The motorcycle market took a big hit in 2008. Baby boomers, the industry’s traditional audience, were cash-strapped. Bikes were getting too expensive and feature-laden, losing their purity of purpose and fundamental role as fun transportation. Now sales are recovering, thanks to a new generation of simple, affordable, appealing motorcycles like the ones pictured here—all of them among the best ever made.
In an age when the quality of nearly every stock sport bike has been reduced in the name of cost-cutting, Triumph has fitted its middleweight 675R with the absolute nicest Öhlins suspension and Brembo brakes. That means you get the kind of handling otherwise reserved for $30,000 Ducatis. Also new: antilock brakes that can be switched off for track days and a slipper clutch to enable faster corner entries. Plus the three-cylinder engine has been revised for higher revs and power. This rocket triumphs indeed. It’s the sharpest sport bike out there.
Under new ownership that saved the company from oblivion, Moto Guzzi has produced its first new bike in two years from its 91-year-old factory in Italy. The California 1400 (named for the Moto Guzzi California of the 1970s) is the most high-tech cruiser ever made. The V-twin is fitted with a ride-by-wire throttle control and traction control. Power delivery, throttle response and traction control can be tweaked, but in a fit of Italian pride, the wet, touring and performance modes are called bagnato, turismo and veloce. Legendary designer Miguel Galluzzi turned his hand to the styling—a retro-futuristic look that fascinates.
Most adventure bikes are overweight, overcomplicated tourers that are about as off-road capable as a minivan. But not the KTM 990—a road-legal dirt bike. Complete with a dirt-spec 21-inch front wheel and clever design features including saddle-style twin fuel tanks that carry gas down low, every component is designed to boost off-road performance. The bike’s 114 horsepower may not sound like a lot, but it’s set up to punch so you can pop a quick wheelie to clear an obstacle or initiate a turn with just a crack of throttle. On-road, the 990 can keep up with most sport bikes, even on all-terrain tires. Adventure? You know it.
If you’re learning to ride or just want something cheap and easy, think as light and simple as possible. CCW’s Tha Misfit is nearly 100 pounds lighter than other 250s and uses a redesigned version of Honda’s legendary CG motor (which is as basic as an engine can get). It’s of-the-moment stylish, genuinely fun to ride and—designed in Cleveland but built in China—amazingly inexpensive. Even starting out, you’ll be able to use full-throttle acceleration. Just avoid aggressive freeways; the bike’s top speed isn’t quite enough to keep up with the flow.
Honda’s new jack-of-all-trades is all about versatility and fuel economy. At 64 miles per gallon, the bike is more frugal than the firm’s 250 cc bikes but fast enough to out-accelerate most cars. It’s equally at home with a solo rider or two-up and packs a load better than nearly any other bike. Fit the optional top box and panniers and this thing will carry you on a cross-country camping trip or haul a week’s worth of shopping for your family. If you’re looking to make the switch from four wheels to two, this is the bike to do it on.
Drive a BMW car and you know how smooth and torquey a straight-six engine can be. Now BMW has installed a six across this bike’s aluminum-beam frame. Its handling has to be experienced to be believed. BMW’s archetypal Duolever front suspension makes for rapid steering and absolute stability. It manages well at night too: A rotating headlight beams around corners. This bike matches its main rival, the Honda Gold Wing, in long-distance comfort. But in handling, it runs circles around it.
You can’t beat the original. Harley has been manufacturing the Sportster continually since 1957. A more efficient motor, a rubber-mounted engine and a five-speed transmission have kept it up-to-date without spoiling the original formula. The new Iron 883 Sportster is the most affordable Harley and the stealthiest—the paint, wheels and motor are all black. Thumb the electric starter (added in 1967) and the engine roars to life with Harley all-American thunder. Just the thing for roaring down a deserted highway.
The Empulse R is the first fully electric motorcycle that can travel farther than 100 miles on a charge and top 100 miles per hour. It’s also one of the best-handling bikes ever made. The tiny Oregon-based start-up Brammo modeled suspension geometry and ergonomics from one of the best sport bikes out there, Triumph’s Street Triple. Top-drawer components including fully adjustable suspension and lightweight forged-aluminum wheels improve the package. But it’s the electric drivetrain that elevates the Empulse R. The result: a completely intuitive feel, hardwiring your brain to the tires. Who knew breaking speed limits could be so eco-friendly?
The Bike That Changed My Life
Two well-known riders take a look in the rearview
YAMAHA MOTO GP RIDER BEN SPIES
“The Yamaha PW50. When I first got on and rode it as a kid, I knew that riding would be a part of my life in a big way. My mom encouraged BMX and motocross, but that wasn’t the same for me. Those bikes were fun, but it was the PW50 I came back to. I started asking how to get into a club race. I was able to take my test to join the Central Motorcycle Roadracing Association when I was eight years old. I couldn’t master the written test and was allowed to take it with the board members asking me the questions. My first race was at the end of the year; I was still eight years old.”
TONIGHT SHOW HOST JAY LENO
“The most influential motorcycle in my life was the Honda CBX1000 because it’s the only one I ever bought new. I grew up in the 1960s, when muscle cars were faster than motorcycles. Motorcycle technology wasn’t moving quickly. But when the Honda CBX came along in 1978, it came out of nowhere. And it was a six-cylinder! An 85-horsepower, six-cylinder motorcycle seemed like the most audacious thing I’d ever seen. It was just unbelievable. I bought one new, I crashed it, and with the insurance money I went down and got another one. And I still have it.”