Ask SF: What’s the Best First Motorcycle for a Scooterist?

Ask ScooterFile is a recurring feature where we answer questions from readers and invite you, the ScooterFile audience, to chime in as well in the comments.

For many people, the line between a scooter and a small motorcycle is pretty blurry. With the advent of many modern scooter designs that feature larger, more motorcycle-scale wheels and proportions, that line is now more blurry than ever. Yet despite the short distance between the two, many scooterists (myself included at one point) find motorcycles very intimidating.

Chris writes:

I just finished reading your review of the SYM Wolf 150. I’m thinking of upgrading from my scooter (Kymco People 50) to a small motorcycle, and I was hoping to pick your brain a little bit beyond the article. I have no experience with motorcycles, aside from three or four years of scootering, and I’m thinking the Wolf 150 might be the way to go. I’d appreciate any additional thoughts or input that might be helpful to a novice.

Well Chris, you’re asking a great question. I can remember when I was first thinking about expanding my riding to include motorcycles in addition to the scooter I was riding at the time (a Vespa GT200L). It was definitely intimidating. If you’ve read our review, then you know we really like the SYM Wolf Classic. It’s a terrific little bike and to answer your question directly, yes, I think the Wolf would be a fantastic replacement for your People 50. I generally abhor 50cc scooters, so nearly anything will be an improvement as far as I’m concerned.

That said, I want to address what for many might be the question behind the question. Chiefly, how tough is the transition from twist-and-go scooter rider to motorcyclist? For me, it was simultaneously as intimidating as I expected, but also much easier than I thought it would be. What I mean is, the very first time I rode a proper motorcycle (with only scooters as my previous riding experience) was a really intense experience. Likewise, the first couple rides I took on the first motorcycle I ever owned were a bit overwhelming. Neither was unpleasant, but neither was the instantly amazing experience I’d expected or hoped for. The third ride on my motorcycle, however, was the tipping point. I’m talking full-on uncontrollable giggling inside my helmet. Since then I’ve gone on to ride everything from small bikes like the Wolf 150 to genuinely enormous motorcycles like the 1,800cc Honda Goldwing. The key is simply taking it one step at a time.

In addition to the SYM Wolf 150, I’d like to make a handful of other recommendations for anyone looking to add a motorcycle to their riding life.

The Honda Grom

At 125cc, the Grom is certainly scooter-sized. The modern descendant of the iconic Honda 50 “Monkey Bike”, the Grom is as approachable as it gets. At just $3,199 brand spanking new, it’s also very affordable. Swap out for some dualsport tires and there’s pretty much nowhere the Grom can’t go provided you take it easy. It’s not going to be freeway friendly, but for bombing around town or the campsite, it’s going to be tough to have more fun with a clutch involved.

The Honda CRF250L

I have one chief regret in my motorcycling experience, and that’s only recently getting into dualsport bikes. Little more than a street legal dirt bike, dualsport bikes make fantastic first motorcycles for a handful of reasons.

  • They’re impossibly light, which makes them easy to handle and ride
  • Most have about a foot of suspension travel. Pothole? What pothole?
  • They’re the definition of versatile. Ride on-road, off-road, commute to work, tour the backroads, travel overland — dualsports can pretty much do anything.

There are a handful of small dualsports on the market worth having, but the Honda CRF250L is my personal preference. At $4,999 new, it’s more expensive, but you get what you pay for. One can easily save on the purchase price by looking to the used market. I personally own a 2008 CRF230L and it’s fantastic. If there’s such a thing as a perfect first bike, this might be it.

The Honda CBR250R / CBR300R / CBR300F

If you’re only interested in street riding and want a little longer legs, the small end of Honda’s modern CB range is a great choice. They’re freeway capable, but still extremely light and approachable. For anyone with at least a couple seasons of scooter riding experience, the learning curve to these small street bikes is very gentle. Ranging in price from $3,999 to $4,399, go for whichever bike fits you the most comfortably. Personally, I love that the CBR250R is available in MotoGP-inspired Repsol race livery. As this is a popular first bike, low-mileage used examples are also plentiful.

Other great bikes to consider in this range are the Kawasaki Ninja 300 and the Yamaha YZF-R3. The differences between these bikes and the Honda are marginal, so go with whichever best fits your body first, and your budget second. Don’t get caught up in specs or fanboy forum arguments. Focus on fit. More on this later.

Lastly in this grouping, I’d be remiss in not also recommending the Honda CB500 series machines. I know that for most scooter riders, 500cc sounds huge, but the effective difference between a 250 and a 500 is smaller than you think in terms of how easy they are to ride. These are still light, approachable bikes and the bump in power is not so much that it’s going to get new riders into trouble. The key difference is that a 500cc bike has much longer legs than its 250cc siblings. Part of the appeal, at least for me, of the motorcycle platform is that it’s much better at handling higher speeds and longer rides. The extra passing power of a 500cc engine definitely comes in handy. This slightly larger class of bikes is also harder to “outgrow” as you gain skill and confidence.

The Royal Enfield 500

If vintage style in a small package is what you’re after, it’s tough to beat the Royal Enfield. Here in America, we’re only currently getting variations on the Bullet 500, but those variations are very interesting. The specific appeal of the Enfield for scooter riders, I think, is that it’s easy to ride and not particularly powerful. The Enfield’s 500cc single is un-stressed, making just shy of 37 hp. (This is 10 fewer horsepower than the Honda 500s, for comparison.) This means the Enfield is pretty difficult to over-ride. Yet in its time-proven simplicity, it should prove very reliable for owners. I have personal friends who made the scooter-to-Enfield jump and never looked back. MSRP on the Enfield range starts at $4,999.

The Yamaha SR400

Lastly, I have to mention the Yamaha SR400, which has just made its triumphant return to the American market after decades of continuous production abroad. Essentially a 400cc motor in a 250cc-size bike, the SR400 is approachable and easy to ride, but has long enough legs to suffice as perhaps the only bike you’d ever need. Now with electronic fuel-injection, the SR400’s simplicity is perhaps its greatest virtue. It’s kick-start only, but with the EFI, that shouldn’t be an issue. If anything, I think the kick start is terrifically charming. In so many ways, the SR400 is a bigger version of the SYM Wolf 150. It’s a living dinosaur, but in the best possible ways. At $5,999 MSRP, the SR400 lands us back in “you get what you pay for” territory, but it’s a worthy bike to consider.

Just scratching the surface

The truth is, the best small motorcycle for any individual is going to be unique to him or her. In general, so long as you stay under 650cc, go for the bike that fits you best ergonomically and you’ll be in good shape. Notice what I did not say here. I did not say to buy the most bike that you can afford.

This is advice runs contrary to what most people will tell you, but it’s the truth: make price a secondary consideration. Save longer or finance more, but don’t sacrifice your riding comfort just to save money. This is a fool’s thrift. Take it from me, you’ll regret it. You’ll have less fun in the short run, and in the long run, you’ll end up spending more when you finally upgrade out of discomfort. Don’t save money today on a good deal for the wrong bike just to lose money tomorrow on depreciation when you finally follow your gut and buy the bike you knew all along you should have purchased in the first place.

As you do your research and take your test rides, the bike that delivers the best riding experience for you will likely become apparent. Trust your gut on which bike that is, and if it’s more expensive, cross that hurdle when you come to it. Better to wait and save up a few more months than waste your money on a bike that just isn’t right for you. Be patient and reap the rewards of making the best decision for you.

Let’s hear from you

Have a counterpoint? Have a different recommendation? Have you ridden any of the bikes above? Do you ride scooters and motorcycles alike? Sound off in the comments below.

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