Small motorcycles are taking over, and they’re nothing like they used to be. Cheap quality boneshakers are things of the past – because small motorcycles just got serious. With the Western market making slow growth at best, it’s the Asian market that’s appealing to most manufacturer’s R&D departments and Asia is the spiritual home of small motorcycles: the infrastructure can’t handle over-powered motorcycles, small capacity machines have been the driving force of their nations for the past 80 years, and the Japanese already know how to build top quality small motorcycles. And the motorcycle industry is a business at the end of the day: you’ve got to go where the money is…and Europe and North America are a big strapped at the moment, putting it kindly.
Times aren’t as thin as the papers tell you, but the global mind set is changing: cars are labelled as deadly pollutants offer poor economy, large capacity motorcycles are starting to be called unnecessary, and there’s a growing demand for small urban transport solutions. In an ideal world we’d all ride little electric scooters but we’ve got a few years of breathing space before that happens, and the major motorcycle manufacturers have decided that they’re going to fill the void with small motorcycles with big personalities. And what they’re offering is nothing short of superb.
In fact, we recommend going out for a test ride on the latest generation of small motorcycles to help cast off some old prejudices. They’re not as weak and underpowered as they used to be. They come with advanced riding aids that used to be more commonly reserved for their bigger brothers. You’re not too big for one. And they’re cheap. And extremely economical. We know you’re not convinced but like you we once feared the unknown – so that’s why we’re going to take you on a little trip through the world of small motorcycles, and hopefully something there strikes a chord. So here are our top 10 favorite small motorcycles that might convert you to the small capacity cause…And while it’s a top 10, it’s in no particular order of favoritism.
The Top 10 Small Motorcycles That You Should Take For A Ride
#10. The Honda CRF250 Rally
The Honda CRF250 Rally is an absolute beast of a bike that almost any rider can find a use for. Essentially, it’s a CRF250L dirt bike that has been dolled up a little to make it look more like a Paris-Dakar beast, but with more practically minded adventure riding ergonomics. It might appear to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing thanks to its striking HRC inspired styling that makes it look like a diluted CRF450R, but its bite matches its bark. It’s just a different kind of bite. With a re-tuned CRF250L motor that produces a more user-friendly 24 hp, the CRF250 Rally also boasts some cool features that you wouldn’t normally find on a bike of its size, such as LED lights, advanced trail oriented tires, real road presence and overall commanding nature – all wrapped up in a package that weighs 346 lbs wet.
The CRF250 Rally’s project leader, Eiji Sugiyama explained the inspiration behind the machine: “The rally racer replica segment is an exciting one for us, with the global, human appeal of everything that Team HRC is fighting to achieve in the Dakar rally. We really wanted to build on the capabilities of the CRF250L and open up new opportunities for riders young and old. So, with the CRF250 Rally we set out to make a motorcycle that looks like HRC’s CRF450 Rally factory machine, is fun to ride both on and off-road for weekend adventures, comfortable to tour with and useful and practical for daily life. It brings the spirit of Rally-raid racing to every ride.” As far as small motorcycles go, this is a pretty mean machine.
#09. The Suzuki VanVan 200
The Suzuki VanVan is not a new motorcycle by any stretch of the imagination but it’s often overlooked in the small motorcycles category – with Honda’s small CBs or Yamaha’s smaller YBR models taking precedence – and that’s a damn shame. Boasting a fun little 199cc single cylinder fuel injected engine that’s good for around 16 hp at 8,000 rpm and around 11 lb-ft of torque at 6,500 rpm, all held together with an unmistakably 70s inspired shape, it’s hard not to fall in love with this little mover.
While it has a lot in common with the likes of the Yamaha TW200 or the Honda FTR223, there’s something about the Suzuki VanVan that surpasses the other two. It might be its uncomplicated nature, or it might be that awesome retro look with that enormous rear tire…It has a degree of playfulness and an energy that the other two lack. Whatever you do though, do not read the marketing spiel on the Suzuki Cycles website…or you may vomit. Referred to as this baby and using terms like bop around and easy peasy, you may feel the need to unleash your funk down the nearest toilet. Forget the adverts – because if you can cut through the marketing nonsense, you can find an awesome, unsung hero of a bike, and one of the most exciting small motorcycles on the market.
#08. The BMW G310GS
BMW Motorrad stunned us a few years ago when they announced that they were going to throw their hat in the small motorcycles ring with their awesome G310R platform. Developed in conjunction with India’s TVS Motor Company, the little Beemer was lauded from the moment that it was unveiled. As an entirely new platform we expected to see further models evolve from it. TVS have been working on a 310cc sports model, while BMW were working on a mini-adventure model to complement their already successful GS range. And here it is. This is the little GS. And it’s not actually that little.
As you can see it has been given the full GS treatment placing it firmly in the GS family, but there’s more to this bike than matching plastics and graphics. Powered by the same 313cc single cylinder engine as the G310R, the GS version produces a more than capable 34 hp putting it firmly within the realm of real life usability. As a BMW you can bet on bulletproof reliability, and as a model you’ll be surprised to know that those big wheels and suspension look like they are more than capable of some decent-range distance touring. And as far as small motorcycles go, this one is small in engine capacity only…the whole thing is a lot bigger than you’d expect.
#07. The Ducati Scrambler Sixty2
With the unprecedented success of the Scrambler platform it’s no wonder that Ducati decided to take the best features of its 800cc machine and produce a smaller version for those with Ducati aspirations but with smaller capacity in mind. Back in 2015, the Ducati Scrambler was the 10th bestselling motorcycle in the world, with 16,000 units sold – which is no mean feat for a new bike – and the vast majority of those were sold in North America. But the world is bigger than the USA and Canada, so Ducati decided to shave off some cubic centimeters to attract an entirely new crowd.
Now with a more manageable 400cc engine that produces 46 horsepower, and wrapped in an unmistakable Ducati Scrambler body, the Sixty2 isn’t just for beginner riders who want to look cool. Underneath the branding is a motorcycle that really works. If you’re in the market for an urban commuter that you can take for a decent spin at the weekend, and not feel like you’ve got more bike than talent at the end of the ride, then give the small Scrambler Sixty2 a go. I don’t think you’ll ever want to take it scrambling though…that’s for sure.
#06. The KTM Duke 390
KTM is the world’s fastest growing motorcycle manufacturer and while the RC8 was great, and while their Super Duke models get our hearts thumping, the truth of the matter is that KTM are making their money doing what they do best: making small motorcycles with shockingly good engines. With the off-road market firmly under their control, it’s no surprises that the world has gone crazy for their road going equivalents too. Since 2014, the U.S has been blessed with the KTM Duke 390, and by rights you should be seeing more of them on the road…but weirdly you don’t see them as often as you should.
There’s no denying that the 390 machines are small motorcycles, but what they lack in size they make up for in character. The KTM Duke 390’s 375cc single cylinder engine produces a good 44 hp at 9,500 rpm and 26 lb-ft of torque at 7,50 rpm and comes complimented with WP suspension, Brembo brakes, ABS, and lightweight wheels – all in a package that weighs just shy of 300 lbs. KTM might not be as obvious a choice as the likes of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki when searching for small motorcycles, but give them a chance. And good news for the USA too, because the more sports oriented RC390 is arriving on US shores too, should you catch the KTM bug.
#05. The Suzuki V-Strom 250
When Suzuki pulled the covers off of their pocket sized V-Strom, we didn’t know what to think. The regular, 650cc and 1000cc V-Strom are pretty much icons in the casual adventure subculture that we thought a smaller version could only be terrible. Or at least a bad imitation of something we already loved. But we’re happy to say that Suzuki surprised us, and that the V-Strom 250 is actually a welcome addition to the line up. It borrows the same silhouette as its older siblings with the classic beak and adventure looks but it shares its engine with the Inazuma. The 248cc parallel twin is good for 25 horsepower, tuned for low and mid-range torque, and is a solid reliable unit.
While it’s decked out in adventure gear – it comes with a 12v power outlet, luggage racks, and a nice tall riding position – it’s probably not in the same league as the BMW G310 GS or Honda CRF250 Rally, but it’s good for mild touring and can hold its own in the rough. Despite all that, we think that the Suzuki V-Strom 250 excels best a solid commuter that doubles up as an adventure bike for weekend voyagers only. As far as small motorcycles go, we’re quite smitten with the little ‘Strom.
#04. The Kawasaki Versys-X 300
By now you’re probably noticing a trend of small versions of already established adventure bikes. Kawasaki has also jumped on that particular bandwagon – and they’d be fools not to. If you’re going to build a solid small capacity motorcycle, you’re going to want to build one that appeals to the broadest spectrum of riders, and the versatile and practical nature of the adventure motorcycle makes it the ideal candidate. Similar to Suzuki, Kawasaki has also relied on the success of another one of their models that comes in 650cc and 1000cc flavors: the mighty Versys. This is the Kawasaki Versys-X 300, and while it comes from an adventure heritage, Kawasaki has aimed the smaller machine more towards the road than we expected.
But that’s no bad thing. Very few adventure motorcycles purchased ever go an adventure more exciting than a trip to the local mall – how many GS riders have legitimately gone on an adventure? – so Kawasaki have decided to make the Versys-X 300 geared towards adventures that mainly take place on roads. Powered by the same 296cc engine found in the Z300 tuned for mid and low torque, the Versys-X 300 offers superb fuel economy, with Kawasaki claiming that one tank is good for 250 miles.. So, if you’re an urban commuter, give this one a test ride.
#03. The Honda Rebel 300
Then there was the Honda Rebel. When you think of the Honda Rebel, make sure don’t conjure up the old style of Rebel. Since 1984, the Honda Rebel has been a mainstay entry-level motorcycle for riders of all ages…and it pretty much stayed in the same style and shape for the next 30 odd years. And then Honda decided that it was time to drag the king of small motorcycles kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And by god did they do a fantastic job. Coming in two flavors, 300cc and 500cc, we’re going to focus on the smaller model. But both are worth your consideration.
This sporty looking cruiser is one of the most exciting motorcycles of the past few years. It’s not going to win any performance contests but if you’re in the market for a rocksteady bike that will never fail you, is comfortable and fun to ride, and doesn’t look dowdy and dated, then the Honda Rebel 300 is for you. Powered by a punchy 286cc single cylinder engine that offers 24.4 hp, 19.9 lb-ft of torque, the Honda Rebel 300 also offers 71 miles to the gallon and comes with a very attractive MSRP price of $4,399 for the latest model. Now can you see why this rates so high in the small motorcycles segment?
#02. KTM 390 Adventure
Alright, so this one technically isn’t even out yet and we only have spy shots to go on, but since we’ve mainly talked about the versatility and practicality of small capacity adventure motorcycles then we think that the KTM 390 Adventure is still list worthy. As we mentioned above, KTM has a great track record when it comes to building small motorcycles…but it also has an amazing history when it comes to building rugged, globe-trotting, trail blazing adventure motorcycles too. The KTM 390 Adventure is set to be the best of both worlds, so we think it’s worth getting excited about this bike before it even formally arrives.
Apparently still under development because it didn’t make an appearance at last year’s EICMA show, leaving us only spy shots to go on. Taking styling cues from the KTM 450 Rally and nice beak style mud guard, the KTM 390 Adventure is going to be a force to be reckoned with when it finally gets unveiled. Until then, enjoy the spy shots…
#01. The Honda MSX125 Grom
Of course it’s on the list. There’s small motorcycles and there’s small motorcycles – and then there’s the Honda Grom, which is basically in a league of its own. Kawasaki tried to copy it with their Z125 Pro, but there’s no way that Team Green’s little imitation is ever going to unhorse the mini-bike-monarch which is the Honda Grom. Ever since it rolled onto the scene back in 2014, the Grom was instantly blessed with an army of dedicated followers worshiping their majestic pint-sized god. And is the Grom worth the hype? Absolutely.
While it’s not the most practical motorcycle in the world, it’s definitely a useful one to have in your stable. Simple, reliable, fun, and very cheap to run, it’s no wonder that more than 300,000 models have been sold all over the world during the Grom’s short life span, with more being sold every day. The secret is down to the fun nature of the Groms little 124cc liquid cooled single cylinder engine. While it only produces 9.79 hp, it’s nothing but a joy to ride. Its small size and fairly self-aware-of-what-it-is nature makes anyone who rides it wear a smile. Whatever the weather. And we absolutely love it – we’re just surprised that Honda haven’t capitalized on its success and gone overboard with it adding model variants and other gimmicks. Pocket sized though it may be, it’s easily one of our favorite small motorcycles on the market, and we heartily recommend you take one for a ride. The award for the best small bike definitely goes to this little monster.
So before throwing your hard earned cash at a Kawasaki Ninja or a Harley-Davidson Street Rod, take the time to consider a smaller motorcycle to tackle the open road on instead. Small bikes are the ideal machines for tackling the city streets and for new riders too. They’ve got a useful seat height, a uncomplicated nature, and an un-intimidating presence. Don’t waste time shopping for an oversized dual sport machine, a new Harley Davidson, or a bug eyed Triumph Street Triple, instead you can set your sights a little lower and tear it up on a small motorcycle like the KTM 390 Duke or Suzuki TU250X instead. Bigger is not always better.