We, as riders, all have our favorite types of motorcycles to ride. For some, it’s tucked down low over a fuel tank, screaming down the front straight of the local track. For others, it’s the shaking rumble below and in front of them as they devour the miles cruising down the open road. For others, it’s all in the enjoyment of small, nimble motorcycles that can be a great distraction from the stresses of life in an empty parking lot on the weekends.
However, one of the most common types of motorcycles that many riders around the world ride are off-roaders. The types and varieties of off-road bikes are mind-boggling, and range from high-performance motocross and supercross bikes, to mile-munching endurance adventure bikes, to balanced in-between enduro style bikes. What matters, however, is that all of them are ready to get dirty and have some fun in the mud.
For this list, we’re going to be looking at some of the best off-road bikes you can buy, either new models or continuing models, in 2021. A special note here is that while many adventure bikes are road tourers that are touted as being able to handle “light off-road use,” any that we mention below are the ones that have a proven record of being proper off-road bikes.
Best Motocross 2-Stroke: 2021 Husqvarna TC125 MX
The 125cc two-stroke motocross class is one of, if not the, most popular class in dirt circuit competition. It is only fitting, then, that having a bike designed to tackle pretty much any banked corner, whoop, or tabletop is paramount. Husqvarna (owned by KTM) has the TC125 MX, just such a bike.
A high-revving, low-weight (just 38 lbs!) 125cc single chucks out a hell of a lot of torque and more than decent horsepower. Mounted in a chrome-moly steel frame, with a carbon fiber rear subframe, the entire bike weighs just 192 lbs dry, with an 8L fuel tank. With a Brembo wet multi-disc hydraulic clutch and Brembo brakes both front and rear, with WP competition suspension, and a 38mm flat slide Mikuni TMX carburetor, the TC125 MX doesn’t play around.
This is a serious competition bike, for everything from practicing at the local dirt track, to flying across the finish line at the World Championships, and everything in between.
Best Supercross 4-Stroke: 2021 Kawasaki KX450
The 2021 Kawasaki KX 450 is pretty much in a league of its own in the world of supercross. Kawasaki has more wins and has had more championship riders on their 450’s than any other manufacturer since the 450SX class was introduced, and if that isn’t telling enough, then the fact that they come pretty much from the factory ready to race is another huge point.
The 449cc four-stroke single is liquid-cooled, and chucks out a beefy 33 lb-ft of torque and about 53 HP, for a bike that weighs 246 lbs wet. A rough and ready 5-speed transmission gets the bike motivated, and the 21-inch front, 18 inch rear wheels ensure performance and handling. As well, being the “non-competition” version of the bike, it has an electric starter. And that, really, is the only difference at first bluish from the actual 450SX bike.
Best Trail: 2021 Yamaha TT-R230
For years now, Yamaha has been known as one of the best sportbike makers from Japan. However, they also develop and produce some of the best non-competition off-road bikes specifically designed to make trail riding as enjoyable as possible. The 2021 TT-R230 is just one such bike, sharing a lot of its DNA with its YZ250F competition motocross cousin.
What makes the Yamaha the best is that it has a superb engine derived from the 249cc competition four-stroke in the aforementioned YZ250F. Coming in at 223cc, it has two valves, a single overhead cam, four-strokes, and provides just about 14 lb-ft of very linear torque at any point in the rev range. Basically, it follows the “keep it stupidly simple” philosophy while also touting fuel injection, reliability, and a nearly bulletproof reputation on the track.
Additionally, being only 250 lbs wet, and coming in at less than $5,000 USD, it is extremely easy to ride, will tackle pretty much any trail, and has a large 2.1-gallon fuel tank for all-day fun.
Best Large Displacement Enduro: 2021 Honda CRF450RX
The 2021 Honda CRF450RX was heavily reworked over the 2020 model, to the point that it can be considered an entirely new evolution. A new frame, moving to a hydraulic clutch, steering and suspension geometry worked on with HRC (Honda Racing Corporation), and a reworked engine management system makes it the superior large displacement enduro for this year.
Part of that engine rework on the 449cc single is a decompression system at very low revs that works to prevent engine stalls when you are rock crawling or using engine braking to assist with a steep downhill. The hydraulic clutch also helps widen the torque and power bands, giving a rider the down low, on-demand torque they want to clear hill lips and larger obstacles.
Best Small Displacement Enduro: 2021 KTM 250 XC-F
It is quite well known that KTM is one of the best manufacturers of off-road machinery in general, and the 2021 KTM 250 XC-F upholds that reputation. While not being the biggest enduro, or the most powerful, what it does have going for it is a superb combination of both lightness and maximized power.
With the 249cc four-stroke single, the engine management system allows on-the-fly map switching through a handlebar switch. This allows for multiple maps for different situations to be programmed, for example, a high-torque, low-HP map for hill climbing, and a balanced map for flat surface riding. The fact it also comes with WP shocks, competition brakes, and a Brembo hydraulic clutch attached to a 6-speed transmission only makes the nearly $10,000 USD asking price worthwhile.
As more than one reviewer that has ridden the bike has commented, it has the lightness of a 250 class enduro, with torque and power that feels well beyond its 250cc engine.
Best High Displacement Off-Road ADV: 2021 KTM 890 Adventure
KTM, for many years, dominated the off-road-capable ADV world with the 790 Adventure, a bike that had everything you needed, and a few things you didn’t know you needed, to be able to cruise both on and off the road. So what did they do for 2021? Gave it a bigger engine, mostly, giving riders the 2021 KTM 890 Adventure.
However, what an engine it is! 889ccs, four-stroke, 8 valves, parallel-twin. 105 HP and 73 lb-ft of torque. It also has a totally reprofiled crank, different springs, redesigned valves, and a better intake system, allowing for the bump in displacement to be outpaced by the bump in performance the bike gains. As well, the engine is now included in the frame as a stress-bearing member of the bike, giving instant throttle response and linear, but not overpowering, torque on demand.
Best Low Displacement Off-Road ADV: 2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan
As much as they are scoffed at, Royal Enfield has really been turning itself around from being a “built cheap, cheap to buy” brand to “inexpensive and impressively well built.” Nothing really demonstrates that quite as much as the little 2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan, a street-smart ADV that will just keep chugging along when the road ends.
Introduced in 2017 to the North American market, demand for the bike made it Royal Enfield’s best-seller year over year. This is keeping in mind that every other Royal Enfield model in the US and Canada are street-only bikes, often with a 500cc or 650cc parallel-twin engine. Yet the Himalayan, with its 411cc, four-stroke, fuel-injected single puts out about 26 HP and just about 26 lb-ft of torque, in a bike that weighs 440 lbs wet. What that little single can do, however, is what sells the bikes.
You will most often hear the Himalayan referred to as “the little tractor,” and it summarizes it in 3 words. It doesn’t give up when going up hills, it can haul an amazing amount of weight in panniers or saddlebags, it has front and rear ABS, and, most importantly for 2021, has a rear-ABS-off switch that doesn’t just disable some functionality. When you hit that switch, the rear ABS is off, which is important when off-road to be able to slide the rear wheel out for tight, technical paths through off-road terrain.
Of note, this was an extremely close decision between the Himalayan and the BMW 310 GS. What eventually won was that the Royal Enfield offered similar power and torque numbers, but crucially had the full ABS disable for the rear wheel, as BMW’s “ABS off” still keeps it partially on, making rear-lock slide turns very difficult.
Best Junior Bike: 2021 Kawasaki KLX 110R/110R L
What do you get when one of the winningest supercross and motocross manufacturers in history designs an all-around dirt bike, that can also handle a few jumps here and there, for older kids and young teens to learn on? You get the 2021 Kawasaki KLX 110R. 112cc of four-stroke fun gives the young rider 7 HP and 6 lb-ft of torque to play around with, which for a 168 lbs bike with maybe another 100 lbs sitting on the seat is quite a bit of grunt. It’s small, but it’s one of the most formidable machines in the 2021 Kawasaki line-up.
The biggest thing is that there is a lateral model, the 110R L. They share the same frame, engine, throttle, but the 110R has a centrifugal clutch automatic, and the 110R L has a proper, left-hand, hydraulically actuated clutch with a four-speed transmission attached. The clutch on both is a wet clutch as well, giving a lot more leniency in shifting than a dry system, allowing the younger rider to learn the feel of shifting at the right revs, something important when you can’t afford to look down at the bike when you’re leaping tabletops later on in your dirt career.
Best Dual-Sport: 2021 Suzuki DR-Z400S
When you look up the term “bulletproof” in the dictionary, you will quite possibly find a picture of the 2021 Suzuki DR-ZX400S next to the definition. This is mostly because it has been produced since cavemen grunted at each other about the bike, and its 398cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke single can quite literally be hit with a sledgehammer and will keep running smoothly.
With 39 HP and 29 lb-ft of torque, this venerable beast will get even the tallest and largest of riders moving on the road, and with a foot of ground clearance, will also be able to carry them over obstacles on trails. It’s that suspension that also gives the DR-Z400S its road manners, known quite well among riders as one of the most agile dual-sports ever made.
These road manners are so well known that, in fact, Suzuki also makes a road-only supermoto version of the bike known as the DR-Z400SM. That version comes with stiffer suspension, more aggressive gearing, and 17-inch wheels and tires for sliding the tail around to your heart’s content!
Best Electric: (Tie) 2021 KTM Freeride E-XC & 2021 Zero FX
2021 KTM Freeride E-XC
KTM, as mentioned before in this article, is known as one of the best off-road manufacturers, and they are also quietly pioneering in a few areas. The 2021 KTM Freeride E-XC is the first electric off-road motorcycle specifically developed for competition, either in Rally-E or Motocross-E. The electric motor in the bike is roughly equivalent to a 125cc engine, with a nominal 24 HP at maximum output, and 18 HP as its cruising output.
With a 3.9 kWh lithium-ion battery, enough juice is on board for a good two or so hours of cross-country riding, or about 45 minutes of hard riding, as in motocross or pure hill climbing. Racing suspension, a quick charge system that can use anything from 110 to 240 Volts, and for 2021, Formula brand brakes have been fitted to give the bike even more stopping power.
2021 Zero FX
Zero is one of the few manufacturers that make only electric bikes, instead of producing both electric and gas-powered variants. As such, they focused their specifications for a dual-sport bike that could transition pavement to dirt without needing any changes in settings. The 2021 FX is pretty much the ultimate distillation of what Zero can put into the dual-sport.
The performance of the FX is nothing to scoff at, despite it being the lowest rung on the Zero bikes ladder. It produces 78 lb-ft of torque from 1 RPM upwards and weighs only 247 lbs if you opt for the 3.9 kWh model. If you go with the 7.2 kWh model, you’ll still be riding a bike that only weighs 289 lbs. With a max speed of 85 MPH, and torque absolutely and completely everywhere on the clutchless direct-drive motor with just one speed, this is a dual-sport that you can ride to the trail, thrash the trail, and then ride home with a grin under your mud-caked helmet.
“A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step,” is quite a famous saying. Considering the appropriate learning curve of a new rider, we say that getting a motorcycle is probably around step 3, after step 1, taking a training course, and step 2, getting all your personal protective equipment. But, you may be asking, what motorcycle should I get?
This is one of the most asked questions in the world of new riders, by a large margin. The short answer is “Whatever you want,” but that leaves out a few very important factors that a new rider should be aware of. A supersport is not a great first bike. A 1,700 cc v-twin muscle cruiser is not a friendly bike to learn on. Even a 900cc motorcycle can be bad to learn on, especially if it’s meant to be a dual-sport adventure bike.
It is for this reason that we have put together a list of the 10 best motorcycles for beginners, broken down by category. All of the bikes listed below are perfect places to start your motorcycling career, with friendly handling characteristics, approachable power, and forgiving frames and suspension so you can learn the ins and outs of daily riding!
What makes the Honda Rebel one of the best bikes to start with if you’re wanting a cruiser is its simplicity. You don’t have 17 different riding modes to fiddle around with, the engine and transmission are proven, strong, reliable units, and the riding position (if you’re 5’11” or shorter) is very comfortable. It will also lean well into corners, has extremely forgiving suspension, and has enough get up and go to be exciting, but not dangerous.
Being a Honda, it is also very wallet-friendly. If you want to buy new, you will come in well under $7,000 for a 500, and buying used, it is fairly common to find either model in excellent condition for $4,000 or less.
Kawasaki Z400 & Z650
Yes, we smashed together two naked bikes into one post! Both the Kawasaki Z400 and Z650 are considered some of the best nakeds on the market, and despite some pretty fierce looks, are quite easy to ride. Both are powered by bulletproof Kawasaki parallel twins, one with 399cc and 45 HP, the other with 649cc and 67 HP.
The reason these get the nod for the naked sector is that Kawasaki jams as much technology and rideability into the lower end of the Z family. Standard features are dual-zone ABS (something every beginner bike should have, honestly), an assist-and-slipper clutch to help you learn the perfect friction point without tearing your bike to pieces, a linear and controllable power curve, and supportive suspension that talks to you about what the road is doing, without trying to shatter your spine at the same time.
Both bikes are also ridiculously priced, in the best sense of the word. You are getting bikes that are quite able to be sold confidently at $7,000+ and $9,000+ each new, but the 2021 Z400 starts at $5000, and the 2021 Z650 is only $7,800! There is no knocking Kawasaki off the value-for-money throne, and if you buy used, you’ll find them even lower down on the pricing range.
Anyone that knows anything about starter bikes, or has read any recommended beginner bike list on pretty much any website, ever, was expecting this one. Ever since emerging in 1999, the Suzuki SV650, including the Gladius years, has been the absolute darling of the new rider segment.
Is it the 645cc v-twin that puts out 75 HP but has a smooth, easy to control, and linear torque curve? Is it the bulletproof transmission that works without issue even if you physically throw it off a cliff? Is it the suspension that from day one was adjusted and engineered by Suzuki’s racing division, to give a supple ride with agility? In a word: Yes.
The SV650 is the kind of bike that is all things to all people. In stock trim, it is a sports naked. If you want to get a bit sportier, there is the SV650X, a cafe-racer styled naked. There is the SV650A, a partially faired sportbike with a small windscreen. Whatever path you choose, the V-twin is invincible with proper maintenance, the bike will last you well beyond your beginner seasons, and it’s also really inexpensive to maintain as well, with an extensive first- and third-party parts network that is nigh-on global in reach.
While 2021 has seen the removal of the venerable KLX250, to be replaced with the KLX300, both are still amazingly competent beginner dual-sport motorcycles. With the newer KLX300 being powered by a 292cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single that thumps out just about 33 HP, it is more than powerful enough to commute on most city roads, yet will also happily tear up a gravel or dirt trail on the weekends.
Unlike its new 2021 KLX300 SuperMoto brother, the KLX300 and the older KLX250 are both tuned to have usable power at almost any revs and to be predictable and controllable in its delivery. While dual-sports are famous for having the ability to lift the front wheel when suddenly fed power, Kawasaki tames that with good torque, but not too much, at lower revs, only really coming into the full powerband once you’re actually moving.
That said, by being so lightweight at just over 300 lbs soaking wet with a cinder block tied to the seat, the bike is excellent for the beginner looking to feel what a bike can do in terms of handling and cornering. This little dual-sport loves to transition from upright to a lean with vigor. As well, if you do mess up riding this little beast, and need to use the shoulder or end up on a grassy bit, as it’s a dual-sport, apply your progressive braking technique while riding upright and you’ll come to a stop without dropping the bike.
Being completely serious for a moment, the Yamaha YZF-R3, much like its similar R brethren over the years, is not a bike to be taken lightly. It is, for all intents and purposes, a mini-supersport, and can demonstrate within seconds of being in the saddle why it’s quite often the bike that many start out their track day careers with. This is not to say it is overly scary, just that it is less forgiving in terms of major mistakes than many of the other bikes on this list.
From a 320cc parallel-twin, Yamaha has managed, somehow, to get it to give up 50 HP, which is almost double what any other bike in the 300cc sports segment produces. Thankfully, the R3, at least in the modern era, comes with full dual-zone ABS. Just be aware that this is a lightweight, agile, and “can get you to illegal speeds” capable bike.
As well, if you are going to pursue riding supersports as your hobby, we highly recommend checking out our Best Full-Face Helmets For Under $500 list (our own sport riders highly recommend the Shoei RF1400 or Arai Regent-X if your budget can stretch) to get an appropriate helmet, and our other gear guides to find sport riding protection to keep you safe!
Suzuki, much like how Kawasaki did with their Z bikes, splits their legendary dual-sport into two important categories. The first, the DR-Z400S, is one of the longest continually produced dual-sports on the market and has earned its status as a starter bike because it is just so damned friendly to ride. If you’re looking for a bit more of a hooligan as your first bike, the DR-Z400SM is the same basic shape as the dual-sport, but the different suspension, engine tuning, and wheels and tires turn it into a supermoto that is as comfortable commuting as it is sliding out its rear tire.
Suzuki’s near-mythical 398cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single thunders out 39 HP for both bikes, but does so across a wide rev range, although there is a mid-range point that can potentially catch riders out, especially those who over-rev and accidentally dump the clutch. However, that exact same mid-range powerpoint is what makes this the perfect beginner bike. What really counts on the commute is the power to pull yourself out of a developing situation, or out of harm’s way.
By giving you a bike with enough civility at low revs to practice around a parking lot, as well as with enough grunt to get you out of dangerous situations, both the dual-sport and supermoto versions of the DR-Z are more than enough to give you years upon years of enjoyment. Many intermediate and advanced riders will hang onto their DR-Z’s because they are just that much fun to ride.
To be honest, for our adventure touring recommendation, it was so close between the Honda CB500X and the Suzuki V-Strom 650 that it was almost impossible to call. What got the Honda the nod is that it delivers is power just a tiny bit more smoothly, and is more accessible to more riders because of it being a tiny bit shorter in the seat. It also has a bulletproof version of the CB500 engine range of Honda bikes, a 471cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin with 50 HP and 32 lb-ft of torque.
Some adventure bikes, like those from KTM, are more geared towards getting off the asphalt and onto the dirty stuff for some fun. Others, like the CB500X, are more about being comfortable for long-distance road adventuring, without being cruisers. What makes this bike a great beginner adventure bike is the fact that it has all the get-up and go of a sportbike, the engine-sharing CBR500R, but a dead-set standard riding posture, with comfortable ergonomics and a great feel from all contact points.
The only area that ADV bikes, by their nature, have issues with is putting a foot down a stop. You might have to lean the bike a little to get the ball of your foot down properly for balance, with your right foot holding the rear brake to steady the bike, depending on how long your inseam is. Other than that, you get Honda reliability, a fun bike that can handle dirt roads around your area, and a city adventurer that can also do intercity riding without being pushed too hard.
Indian Scout Sixty
Despite the recommendation that American power cruisers are not great starter bikes, there is a segment of the new rider population that will not go with anything but an American cruiser. For those that are able to be mature enough to learn the ins and outs of the bike, the Indian Scout Sixty is not a bad place to start. And although it’s more of an introductory bike to Indian than a true beginner bike, approaching it with a light throttle hand and a big bucket of respect will get you on a “big burly cruiser” that is, once you’ve learned it, actually quite friendly.
While much smaller than its other Scout-model brethren, the Scout Sixty is nothing to be scoffed at. You are put low and back from the big 999cc liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin that rumbles out the soundtrack of the U.S. of freakin’ A. The v-twin gives you 78 HP and 65 lb-ft of torque, in a middleweight cruiser that weighs just north of 550 lbs.
If that seems like a lot of power, it is. This is why the light throttle hand and respect are needed. If you crank the throttle to full right away, you’ll more than likely break traction on the rear, and either end up flat on your ass, or, if moving, in a death wobble. Respect the throttle, use it progressively, and appreciate the huge torque curve, and you’ll have a motorcycle that will respect you back, giving you hours of comfortable riding.
Harley-Davidson Iron 883
Since we have to mention the other American brand, it only seems fitting to include the main American brand, at least according to Americans. The Iron 883 is your gateway to all things Harley-Davidson, by being one of the most pared-down, simplified riding experiences from the Milwaukee brand. You get an introductory level engine in the 883cc v-twin (dubbed the Evolution Engine) that gives you 50 HP and 54 lb-ft of torque.
Harley-Davidson, after many years, realized that all of their bikes were either full-on muscle cruisers, continental cruisers, or Sportsters with too much power for a real beginner to appreciate. This is what brought about the Iron 883, and by making it pretty much an engine with controls, mid-forward pegs, and a fat rear tire, you get all the classic Harley looks, but with an engine that won’t bite your head off.
The dragster-style handlebars and controls are positioned to give you a slightly forward-leaning posture, which gives you more control of the lean and control of the bike with your legs and upper body. It also has a very forgiving transmission, allowing for good, progressive clutch friction without burning out the clutch plates, and the first two gears are long, giving you more of the rev range to build up to cruise speed. And, best of all, if you want to buy one new, it’s pretty much the only Harley model you can get for under $10,000!
Honda CRF250L/CRF300L (and Rally models)
If a dual-sport is too “dirt bike looking,” and an adventure bike is a bit too talk, say hello to the middle ground. The CRF300L Rally, as well as its non-rally counterpart, and the previous generation CRF250L and CRF250L Rally, are all great “adventure-enduro” style dual-sport bikes. These are bikes that are aimed at the fan of the Dakar Rally, who also wants to be able to ride comfortably during the week and go plowing over sand dunes on the weekends.
The CRF300L Rally comes with a new, Euro5 compliant 286cc four-stroke single that gives a decent 27 HP and 19 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like much, but remember, this bike, even with the big 21-inch front wheel, weighs a sneeze over 300 lbs. You’d be surprised at just how spritely it will get up and go from a stop, sometimes feeling more like a sport-tourer than a dual-sport enduro.
The Rally is the more premium of the CRF300L bikes, as it comes with a decent adventure windshield, handguards, a larger fuel tank than the base model, and rubber inserts for the engine mounts to reduce vibrations while commuting. The biggest difference between the CRF300L Rally and the Kawasaki KLX300 recommended earlier is that the Honda is much more aimed at distance endurance, while the KLX300 is more of a street-going trail bike. Both are excellent choices, but if we were to head out for a day of riding in the desert, we’d take the Honda.