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.  But please do review part two of this article for a full understanding of where I’m coming from.

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

  1. Sudipto Majumdar says:

    I hail from India. The streets in the capital city of the country is flooded with two-wheelers. I bought my first when I was 18.A modest sub250 cc Indian make street bike. Carburettor fed and oil cooled. Back in 2006 it came for 69000 INR, roughly 1000 USD at present rates. I have clocked 100,000 km on my machine, and it had never returned gas mileage below 32 km to litre ( 90 mpg). As a teenager when I ran out of all my money I resorted to much light throttled riding and the bike returned nearly 50 kmpl (140mpg). On average mostly it did 44 kmpl (125mpg).The streets are congested beyond anything westerners could imagine. Alot of heavy acceleration and braking, shifting gears all the time. I have consumed to set of clutch pressure plate , one cylinder head , 4 sets of chain , changed my front fairing in a solo crash I had . Inummerable occasions of clutch wire change . My accurate calculation tells me I have not spend over 300 usd over my 11 years bike is currently running so sweet that it hurts to let it go. So I’ll settle for a second bike, while this is going to stay. Learn the frugal way of biking. I know my bike would only do 120kmph( 72 mph) safely on the free way. But Its decent speed according to me. You just need to appreciate the frugal way and choose the frugal way , if being frugal is what is so important to you. If it comes to cars , cars cannot filter through traffic, and that’s everything in my place. I take 30 minutes to do 25 km through heavy traffic, while my car takes 90 minutes ,that’s priceless. Add to it the savings though. Biker for life.

  2. Why would a frugal person buy a motorcycle new?

  3. Chris says:

    So motorcycles may not live up to some sort of hype that you and others have in your head. But they are still sell for a tiny fraction of what the average car sells for and still get a similar EPA rating to hybrids? All EPA ratings are unrealistic. Not just in regards to motorcycles. Once you weigh down your hybrid with passengers, gear, groceries, etc the ratings are automatically unobtainable. And most drivers I see in hybrids seem to drive with a slightl heavy foot. So then they get an even worse actual gas mileage than the EPA rating. Add to that speed bumps, stop lights and traffic and it gets even worse. Those factors exist for motorcycles and hybrids. And everything else that burns gasoline.

  4. Dan Bales says:

    Your an idiot.
    All motorcycles have reserve and being very generous on your part let’s say it’s only a .2 gallon reserve. So 2.5 gallons at 100 miles is exactly 40 mpg.

  5. Johhny V. says:

    The author needs to look at a larger sample of today’s motorcycles. Making conclusions based on the performance of a 25 year old motorcycle, with dual carburetors to a state of the art, computer controlled, fuel injected automobile is worthless.

    The truth is that fuel economy in motorcycles can and does benefit from the same technology that allowed the substantial improvements in automotive technology, CLOSED LOOP feedback based on an O2 sensor in the exhaust. With this crucial element, engines can be run at a consistently lean fuel/air ratio, without it, the mixture must kept conservatively rich, or one risks overheating. Open loop fuel injection can’t be relied on to deliver the same level of economy. because without a means of feedback, makers must design in a factor of safety to account for variance in components and assemblies.

    Look at the Royal Enfield 500 EFI engines, as an example, These bikes are considered large and powerful in their country of origin, India, where they take the same status given to the Harley Davidson in the USA, yet are still capable of 65 to 75 mpg. The engine design goes back to the 1930’s, slow revving, and not inherently sophisticated, but the addition of the O2 sensor, when the engine was redesigned in 2010, allowed major improvements in fuel efficiency.

    Manufacturers are only recently starting to add closed loop fuel injection to motorcycles, because it adds cost, and motorcycle emissions have not been regulated.

    The US motorcycle market is clearly NOT driven by considerations of fuel economy.. On the other hand one need only look at the amount of motorcycles vs automobiles, in use in poorer countries to see the truth of the matter. The thousands of motorcycles one sees on the streets of India, and Malasia are not a product of the those cultures having radically higher proportions of thrill seeking bikers. They exist because they represent a substantially less expensive mode of transportation..

  6. lane splitter says:

    motorcycle going at 30mph (splitting lanes)on a bumper to bumper traffic gets more mpg than a prius going 2 mph taking twice or 3x as long to get home hahaha

  7. Larry says:

    Johhny V. makes some good points. He points out that: “The truth is that fuel economy in motorcycles can and does benefit from the same technology that allowed the substantial improvements in automotive technology, CLOSED LOOP feedback based on an O2 sensor in the exhaust. With this crucial element, engines can be run at a consistently lean fuel/air ratio, without it, the mixture must kept conservatively rich, or one risks overheating. Open loop fuel injection can’t be relied on to deliver the same level of economy.”

    Indeed, that technology can render motorcycles very fuel efficient and much less air polluting than motorcycles without that technology. Today, many motorcycles are manufactured with that technology, not only to improve their fuel efficiency, but also to meet today’s EPA air pollution emissions requirements and keep motorcycle quiet.

    Allow me to point out, that although many of today’s’ motorcycles are manufactured with that technology which provides those benefits, many motorcycle owners modify their motorcycle’s engines and emission control devices, such as their ECM’s and exhaust systems, to circumvent their function and alter the fuel/air ratio to make it much richer. That renders their motorcycles much more polluting and less fuel efficient, not to mention much more noisier than they were originally manufactured to be.

    What I just pointed out also happens to be illegal and a rogue motorcycle “performance” parts industry has sprung up to provide motorcycle owners with the means and products to illegally alter their motorcycles and defect their emission control devices thus aiding and abetting them in that unlawful and environmentally polluting conduct. Such illegal tampering is especially common with the owners of V-Twin motorcycles and especially with those manufactured by Harley-Davidson. Excessively loud and air polluting Harleys have become all to common and their owners are not as interested in fuel efficiency and clean air as they are in making a lot of noise and unnecessarily revving their illegally modifed engines to show of their illegal loud pipes.

    So much for that great modern fuel efficient and clean air technology when so many riders are getting away with circumventing it. There is a strong need to have the engine and emission control device tampering prohibitions enforced so that the public and the riders of motorcycle can benefit from it.

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