Best Starter Cruisers – 5 Bikes You Should Seriously Consider

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Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster Iron

There was a time and it was not that long ago when a big motorcycle was considered to be anything over 750cc. Now it seems that starter bikes have taken over this category and for some people their first cruiser motorcycle has a big V-twin engine.

What you are about to read is not the definitive list of best starter cruisers but five bikes that the staff at RideApart think you should seriously consider if you are in the market. Yes, we know they predominantly have outdated technology, retro-looks and some of you wouldn’t be seen dead sitting in the saddle of one. But there is still a huge market out there for cruisers and of all the motorcycle types it’s the only sector that is still growing year after year worldwide.

Harley-Davidson is the biggest player in the cruiser market selling 249,849 motorcycles globally in 2012 and capturing 80% of the market in the U.S. Clearly there is real appeal and people want to buy them.

Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster Iron

2013 Harley-Davidson XL883 Sportster Iron
Harley-Davidson’s Sportster range, which has been around for decades, is still a strong seller and if you’re into cruisers it’s not hard to see why. For $8,399 you get the keys to a XL883 Sportster Iron and an entry ticket into the Harley-Davidson brand and image. The Iron has a low solo saddle, drag handlebars, chopped rear fender and a punchy, fuel-injected 883cc V-twin. It starts and goes like no 1960s Harley-Davidson could ever dream of.

But as a first time cruiser you’re going to have to get used to its high center of gravity, which is particularly apparent in slow turns or parking lot maneuvers. It’s also not that light, coming in at 573 lbs, but despite all that it goes well and is pretty sprightly. The aftermarket also offers a wide range of cosmetic and technical upgrades you can make. Did I mention it’s a Harley-Davidson?

2013 Yamaha Star Bolt
2013 Yamaha Star Bolt
There’s a new kid on the block as RideApart’s associate editor, Sean McDonald wrote about in his story on the Six Best Budget Motorcycles.  It’s Yamaha’s very competent Star Bolt. It’s got all the cool looks and is more than up to giving the Sportster a run for its money. It handles slightly better, is well built and has a technical edge over the Sportster in a number of areas, particularly the engine and brakes. Yamaha has launched a series of aftermarket parts to personalize the Bolt even further and it won’t be long before other suppliers will be following suit and offering even more.

Priced at $7,999 the Bolt gives you enough bang for the buck too. The big question is will people buy it over the Harley-Davidson market-leading Sportster? Only time will tell.

2013 Suzuki Boulevard C50

2013 Suzuki Boulevard C50
Suzuki’s no-nonsense, mid-displacement Boulevard C50 cruiser is another that is aimed directly at Sportster prospects. At $8,399 it’s also the same price as the HD Iron. You get a liquid-cooled 803 cc V-twin, with shaft drive and a raked out front end. It’s got the top-notch build quality we have come to expect from Suzuki and the C50 rides as well as any of the competition bikes despite being a somewhat portly 611 lbs.

2013 Honda Shadow Spirit 750

2013 Honda Shadow Spirit 750
Honda’s Shadow cruiser has been around for what seems like a lifetime. Over the years it has earned itself a great reputation as being a simple and straightforward starter cruiser that many people who have owned one have fond memories of. It’s also a good-looking bike, in that quasi-American cruiser sort of way. For 2013 it remains technically unchanged. There’s still a liquid-cooled 745 cc V-twin and shaft drive that you can buy, but it only comes in black under the Shadow RS moniker.

2013 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom

2013 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom
Last and by no means least is Kawasaki’s Vulcan 900 Custom. A bike that we recently tested at RideApart and found that it’s still kicking and worthy of consideration in the cruiser starter club. It’s got the biggest engine of the group with a 903cc V-twin and has consistently proved to be the biggest cruiser seller for Kawasaki in the U.S. It is straightforward and easy to ride, is as heavy as the Suzuki but with that added displacement you don’t quite notice it as much. It’s also the most expensive of the group at $8,499.

There’s not a lot to separate this group. On price alone they almost cost the same amount of money. Performance-wise maybe the Sportster and Bolt are slightly quicker, while the other three are better equipped. There’s a wide range of aftermarket options for all the bikes on this list so you can personalize your motorcycle, make it faster, handle better and look better than the original standard.

Now here’s the real deal. Most of these starter cruisers are precisely that. People wanting their first bike buy them and after maybe only a year of ownership they realize that either cruisers aren’t for them or they trade up to something bigger and more powerful in the cruiser line-up.

You can save yourself a lot of money by looking around for a good used, low mileage version of any one of these. You could keep it forever and make it your own, or learn about cruisers and then move on up or out of this category altogether. Bottom line, you have to pay your money and make a choice.

  • Mark D

    I think the Shadow RS is a pretty handsome bike. Especially in Honda tri-colors with mid-mounted pegs. I rode a friend’s old early-90s shadow, and it was a totally competent motorcycle. It certainly didn’t encourage you to ride fast, but it was fun in a laid-back sort of way.

    http://www.abernathycycles.com/used_bikes/00120.JPG

    • Stuki

      I love the looks of that bike as well.

    • Afonso Mata

      Man, that tank is BEAUTIFUL! That’d look awsome on a CB Seven-Fifty!

  • luxlamf

    I started with a Cruiser, in 2004 I saw a 2002 HD VROD, never have ridden a bike before I decided to make it mine, many “Pros” told me it was a Bad Idea and I needed to follow some idiot rule that your 1st bike should be crap and small etc… So I bought it when I found the perfect used 2002 in 2005, 8 years and 106k later I still have it and love it. Lots of “Rules” in these MC community that are just rubbish.

    • Gare’

      An employee of mine had been borrowing a classic Honda 400 4 from another employee and finally decided to drop some bucks on his own bike, a new at the time Kawa Eddie Lawson Replica. He didn’t have a license and ask me to test ride it for him. Really nice bike but I looked him in the eyes and told him to take it easy and respect the power this machine has. Well, being use to the Honda he gave it about the same amount of throttle to start off and proceeded to stuff it into the dealer’s truck in the parking lot. While your experience turned out well, there are as many who’s first experience with a machine with power didn’t.

      • Eric

        I started riding a Suzuki Savage LS650, moved up to a 750CC Honda Shadow, a brief miserable ownership of a 2003 Sportster (can’t whine enough about just how unreliable it was). Clocked over 200k miles on two wheels and bought a 2008 Versys (which I love). But you make a very serious point, I has no idea just how much additional power and reduced weight would handle, I took it real easy and still scared myself. Still scares me at times, but I’ll still be extra cautious on my new ride for a good while before I really know it’s capabilities. Slow and steady wins the race… fucking up slows down your pace.

    • Yuri Grinshteyn

      I would argue that your experience is not indicative of what most people would go through if they started on a VROD. In general, these “rules” are simply the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. For everyone whose riding career started off well on a big bike, there are dozens of others who were not so competent, fortunate, strong, or some combination thereof.

      • Richard Gozinya

        If you’re talking about non-cruisers, you have a point. But with cruisers, I’ve seen plenty of people go straight to the big ones without any real issues. It’s not like most cruiser riders are getting a knee down, doing wheelies and stoppies or anything like that. If you’re able to handle the weight of the thing, everything else is pretty basic.

        • Chester Nodier

          Some riders probably can handle a larger cruiser right off the bat, but most riders would be better off with something smaller and lighter. I saw something with my own eyes that reinforces my opinion. I was sitting at a stop sign, ready to turn left. An older couple each riding a big dresser Harley turns left on to my road. The man turns first without issue. His wife slows and begins the turn but it’s not working. With a panicked look on her face, she slowly rides off the side of the road and through the weeds. She renters the road several yards down the road. I expect she was a novice. I also expect that bike was chosen because it’s the type he husband rides. I couldn’t help but think as I watched that huge tank of a motorcycle meander off the road, she would do much better with a lighter more forgiving bike.

          • Piglet2010

            Or being taught how to ride properly – riding a H-D “Big Twin” around without know how to use the “brake-torque” technique would be a real PITA.

            And the woman in question – was she looking off at the weeds instead of where she wanted the bike to go?

        • luxlamf

          I agree, being able to Flat Foot a bike saved me many times during my learning process from being close call instead of dump and being a rather heavy bike also helped with. It also allowed me to adjust to other bikes much easier afterwards, I could jump of a friends Monster or Mulitstrada and be off and comfortable in minutes, felt like toys comparatively (with exception that the front brakes Actually work on other bikes so that sometimes causes some excitement in the 1st few minutes)

  • John

    I always say that if you’re going to pick your first motorcycle, make sure it handles horribly around corners.

  • http://statesofmotion.blogspot.com/ FastPatrick

    Wish Harley would lose the faddish graphics treatments and get off this even-LOWER-now! fixation and bring back the basic bargain 883 that was the cornerstone of the lineup for so long. Was a good bike as is, never mind the endless options for modification. The current ones seem to have lost the plot.

    • Piglet2010

      Raising the seat 2 to 3 inches, and increasing the rear suspension travel the same amount could do wonders for the 883 Sporty.

    • Charles Quinn

      The 883R is the best Harley I can remember. Especially in orange and black.

    • Mykola

      I Wish I could +eleventybillion this sentiment. I came away from the recent AskRA Bonneville vs. V7 article seriously jonesing for an XL1200R. I’ve ridden a few sportsters (all newer) and I’ve mostly hated them for their contemporary ‘custom’ features that distort the Sportster from its original roadster incarnation.

  • Piglet2010

    If I wanted a cruiser, I could not see picking any of these bikes over the Triumph America or Speedmaster – why not get better performance for the same price? Is a parallel-twin instead of a V-twin that much of a turnoff?

    • Charles Quinn

      I’ve ridden almost everything here (not the Bolt, but a V-Star 950) plus a Triumph America, I own the Kawasaki, and yeah, the V-twin does make a difference for a lot of people. The America probably handles and stops better than all the bikes above, but it’s just a Bonnie in drag (and with less power). It has more pep than my VN900 in the higher revs, but it doesn’t really feel perform until you get there. I love the grunt from the Vulcan. In fact I love this category of cruisers generally, they have enough torque for fun and are still (just) light enough to handle reasonably well.

      • Piglet2010

        I have not ridden the America/Speedmaster, but the power-band on the Bonnie is perfect for street riding.

        • Charles Quinn

          Agreed. But the America is kind of the worst of both worlds — retuned for less power and more torque as you’d expect, but the torque increase isn’t enough to make it really feel like a cruiser and the power drop means you have to go hunting for what’s left. It’s still a good bike but it’s really neither one thing (retro standard) nor the other (cruiser).

  • Yusuff

    No V-Star 950 Tourer??

    • BigHank53

      You would not believe how early the floorboards touch down on a V-Star 950. An Electra-Glide with a passenger can go around corners faster.

  • Piglet2010

    I think the Suzuki S40 Boulevard thumper also deserves to be included – $5,399 MSRP and 381 pounds wet make it much less of a handful for a smaller (or smaller wallet) rider, but it still has enough power to run on the freeway, unlike the 250cc class cruisers.

    • Harold Crumb

      The S-40 has to be the worst cruiser you can buy. When a 250cc sports bikes, large scooters leave you on the dust is time to get a REAL bike. A V-Star 650 or a Honda VLX or even the Kawasaki Vulcan 500LTD leave the S-40 on the dust (not just beat it). And reliability of Suzuki cruiser is legendary (but not in a good way). Read most threads of V-Star vs VLX vs S-40 and none agree on who is on top but all agree who is at the bottom, the S-40.

  • contender

    Wait wait wait…he recommended used? All right! All right all right.

  • Chris Cope

    And remember, y’all: Harleys don’t have to be boring: http://youtu.be/UL8LZ7mtw58

    • Richard Gozinya

      It’s a good thing those guys stick with Harleys. Just imagine the damage they’d do if they were on Monsters or Street Triples or something.

    • http://blog.duder.net Stephen Wuebker

      Squids gonna squid. Doesn’t matter on what.

    • grb

      hmmm, so this is why there’s broken beer bottles in the road I ride and my new high-tech/double-compound/soft-rubber/expensive tires have shards in them, dam… I was wondering who has such bad taste to do something like that… those guys are tacky

  • Brian

    What are the relative weights of these various bikes and how easy are they to be picked up when the inevitable drop happens? I ask because a friend of mine when she got her “M” endorsement went out and bought a V-Star 650 ( I call it the MiniStar ) and while I thought it was easy to ride and handle, it was a rather heavy bike for her to maneuver at low speed and hard for her to pick up when she did drop it. People learning on starter bikes ( and even moreso starter “cruisers” due to their generally heavier weight ) don’t get taught those lessons for when they will happen, almost like it is an ugly hidden truth. Just my .02 worthy of considering.

    • Charles Quinn

      Never dropped any of the others, but my VN900 is the easiest bike to pick up of any I’ve dropped, despite being the heaviest. If you drop it standing or at low speed it tends to rest on the footpeg without falling over completely, and even from horizontal it’s easier than, say, my old ZZ-R600 or CBR600F.

  • Joe

    The yamaha star bolt actually has the biggest engine out of this group, coming in at 942cc.

  • Justin McClintock

    “Best starter cruisers.” Right up there with titles like, “Best way to give yourself a home enama.”

  • AndrewT

    I started on the C50, and it was a pretty great first bike. Cheap as heck used on Craigslist, decent looks and comfort, but not enough power to get in too much trouble. After a year or so I was dragging the boards all over the place and decided I wanted something sportier and more capable of long road trips. I traded for another used Suzuki, a V-Strom 650 and I couldn’t be happier with the bike. I’m glad the Strom wasn’t my first bike though, the tall seat would have been a little intimidating for my first bike. Seat height and the secure feeling of planting both feet flat on the ground are very important factors for a first motorcycle.

  • John

    Yes, young friend, you can be THIS guy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-MAryQeSZk

    • Piglet2010

      Well, the people in the RV are almost as stupid as the cruiser idiots. But the voices during the slo-mo part were cool.

  • Aaron

    What about Triumph America and Speedmaster?

    • Piglet2010

      Hey, that was my question!

  • Piglet2010

    I traded down from an F4i to a Ninja 250 – the Ninjette is a hoot to flog around town, on the back roads (including some dirt and gravel), and of course on the track.

  • shane

    This isn’t always true…the Iron was my first bike, and I still love it. Its all about preference, and nothing else should matter. Knowing and staying within your skill level, respect for the machine your on, and a good dose of common sense is all you need. It doesn’t matter what your first bike is, as long as your riding.

  • Markus47

    These are not starter bikes. New riders should be going with less power if they dont want to kill themselves. Or am I just extra cautious. I have only 1 yr riding experience on a Honda rebel, Im 49yrs old and have only ridden a few mini bikes in my youth a few times. I have a perfect driving record and have been driving for 33yrs. I now have 4,000km experience under my belt on this bike (Rebel) and feel now its time to move up. I took the MSF course this year and watched in horror how some of these new riders are riding. Not looking or checking blind spots, going through pylons on the quick stop and so on, this is why I say its too much. It only takes one mistake to cripple you for life. Be extra careful.

  • Echo7BD

    I started with a ’98 Marauder VZ800. I’ve got to tell you, if it weren’t for the fact that the bike was too damn small for my 6’2″ frame, I would probably still have it. The engine was fantastic, even if it had one-too-few gears on it.

  • CurvyGirl31

    Got my first bike and went for The Suzuki boulevard m50 same as The c50 but considered more of The sports version due to The fact it’s lighter