What Is a Sport Motorcycle?
Sport motorcycles are the most performance-oriented category of motorcycle. They feature a lightweight frame, a powerful engine, and seating and handlebar positions that encourage an aggressive riding posture. Though sport bikes are available in relatively low-power configurations that can make them accessible for beginners, most brands focus their marketing on the fast acceleration and high speeds these bikes can achieve. Sport motorcycles’ nimble handling and quick braking can make the right model a good first bike for learning, but it’s very important that the rider respects his or her boundaries and doesn’t give in to the bike’s potential for speed.
There are some sub-categories of sport motorcycles, such as “sport touring” bikes that combine the attributes of a sport bike and a touring bike, making them more comfortable for long trips. Some manufacturers offer bikes marketed as “super sport,” “hyper sport,” or similar terms, designating models especially suited to high performance riding conditions, such as racing.
This type of motorcycle is most common amongst Japanese manufacturers, and many of these brands also make other powersports equipment, such as four-wheelers, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft. Though sport motorcycles can be found among European and American brands, they’re really a speciality of the Japanese brands and represent many of those brands’ entry points to the North American motorcycle market.
Sport Motorcycle Brands
As mentioned above, sport motorcycles are most commonly associated with Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, though there are exceptions to that rule. The most well-known sport bike brands are Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha, all of which are known for making other consumer products such as cars, powersports equipment, consumer electronics, and musical instruments. Though all of these brands offer a wide variety of motorcycle types, including powerful, competition-ready sport motorcycles, beginners will also find a choice of affordable sport bikes that are suitable for learning.
Other sport motorcycle manufacturers include BMW, KTM, and Ducati, all from Europe. Among American motorcycle brands, such as Harley-Davidson and Indian, it’s less common to find sport bikes, as these brands tend to focus more on cruisers and tourers, though there are usually a couple of models available that have some sport motorcycle features and characteristics, even if they can’t strictly be considered sport bikes.
Sport Motorcycle History
Sport motorcycles have a relatively short history in the United States. Kawasaki was among the first brands to bring performance-oriented motorcycles over from Japan, opening a U.S. headquarters facility in Chicago in 1966, and later, in 1974, becoming the first foreign vehicle brand to set up manufacturing in the U.S. According to Cycle World, the sport bike segment has come a long way since the 1970s, specifically in terms of weight and power. Bikes are now commonly available in displacements higher than 1,000 cubic centimeters (cc), with more than twice the power of vintage sport motorcycles. Advancements in materials and construction have also enabled modern bikes to weigh 20 percent less than their predecessors, despite being stronger and more supportive. Lighter wheels and tires enable faster acceleration, and stronger braking systems provide impressive stopping power. Many bikes are also equipped with electronic safety systems, such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), that give the rider a little extra help.
In other words, a vintage sport motorcycle can provide a unique and satisfying riding experience, but comparing an old sport bike with a new one isn’t unlike comparing cars of similar vintages, in that almost everything has changed. Cycle World says that the most significant change, which has occurred in the last 12 years or so, was an update to the way the bikes’ frames are constructed. Specifically, older bikes were designed and built with a casting technique that allowed inherent weaknesses in the structure, and to compensate, the bikes simply used thicker, heavier material. A more recent casting technique allows manufacturers to cast bikes of “near-forged” quality, and since the resulting frame is stronger, they can shed material density, and therefore, weight.
Another notable change was the switch from air-cooled to liquid-cooled engines. Air-cooled engines are heavier than liquid-cooled engines, and don’t produce as much torque. More modern engine designs increase performance and can be constructed of lower-weight materials since they run at lower operating temperatures. Manufacturers operated on their own timeframes for these changes (again, not unlike the car industry) and in fact, some new bikes (though not typically sport bikes) can still be purchased with air-cooled engines.
Finally, according to Cycle World, another big update happened around 1980 with regard to suspension systems. Modern rear dampers are more supple, increasing performance and comfort, and are better at managing the suspension system’s pressure.
Should I Buy a Sport Motorcycle?
Sport motorcycles emphasize acceleration and high speeds, so they are generally best left for experienced riders who are comfortable managing those speeds and who ride in appropriate environments, though there are exceptions. They’re also a good choice for riders who plan to race or ride on a track for training or competition. Because sport bikes put a premium on impressive performance, they’re designed to push riders into an aggressive riding position, with feet high on the foot pegs and the upper body leaning forward toward the handlebars. That means they aren’t comfortable for those who prefer a more relaxed ride pace and posture, and aren’t well suited for long trips or traveling.
Sport Motorcycle Pros and Cons
Uncomfortable riding position
Not well-suited for long-distance traveling
Like any type of motorcycle, a sport bike will have its pros and cons. The cons, or drawbacks, don’t necessarily indicate flaws with the segment or with any particular brand or model of bike in the segment; rather, they’re just factors that mean that not every bike or type of bike is a good match for every rider. That’s why there are so many different bike types out there to choose from. Even though it can get confusing and perhaps overwhelming, these pros and cons should be carefully considered by potential buyers, especially those who are new to this segment, to ensure the best chance of finding a good match in terms of riding style and experience.
First, let’s look at the pros, or factors in favor of buying a sport motorcycle. Pros include speed, acceleration, agility and handling, overall performance, and aggressive styling. If you’re looking for a fast, nimble motorcycle, a sport motorcycle is one of the better choices. These bikes are aerodynamic in design, and have a seating position that pushes riders into an aggressive, aerodynamic posture. Sport motorcycles also have eye-catching styling that stands out from the crowd, though that can be considered both a pro and a con depending on what you want out of your motorcycle.
Next, let’s look at the cons, or drawbacks that are common in the sport motorcycle segment. They are the flip side of the pros mentioned above, in that sport motorcycles generally do not provide much in the way of comfort or protection for the rider, force an aggressive seating posture that can grow uncomfortable when not riding in optimal conditions or speed, and aren’t well suited for travel. Furthermore, the sporty styling can be polarizing. As mentioned above, not everyone wants a motorcycle that draws a lot of attention and has a stereotype for being favored among fast, aggressive riders, since that often also carries a connotation of irresponsibility, much like driving a sports car.
Sport Motorcycle Prices
In general, a new sport motorcycle can be purchased for as little at $5,000, and sometimes less. As for top-end pricing, there’s a lot more variation. Most brands have a good range of choices priced up to the mid-teens. Once you get to the high teens or higher, you’re looking at some seriously fast bikes, many of which have additional features such as audio systems, electronic rider aids or safety features, or smartphone integration. There are bikes priced well into the $20,000 range and higher, but tend to be designed specifically for track riding or competition. Some of the most expensive sport bikes on the market aren’t even legal for street use, such as the Kawasaki Ninja H2 R, a limited edition bike designated as a “closed-course racing edition.” Note that manufacturers rate their bikes differently, so not all models mentioned here have both horsepower and torque specs. In cases in which the 2020 model is available, we’ll stick with the 2019 model year information. This is just a selection of brands’ ranges, and there will be more information about specific models to come.
Prices for Honda sport bikes range from $4,699 for the CBR300R to $16,499 for a CBR1000RR. There’s also the 125-cc Grom, priced at $3,399, which Honda considers a sport motorcycle but is often categorized with scooters or minibikes due to its very low displacement. Otherwise, the CBR300R, with a 286 cc engine and anti-lock brakes, is a lightweight and nimble starter bike. The CBR1000RR is a bargain-priced 998 cc sport bike, with features like an LCD display and LED lighting.
Kawasaki’s Ninja lineup opens at $4,999 for the Ninja 400 and tops out at $55,000 for the Ninja H2 R. The Ninja 400 is a decent beginner sport bike with a 399 cc engine, 28 pound-feet of torque, and a simple suspension and brake setup. At the other end of the spectrum, the H2 R features a 998 cc engine with 121.5 pound-feet of torque, numerous electronic riding aids, such as traction control and launch control, and sport suspension and brake systems. The Ninja H2 R has sold out its entire production run for 2019, but it’s an interesting example of what you can get for that kind of money. There are several Ninja H2 models with similar specs that cost about half as much as the H2 R, plus, unlike the H2 R, they’re street-legal.
Triumph’s lineup of sport motorcycles starts at $9,950 for the Street Triple S and goes up to $16,500 for the Street Triple RS. The Street Triple S features a 765 cc engine good for 111.4 horsepower, along with selectable riding modes, anti-lock brakes, and switchable traction control. The additional $6,500 gets you the 121.3-horsepower Triple RS, with Brembo brakes, a track mode, a lap timer, and Pirelli performance tires.
Yamaha has a range of bikes in the sport heritage, sport touring, and supersport sub-categories. We’ll look at examples from the supersport range, including the $4,999 YZF-R3 and pricing up to $26,099 for the YZF-R1M. The YZF-R3 is powered by a 321 cc engine and features a digital instrument cluster and LED headlights. At the top end of the YZF range is the 998 cc YZF-1RM, with carbon fiber body panels, GPS compatibility, Wi-Fi integration, anti-lock brakes, traction control, slide control, and launch control.
Key Sport Motorcycle Specs
Engine sizes for the sport motorcycle segment typically range from about 300 to 400 cc at the low end to about 1,000 cc at the high end, though there are outliers, such as the aforementioned 125 cc Honda Grom. Fuel tanks are often in the three- to five-gallon range, with larger and more powerful bikes featuring larger tanks. Many bikes in this segment come standard with anti-lock brakes or offer it as an upgrade, and more expensive sport bikes tend to include features such as traction control, launch control, sport mode, digital instrument clusters, and on-board performance data systems (especially those designed primarily for racing). Comfort and convenience features, such as heated hand grips or built-in luggage systems, are uncommon.
The Top 10 Sport Motorcycles
1) Suzuki Hayabusa
The Suzuki Hayabusa is one of the most well-known sport motorcycles on the market. At a starting price of $14,799, the Hayabusa offers up a 1,340 cc four-cylinder engine fed by ram air intakes, anti-lock brakes with Brembo front calipers, adjustable KYB suspension, selectable driving modes, and halogen front lights and LED rear lights. The distinctive and recognizable exterior styling, which features fairings that cover most of the frame, contributes to the Hayabusa’s reputation for impressive aerodynamics.
2) Honda CBR600RR
The Honda CBR600RR lands at about the middle of the brand’s CBR range, with a base MSRP of $11,799. A CBR600RR fitted with ABS starts at $12,799. Both feature a 599 cc four-cylinder engine, ram air intake system, four-piston front and single-piston rear brakes, and an electronic steering damper. The CBR600RR’s styling is pretty basic, with slim fairings in a monochromatic scheme, and might not be a bad choice for buyers who don’t necessarily want to attract a lot of attention on the road.
3) Kawasaki Ninja 650
Next up, we’ll take a look at one of the mid-range models in Kawasaki’s Ninja line. The Ninja 650 has a starting MSRP of $7,399, and you can budget another $400 or so to upgrade to a model with ABS. For that price, you’ll get a 649 cc two-cylinder parallel-twin engine rated for 48.5 pound-feet of torque, and front and rear disc brakes. Kawasaki says the Ninja 650 features a “comfortable and adaptable upright riding position,” which might make this sport motorcycle a good choice for riders who aren’t particularly fond of the typical forward-leaning sport bike riding stance.
4) Kawasaki Ninja 400
The entry-level Kawasaki Ninja 400 starts at an affordable $4,999 and covers all the sport bike basics. It’s a good choice for inexperienced riders as well as those who want a sport motorcycle but don’t necessarily feel the need to constantly test the limits of physics. Features include a 399 cc two-cylinder engine that makes 28 pound-feet of torque, with stopping power courtesy of single-disc brakes. The Ninja 400 is available with anti-lock brakes, which adds another $300 to the base price. It’s definitely one of the better beginner sport motorcycles currently out there.
5) Honda CBR1000RR
Up next is the Honda CBR1000RR, which, at a price of $16,499, is one of the less expensive 998 cc four-cylinder bikes on the market. Other features include four-piston front and single-piston rear brakes, electronic steering damping that adjusts automatically based on the bike’s speed, selectable torque control to reduce rear-wheel slip, and LED lighting. ABS adds $300 to the base price. That’s a lot of power and a lot of features for a sport motorcycle in this price range, and this Honda also has sporty, colorful aesthetics.
6) KTM RC 390
At a price of $5,549, the KTM RC 390 is another affordable sport motorcycle. The KTM RC 390 features a single-cylinder engine with 373 cc of displacement and 44 horsepower. This bike comes standard with ABS and Brembo four-piston front and single-piston rear disc brakes. The color scheme stands out, with a combination of black, light and dark gray, and high-contrast orange bodywork. This KTM sport motorcycle is definitely a little different than some of the others we’ve looked at, and not just because the company is European.
7) Yamaha YZF-R3
Starting at $4,999, the Yamaha YZF-R3 is yet another accessible sport motorcycle model with a price tag and powertrain setup that’s friendly to beginning riders. This Yamaha sport bike comes powered by a two-cylinder engine rated at 321 cc. It’s been redesigned for 2019, so the bodywork is all new (though it’s still classic styling for the segment) and includes new LED headlights, a new digital instrument cluster, and improved aerodynamics. Disc brakes come standard, and ABS tacks another $300 on the price.
8) Ducati SuperSport
Ducati’s SuperSport is one of the more aggressive-looking sport motorcycles available for 2019, and its European origins help it stand apart from the more commonplace Japanese brands. Though this Ducati is more accessible than most of its stablemates, its base price of $12,995 is a bit too steep to really call it out as a beginner bike. The SuperSport has a two-cylinder 937 cc engine rated for 110 horsepower and 69 pound-feet of torque, anti-lock brakes, traction control, selectable riding modes, and an LCD display. The SuperSport S, at $15,195, gets an upgraded suspension and a Quick Shift transmission feature.
9) Yamaha YZF-R1
Yamaha classifies the YZF-R1 as a supersport motorcycle, and it’s up there with some of the more powerful models to make this list. The YZF-R1 starts at $16,699 and features a four-cylinder 998 cc engine, disc brakes, ABS, traction control, launch control, a quick shift system, LED lighting, and what Yamaha calls a “class-leading electronics package,” such as the availability of a communications unit with a Yamaha smartphone app plus Android and Apple compatibility.
10) Yamaha YZF-R6
We’ll wrap up this list with the YZF-R6, another supersport bike from Yamaha. This bike starts at $12,199, and boasts 599 cc from its four-cylinder engine. The YZF-R6 features hydraulic disc brakes, ABS, traction control, selectable riding modes, LED lighting, and handling that Yamaha claims is among the best in its class. This is a good bike for shoppers who are comfortable with power and features that are above entry level, but don’t want or need extreme amounts of power.
Best Sport Motorcycles for Beginners
As mentioned above, two of the models on the top 10 list, the Yamaha YZF-R3 and the Kawasaki Ninja 400, are popular picks for beginner sport motorcycles. Both start at $4,999, which is a fair figure for a sport motorcycle. That is to say, these aren’t the cheapest bikes in the segment, but they offer a lot of value for the price. Both have displacements under 400 cc, are offered with anti-lock brakes, and provide a sport motorcycle look and feel without the “go big or go home” attitude that can easily spell trouble.
To this list, we’re going to add the Honda Grom. As previously mentioned, some riders may consider the humble 125 cc Grom to be more of a minibike, or even closer to a scooter, than a true sport motorcycle. However, Honda says the Grom is a sport bike, and it’s definitely got looks and features that appeal even to more experienced riders. It’s not especially powerful, but it’s quick and nimble, it’s small and comfortable to ride, and it has a playful attitude. The Grom starts at $3,399 and can be outfitted with ABS for another $200. Disc brakes and an LED headlight come standard.
Sport Motorcycles vs. Cruisers
Cruiser motorcycles are designed for relaxed, comfortable riding, in a style exemplified by American manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle. That said, the major Japanese brands have been imitating the style for decades, so there’s plenty of choices on the market for this segment. Cruisers have an upright riding position and feature powerful engines with lots of low-end torque, and are usually offered with convenience amenities such as audio and communication devices or matching saddlebags. As for pricing, a new cruiser can easily be found for well under $10,000, and as low as $4,500 for a base Honda Rebel or Yamaha V Star. Indian and Harley-Davidson, in particular, offer several models for well-heeled buyers, priced at $20,000 and up.
Sport Motorcycles vs. Standard Motorcycles
Standard motorcycles are the oldest style of motorcycle. They feature modern technology paired with classic styling, an upright seating position with a comfortable handlebar placement, and a natural foot position with pedals and controls within easy reach. The term “naked motorcycle,” which signifies stripped-down styling, is often used interchangeably with standard motorcycles, though Cycle World says the styles are actually “cousins.” Standard motorcycles on the lower end of the power spectrum make great beginner bikes because they’re comfortable and straightforward. Honda’s CB lineup and Kawasaki’s Z lineup are both good choices starting in the sub-$5,000 range and going up to over $10,000. For more premium models, check out the Triumph Bonneville or Street Triple S, starting at just over $10,000; the Harley-Davidson Roadster at $11,299; and the Indian FTR at $13,499.
Sport Motorcycles vs. Touring Motorcycles
Touring motorcycles are ideal for long-distance riding, and in that sense, they aren’t the best bikes for beginners simply because it takes experience to be safe and comfortable on an extended trip. Tourers tend to be big and heavy to enhance comfort and stability, and though they have large engines to compensate for that heft, they aren’t designed to accelerate as quickly or sustain very high speeds like a sport motorcycle. Touring bikes also tend to offer features such as built-in luggage, navigation systems, and smartphone integration, all to provide convenience on the road. Popular brands include BMW, Indian, and Harley-Davidson, though the big Japanese brands have also made a name for themselves in this segment. Touring motorcycles are among the most expensive segments, with most models starting above $10,000. Indian and Harley-Davidson’s top-end tourers reach well into the $30,000 and $40,000 range.