Tiny but mighty, fun, and cheap.
Who said that fun bikes have to be expensive? It sure wasn’t us. Sure, high-performance engines, big bore twins, and superchargers have a little (or big) je-ne-sais-quoi that makes them intrinsically fun. That being said, that type of fun often comes with a price tag directly proportional to the engine size.
Frankly, a bike doesn’t have to make 170 horsepower to qualify as fun—a true enthusiast will manage to have a blast even on the smallest bikes out there. Dare we even declare that some of the bikes we’ve had the most fun on were the smaller ones?
Not only are they easy to get on for pretty much everyone, but you also don’t need to take up a mortgage to have one in your driveway. How does the saying go? It’s better to drive a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow? If you adhere to the adage, you're in luck! There's a slew of “slow bikes” out there ready to give you that shit-eating grin we all want for less than $6,000.
KTM 200 Duke
Sure, when it comes to affordable, entry-level bikes, the KTM 390 Duke has been a staple of this list for a long time. In 2020, however, KTM decided to import an even smaller Duke to the U.S. and added the 200 to its North American lineup. At $600 below the 390, we thought the new 200 Duke deserved a spot on this list.
The smallest Duke offered on this side of the pond is powered by a tiny 199cc single rated at 26 horsepower which doesn’t sound like much but at only 309 pounds, that’s all you need to get going, really. Though the list of standard features is rather slim, for its size and price point, the Duke gets you pretty much everything you need to zip around time and have fun doing it.
Kawasaki KLX300 SM
Supermotos have gone in and out of fashion in recent years. KTM and Husqvarna have been the most active in the segment, while the likes of Ducati and MV Agusta have recently focused their energy elsewhere. It looks like the SM trend could be on the rise again as for the first time in a decade, Kawasaki re-entered the supermoto class with the launch of the new KLX300 SM.
The new model takes what the new dual-sport KLX300 has to offer and gives it’s a track-racing twist. Though it sits at the very top of our price range, we think it’s worth considering because of how different it is. On the supermoto front, it’s also the most affordable model you can get your hands on if you like the track-ready dirt bike aesthetic.
The SM uses the same 292cc single as the base KLX, paired with a six-speed transmission. The 21 and 18-inch wire-spoke wheels shod in knobbies are replaced by a set of 17-inch wheels with street tires on. The SM also gets a bigger brake disc at the front and a lower suspension setting with reduced travel for improved road handling.
Yamaha MT-03 or YZF-R3
Price: $4,599 or $5,299
We decided to list the YZF-R3 to give sportbikes enthusiasts a little something to check out as well but really, whether you want to fully-faired R3 or its naked counterpart, the MT-03, you’re in for a treat. In our humble opinion, these are 300cc bikes done right. Granted, going at full speed on the highway does have its limitations with such a small engine but Yamaha did everything right to push those limits as far back as possible.
The two bikes are built on the same chassis and use the same 321cc parallel-twin—the only two-cylinder option on this list. The R3 was thoroughly upgraded in 2019 while the MT-03, new from the ground up, was introduced in 2020. Both bikes perform equally well, so it all comes down to your ergonomic preferences. Do you prefer the more direct steering of clip-ons and a tucked-in stance or is a more relaxed riding geometry with a taller handlebar more your thing?
Husqvarna Vitpilen or Svartpilen 401
Eenie, meenie, miney, mo. Do you like the Svart’s tracker silhouette or the Vitpilen’s neo-café racer look better? That’s the only question you need to answer when choosing between one of the two mid-size Swedish Arrows. The price is the same for either model and they’re both a hoot to ride on.
Husqvarna and sister brand KTM have a knack for making the most of their single-cylinder engines. The ‘Pilen twins use a 373cc thumper that produces a respectable 44 horsepower which is plenty to haul their tiny 332 pounds around (more specifically 335 pounds in the case of the Svartpilen).
The use of a ride-by-wire throttle system makes them super responsive and ready to go when you need it to. They also benefit from a six-speed transmission that allows them to make full use of all those precious ponies.
The entry-level Honda CRF has become a staple of the dirt bike segment. It’s a great starter bike if you’re looking to develop your off-roading skills. To make the CRF250L Euro 5-compliant for 2021, Honda decided to increase the displacement from 249cc to 286 thanks to a longer stroke, changing the naming convention to 300 in the process. Meet the 2021 CRF300L.
The new thumper produces 27 horsepower and 19.6 lb-ft of torque. Not only is the upgrade model more powerful, it’s also significantly lighter, tipping the scales at 309 pounds—a 13-pound weight loss. The 300 also offers more suspension travel with 10.2 inches front and back, and a taller, 11.2-inch ground clearance, without, however, jacking the seat height up. The saddle height is now set at 34.7 inches from the ground instead of 34.4. Off-roading is going to become even more fun on thise new-generation CRF.
Royal Enfield Himalayan
If your kind of thrill is the adventure type, then the Royal Enfield Himalayan is a serious contender for that spot in your garage. Since its introduction to the market in 2016, the Himalayan gained a solid reputation as a sturdy and capable adventurer. It’s been put through its paces countless times already and has yet to disappoint.
It runs on a 411cc single rated at 24 horsepower and 23.6 lb-ft of torque. The 21 and 17-inch wheels are mounted to a 41mm telescopic fork with 7.87 inches of travel at the front and a monoshock with 7 inches of travel at the back. Saddle height is relatively accessible at 31.7 inches and the bike weighs in at 439 pounds wet.
For 2021, Royal Enfield added switchable ABS to make the bike more versatile off-road. Before the end of the year, the Himalayan should also hit the market with an integrated navigation system which will likely tip the price over the $5k mark, but that’s still easily within reach!