Thinking About a Motorcycle or Scooter?

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Cars are expensive – to buy and to operate. But bikes (and scooters) are inexpensive to buy and keep up. Most of them get much better gas mileage (50-plus MPGs)  than the best hybrid or diesel-powered cars, too. And you can park them almost anywhere a bicycle would fit – so they’re ideal for city dwellers or people who don’t have garage space to spare.

But there are some things you should be aware of before you buy a bike (or scooter):

* Motorcycles (and scooters) take more skill and involvement to operate than a car. You need to be able to balance and (in the case of motorcycles) shift gears and work a clutch.

* A two-wheeled (single track) vehicle like a motorcycle or a scooter  turns by a combination of steering and leaning. A car turns by steering only. It takes time and experience to master the different handling techniques necessary to safely operate a bike or scooter.

* In all modern cars, depressing the brake pedal automatically engages the front and rear brakes simultaneously and in the appropriate proportion. On most bikes, the front and rear brakes are not linked; they’re controlled individually – and separately. The rider must learn to apply the front and rear brakes in the right proportion via manual control of the levers, one for the front brake, the other for the rear. Like learning to lean to steer and maintain balance, this is a new skill to learn that’s essential to master in order to be a safe rider.

* In most states, a separate “M” endorsement on your driver’s license is necessary to legally operate a motorcycle on public roads. as a general rule, you must pass a separate knowledge and skills test that’s different from the test you have to pass to get a driver’s license. New riders usually must also first obtain a Learner’s Permit that limits their riding to daytime hours for a set period of time, typically a couple of months. You may or may not need to get an “M” endorsement if you plan to ride a scooter or moped only; it depends on the laws in your state and on such things as the size (and top speed capability) of the scooter or moped. As a rule, if it can go faster than about 35 mph, you will probably need to get the “M” endorsement. Check with your state DMV to be sure.

Most beginner motorcycles are in the 250 CC range because that’s enough power to deal with normal street driving (even limited highway use) without being too powerful for a novice.

Examples of bikes in this class include the Honda Rebel 250, Nighthawk 250 and Kawasaki Ninja 250.

However, a problem with these bikes is that most riders will very quickly outgrow them, which means they’re stuck with a bike they no longer want just a matter of months after having bought it.

I recommend new riders start with a dual-sport (street/off-road) motorcycle in the 250 CC range, or a dirt bike in the 200-250 cc range. I think they’re even better to learn on – because you can learn on grass/dirt rather than pavement (better for your body; better for the bike if you drop it) and also because you won’t outgrow it. Dual-sport/dirt bikes are lots of fun and it’s always nice to have one around. You can get yourself a bigger bike for street riding, but when you want to explore trails and so on, you’ve still got a bike for that.

Plus, the dirt/dual-sport won’t lose most of its value a year after you bought it, as a beginner street bike will.

Some bikes to consider: Honda XR200 (dirt), XL250 (dual-sport); Kawasaki KLR250; KL250; Suzuki DR250 – etc. 

Look for a used one; you should have no trouble finding a good one for under $2,000.

But, before you buy a bike, sign up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s rider course. These are excellent, cost very little – and you get to use their bikes (usually a bike such as the ones I’ve mentioned above). MSF courses are held in every major city; here’s a link to the MSF web site, where you can find details about classes in your area:

The class will get you up and running; teach you all the basics of operation/safety – and usually (most states) qualify you for your motorcycle learner’s permit. Then, you’ll be ready to start riding your own bike!

Things to consider –

* Motorcycles and scooters are inherently more dangerous than cars as far as being able to protect you in the event of a crash. Safe riding practices can lower the chances you’ll be the cause of a wreck, but you can’t control other drivers (who are often oblivious to motorcycles and scooters) or random things like an animal suddenly running in front of you (or into you).

* If you ride a motorcycle or scooter, you should invest in protective riding gear, including a jacket (ideally, with with armored inserts) gloves and boots – in addition to a helmet (which is mandatory in most states). Don’t ride a bike – or even a scooter – while wearing just shorts and a T-shirt.

Honda Silver Wing* Motorcycles and scooters are more vulnerable to (and less adept in) bad weather than cars. They are especially vulnerable to dangerous skids/loss of control on wet/slick roads. A car has four contact patches and if it hits some ice, it may slide. But a bike has only two (and much smaller) contact patches and if it hits some ice, it is much more likely to skid right off the road or “drop” suddenly onto the pavement. Sand and gravel on the road during the winter months are also unique threats to bikes and scooters that cars generally don’t have to worry about.

* Bikes and scooters generally don’t last as long as today’s cars – which with decent care can easily go 200,000-plus miles before needing major work. A bike will typically be tired by 100,000 miles. And certain items often require more frequent maintenance (such as valve adjustments, which may be be necessary as often as once every 10,000 miles or so). Tires almost always wear out much faster (on some types of bikes, such as sport bikes, in as little as three or four thousand miles or even less) because they have to work much harder than car tires.

On the upside, riding a motorcycle or scooter is fun – and with gas mileage that’s typically between 45 and 60 mpg (depending on the type of bike/scooter) it’s inexpensive fun, too.

Harley Davidson CrossbonesProbably the smartest option, if saving money is the goal, is to buy the bike or scooter and use it when the weather’s nice and you don’t need to carry either people or stuff – keeping your car as back-up for rainy days, winter driving and when you do need to carry people or stuff.

This way, you cut down the mileage you put on your car, extending its useful life and decreasing your maintenance while also lowering your annual fuel costs.

Now, to tell the wife!


  1. For just plain usefulness and low budget reasons you might want to check out the Yamaha 125cc scooters. I picked up a used 1988 model for $500 bucks a few years ago and it was great. Automatic transmission, 60+ MPG, automatic choke, electric start, just jump on it and go. I recommend the 125cc model because it can easily cruise at 50 or 55 so there is no problem keeping up with local traffic.

    I kept it parked just outside my front door and it was the perfect ride around town. Just drop the 12 pack or loaf of bread in the basket and zoom home again. Insurance costs are nothing.

    Another plus is that in my state it is classed as a motorcycle. That means you can take your test for a motorcycle license with it. In fact when I brought my scooter in to my local dealer for a new rear tire he offered to buy it from me for $800! He wanted it for his customers who bought big cruiser and sport bikes to take their motorcycle license tests with.

    I sold it two years ago to my nephew (who got his license with it) and he has been riding the heck out of it since. He loves it.

    BTW, with a scooter you get better parking spaces than the handicapped. 🙂


    • Hey Stan –

      Amen! My local motorcycle store also sells scooters, including the Helix. It’s a neat little bugger; very practical and – as you note – costs almost nothing to own/operate (especially insurance, which can be a lot higher for a motorcycle).

      Some of the larger cc scooters currently being made are fully capable of long-haul highway use, too.

      • In Japan they have scooters will a shell over the top. I think they had three wheels though. If I could find a scooter (two wheels) that can sustain highways speed and had a shell for the rain I would love to have one.

  2. Nice piece. I have debated more than once getting a bike. Issues that have held me back was the time needed for the learning curve and lack of hauling capacity. Your suggestion of getting a 250 or 200 certainly helps the learning curve aspect with the power reduction (most dealers want to push a monster bike out the gate). I have also noticed many more saddle bag and trailer type cargo carrying options. If I get a bike, road trips are a part of the incentive, hence some carrying capacity. At a local bike club bar I noticed a couple of these new two wheel front, one wheel rear bikes. Any experience with those by anyone?

    • You could take the MSF rider course and learn to ride without even having to invest in a bike! These courses are available all over the country; in virtually every major urban/suburban area. Check the MSF web site to find the When and Where in your area. They provide the bikes – typically, 250 cc machines such as KLR250 dual sports or Honda Rebel 250s/Nighthawks. Helmets too, You just show up and pay the small fee and enjoy a Saturday/Sunday learning how to ride. This is a great way to get a feel for whether riding is for you, in addition to learning the important basics of riding.

      • This is an excellent course. I took it about 16 years ago and still remember it well. My buddy actually just took it over the weekend too! He said he found a few nice seat covers in the class too! -doh

    • Me too!

      It was nice enough over the weekend that I left the Benz GLK and the Miata I have in the driveway home and took the Silverwing down the mountain to get a roast corpse (chicken at Fresh Market; Jill calls it that) and some other snacks. I stopped halfway home, on the Parkway, and ate the corpse at an overlook. Just awesome. Makes you remember how great warm weather is – and how much winter sucks!

      • I have a co-worker who is seriously contemplating a bike purchase. Might have a riding partner here really soon! I’m pretty pumped about it. Oh yeah, got the over drive tranny installed yesterday. I rebuilt the clutch too. Have a few odds and ends I need to bolt back on and a bearing to press, but I’ll be back in business soon.

      • Do it! Take the safety course, then find a skilled/experienced rider to roll around with. Rent a couple bikes and find something you are interested in!


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