Choosing a New Motorcycle

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Choosing a bike used to be easy. If you wanted laid-back long-distance pleasure, you bought a Harley. For sportier riding, you bought a British twin. Beyond that, the field was pretty thin: mopeds, exotic but fragile Italian screamers, and stodgy, pricey German tugs.

That was then and this is now. Dozens of manufacturers offer hundreds of models from extreme stunt bikes to touring leviathans, and from quasi-racers to coffee-bar cruisers. The upside is you now have lots of choice. The downside is you have lots of choice! Where to start?

Obvious first steps: How much do you have to spend? (Be realistic about those tempting long-term financing plans. Do you still want to be paying out every month in seven year's time?) And what do you want to use the bike for?

RoadRUNNER is a touring magazine, so let's assume you're looking for a tourer. Almost any bike can and has been used for touring, although some work better than others. If there's a particular style of bike that appeals to you (cruiser, sportbike, dual-purpose) then that's a good place to start looking. Touring derivatives of all these exist, plus some newer styles that defy categorization.

Also consider the type of touring you'll do: with/without a passenger; highway; back-road canyon carving; gravel roads; camping or hotel. All of these factors will affect your choice. For example, if you plan to travel regularly with a passenger, buy a bike that's set up that way: few things will test a relationship more than having your paramour spend endless days perched on the vinyl-covered two-by-four that sometimes passes for passenger accommodations, while you ride up front in comfort. Choosing the right balance of weight and power is important too. The bike needs to grow with you as you get used to it, but not overwhelm you from the start. Know your skill level and your personal limitations!

So now you know roughly what kind of bike you want, and you have a price in mind. Remember, though, to set some extra cash aside for accessories. Luggage, for instance, or heated grips. Most modern motorcycles are meant to be accessorized, and you may find the basic equipment lacking. Spend some time on manufacturers' websites checking specs and prices. There's no substitute for knowledge here, and the more you know about what's available the better your buying decision will be. Check things like seat height, weight, service intervals, cost and parts prices. Some magazine research helps here, too.

A word of caution, however. Magazine "shoot-outs" between similar bikes might point to one machine being 0.1 second faster in the standing quarter, or have a 5mph higher top speed; but does that really matter? In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz identifies two types of buying patterns: "satisficing" and "maximizing." Maximizers want the absolute best of everything, and will spend a lot more money to get that extra 5mph. Satisficers, on the other hand, will identify a product that performs to the level they want without it having to be the very best. This isn't compromise so much as matching the product to the requirement. Maximizers are far more prone to "buyer's remorse," because they can never achieve perfection. Better to be a satisficer, says Schwartz.

Got a shortlist? Next thing to do is sit on it - literally. Do the rounds of the bike dealers to see what feels right. But take it from one who's been there, a bike that feels OK for 20 seconds in the showroom can turn into a torture rack after 20 minutes on the road. Insist on a test ride. Most dealers have demonstrators for their most popular models; but don't expect to be let loose on a factory 999R or a Rune.

There's a common myth (especially among those who've never ridden anything else) that cruiser-style bikes are the only ones comfortable for long distances. That's simply not true - as millions of standard, dual-sport and sportbike riders would attest. I personally would far rather ride the Three Flags on an R1 than a Road King. Cruiser ergonomics load the spine heavily, and promote poor posture, whereas the "weight on your wrists" of a sportbike will disappear at highway speeds as the wind takes your body weight. Try lots of different styles, and don't bring along any preconceptions. Of course, if looking cool is more important...

And that's an important factor. Most people make emotional buying decisions, and then use logic to support their intuition. That's fine. But if you do that, be prepared to live with your decision. Trading in a new bike after a couple of months will cost you big time. On a similar note, consider resale value. Some bikes hold their price better than others.

One last thing. Before you lay your money down, ask a few buddies what they think. Just remember that no two men or women will agree on the best brand or model - that's a Ford vs. Chevy thing. But most will agree on the bikes that are real dogs. And, no, I'm not going to name any here.

Looking for bargains? The Kawasaki Concours is a superb touring bike, and though the design is 20 years old, it still holds its own in most company. It comes with factory luggage, too. Triumph will soon be clearing out its inventory of 955 Sprint STs as the new 1055cc bikes arrive, and the ST is probably the best all-round sport tourer on the market. Again, luggage is included. Honda's mid-size Shadows are deservedly popular, while Suzuki's V-Strom 650 is as versatile as a pocket multi-tool and almost as cheap. Bags are extra.

And here's another tip. You can often get a smoking deal on a bike that's been on the showroom floor awhile and maybe a couple of model years old. Make a lowball offer, and be prepared to walk as far as the door before turning around...