When it comes to motorcycle handling and manageability less is most definitely more – less weight that is. As any racer knows – and as Honda reasserted on the street with an almighty bang with its launch of its lightweight FireBlade superbike back in 1992 – less weight is definitely a Good Thing. It not only improves the aforementioned handling and manageability, it also, for any given power output, improves acceleration, as the power/weight ratio is improved. It boosts its braking performance, too, as there’s less bulk for a bike’s brakes to stop…
For many riders, however, the performance benefit of lightweight is secondary. Motorcycles can often be dauntingly heavy and imposing machines to control, especially at low speed or in traffic – and particularly for inexperienced or smaller, less physically strong or tall riders. It’s no coincidence that learner bikes often have low, slim proportions and are often built to be as light as is practical. Nor is it uncommon for women or shorter riders to have a preference for lighter bikes, ideally with low seat heights, too.
So, with all the advantages of light weight to be had, which bikes of 2020 are the lightest – and which, in varying categories of machines ranging from sports to touring and from learner to retro, are the best? Here’s our pick of the 10 best across 10 different categories of machine to help you find the one that’s right for you.
The idea of a ‘lightweight adventure bike’ used to be something of an anathema. Fully-loaded giants such as BMW’s own R1250GS Adventure or Triumph’s equally mammoth Tiger 1200, placed little importance on lightness and instead prioritized touring comfort, size that could dwarf continents and equipment lists that included everything up to the kitchen sink – often resulting in kerb weights approaching 300kg with all the imposing awkwardness that goes with it. Not any more. While giant adventure bikes still exist and are rightly popular, in recent years there’s also been a growing trend for smaller capacity, lighter and more manageable versions that are less off-putting to smaller, less experienced riders. BMW started this trend back in 2008 with its first F800GS followed by Triumph with its hugely successful Tiger 800 but in the last couple of years this trend has gone further still. 2019 saw KTM’s impressive 790 Adventure and also Yamaha’s hugely versatile, MT-07-derived Ténéré 700, while for 2020 KTM has gone further still with the 172kg 390 Adventure derived from the single-cylinder 390 Duke roadster. But the lightest credible adventure bike of all (excluding the 125cc Sinnis Terrain which, in truth, has limited true adventure ability even if its style appeals) is another BMW – the Indian-made, G310GS which, with 34bhp from its 313cc single, all the BMW adventure accessories and style you’d expect yet just a £5K price, is a great, accessible, reasonably versatile and ultralight (just 169.5kg) introduction to the breed.
A tricky one this – after all, there’s plenty of light, manageable, single-cylinder roadster 125s out there all designed to be as easy and unthreatening as possible. On top of that, there’s also plenty of basic, rudimentary, Chinese built roadster 125s that weight very little. While it would also be remiss of us not to acknowledge the recent fashion for 125 ‘monkey bikes’, such as Honda’s MSX 125, which, by virtue of their dinky size are also dramatically light. But assuming you’re after a combination of light weight, quality, proven performance and all-round ability we reckon you can’t beat Honda’s stylish CB125R as introduced in 2019. At a featherweight 126kg it not only undercuts Honda’s own and arguably more basic CB125F, it’s also significantly less than direct rivals from Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. Its proportions and manageability are excellent, the liquid-cooled single might not have quite the top end of a comparable Yamaha but is flexible and grunty (ie just what a novice needs); there’s quality suspension and brakes, a stylish LCD dash, LED lights, it looks fab and is even great value (compared to a Yamaha), too. See, less really is more.
OK, we probably had to be controversial in one category so it might as well be this. Sports bikes are all about performance so we’ve discounted learner 125cc sportsbikes and the like here. What that left us with, however, was not one but TWO hugely mouthwatering but admittedly equally controversial choices. In the red corner, Italian exotica experts have the imminent, V-twin, RS660 which. although not yet, strictly speaking, available, is promised soon with up to 100bhp to push around its claimed 169kg (which, when an R1 weighs almost 40kg more, is simply mouthwatering). And, if that isn’t enough, that British bastion of controversy, Norton, is also soon to come out with its parallel twin Superlight 650, a mere 158kg of sporting exotica powered by 105bhp. Or, if you go for the £50K, supercharged SS version, 170bhp. It should be mind-blowing, if it ever arrives, of course, although now with TVS ownership and a new raft of appointments and investment, we’ve no reason to suspect it won’t. Otherwise, if you want something that’s available here and now, you could go for KTM’s dinky, 44bhp, 147kg RC390, but we promise you, the Aprilia and Norton will be in a different league…
As with adventure bikes, lightness has traditionally never been a strongpoint for cruisers or customs. Instead, these laid back, long and low American-style machines, as best characterized by leading brand Harley-Davidson, are all about classic style, low-revving sunshine cruising and solid authenticity. With no performance agenda they’re crafted from hefty lumps of metal and whatever awkwardness that might create is often offset by ultra-low seats most types could manage. Or, again, at least it was. While Harley rivals such as Triumph’s Bonneville-based Bobber are far lighter and more manageable than most and Honda’s deliberately novice-targetted 500 Rebel is about as easy to ride as a 125cc+ custom gets, Britain’s CCM have for 2020 redefined what a light cruiser can be with its new, fat-tyred ‘Bobber’ version of its ultra-lightweight and whippet-like Spitfire roadster. With an enduro-derived 600cc single good for 55bhp, a lightweight tubular steel frame and not much else, the Bobber, at just 135kg (or over 100kg less than the lightest Harley), is as light as cruisers come, is über-stylish in its own right and a punchy, sweet handling performer, too, that’ll draw a crowd at any custom meet. No good for pillions or long distance, though…
The upright, half-faired, punchy-performing yet value original Tracer 700 was already a great all-rounder, as was perhaps inevitable considering its MT-07 roadster roots. But its uprating into GT spec in 2018, with accessory luggage and more shifted it into a genuinely credible, lightweight, entry-level tourer. Now, for 2020, it’s been improved further with a sharp new look, Euro5-compliant engine, improved weather protection while the GT variant, from previously being merely an accessorized version, now gets a factory high touring screen (that’s also, like the base version, easily adjustable), touring comfort seat and colour matched panniers offering 40 litres of capacity – and all, still for under £8000. Touring bikes don’t get more accessible, affordable or, at a very reasonable 196kg, manageable. Even the also new-for-2020, Chinese-built CFMoto 650GT, while still a valid and tempting middleweight tourer, can’t match the Tracer’s gossamer proportions.
Austrian off-road maestros KTM unsurprisingly know a thing or two about making lightweight motorcycles – it’s a vital factor for competing in the dirt, after all. So it was equally unsurprising when, having made the move into road machines, bikes like the single-cylinder Duke were little more than lightweight ‘super motards’. But what’s been more impressive is how, with the introduction of its new family of middleweight parallel twins, as started with 2018’s 790 Duke, KTM has managed to adhere to that recipe of ultra light weight with impressive, punchy performance. The 790 was a hugely exciting street bike – dinky, light, punchy and downright fun thanks to its combination of 105bhp pushing around just 169kg. Now, for 2020, they’ve gone further still. Enlarged to 889cc it now produces 119bhp and, in this ‘R’ trim, with top spec WP suspension, lighter components and full suite of electronic rider aids, it’s even lighter still – at just 166kg. Yes, CCM’s single-cylinder Spitfire is lighter still, at 139kg, but it has nowhere near the KTM’s power/weight ratio and sheer performance.
Historic Swedish off-road brand Husqvarna are now owned by KTM so, considering their bikes use many KTM parts and the Austrian parent is so damn good at lightweight performance machines it should be no real surprise to see ‘Husky’ here, too. The revived marque’s first offerings are the wacky-styled single cylinder Vitpilen and Svartpilen roadsters, both in 401 and 701 forms. The Vitpilen is the drop-barred café racer while the Svartpilen is the slightly more expensive roadster. Both use KTM’s 373cc single from the 390 Duke, with the 701s having the more powerful 690 Duke version, housed in identical tubular steel trellis frames and… not a lot else. The result, as you might expect, is very KTM – pure, light and punchy – but with a style all its own. The 401s both produce 43bhp so are A2-compliant and are arguably the liveliest, most stylish and certainly most exclusive bikes of that breed you can buy. Of the two, we go for the slightly cheaper Vitpilen here – a meagre 148kg of stylish (and A2-compliant) city roadster. Even the 390 Duke weighs more (just).
OK, we admit, all 50cc, AM-compliant (ie ones you can ride on the road at 16) scooters are light. With their small wheels, diminuitive overall proportions and fairly weedy, 30mph-restricted 50cc engines, that’s largely inevitable. And in truth few actually weigh much over 100kg so, whichever you go for, you shouldn’t have any problem. The class-leading, full-sized (relatively speaking) Peugeot Speedfight, for example, is only 100kg. While if you want Japanese quality and reassurance, Yamaha’s latest Aerox4 is a mere 97kg. However, if you want the lightest overall, it’s Peugeot again with their latest Kisbee, as introduced in 2019. Starting at just £1649 and weighing just 90kg (thanks to its fairly basic spec and smaller 10-inch wheels), the Kisbee is still smart, easy to ride, practical, affordable and, above all, so light your granny could manage it – which is probably the whole point.
As mentioned earlier, Aprilia are among the market leaders when it comes to Italian exotica but, unlike some, they’re also a major force when it comes to lightweights – both scooters and motorcycles. In fact, lightweight performance bikes is where the Noale-based firm first made its mark in the 1970s and ‘80s before moving into larger capacity bikes in the late 1990s. They’re still a significant player in the smaller capacities, today. Aprilia’s 125cc RS4 is among the most desirable of all A1 sportsters while, although now its sole 50cc UK offering, the latest supermoto-style SX 50, as last updated in 2014, is not only, at just 99kg, the lightest bike in the class, it’s also certainly one of the best. It features a tiny, liquid-cooled two-stroke engine, six-speed gearbox, twin spar frame and pukka brakes and suspension to go with its sharp Italian styling – enough, in fact, to have every 16-year-old drooling.
Another category in which we’ve had to apply a heavy dose of common sense. Yes, you can get retro-styled, Chinese-built 125s that, due to their very simplicity, are also ultra light in terms of weight. But if licence restrictions aren’t a consideration and you want as authentic a ‘retro’ experience as possible, riding a meaty, old-styled bike with, ideally, a big air-cooled single or twin cylinder motor, 125cc simply isn’t enough. In that context, Triumph’s 198kg Street Twin is a great, affordable, novice-friendly retro roadster with a brilliant badge and quality reputation. But Ducati’s similarly impressive V-twin Scrambler 800 is lighter still, at 186kg. But we reckon the best compromise all round is French-styled (but Chinese built) firm Mash’s latest Dirt 650. With its air-cooled 650cc single (a design derived from the old Honda Dominator unit) it’s not only Mash’s biggest so far, it also brings genuine retro credibility, decent 40bhp performance, with wire wheels, inverted forks, piggy-back shocks and disc brakes it has decent cycle parts, its flat track-inspired styling is bang ‘on trend’ and, at just over £5000, it’s good value, too. All of that and a dry weight of just 163kg makes it our pick of the bunch.