By their very nature, sports bikes can be quite intimidating for beginner riders and there is an argument that some experience should be gained before new riders are allowed to get on a bike with more than 100 horses.
Happily, there are a few sub-500cc sports models that cater to just this section of the market. Having said that, they are also great bikes in their own right that even an experienced rider would enjoy.
Kawasaki’s Z400 differs from its direct rivals in having a parallel-twin engine, whereas others make do with a single cylinder. The 399cc engine puts out 50 horses which, combined with a capable chassis, is more than enough to give a new rider the experience of a sports bike that handles well and teaches them the benefit of good cornering speed. Learning to ride the Z400 well will be a good building block for a lifetime of skillful riding.
If you didn’t know the difference, the Z400 looks exactly like the larger Kawasaki sports bikes which is to its benefit, and that alone will draw new riders to it, while the performance is good enough to satisfy long after the necessary skills have been learned and bigger-engined bikes are a possibility.
Suzuki’s 645cc V-twin has been around for a very long time, but that simply means the company has had time to iron out any issues there might have been. Suzukis are some of the most bulletproof motorcycles available today, and if their specification might seem a little bland, then that shouldn’t detract from the easy-going friendliness.
It’s been around since 1999 with various upgrades over the years, and in 2016, it received a new chassis and an updated engine. However, it remains a bargain, price-wise. But, there’s nothing bargain about the riding experience which offers a characterful engine and sweet handling alongside the punchy V-twin engine.
Some might call its styling a bit anonymous and you can’t argue that the spec is a bit basic, but that just makes it an incredibly easy bike to live with: no complication, just get on and ride.
At one point, the 600cc sports bike class was booming and every Japanese manufacturer had one in its catalog. They were hardcore machines and not for the faint-of-heart or beginners, but if you had the skill, they were immensely rewarding. Slowly, however, they have all disappeared – with the exception of the Honda CBR600RR – and a new breed of rider-friendly middleweight sports bikes has started appearing. Yamaha took the MT-07 package and re-purposed it into the YZF-R7 faired sports bike.
The 689cc parallel-twin engine with cross-plane crankshaft has the perfect power characteristics and the MT-07 chassis is the perfect handling platform to make it one of the most accessible sports bikes on the planet. It is brilliant on track but, more importantly, has the perfect blend of performance and usability on the road. Having said that, there is still an edge that keeps things exciting, while the rider aids to keep things in line.
It offers great value for money, which makes it perfect for younger sports bike fans, and with its easy ergonomics, it is perfect for an older generation of sports bike riders for whom modern race replicas are just too extreme.
|Engine||Crossplane crankshaft parallel-twin|
The baby brother to the Speed Triple is acknowledged as one of the finest handling sports bikes out there. Typically Triumph, each subsequent generation following on from the 2007 original has been measurably better than the last.
In 2017, the engine was upped to 765cc from 675cc which gave it a new sense of urgency in the mid-range which the chassis could comfortably cope with. Naked it might be, but that only serves to bring the rider and motorcycle closer together: when a bike is this much fun, you don’t care about wind or weather protection.
Its brilliant usability sees it excel on track or scratching around country lanes while being superbly docile in traffic and through the city. The Street Triple possesses one of the finest, best-balanced chassis you’ll find anywhere.
With the usual brilliant Triumph build quality and the same top-notch components that you’ll find on much more expensive sports bikes – Brembo, Showa, and Öhlins – the Street Triple is an awful lot of bike for the money.
How often do we anticipate a new model only for it to be compromised in some way? That wasn’t so with the RS660: it lived up to the hype and has to be considered one of the best sports bikes available today, irrespective of capacity.
The 659cc parallel-twin engine puts out 100 horsepower, and it sounds utterly intoxicating and unmistakably Italian. It has the configuration’s grunty torque delivery that reduces the need to change gear all the time and lets the rider concentrate on sweeping through the bends, something the chassis positively encourages.
The RS660 is all the sports bike you could ever need: fast where it matters but small enough not to be too intimidating. It’s got all the electronics you could wish for, and also lean-sensitive traction control and cornering ABS, wheelie control, variable engine braking control, up-and-down quick-shifter, and even cruise control.
It’s not as extreme in terms of riding position as the bigger sports bikes, including its own brother, the RSV4 1100, but it looks the business and goes like the clappers as well. It ticks all the right boxes and is one of the best bikes.
The Honda CBR600 is one of those legendary bikes that demonstrate what the Japanese do best: produce powerful, smooth, rev-hungry engines fitted into an uncompromised chassis that could go out as it is and win Supersport races either on race tracks or at the Isle of Man TT with few changes.
Comfort is a secondary consideration to efficiency, but what efficiency? Light and with properly sorted chassis and suspension, this could well be the most fun you’ll have on a race track, as long as you can fold yourself onto it! Tall riders need not apply.
A 599cc, four-cylinder engine pushes out 118bhp which, coupled with the close-ratio gearbox, gives the CBR600RR scintillating performance which makes you wonder what you would do with another 400cc and up to 80 or 90bhp more: get yourself into a lot of trouble, probably!
Essentially a race bike made road legal, it is one of the most hardcore sports 600s out there and you’ll need to bring your A-game but, if you do, the CBR600RR will reward the rider hugely.
There was a time when a 750cc sports bike was the thing to have, but as time went on, the emphasis shifted to 1100cc, then 900cc, then back up to 1000cc for sports bikes, and down to 600cc for Supersport bikes.
One of the founders of the lightweight sports bike movement was Suzuki, way back in 1984 with the original GSX-R750, and it’s still with us today, plowing a lone furrow in the 750cc class. The engine is fantastic, a free-revving masterpiece with all the punch you could need, accompanied by a howling exhaust note. Despite giving away cubic centimeters and total horsepower to 1000cc superbikes, it can often lap faster due to its wonderful chassis and lightweight.
It might lack all the technological sophistication of more modern sports bikes but that just serves to show how good the basic package of the Gixxer is: that it can beat much more modern, powerful, and technology-laden 1000cc superbikes around a given track speaks volumes. As a bike to get the best out of the rider, the Suzuki might just have the edge: it’s no wonder many professional road testers refer to it as their favorite bike ever.
It’s a beautifully pure sports bike, endowed with Suzuki’s bullet-proof engineering reliability.
MV Agusta Brutale 800 Rosso – $13,400
Italian engineering and flair for under $15,000? Yes, sirree! The MV Agusta Brutale 800 is intimidating and takes skill to get the best out of it, but it’s a thrill-a-mile if you get it right. The 798cc triple-cylinder engine pushes out 110bhp and 60.5 pound-feet of torque with one of the most spine-chilling howls from the super sexy three-pipe exhaust. Effectively, it’s a de-tuned Brutale 800 RR, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s been strangled; it hasn’t. With a weight of 189 kilos, those horses don’t have a lot of mass to lug around and it shows!
Aggressive styling and riding position and harsh ride might put some people off, but there can be no doubt that riding an MV Agusta is one of those experiences that everyone has to sample just once in their lives. Be warned, however: once sampled, nothing else is quite the same ever again!
If ever there was a bike to put a wicked grin on your face every time you ride it, then it’s this one. There are quirky design flaws, such as a terrible digital dash and suspect switchgear, but when it looks this good and goes this well, who cares about details?
If you thought the MV Agusta for under $15,000 was unbelievable, then how about a naked R1 superbike? The Yamaha MT-10 is the R1 with fewer horses, but a whole chunk more mid-range grunt and super-chunky styling that’s not unattractive but, at the same time, spikily aggressive.
The Japanese took a while to jump onto the super naked bandwagon, but when it did with the Yamaha MT-10, it straight away took a place at the top table with the likes of the Aprilia Tuono V4, KTM Super Duke R, and Triumph Speed Triple.
While you might not like the looks, there can be no denying that the engine is simply magnificent. With a cross-plane crank, it sounds like nothing else than a full-on MotoGP bike. Being a four-cylinder, it has a Jekyll and Hyde character, content to potter smoothly around town before unleashing the hounds of hell on the open road. It’s comfortable, well-equipped, well-built, and as reliable as any other Jap four-cylinder ever.
At this price, it’s an absolute bargain: you’d have to look hard to find a bike with the MT-10s pedigree, performance, equipment, reliability, and sheer ability. Add in that exhaust note and the rivals just fade into insignificance!
When Triumph ‘invented’ the ‘modern classic’ movement with the Bonneville in the early 2000s, no one thought that one day, they would be making a retro model which would be a brilliant sports bike in its own right.
The first Thruxtons, with the 900cc engine, were more style over substance; they looked right but just lacked that special something – performance, mostly – to be anything other than a homely nod to the old cafe racer idea.
Then came the Thruxton R with the 1200cc version of Triumph’s parallel-twin, and bang: in one fell swoop, Triumph had created the retro sports bike category with a bike that could hold its head up in any company. The ‘R’ version got Showa forks up front, twin Öhlins shocks at the back, Brembo monobloc brake calipers, traction control, riding modes, Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires, and nearly 100 horses of lusty torque-laden engine and it was absolutely brilliant.
At last, the Thruxton went as well as it looked, which was like a million dollars. Fine handling, thanks to the brilliant chassis and suspension and it stops and turns as well as any modern sports bike. At a stroke, it beat all the other pretenders to the retro sports bike crown and a few modern candidates as well.
It’s not all that comfortable and the ride is hard but that’s a trade-off for safe, secure handling. There’s beauty in the detail all over the bike and it ticks the box that says that, after a long and satisfying ride, when you walk away, you just can’t help but look back as it sits there cooling down and saying to yourself, ‘oh, yeah!’ Never has a bike been as versatile: easy to ride, fast, and fun, but as happy to potter around while you pose as it is to carve up the canyon roads. It costs a smidge over $15,000, but it deserves to be on this list despite that.