent on fire roads.

    1. Heh heh heh

      I’m really a scooter man, at heart, the DR thing is just a facade to make people think I’m cool.

      Hey, you should have come out to the pub night at the TO show, missed you there.

    2. And don’t forget, I live in NB — all we have are fire roads, so I kinda need a DR.

      Although I had the RF900R out for the first time this week and it actually worked well in my town’s post-apocalyptic streetscapes.

  2. Has anyone seen gas prices in Vancouver today? When will drivers pull their heads out of their asses and buy a mid-sized bike? What a beautiful day to be on a bike.

  3. Hilarious and informative while managing to take the mick out of just about everyone! Do you think the mini-adv class (eg, Versys-X, Vstrom 250) will become a ‘thing’?

    1. I think it already is a thing? But not enough to really set out its own segment just yet. I think that in 3-4 years we shall be down to only the G310 GS (presuming there’s no quality control issues), the Kawasaki and maybe one other bike. Don’t see the Strom as a long-term product, and I think the CRF250 Rally will fade in popularity. Just my opinion, of course.

  4. I feel Saying crap like this ” You should buy a scooter if: If your mom makes you.” show as a motorcycle writer that your may not pay to play much. How often is your ride is a long term demo ?
    So Lets see I drop 7 to 20 grand on a motorcycle , pay 100 bucks a month insurance plus and get 50 mpg . How does that make $$ cents so to speak? Theres a reason motorcycling sale in canada and usa are going down ! Whom got the cash for a bike? At least if I m riding a 250 cc scooter I can get 65 to 85 mpg . If I pick up a honda pcx 150 for under 3 grand . With that I can get 100 MPG plus with the latest model. Yah it only does 115kph but still works for back road touring.
    Also you seem to have forgotten the old age problem with the guys whom have been riding for 20 plus years. There comes a time when swing your leg over a bike is painful. You might not be able to support you 400 plus pound bike. At that point it s ether give up or go get a 250 to 650 cc scooter and still have fun. If you keep that heavy motorcycle you ll have to drop another 5 grand plus on a trike kit.

    1. I’m sure if you ask your mom nicely, she’ll let you sell the scooter and buy a Rebel 250 or something else in that price range.

      I think you need to read the story more carefully.

      Also–I haven’t ridden a long-term demo for at least three years. I pay plenty to play, thanks very much.

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter lol … Brief background.. 44 years old, always wanted to ride but growing up in the GTA was always afraid to learn, moved out to rural Alberta and met my wife who rides and motivated me to get on one(I know, it’s usually the other way around)… been riding now for 2 years and absolutely am in love with riding. Since we used to live in the rockies my first bike was the XT250, which was great for those forest service roads and trails and getting to them. We recently moved to just north of Edmonton and needed to get something a little more suitable to drag my 6’1 250 lbs around on the 100 km/hr country roads that I am surrounded by so I bought the Vstrom 650. Halfway through last season I felt that having a cruiser around for that different riding experience was necessary so also got an M50. Funny thing is, I have the Triumph Street Twin and/or a Motto Guzzi V9 roamer or V7 Stone III on the radar for the future with no desire to downsize. Moral of this story is that all bikes are fun and monogamy does not work when it comes to riding motorcycles.

    1. Nope, although your first motorcycle was obviously your best, because it was a dual sport …

      One day, Mark or I shall write a story on why you need at least five motorcycles. Although I’ve been thinking that number is low, lately.

Join the conversation!