While it’s true full-on, ultra-exotic, 1000cc superbikes of the type that contest World Superbikes racing are not as popular as they once were, there’s still more than enough interest and sales – particularly among track day enthusiasts – to warrant a steady stream of new models such as Ducati’s astonishing all-new Panigale V4 last year, Autotrader’s Bike of the Year no less, and, for 2019, BMW’s almost as impressive, all-new S1000RR.
And while the middleweight, 600cc Supersport class, the UK’s most popular category back in the 1990s, has taken an even bigger hit, with the likes of Honda and Suzuki now no longer offering models at all, there are still bikes to get excited about, most significantly Yamaha’s updated YZF-R6 in 2017 and, for this year, a face lifted and improved Kawasaki ZX-6R as well.
But it’s in the more junior categories where most new sports bike models can today be found. For younger riders getting onto two wheels for the first time, whether that is via an A1 licence at 17, a 47bhp A2 through or a novice-friendly middleweight once those hurdles have been leapt, sports style machines are more popular than ever. All the ‘Big Four’ Japanese manufacturers have introduced new or updated sports A1 125s recently; there’s plenty of choice in the 250/400 A2 category as well and there’s not just singles but twin cylinder bikes to choose from as well – all for under £5000. And if you look hard enough, there’s a tempting choice of barely used secondhand machines available within this budget, too.
But what’s out there, what do you get for your money and which should you choose? Here’s AutoTrader’s current pick of the best to help you decide…
1. Yamaha YZF-R125 – the best A1/125cc one
Yamaha’s handsome ‘mini R1’ has been widely considered the best sports 125 available ever since the original’s launch back in 2008 due to its combination of full-size good looks, a novice-friendly, easy-going ride, decent handling and performance and quality features – so much so it proved a best-seller despite a fairly hefty ticket price. So the launch of a significantly uprated version for 2019 is big news. Most obviously it’s been restyled so it’s even more of a mini-R1 than ever but on top of that, the 14.8bhp has been improved, too, there’s an uprated chassis, which now holds a fat 140-section rear tyre and a stylish new digital LCD dash. It’s not cheap, at just over £4500 (if price is a concern Suzuki and Kawasaki’s more basic GSX-R125 and Ninja 125, at £4099 and £4399 respectively, might appeal) but this is the 125 every sports-mad 17-year-old now wants.
2. KTM RC390 – the best A2 licence one
Austrian manufacturer KTM have a hard-won reputation for extreme performance roadsters or dual-purpose machines, either based around sophisticated, small-bore singles or big fire-breathing V-twins, and when it comes to sports bikes they’re no different. The RC390 is an A2-compliant ultra-lightweight sportster based around the punchy 44bhp single which debuted in the 390 Duke roadster, but here inspired by KTM’s Moto3 GP machine with a full-fairing and race-style attitude. It has KTM’s trademark tubular steel trellis frame, handles brilliantly and turns on a sixpence (although it might be too small for larger riders), has decent equipment including WP suspension and radial brakes and is a great introduction to the thrills and excitement of sports riding. List price of the latest version is a touch over £5K but we’ve seen plenty of new, old stock 2017 versions for sale for around £4K.
3. Honda CBR500R – the best new twin
When it comes to refined, classy, easy-to-ride novice bikes Honda do a better job than most and with its specifically-designed, twin-cylinder, CB500 family, as first introduced in 2014, they’ve been onto a winner, the bikes proving Europe-wide best sellers, and justifiably so, ever since. Originally comprising the CB500F naked roadster, CB500X adventure-style bike and CBR500R sportster (and joined by the CMX500 Rebel cruiser in 2017), all are based around the same, purpose-built, 47bhp parallel twin in a roomy, full-sized but easy to ride chassis. The CBR500R is the sportster of the bunch is a doddle to ride yet, thanks to its 471cc twin, flexible, smooth and long-legged as well. Sharpened up with new styling in 2016 it’s been updated again for 2019 with a few engine tweaks, slightly adjusted ergonomics and styling and a new dash – but all are great buys. The latest version, starting at just over £6K is outside this price category but there are still plenty of new old stock 2018 versions available for £4999.
4. Suzuki GSX250R – the best new bargain one
The quarter-litre (250cc) sports class might not be what it was in the heady days of the 1980s and ‘90s and the bikes available certainly aren’t the screaming GP replicas we had back then. But in terms of looks and longer-legged (than a 125) performance – and as an introduction to sports bikes for novice riders – they’re certainly worth a look. Kawasaki introduced its simple but sporty-looking Ninja 250SL in 2015 (‘SL’ stands for ‘Super Lightweight’), which, with a 26bhp single and easy manners is a sweet, affordable introduction to sports bikes and, although now discontinued, new old stock examples can still be had for under £4K. While if you fancy something newer still, Suzuki’s GSX250R, introduced in 2017, blends great MotoGP looks, easy manners and soft, unintimidating, 24bhp twin cylinder performance (the engine’s derived from the roadster Inazuma 250) and all for just over £4300.
5. Honda CBR650F - the best used one
We have to include a used recommendation and, when it comes to affordable sports bikes, there’s none better than Honda’s just again updated CBR650F. Although no full-on supersports in the vein of the now-deleted CBR600RR, the F is more a sports/all-rounder – and one that, thanks to its 90bhp, four-cylinder engine, sweet handling, practical ergonomics and semi-Fireblade styling more than reminds of the brilliant CBR600F from the ‘90s which was a UK best-seller. This time round it’s been designed to be affordable, user-friendly and versatile, but with a decent sporting edge and has been continually updated since its original 2011 introduction. Updated again for 2019 with a new dash and slightly uprated engine and renamed the CBR650R it costs well over £7000 new. But that also drives used prices down. We’ve seen virtually as-new, previous model examples from 2017, which in most respects are every bit as good and still under warranty, for as little as £4999. Bargain.