Beginner Bike Class | Where To From Here?

Trading up from your entry-level bike is not easy

If you’ve skimmed through this issue already, you’ll have seen Kent’s First Ride piece on the Kawasaki Ninja 300, which replaces the Ninja 250 for ‘13. I find it interesting that Kawasaki updated the 250/300 this year, just five years after its last update. That may seem like a long time in sportbike years, but when you consider that the little Ninja went unchanged for 20 years before that, five years is a relatively quick turnaround. The introduction of the Honda CBR250R two years ago is likely what prompted Kawasaki to update its 250 this year, and this is just one upshot of what is an apparent increase in activity in the small-bike category.

The statistics from our website show some disproportionate interest in the 250 and beginner-bike class. On our YouTube video channel, a Honda CBR250R video has been seen 416,000 times—more than 600 views every day, a statistic that dwarfs any other video on the channel. The most popular thread on our message board—and one that consistently ranks high on the overall page views for the site—is a “New riders please read this” posting, an open letter from a reader that answers many questions new riders typically have. Any articles or news items related to the entry-level bikes are always popular on the website.

As always, the increase in popularity of small bikes is somewhat linked to fuel prices, and as we close in on what Europeans pay for a gallon of gas it’s no surprise the small bikes that sell well overseas are becoming more attractive here. That being said, I’d like to think that more first-time riders are getting into motorcycling for the joy of it, rather than being forced into riding for economical reasons, and that the interest in smaller bikes points to good things in the future for other segments in the industry.

I’d like to think that more first-time riders are getting into motorcycling for the joy of it, rather than being forced into riding for economical reasons…

In any event, the CBR250R and Ninja 300 may be just the tip of the iceberg for smaller bikes. Here in the U.S. we get only a small sampling of what’s available in other countries, both bigger and smaller than the Honda or Kawasaki. In Canada, for example, Honda offers the CBR125R in addition to the 250, and up until this year Kawasaki sold a Ninja 400 alongside the 650. There are more choices that not only entice new riders into the sport, but also make the transition to larger bikes easier.

This is one area where I think the manufacturers here are missing out: If you want to trade up from your CBR250R, what are the choices? At a Honda dealership here it’s the NC700X if you want to stay at least somewhat sporty, or you have to go right to the CBR600RR. In a Canadian Honda dealership, you can choose from the NC700X, the NC700S (a naked version of the adventure-touring X model), or the CBF600S (a semi-naked four-cylinder). I use Honda as an example, but few—if any—of the manufacturers here offer more than one or two models between their entry-level bike and their middleweight sportbike. There are so few that we can cover the segment with a group test every couple of years, and even then it’s a stretch to have more than a handful of entries. It’s not just a displacement or experience issue, either; there is a big price jump if you go right from a 250 or 300 to a middleweight sportbike, which I think turns a lot of people away from trading up.

All the major manufacturers offer many more mid-range models overseas. Suzuki in Great Britain, for instance, has an astounding number of models to choose from to make that transition from beginner bike: the SV650, SFV650, V-Strom 650, GSX650F and the Bandit 650. Some of those Suzuki models will sound familiar; they have all been sold here at one time or another, while the SFV and V-Strom are current models. I realize that in many cases these bikes aren’t sold here simply because they are not great sellers, but sometimes I have to wonder: I get asked at least once every couple of weeks why Suzuki doesn’t import the SV650 anymore, and I can only shrug my shoulders.

If the small-bike market is enjoying a surge right now even with such a small selection to choose from, it would make sense that other manufacturers will want their piece of that pie sooner or later. And when those riders outgrow their 125s and 250s, I think more would stay in the sport longer if they had more choices for their next bike. The manufacturers already have the bikes in their lineups, it’s a matter of convincing them to import those models here. Hopefully, if enough people speak up at their dealers we will have models such as the Aprilia RS4 125, KTM 200 and 690 Duke, the Yamaha YZF-R125 and XJ6, the Honda CBF600S, or even the return of the SV650.