Cheap Thrills - Six Great Bikes for Under $6,000


Categories: HFL, Lists

Cheap Thrills - Six Great Bikes for Under $6,000

Small displacement, small price, big fun

Ever since I started riding my criteria for new bikes has been the same: bikes need to be small, fast, and cheap. See, I love universal Japanese motorcycles – those basic, good-looking standards put out by the Big Four during the 60s, 70s, and 80s like the iconic CB750, the plucky KZ440, and my personal favorite, the XS650. When I started riding, UJMs were still thick on the ground and could be had for a small handful of Benjamins. A very small handful if you were good with a wrench and saw "ran when parked" as a challenge. As for fast, well, a wise man once said: "I'd rather ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow."

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I'd rather take a 40-year-old 500cc single and flog it hard through Detroit traffic or down a backwoods Ohio road than commute on a Gixxer or something (Although some people, like our Tim Huber, are up for that sort of thing –Ed). UJMs embodied my small, fast, and cheap sensibilities, and my garage was soon full of 400, 500, and 750cc bikes.

As my motorcycling tastes solidified, I lost track of new bikes and became obsessed with the kind of old Japanese iron you find lurking in the backs of garages and under backyard tarps all across the country. I bought bikes like most people buy meat. Not so much by the pound, for a certain number of dollars per cubic centimeter plus extra money for running condition, rarity, cult status, etc. In my mind, new bikes all started at, like, $65,000.00 so I just stuck with my antique UJMs. So, when Chris tossed me this assignment and said, "Write an article about cool bikes you can get for under six grand," I was like: "Can you even buy a new bike for six grand?"

Turns out you can! Not only can you buy a new bike for six grand, but you can buy a whole pack of seriously cool, small-displacement, exceedingly fun bikes for well under the US $6,000 mark. In my research – which entailed copious amounts of reading and dragging my daughters around to some local dealerships to touch new bikes and hassle salespeople – I found six great small, fast, new bikes (and one not-so great, but still a relatively solid contender) that you can take home today for less than 6,000 Yankee dollars.

Honda Rebel 500

A Rebel deserving of the name.

Year Released: 2017

MSRP: $5,999

Honda's stylish new Rebel 500 is the spiritual successor to the long-lived CMX250C Rebel mini-cruiser. For about 30 years, starting in the mid-80s, The Rebel 250 was a mainstay of America's big city police departments and rider education programs. It was a lightweight, easy-to-ride, extremely non-threatening bike designed to appeal to new or occasional riders who weren't quite ready to throw a leg over one of Honda's bigger, more potent bikes like the Nighthawk 750 or VT1100C. The CMX-series came and went throughout the 80s and 90s, taking a few long hiatuses and finally coming back strong in 1998. In 2016, after a long career introducing new riders to the joys of motorcycling, Honda announced that it would stop producing the Rebel 250 for good. In its place, Big Red rolled out the brand new, fully upgraded, larger-displacement Rebel 300 and Rebel 500 models.

Lean and mean, the stripped down Rebel is an aggressive-looking little thing with its blacked out engine, beefy tires, and low-slung stance. It has more than just looks going for it, though. The 471cc water-cooled parallel twin is the same dependable mill that powers Honda's CB500-series bikes – bikes that we here at RideApart have raved about for years. It puts down a respectable amount of power, and the six-speed trans gets that power to the ground with a minimum of drama. It's also relatively light and has a low seat and low-set handlebars for inseam-challenged riders or those who prefer the confidence boost of being able to set both feet firmly on the ground. Overall, the Rebel 500 is a killer little city bike that would make an excellent second bike, or a great first new bike for the experienced rider who has owned used bikes all their life.

Kawasaki Versys-X 300

A street bike that likes to rough it, not a dirt bike that cleans up well.

Year Released: 2017

MSRP: $5,399

Kawasaki's brand new Versys-X300 is kind of a Swiss army bike, a jack of all trades and, well, master of many. The smallest, newest bike in Team Green's Versys line, this third-scale adventure bike is, as Kawasaki puts it, "a street bike with dirt potential, not an off-road bike with street potential." That's kind of an academic distinction, but an important one. Like the rest of the Versys line, the X300 is kind of an odd duck. It's an adventure bike that combines elements from dual-sports, standards, touring bikes, and off-roaders into a potent package, but one that doesn't slot easily into any of the current motorcycle categories. It's just as comfortable on twisty back roads or zipping through city traffic as it is pounding down goat paths and dry washes out in the back of beyond. Ask a Kawasaki rep what the X300 and the waters get even muddier: "It's a small-displacement street adventure bike that can be outfitted for touring."

Oooooooooooooookay. Did you get all that?

In simpler, more direct terms, the X300 is a small, relatively light, extremely versatile adventure tourer. Like its larger siblings, the baby Versys is largely based on one of Kawasaki's Ninjas. It uses the same 296cc, water-cooled, 4-stroke twin out of the EX300 mated to a six-speed, return shift gearbox with a sealed chain final drive. The Ninja mill is slung in a special tube frame and acts as a stressed member, not just a lump that's along for the ride. A single disc front and rear handle braking, and the bike can even be equipped with an anti-lock braking system for about $300. Instead of a high-strung tune like in the Ninja, the X300's engine gets a torque-focused tune that gives the bike a surprising amount of grunt for a 300. If you really want to go crazy, Kawasaki offers a line of bespoke accessories for the X300, including crash bars, high-powered auxiliary lights, and even custom hard luggage. Fully kitted out, the X300 comes in well over our $6,000 price cap, but if you pick and choose your options carefully you’ll be alright.

No matter what you want to call it, the X300 is a great, versatile bike that appeals both to new adventure riders and more experienced riders looking to move up from smaller, less capable machines. It also looks fantastic in Kawasaki green.

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Suzuki Vanvan

It came from the 70s...

Year Released: 2017

MSRP: $4,599

Man, I love a good scrambler. Along with nouveau-UJMs like Yamaha's SR400, Honda's CB1100, and Suzuki's TU250X, scramblers are making a comeback among a certain type of nostalgia-loving, style-obsessed rider. Triumph's Scrambler has been a hit in the neo-scrambler scene for more than a decade, and the British company’s dominance is expected to continue with its new Street Scrambler. Meanwhile, Ducati unveiled an entire line of scramblers for the benefit of old-school nerds like me. Not wanting to be left behind by these scrambler upstarts, and seeing an opportunity to cash in on America's small but growing small-displacement bike market, Suzuki brought back an old, old friend for 2017 – the venerable Vanvan.

Suzuki released the original Vanvan in overseas markets way back in 1972 as the RV125. That bike had an air-cooled, 123cc, two-stroke single, weighed about 4 lbs (OK, maybe a little more than that), and was just about as much fun as you could pack into a bike that small. Over the years the line expanded to 50, 75, 90, 250, and 400cc models until the whole family was retired in 1982. Fast forward to 2003 when Suzuki re-released the RV125 with a newer, better 4-stroke single and styling straight out of the early 70s. That bike soldiered on through the aughts with little upgrades here and there – like trading in its carb for a modern fuel injection system – and proved popular as a rural utility bike and urban runabout. Then, in late 2016, Suzuki announced that the Vanvan would finally be coming to the Americas with a bigger motor and even more retro styling.

The 2017 Vanvan features a peppy, solidly built, 199cc, fuel injected 4-stroke single similar to those that power the DR200S mated to a five-speed transmission. It features a single rotor disc brake on the front wheel and  a drum aft, a 1.7-gallon fuel tank, and a well-padded seat to soak up the bumps. A bike that "puts the fun in funky" according to the dads on Suzuki's marketing team, the Vanvan is built to appeal to as wide a swath of riders as possible – everyone from college kids to farmers to adventure riders. With its fat tires, scrambler-style exhaust, and copious amounts of ground clearance, the Vanvan is designed to tackle just about any moderately challenging surface. The Vanvan is also dead simple – a stripped-down, super light, no frills, low-maintenance bike that provides copious amounts of fun with little to no drama.

Hopefully the Vanvan finds success in the displacement-obsessed American bike market. This pocket-sized scrambler has so much potential and baked in versatility that it should be a hit with new and experienced riders alike. We'll see how it goes.

Yamaha SR400

The SR400, proud descendant of the XS-1.

Year Released: 2014

MSRP: $5,999

Yamaha's SR400 is another one of those bikes – like the venerable TW200 – that's been on the market forever with few changes other than safety and engine control upgrades.

What's that you say? "But Jason, Yamaha has only been selling the SR400 since 2014!"

Well, yes and no. The SR400 was originally released by Yamaha way back in 1978, but it was only sold for the Japanese Domestic Market. A larger sibling, the SR500, was sold in other markets including Asia and Oceana until 1999, North America until 1981, and Europe until 1983.

The SR400 soldiered on largely unchanged in Japan for a solid 30 years until Yamaha put it on a short hiatus in 2008. It returned tanned, rested, and ready in 2010 with a brand new fuel injection system – until then the SRs had been carbed bikes – and a new exhaust, both designed to help the bike keep up with increasingly strict emissions standards. By 2014, Yamaha expanded sales of these mighty little bikes to markets in Europe, the Americas, and Oceana.

Now that we're done with the history lesson, let's talk about what this bike is, exactly. Aside from totally, totally rad. The latest model of the SR400 is a member of Yamaha's Sport Heritage line of bikes, a family that includes the legendary VMAX and the scrambler-esque SCR950. The smallest member of that line, it has an air-cooled, 399cc, four-stroke single with two valves and a single overhead cam that is still pretty much the mill they first put in these things back in '78. The transmission is a pretty basic five-speed unit, and for brakes it has a single disc forward and a sealed drum aft. The bike's lightweight, well built frame, and short wheelbase make it pretty agile and well behaved, all the ingredients for a great little city runabout.

What really makes the SR400 stand out from the rest of the sub-six grand pack is its killer retro looks. Like the engine, the bike's styling has remained pretty much the same since its introduction. It's every bit the universal Japanese motorcycle with its chrome fenders, long saddle, teardrop tank, and laced wheels. It even has gaiters! The SR is so retro in fact that it even has a kick starter. Yep, a modern, mass-produced bike with a kick starter. In fact, it doesn't come with an electric start at all, and there's no option to have one installed from the factory. Now that's some dedication old-school motorcycling on Yamaha's part.

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What is this, a Beemer for ants?

Year Released: 2016

MSRP: $4,750

Look, I'm as surprised as you guys here. An honest to goodness Beemer for under six grand? Really? What's the catch? Turns out there is no catch. What you're looking at here in the brand new BMW G310R. First unveiled in 2016, the "Little Beemer That Could" is the result of more than half a decade of designing, tuning, and testing in and around Southern California. It's the first small-displacement bike BMW has built since some failed attempts in the 1920s, and stands out as BMW's first true entry-level bike in their modern era. It is, in the words of my colleague Ken Hutchison, "A purpose-built motorcycle for beginners, commuters, and riders who simply enjoy riding but are looking for something a bit more refined than the same old, small-bore bikes they’ve been offered in the past."

Sounds good, right? So, what kind of BMW do you get for under five grand anyway? Turns out, the answer is "a substantial one." The G310R is powered by a rear-facing 313cc, water-cooled, fuel-injected four-stroke single with the intake on the front and the exhaust on the back of the head. A solid six-speed trans gets all 34 of the bike's horses to the ground via a chain final drive, and stopping is achieved by good old ABS-equipped discs fore and aft. It weighs just shy of 350 pounds and has a seat height of 30.9 inches, making it light and low enough for new riders, short riders, or riders who otherwise like both feet on the ground at stops.

Let's be honest here, the G310R is clearly a gateway drug to larger, more powerful Beemers. It's a great looking bike with its upright, eager stance and classic red-and-blue on white BMW livery. Careful though, you bring one of these home and next thing you know you'll be browsing F800s and R1200s, looking up BMW ride-ins, and figuring out how to fit just one more Bavarian bomber into your garage.

KTM Duke 390

Very small, very fast, very orange.

Year Released: 2013

MSRP: $4,999

I'll be honest with you guys here, I don't know all that much about KTMs. I've admired them from afar for years, but before I started this job actually owning a KTM seemed like a far-off dream. As used as I was to antique Japanese iron, the big orange Duke and its stable mates seemed exotic and even a little intimidating to me. The models’ aggressive styling, bold paint jobs, and gorgeous exposed frames always brought to mind that line from Neuromancer about how sportbikes parked on the street looked like "enameled scorpions" – more so than even the Hondas and Yamahas and Kawasakis that were surely on Gibson's mind when he wrote that. I know this all sounds a little breathless and overwrought, but for some reason KTMs always seemed way more exotic to me than even MV Agustas or Aprilias even though they're really not. So imagine my delight then at discovering that I could buy a revvy, small-displacement Duke of my very own for well under six grand while compiling this list – because small, cheap, and fast are my watchwords.

KTM released the Duke 390 in 2013 and motorcycle fans apparently lost their minds. It has all the trademark Duke features – flickability, power, style, fun – in a small, easy-to-manage package. The engine is a 373cc, water-cooled, 4-stroke single running power through a six-speed transmission. Made in India, these tiny Dukes have a lot in common with the other bikes on this list – solid standard features like ABS, a good list of options, excellent power to fun and cost to fun ratio – and make for excellent introductory bikes to KTM's family of fine motorcycles. Duke 390s are so fun apparently that no one wanted to give up our 2015 long-term review loaner bike when the time came to send it home.

Honorable Mention – Royal Enfield Continental GT

Why you gotta hurt me like you do, baby?

Year Released: 2013

MSRP: $5,999

Do you like cafe racers? Of course you do. Do you like the prices that pre-built cafe racers based on old 60s and 70s-era British and Japanese iron command? Eeeeeeh, not so much, right? So what's a motorcyclist supposed to do when they want those sweet cafe racer looks but they have Craigslist money? Friends, I give you the Continental GT by Royal Enfield.

The Continental GT was, believe it or not, the first all-new bike design from India-based Royal Enfield in roughly 50 years when it was released in 2013. Based on the legendary Continental GT 250 and penned by the famous English design house Xenophya, the new Continental GT was also the first Enfield bike to use international-quality materials in its construction. It has a double-loop frame designed by England's Harris Performance, Pirelli tires, Brembo brakes, and fancy-shhmancy Paioli performance shocks with remote reservoirs.

Driving this pre-fab cafe is a 535cc, fuel-injected, air-cooled, 4-stroke single delivering a slightly underwhelming 29 horsepower through a five-speed transmission. It's a little heavier than it needs to be, and has more than its share of bargain basement parts bin accessories, something Royal Enfield is notorious for. That said, despite its rough edges it's a good looking bike and, once you get past Enfield's dubious reputation, it's a blast to ride.

Why is the Continental GT in the honorable mention section though? Well, I'm not going to lie to you guys, the Continental GT isn't a great bike. It suffers from the typical fit and finish issues and mechanical gremlins that plague all of Royal Enfield's bikes despite the fact that they've had 60-some years to get production squared away. That said, quality is reportedly improving in the modern day, and it's a great-looking cafe-styled bike you can take home today for well under six grand. It may not be great, it may not even be good, but it's good enough.

Note: This story was originally published June 27, 2017.

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