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Common Tread

Our favorite motorcycles of 2019

Dec 06, 2019

Keeping a light touch on the handlebar is good advice.

It's advice that works whether you're Spurgeon charging downhill on a rutted trail on an oversized ADV bike and about to meet an oak tree and pay another semester's college tuition for the daughter of your orthopedic surgeon, or whether you are (like me) managing editor and general cat herder of this motorcycle blog. So when it comes time for our annual Year in Review piece on the motorcycles of the year, I intentionally try to let the writers go where they want.

Other sites slice the motorcycle market into defined categories and proclaim one or another bike "the best." Our take is far more informal and subjective. To prove just how eccentric we are, we'll start off with Spurgeon, who test rode the impressive new BMW S 1000 RR in 2019 but opens this article by talking about a bike with less than half the displacement and less than a fourth the horsepower. Here's a few examples of what we found interesting, personally desirable, significant or surprising in 2019.

Spurgeon test riding the Kawasaki Z400
Big guy on a small motorcycle -- but Spurgeon still enjoyed the Kawasaki Z400 and appreciates what it represents for the motorcycle market. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Spurgeon's urges

I’ll kick off my favorite picks of 2019 much like I did in 2018, with a look at Kawasaki’s small-displacement releases. I have been extremely impressed with Team Green's ability to continue to introduce friendly, affordable motorcycles that are fun for riders of all abilities.

The Kawasaki Z400 I tested is built on the same chassis as the Ninja 400 (which was one of my top picks last year) but it comes sans fairings, providing a sporty, naked look with a slightly more upright seating position. The big win for consumers is that at $4,800 it’s $500 cheaper than a similarly ABS-equipped Ninja 400.

Triumph 1,200 cc engine
A hundredish horsepower puts the Speed Twin's engine in Spurgeon's sweet spot for street duly. Triumph photo.
I also got to ride their revamped trail bikes, the KLX230R and KLX300R, and I was genuinely impressed with how much fun I had off-road with two bikes that cost just $4,399 and $5,499, respectively.)

My other call-out for 2019 is the Triumph Speed Twin. I recently had my first opportunity to ride one of these for a video shoot we did down in Texas. Every morning, I would wake up early in an attempt to steal the keys for this bike. Triumph claims 82 foot-pounds of torque and 96 horsepower from its big 1,200 cc engine, which is perfect for spirited street riding. Couple that with a pair of big Brembo brakes up front, 17-inch wheels and an aggressive yet comfortable riding position and this thing makes for one hell of a fun daily rider. I would love to see an “R” version with an upgraded suspension, but that wouldn’t stop me from putting one of these in my garage. If only I had the room!

Honda CB650R
Not exotic. Just good. Honda's CB650R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Greaser's pleasers

2019 brought us some cutting-edge and exotic machinery. The Honda CB650R is neither, and that’s what I like so much about it. The 650 four was the last of Honda’s standards to get a neo-retro overhaul, and in my opinion, it’s the best all-rounder of the CB line. The CB650R is balanced, competent, and a joy to wring out. Even better, it costs $8,899 (non-ABS), which I think is justified for all it offers over the budget twins. If I had to buy a 2019 motorcycle, with my own money, this would be the one.

Kawasaki ZX-6R
Some thought the 600 Supersport class would be extinct by now. The Kawasaki ZX-6R is notable for its mere existence -- and for its bargain price. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Next: Kawasaki ZX-6R. Why is the latest ZX-6R significant? Even though the ZX is updated for 2019, Kawi reduced its price to just $9,999 (non-ABS). I see this motorcycle as one of the most compelling deals in a showroom today. Kawasaki is delivering the most performance they can for the least money possible. Sure, that means the engine and chassis are the same as they were six years ago. Back in the heyday of the 600s, that would have been unacceptable. Things are different today. (The “cheater” ZX is a 636 cc. I’m lumping it in with the 600s. Sorry, purists.) The Yamaha YZF-R6 is still the bike to beat in actual racing, but for the average rider seeking a daily, a weekend corner carver and a competent track mount, the bargain blaster ZX gives riders a reason to ride a 600 in this era of hairy-chested hypernakeds and open-class insanity.

Lemmy have one of those

Lance likes to look at this article every year in terms of "What was most important?" That's boring to me so I took a "What did you think was coolest?" approach. So here's the stuff that made my eyebrows go up.

exhaust pipes on a CB650R
Everyone seems happy that Honda paid tribute to its 1970s-era CB400F with these exhaust pipes on the CB650R. Photo by Kevin Wing.

I really dig the Honda CB650R Andy reviewed. It's got prudent power for the street, and it's a modern UJM, which sure as hell don't seem so U any more, and it's got an MSRP that doesn't make me clutch my chest. Short on sizzle, but long on steak. This seems like a very rational motorcycle, so it's had my interest all year. It's sexy because it's not sexy.

Moto Guzzi V85 TT
The Moto Guzzi V85 TT was popular from the moment it was unveiled in late 2018. Moto Guzzi photo.

I was also interested in riding the Moto Guzzi V85 TT (but someone else got that assignment). A sane all-rounder, I am sure, but that's not why I think it was important. I heard more people consistently respond positively to that bike based on its looks than any other I can remember in a long time... and then those same people didn't seem freaked out by the price or the fact it was a weirdo Moto Guzzi. Are they selling? I have no idea. But even if it just makes people perceive the brand differently, it was a helpful model for the Italians.

Now I'll be totally forthright (though Lance will blow a gasket because it's not a 2019): The Kawasaki ZX-25R is the only bike that really mattered to me this year.

Lance's second glances

The esteemed Lemmy is right on two points: First, the ZX-25R is not a 2019, is not in dealers yet and so that's for next year's article. (I may keep a light touch on the handlebar but that doesn't mean I abdicate all steering responsibilities.) Second, Lemmy's right that I do focus not on what I personally liked in 2019, but on what I think was significant in the year now drawing to a close.

Indian FTR 1200 S
The Indian FTR 1200 S is a first small step away from the cruiser-bagger-tourer conformity of major U.S. motorcycle manufacturers. A small step, but a good one. Photo by Roy Kim.

Along those lines, I'm intrigued by the Indian FTR 1200 that Spurgeon thoroughly reviewed. I only got a short ride on our test bike before we raffled it off, and it was a nice enough bike, though I'm not dying to own one myself. (I'm not particularly a fan of flat-track styling and my preferences lean toward multi-cylinder bikes these days.) But the FTR may turn out to be by far the most significant bike of the year. Indian and Harley-Davidson have been promising and promising they are finally going to build more than just V-twin cruisers, baggers and tourers, which is all we've seen from major U.S. manufacturers for decades. The FTR is a baby step in that direction. If Indian follows through with more daring departures from the orthodoxy, the FTR will be a landmark model in hindsight (and will have beat Harley's LiveWire and Bronx and Pan America to market). If the two big U.S. manufacturers chicken out and go back to making nothing but big cruisers, we'll have a different story to tell several years down the road: most likely one of a much diminished Harley-Davidson and a once-again-defunct Indian brand.

I agree with Andy that the Kawasaki ZX-6R is significant just because it exists, when some of us were wondering if the 600 cc sport bike class was destined to wither to extinction. Similarly, I think the Triumph Daytona Moto2 765 Limited Edition is significant just because it would have been so much easier for Triumph to forget about it. Sure, it's just a limited-edition model, but by making the investment to supply engines to Moto2 and building this race replica, Triumph has bet that the Supersport class is still worth pursuing.

World Superbike at Philip Island
Ducati put performance ahead of tradition by making its Panigale V4 R the basis of the company's Superbike effort. For the first half of the season, it was a winning move, as Álvaro Bautista was out front and stormed to 11 straight wins. Ducati photo.

I also think the Ducati V4 R is worth a mention because of what it represents. True, the V4 S street bike came out in 2018, but 2019 was the first year the V4 R carried the Ducati flag in the Superbike World Championship. Ducati's engines for decades were identified by two things: desmodromic valve actuation and a 90-degree twin architecture. There's a lot of tradition there. The Italian company forced the Japanese to build V-twins just to compete with them in WSBK back in that series' heydays. But when Ducati went MotoGP racing, it knew it had to have a four-cylinder to be competitive. This year, Ducati chose performance over tradition by racing the four-cylinder V4 R in WSBK, and for half a season it really worked.

Can we think of any other companies that have clung to V-twins but now need to put winning (in the showroom, not on the track) ahead of tradition? Maybe they can learn something from Ducati.