Busting the Myth that Motorcycles Save Gas (and Money)

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With each new surge in gas prices, a frequently asked question is whether motorcycles offer substantial savings in fuel consumption.  The related question is whether motorcycles have a place in practical frugal living.

The questions make sense enough.  After all, what could possibly be more fuel efficient than a two-wheeler that weighs 1/8 the weight of a car?  What better idea for saving gas than losing the unused seating capacity, the empty trunk space, the metal frame and siding, and otherwise reducing your means of transportation to the absolute bare minimum?  Surely, 100 miles per gallon is something any frugalist would die for.   If that weren’t enough, the thrill of the open road, soaking up the sun on those beautiful spring and fall days, and the rugged, independent image make it a no brainer, right?

Wrong.

As someone who owned a motorcycle and used it as my primary means of transportation for seven years, I can say with complete confidence that the notion that motorcycles save money is a myth.  Let me walk you through some of the reasons why a motorcycle has no place in the practical frugal lifestyle.

We can start by dispelling the myth of motorcycles conserving gas.  First, I don’t know where this bit about “100 miles a gallon” came from.  Maybe the first small machines made decades ago approached this figure.  But the best fuel efficiency offered by any major manufacturer’s make these days is the Honda Rebel, at 84 mpg.  While that is nothing to sneeze about, it requires you to entrust your well-being to a 234 cc engine, which Honda somehow liberally rounds up to 250.  That provides you with just enough horsepower to travel at highway speeds, at a noisy, high revving engine speed and with precious little room for passing acceleration.

After the Rebel, the choices for high fuel efficiency cycles are few.  Yamaha Star offers a 250 of its own, which advertises 78 mpg, and the options just get worse from there.

In fact, if you want to put yourself on a motorcycle with more reasonable horsepower, you unfortunately have to jump up in engine size dramatically.  In the old days, the major manufacturers offered midsize engines in the 450 – 500cc range.  Mine, a Honda Nighthawk 450, belonged to that category.  For some reason that I will never get, the major makers now offer no such lines.  Instead, you pretty much have to jump all the way up to something in the 750cc range, although Yamaha does at least offer a 650cc Star model these days.

The first problem with these bikes is that their fuel efficiency is terrible – worse, in fact, than a Toyota Prius.  They are also tremendously overpriced.  The Yamaha Star 650 that I mentioned, for example, lists for $6,990.  That’s right –  one-half the price of a reasonably priced fuel efficient car like the Hyundai Accent.  By the way, the Yamaha Star 250 that I mentioned earlier?  Be prepared to spend $4,290 for that small machine.

But let’s go back to the disappointing fuel efficiency for a moment.  The Yamaha V Star 650 advertises 49 mpg.  Keep in mind, too, that the quoted efficiency is the EPA estimate, which is almost always overly optimistic.  I learned all too well the accuracy of that qualifying phrase, “Your mileage may vary,” during my cycling days.

I bought my Nighthawk during my college days, in part because of the fuel efficiency, which was supposed to go over 40 miles per gallon in the city and over 60 highway.  Instead, I found myself routinely filling up the 2.7 gallon tank every 90 -100 miles.   Admittedly, this was at a time when most of my miles were logged in on a college campus, with very frequent stopping, starting, speed bumps, etc.  Even in more traditional city travels, however, it was never the fuel sipper that I was led to believe it would be.  This was a major disappointment for me, in part because I rode it responsibly, rarely peeling out or torturing neighbors with senseless revving at every stop.

That takes me to the last point on motorcycle fuel efficiency.  If you operate a motorcycle in the irresponsible and downright foolish manner that so many bikers model, your fuel efficiency will drop even further.  Jack rabbit starts, weaving around traffic at sharply varying speeds, and gunning the throttle for no reason other than to make noise will do nothing more than waste gas.

So that’s a pretty good overview of why motorcycles are way overrated when it comes to their supposed fuel savings.  I’ll write separately on several other considerations that easily eliminate motorcycles as a tool of frugal living, using our earlier definition of practical frugal living.  In the meantime, I’m certainly open to comments from riders whose experiences have been different.

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23 Responses to Busting the Myth that Motorcycles Save Gas (and Money)

  1. warero says:

    Reblogged this on Javmode.

  2. what about scooters for in-town driving (honda/piaggo)? They get 50-100 mph depending on the model and you’re in town so you don’t need huge power anyways. seems more practical for city living – no parking costs, lower insurance, lower maintenance costs, better mileage and you can pay outright for a used one $2,000/$3,000 instead of taking on debt. I haven’t done out the numbers, but worth seeing if it’s a better deal. Esp. for city folks where a car is a huge expense. Walking or biking would be the cheapest though!

  3. vster says:

    Nice comment, 1000. And, yes, my understanding is that those gas-powered scooters are good on gas, but I personally have a lot of concerns about them. One, they just don’t have any power. I’ve not researched top speeds, but it seems like every time I see one on the road, it is revving hard and loud just to move the rider 30 mph. If they can go much faster than that, it’s not by much. As I see it, you would still need another vehicle to handle your highway needs, and who wants to pay for a second machine for just local driving? These scooters also don’t look very sturdy to me, and I would be worried about maintenance and wear and tear issues. In addition to the limited speed and acceleration capability, they are very small and lower to the ground (thanks to those tiny wheels). This makes them even harder to see than motorcycles.

    Your right that bicycles are the cheapest alternative. I’ll have some more thoughts on that in a future post. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Pingback: Busting the Myths of Motorcycle Savings (Part II) | Practical Frugal Living

  5. I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This paragraph posted at this web site
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  6. Actually, I don’t agree with this post. You haven’t considered all the options. A royal enfield can easily get you 75 mpg in the city. That’s better than maybe 90% of all the cars nowadays. Besides, with a motorcycle, you can park wherever you want, therefore saving time finding a parking spot, which can take a lot of time in a big city, and you don’t have to be in car traffic because you can ride through the lines. I live in Lisbon, Portugal, and I have a motorcycle. If I had a car instead of it, I would spend a lot more money. Not just in mileage, but also in time.
    If you really advocate frugal living, a motorbike is a great choice.

  7. Nelson J Wood says:

    But, this is silly. Maybe a 250 is fine for what you need. I personally have ridden a 250 cc bike from Miami to LA, no problem, getting like 80 mpg

    A 250 cc engine is perfectly adequate for me. Yeah, you’re right, it’s not frugal if you buy a giant gas guzzler of a bike and ride like an ass. But how is that not true for pretty much any class of vehicle?

    Drive a reasonable bike in a reasonable manner, you will be spending a lot less money than you would with a car. If you want to be frugal, don’t do the things you said. But that doesn’t make motorcycles as an entire class of vehicle less frugal than cars.

    • Nelson J Wood says:

      I should also add that in the city, especially if you are commuting, you can get a lot of that highway mileage back by filtering. Unfortunately, the only US state where filtering isn’t explicitly illegal is California, but everywhere else in the world you can safely filter which drastically reduces how much gas you are burning in gridlock traffic as well as dramatically reducing trip times.

  8. Brendon Bosy says:

    This article isn’t doing justice. With regards to motorcycles vs cars, there are plenty of motorcycles out there which accelerate fast and also get Prius-level MPG. The Kawa Ninja 300 which does 0-60 in 5.5 secs, and is rated at 68 MPG. Yeah, in real world tests it does 55 MPG, but that still matches the best hybrids out there.

    The problem is in the United States motorcycles aren’t a form of transportation, they’re toys. That’s why most bikes are either 250 cc or 600+ cc. 250s are starter bikes while you’re learning, then you bump up after a season. No matter what, overall with motorcycles you’re still getting a huge bang for your buck. The cream of the crop motorcycles like the Ninja ZX-10 or the CBR1000RR accelerate faster than a Ferrari, but still get 30+ MPG. If 100 MPG is what you’re after, good luck. Even 50cc scooters only top out at like 90 MPG in real world tests. By that point, just ride a bicycle and don’t use gas at all.

  9. Ian says:

    I ride a sports 600 and also have a car for the winter when it’s just too lousy to ride. MPG on both is comparable. The difference in cost comes to light when you factor in travel time. On the bike it’s a 20 minute trip to work. In the car it’s 45 minutes. Bercause the car is on the road for more than twice the time to get the same distance and burning fuel the whole time must be worth something. Also. The bike takes up a frugal amount of parking space once at the office.

  10. With my car I pay 700 dollars every six months for insurance, which is mandatory. My Honda rebel 250 motorcycle costs about 600 dollars per year for insurance, if I choose to get it (bike insurance is not mandatory in my state). The car gets 30mpg. My bike gets 80. Sure, disadvantages of the motorcycle are plentiful. If it weren’t for the money, I’d be driving my car every day. With a bike you have to accept: not being able to have very many passengers and the ones you do have to be willing and capable of riding, and they’ll need the proper gear (a helmet at minimum). You can’t haul much stuff. You are always outside and exposed to the elements (riding a bike is definitely not as luxurious as being nestled up in your car with the stereo and heater on). Every trip has to be planned for (proper gear for the weather, limited ability to haul stuff, take stuff, etc.). Gear and accessories for motorcycles are outrageously priced (Many hundreds of dollars for gloves, coats, pants, helmets, luggage bags and rackets, etc. And if you use a bike for everyday commuting then you will need these things. You don’t really have a choice). Bikes also have a shorter engine lifespan and require frequent small maintenance procedures (chain lubrication every 500 miles, oil changes every few thousand miles (bikes don’t even have oil filters so you can’t skimp), tires that ware out every 15000 miles, etc.).
    BUT, you have to keep all of this in perspective. My bike saves me about 6 dollars a day (about 200 dollars a month) in insurance and fuel savings. Plus all that maintenance I talked about, while frequent, is relatively inexpensive. A quart and a half of oil here, two bike tires there, a spark plug here, etc.) I think six dollars a day can easily pay for all the financial costs of riding a motorcycle. Plus, the bike itself that I have is only 4000 dollars brand new off the lot. And for about 2000 dollars you can find a used one in like-new condition. A used car in decent shape with low miles that isn’t too old and will get you FAIR mpg (like 30), if you’re lucky, will cost you about 3500 dollars, but that is if you’re lucky. Plus the insurance and gas are going to be substantially higher, adding more overall cost to the vehicle. And lastly, let’s not forget, for every mile you put on your bike, that’s one less mile you put on your car. The less you drive your car, the longer it’s lifespan will be. You are trading your bike miles for car miles.
    Under the circumstances the author laid out in his article, I would agree that driving a car is more economical. But under the RIGHT circumstances, you can save yourself a lot of money riding a bike everyday. There are a lot of start-up costs, and it is quite a new experience, one I think not everyone could do or enjoy, but it can save you money. Just be prepared for a small and/or fuel efficient bike, and be willing to make sacrifices. It’s not just as easy as “buy a bike and start saving money.” There has to be a methodical and thought out way of doing it for it to work.

  11. FotoTomas says:

    I realize I am coming in late here but my two cents is being tendered.

    I think frugal is a relative condition based on circumstance. I have a 2000 Chrysler van that gives me about 15 miles to the gallon. I have a 2004 Honda Shadow 750 that gives me about 45 miles to the gallon. I commute 120 miles round trip a day, five days aweek. At todays prices of around $3.40 a gallon I am saving in fuel cost about $100 a week.

    Yes I accept the inconvenience of the open ride, cold and rain as well as safety concerns. I try to ameliorate those conditions with proper gear and mindset. The cost is easy to improve upon due to compromises and finding gear that is bike usable but not bike marketed. In addition I can not afford to trade in the van due to my financial situation. Both the motorbike and van are paid for. In my case the motorcycle is a GREAT method for saving fuel and other costs in my limited circumstances. A very frugal option.

  12. bentag4 says:

    Let us not confuse saving money with safety, comfort, or inconvenience.

  13. dkb says:

    try riding a motorcycle in michigan for the last 4 months or the next 2, you won’t get far with all the weather. Also, let’s see you carry more than a sac full of groceries on a rebel, or take your date to the movies or park when it’s sleeting out. I suppose in very few states a bike could be “frugal” but for 13K you could buy a kia, nissan, chevy spark, etc and live in the car. Now that’s frugal.

  14. I own a 21012 Honda CBR250R it has a top speed of 90MPH. Enough power to pass comfortably on the highway and can cruise at 75 MPH all day long. I took it on a 400 mile ride in the mountains the other day backroads, highway, city, all types of road conditions. I averaged 80 MPG. I bought the bike 2 years old for $2,500. I’m not sure what has you so jaded on two wheel transportation but your story is very one-sided.

    • vster says:

      It’s really not one-sided. It’s just fact based. As for your mileage, I’ll take the 80mpg highway claim at face value, although that’s pushing the upper limit, and it’s certainly not going to happen driving at 75mph. But, no, you cannot pass comfortably at high speeds on that bike. Plenty of reviews on the Honda Rebel say that. Try riding that bike with a passenger and see how well it moves at high speeds and while passing. Furthermore, the maintenance costs/concerns that I raised will be magnified on a bike that small. Tires won’t last at all.

      • sportbike mike says:

        I have the same bike 2012 cbr250r. My highway commute is 65mpg at 75mph. If i keep it in town it gets 78mpg. It will cruise all day long at 75mph with a passenger, i have done it. It will take a 1,600 mile road trip with no problems. I have done that as well.

        My 250 has 28000 miles and runs perfectly. The tires lasted 19000 miles and the service interval is 8000 miles. That’s right 8000.

        Tell me again why I need a car to be frugal.

  15. Daremo says:

    It’s selectively fact based. Presuming you’re not a speed freak, as people interested in frugal living tend not to be, or frequently carrying passengers, as people interested in motorcycles in the first place tend not to do, a 250 cc may well meet your needs. If your premise includes the stipulation that touching a motorcycle is going to turn you into a rabbit starting, engine revving, traffic dodging dolt, then it’s no wonder that you come to a negative conclusion.

  16. Jambow says:

    The biggest myth is assuming that your circumstances apply to every one else. I have basically paid for my Yamaha xt250 that gets 75mpg at 21,000 miles ridden or close to it. For sure lower costs of operation come in many forms if you do the basic maintenance yourself, oil changes are simple enough. Yes I do not take the highway to work on my 36 mile round trip a 250cc bike doesn’t belong next to 18 wheelers, so I ride through town which adds about 5-8 minutes to my commute. Since I actually enjoy the commute on the bike no big deal. Insurance is cheaper too.

    I’m now considering a Honda CB500x as they are getting 62-70mpg and also would be suitable for a quick highway jaunt if not extended rides. The right bike used properly can save you real money and is a lot more fun than a Prius. I remember being next to one at a stop light and asking the owner why he would drive such a gas hog, his expression was priceless. Twice I also cut across a field to avoid stopped traffic while a line of cars was sitting there blocked in.

  17. T Rex says:

    Wow, it is amazing how uninformed the inexperienced can be. I own 7 two wheel vehicles and they range from low 40s to high 70s mpg. My 650 KLR get 60s all the time with a full load of camping equipment and touring gear traveling at 65-70. My wife rides a Vespa 350s which get in the 60-70 MPG and I defy any Harley to beat it off the line. Besides for gas let’s talk about tires, oil, and general wear and tear on our highways. Let talk insurance prices for those cars compare to two wheel vehicle. I have a ST1300 that got over 50 miles to the gallon all the way to Washington DC and back at speed we will not discuss. Yes your Night Hawk with old type carburetors probably did get poor mileage, especially if it was the shaft drive model. The modern motorcycles of today with ABS brakes, fuel injection, cruise control, water cooled and advance transmission are a completely different animal then the old Honda Nighthawks.

  18. Franny Morlan says:

    I have a 2011 Vstar 650 its my regular commute vehicle it costs under 20 bucks a week to go my 41 ish miles round trip commute on the bike. My other vehicle was a Ford 2005 F-150 cost me over 100. my bike payment is 212 a month guess what I’m more than breaking even in savings.

    • vster says:

      If you were driving an F-150 on a 41 mile commute, then, yes, you probably are saving some money using a motorcycle instead. My article assumes that you drive a sensible, economical car instead of a large, full size truck.

  19. Boo says:

    I felt my lip twitching north even just fumbling through this incredibly subjected piece.

    Its late and im not irritated enough to discredit all of your points. Motorcycles do save money provided safe riding and lack of injury.

    Less mass requires less energy to move, therefore less fuel consumption. This isn’t disputable. For single person transport motorcycles win.

    We’re talking practical frugal living– surely readers are inclined to “go the extra mile” in terms of saving money. I did.

    1997 Yamaha Virago Virago 250 $800, 1600 miles. Changed sprockets to 17/38. 80mph cruising highway at a reasonable aprox. 6600rpm. 75-100mpg.

    Thats practical frugal living.

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