Here in the Western World, the motorcycling community has long had a propensity for big-bore powertrains, prompting most manufacturers to deliver increasingly large-displacement models with each model update. And while we can’t begin to deny the sheer thrills offered by literbikes, the reality is most small-displacement models are more than capable of handling the majority of riding applications, from track days to touring to freeway travel to commuting. Because these diminutive-engined models are so often overlooked by Western riders, we’ve scoured the segment to highlight a dozen of today’s most noteworthy scoots in this guide to the best small-displacement motorcycles.
Though we tend to focus primarily on displacement when poring over catalogs and spec-sheets, there are in fact a handful of equally important factors to take into account such as an engine’s layout, the number of cylinders, massaging and tuning, and engine cycle type, just to name a few. Below, we’ll be exploring our favorite picks from the sub-400cc class, as well as touching on some of the finer points to consider when in the market for a small displacement bike.
CCs & Cylinders
Why Engine Size Matters Less Than You Think
Anything south of half-a-liter is considered to be of the small displacement variety here in the U.S. and typically isn’t viewed as a high-performance model. Over the last few years, however, as the small-bore market has rapidly grown in size and popularity, a select number of moto marques have been rolling out ultra-capable and thoroughly top-shelf motorcycles that are kicked along by quarter-liter mills. And, even with a 250cc displacement, if you give a bike multiple cylinders and/or a two-stroke cycle, some of these pint-sized machines can achieve surprisingly quick lap times and top speeds well into triple-digit territory. As such, these bikes tend to feature incredibly sophisticated chassis designs and are backed by some of the finest componentry that money can buy.
Focusing On The Ride
Why You Should Consider Starting Small Or Downsizing
Larger motorcycles are heavier, more sensitive, less forgiving, and all-around harder to pilot and control. By opting for a smaller, more manageable bike, riders can spend more effort, energy, and concentration on form and technique, body positioning, throttle control, and other fundamental aspects of riding, rather than simply trying to keep the bike in check. In addition to being safer — and typically less costly to run whether on the street or the track — smaller bikes are objectively much more conducive to developing one’s skills and growing as a rider than your average bib-bore cruiser, liter-sized sport or superbike, or even a 600cc i4. At the end of the day, riding should be about having fun, and dollar-for-dollar, no other segment can come close to touching small-displacement bikes when it comes to the fun factor. Plus, as the old adage goes, “it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow.”
Small Bike Inspection 101
Final Factors To Consider When Small Displacement Moto Shopping
Obviously, the engine on a small-displacement motorcycle is of utmost importance and should be one of, if not the first area to consider when shopping around. After reviewing a power plant’s layout, the number of cylinders, and other basic elements, the next area to consider is the running gear and componentry, which at times can be markedly more top-shelf than your average small-displacement offering. Top speed and horsepower and torque output are also crucial areas to consider, as these figures give a much better sense of a motorcycle’s real-world performance capabilities than merely looking at the cylinder’s cubic centimeters. Lastly, some of these bikes have been bestowed with a myriad of features that are almost exclusively reserved for high-dollar, high-performance motorcycles such as traction control, launch control, and different programable fuel maps (aka “riding modes”).
Big Thrills In Small Packages
The Best Small Displacement Motorcycles
Now that we’ve made our case for why you should consider going with a small-bore moto and shined a light on what factors and parts to consider when shopping, let’s dive into our picks for the dozen best small-displacement production motorcycles that are currently available on showroom floors.
Husqvarna Svartpilen 125
Arguably today’s most stylish entry-level motorcycle on the market, the Husqvarna Svartpilen 125 takes the Swedish marque’s acclaimed neo-scrambler design and bestows it with an easily-tamable eighth-liter single with fuel injection and liquid cooling. Despite the decreased displacement, the 125-spec maintains the high-end WP suspension, hydro-formed and robot-welded steel-tube frame, spoked wheels, Bosch two-channel ABS brakes, and LED lighting throughout its 401cc’d counterpart. In addition to wonderfully lending itself to urban riding applications, the bike’s top speed of just over 60mph also means Husky’s little street scrambler is good for short stints on the freeway.
Style: Neo-Retro Scrambler
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 124.7cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 15hp & 9ft-lbs
Top Speed: 60mph+
First released in 2014, the MSX125 — better known simply as “The Grom” — is a modern cult favorite minibike that’s gone on to spawn an entire sub-genre of mini-naked models. And though the Grom’s been in production for several years, the latest iteration of the mini represents the most significant update the model has ever seen, with a new flat seat, a slightly retuned engine, and new quick-release bodywork that makes the already-modification-friendly Grom all the more ideal for two-wheeled customization projects — an area that’s furthered by the absolutely enormous range of available bolt-on aftermarket parts and body kits that exist for the Grom.
Style: Naked Minibike
Engine: Air-Cooled 124.9cc SOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 9.7hp & 7.75ft-lbs
Top Speed: 62mph
KTM Duke 200
With a lineage that spans back to KTM’s first Duke model in 1994 and sharp and aggressive KISKA-designed bodywork, the Duke 200 offers the appearance of a larger, more menacing machine in a smaller more approachable package. Similar to the Husky Svartpilen 125, the KTM Duke 200 is a freshly-released, smaller-displacement version of the Ready To Race brand’s existing naked 390 platform. Surprisingly, the fifth-liter naked’s sub-$4K MSRP gets you an array of premium components and running gear, and thanks to a top speed of nearly 90mph, the Austrian-built two-wheeler is entirely freeway-friendly, and can even offer its fair share of thrills at the race track or in the twisties.
Style: Sport Naked
Engine: Liquid-cooled 199.5cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 25.5hp & 14.25ft-lbs
Top Speed: 88mph
Cleveland Cyclewerks Heist
Built around a Chinese-made air-cooled single, CCW’s Heist is an immensely affordable motorcycle that offers the presence and appearance of a heavily-modified custom bobber, while still remaining new rider-friendly and thoroughly utilitarian. The $4K bobber includes an electric starter, a five-speed transmission, 80mpg fuel economy, 26.8” seat height, and a nimble 60” wheelbase. Cleveland CycleWerks also offers a smorgasbord of optional add-ons to further customize the Heist and make it your own, so if you plan on modifying a bike, the Heist — or really any model from CCW — is a stellar ready-made shortcut to consider.
Engine: Air-Cooled 229cc OHV Single-Cylinder
Power: 15.4hp & 11.8ft-lbs
Top Speed: 70mph
Honda Rebel 300
Though the Honda Rebel 300 technically falls into the cruiser category, its 364lb curb weight and 58.7” wheelbase allow the Japanese two-wheeler to excel at urban riding duties. The bike sports an unmistakably contemporary take on the traditional cruiser aesthetic, with a bobber-inspired rear-end, peanut-esque tank, and LED lighting front to back. Available in two livery options and sold with or without antilock brakes, the Rebel 300 is a much more novice-friendly choice than larger so-called “entry-level cruisers” like the Harley Iron 883 or Indian Scout Bobber Sixty — and sold at literally half of the price.
Style: Urban Cruiser
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 286cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 27.4hp & 19.9ft-lbs
Top Speed: 92mph
First released in the late 1980s and remaining mostly unchanged throughout its entire production run, the TW200 is a fat-tired on and off-road machine that is undoubtedly one of the best all-around all-purpose motorcycles, good for everything from commuting and grocery-getting to long-distance touring and trail scrambling duties. A sub-300lb curb weight, a 31.1” seat height, around 6” of suspension travel fore and aft, a ground clearance of more than 10”, and a skid plate-protected engine, mean the big-wheeled TW more than just looks the part and is genuinely capable of some serious off-road riding chops.
Engine: Air-Cooled 196cc SOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 16hp & 11.1ft-lbs
Top Speed: 70mph
The latest generation of Honda’s on/off-road enduro weapon, the CRF300L features an extra 36cc’s of displacement and numerous other mechanical tweaks over its 250cc predecessor that allow for around 10% more horsepower and 20% more torque. A better machine all around, the CRF’s lighter competition-derived steel frame and increased suspension travel make for a more competent bike in the dirt while new ergonomics, a slipper clutch, and revised sixth-gear gearing that now allows for higher cruising speeds result in a better performer on the tarmac, too. Big Red also produces an ABS-equipped version of the CRF300L, as well as an HRC-liveried “Rally” spec with a Dakar-style windscreen, massive skid plate and engine guard, and a slightly higher top speed and fuel capacity for only $750 over the base model.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 286cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 27hp & 20ft-lbs
Top Speed: 82mph
Around the turn-of-the-millennium, the supermoto (or “supermotard”) scene began exploding in popularity, where riders equipped high-performance dirt bikes with a tighter suspension and smaller wheels wrapped in sticky street rubber. In response to the trend, a myriad of manufacturers began offering turnkey supermoto versions of their respective dirtbikes, including Suzuki with its DR-Z400SM (or “DR-Z400 Super Moto”). The 400SM’s unique setup not only makes it an ideal machine for tearing up the kart track, but the 40hp thumper also makes for an excellent hooligan bike for street riding. Plus, you can always swap out the supermoto wheels for some knobby-shod spoked hoops and you’re good to hit the dirt.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 389cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 39hp & 29ft-lbs
Top Speed: 94mph
Ducati Scrambler Sixty2
Named after the year that Ducati Motorcycles originally released its first Scrambler model in the 1960s, the Scrambler Ducati Sixty2 is a small-displacement version of the Borgo Panigale brand’s popular neo-retro lineup that sees the standard 803cc model’s engine cut in half. And while it shares the same aesthetic design as its larger-engined siblings — including its iconic L-Twin engine — the Sixty2 does sport a more budget-array of componentry and offers relatively limited performance relative to its MSRP. There is however definitely something to be said for the Sixty2’s aesthetic design, its build quality, and the fact it says “Ducati” on the tank, plus it’s a great candidate for a custom project. Fantastic reliability and generous service intervals, too.
Style: Neo-Retro Standard
Engine: Air-Cooled 399cc Desmo L-Twin
Power: 40hp & 25ft-lbs
Top Speed: 100mph+
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-25R
Drawing inspiration from the high-revving multi-cylinder Japanese DM superbikes of the 1980s and ‘90s, Kawasaki’s Ninja ZX-25R is an ultra-high-performance small-displacement supersport powered by a quarter-liter inline-four lump that spins to 17,000rpm. Not meant for novice riders, the 25R is capable of speeds well into the triple digits and corners almost as if on rails thanks to a WSBK-derived chassis paired with a Showa Separate Function Fork Big Piston front-end and mono-shock. The high-revving four-banger is also kept in check via the latest versions of Team Green’s adjustable ride modes and traction control. Put simply, the ZX-25R couldn’t be further from your average small-displacement motorcycle.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 250cc DOHC Inline-Four
Power: 43.5hp & 15.6ft-lbs
Top Speed: 117mph
Aprilia RS250 SP
With more than 50 world championship Grand Prix titles in the 125 and 250 classes, it’s safe to say Aprilia knows a thing or two about building ultra-competent small-bore track weapons. And the Noale firm’s latest and greatest quarter-liter racer is the ridiculously competitive RS250 SP (or “Sport Production”), a track-only race bike that’s designed by Aprilia and constructed by ultra-high-performance minibike marque, Ohvale. Offering the performance specs of a genuine Moto3 GP racer, every element of this 140mph 250 racer is thoroughly top-of-the-line with Öhlins suspension, forged aluminum Marchesini wheels shod in Pirelli slicks, an SC-Project exhaust, and race-spec Brembo brakes. And, on top of allowing riders to develop their on-the-bike skills, the RS250 SP was also engineered to be incredibly approachable for tuning and DIY upkeep.
Style: Race Bike
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 249.2cc DOHC Single-Cylinder
Power: 29.9hp & 16.2ft-lbs
Top Speed: 138mph
Vins Duecinquanta Strada
Based in Maranello and founded by a pair of ex-Ferrari engineers, Vins Motors is a boutique Italian firm building wildly-exotic, modern fuel-injected two-stroke supersport bikes. The firm’s Duecinquanta Strada (Italian for “250 Street”), tips the scales at a similar weight to a 125 GP bike, though puts down gobs of power, with a two-stroke V-Twin engine with bespoke expansion chamber pipes and servo-controlled exhaust valves, a custom-built clutch, double, contra-rotating crankshafts, and a removable six-speed gearbox. The lightest — as well as the most powerful — bike in its class by an enormous margin, this road-legal oil-burner is constructed around a carbon-fiber monocoque frame, draped in all-carbon bodywork, and paired with carbon fiber suspension with a Hossack-style front-end and a transverse-mounted mono-shock with pushrod linkages.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 249.5cc Two-Stroke 90° V-twin
Power: 75hp & 33.2ft-lbs
Top Speed: 130.5mph
The 8 Best Mini Bikes
Interested in checking out a few more fantastic small-bore motorcycles? Well our guide to the best minibikes includes a diverse array of hand-picked micro-displacement motos for everyone from novice riders to seasoned vets.
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