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How Much Power Do You Need


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How much power you need in a motorcycle is dependent on what you will be using the motorcycle for, obviously. If you're going to be racing down at the local dragstrip, you'll need as much horsepower as you can possibly afford.

But most folks are only going to be riding on public roads. That's what we'll talk about.

Contents

The Minimum

For most riders, and especially beginning riders, all that is needed is enough power to safely ride on public roads. And that really isn't that much power.

A motorcyclist needs to be able to go at least as fast as the cars around him or her, or perhaps a little bit faster. He or she needs enough power to get out of trouble, and to stay out of the way of trouble.

Since motorcycles weigh so much less than automobiles and other vehicles on the road, it doesn't take much in the way of horsepower to have a higher power-to-weight ratio. And the power-to-weight ratio is what determines how quickly a vehicle can accelerate.

Let's call the power-to-weight ratio P2W and define it as horsepower per 100 lbs. (This gives us numbers that are relatively easy to compare.)

P2W: cars vs. motorcycles[1]

The P2Ws for some sutomobiles are[2]:
  • 2007 Nissan Versa (S): 4.49
  • 2007 Toyota Camry (CE): 4.84
  • 2007 Cheverolet Corvette (Z06): 16.12
And the P2Ws for some motorcycles[3]:

As you can see, even a "small" motorcycle can out-accelerate all but the fastest of cars. A motorcycle designed for speed can simply leave them all in the dust.

To ride safely on public roads, almost any street-legal motorcycle has more than enough power.


Advantages of More Power

"More power! Arr, arr, arr!" -- Tim Allen, Home Improvement[4]

There are reasons to get a motorcycle with more than the minimum power, some of them more valid than impressing your friends or compensating for, uh, "personal" shortcomings.

Safety

Eh? What? More power can improve safety? Depending on how you apply additional power, yes, it can improve riding safety, specifically pro-active defensive driving.

A higher power motorcycle can move very quickly from position A to position B in the flow of traffic. Certain bike's can do it so quickly that some call it "teleporting." The point being, if position B is a safer one than position A, the extra power can help you get to that safer position more quickly.

Similarly, more power can also ease the escape from passively or aggressively dangerous drivers. And it can make merging into traffic easier, since you match speeds with traffic more easily, and therefore have more options as to where in the flow of traffic you will merge.

Convenience

Many more powerful motorcycles make that additional power across a wide range of engine RPM. This means that proper gear selection is less important with a more powerful motorcycle. In a situation where only one or at most two gears are the appropriate ones, a more powerful bike can perform acceptably in any of three or four gears.

A more powerful bike allows the rider to shift gears less often, and still meet his or her performance needs.

Fun

More powerful bikes can be more fun. If you thrill at arm-stretching acceleration, a small bike will give you some of that, but a more powerful bike will give you more.

Exceeding the speed limit on a motorcycle is no more legal than doing it in a car, and signficantly more dangerous, but accelerating up a freeway on-ramp to the prevalent speed of traffic for merging can be quite thrilling on a very powerful motorcycle. Plus, track days and local dragstrips give legal, and safer opportunities to experience every MPH a more powerful motorcycle has to offer.


Disadvantages of More Power

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." -- Lord Acton, 1887[5]

Lord Acton was speaking of a different kind of power, but the quote is still hauntingly applicable to motorcycles.

Safety

What, again? Does more power increase or decrease your safety? It all depends on how you use it. And, unfortunately, for most of us the urge to use it inappropriately can be quite strong.

More power can not only accelerate you easily up to the speed limit, but also well past it. A powerful motorcycle can have a motorcyclist traveling at over 100 mph much more quickly than in a car--so quickly the rider may not realize it until they find that next curve in the road, or that slow moving truck, or that pothole, approaching much faster than they are ready to handle.

The easy power of many motorcycles can be deceptive. It can be easy to forget how dangerous high speeds can be, when they are so easy to achieve. Riding a more powerful motorcycle takes good judgement and a strong will.

Expense

More powerful motorcycles are more expensive to:

  • Buy
  • Operate (more horsepower means lower mileage)
  • Maintain (oil, tires, chains, etc.)
  • Insure

The last of those can be the most unexpected. Many folks only shop for insurance after they buy a motorcycle, and they can be in for a big surprise. Insurance companies determine their premiums based on a number of factors, but you can be sure than P2W is one of them.

Oh, and don't forget the legal costs of speeding tickets and other moving violations which are oh-so-easy to incure on a more powerful motorcycle.


Just Right

Determining the right amount of power to look for in a motorcycle is a personal decision. You must find a balance between:

  • Safety
  • Convenience
  • Fun
  • Cost

How much power will achieve the right balance oif those depends on you. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • How much can I afford to spend on owning a bike?
  • How much risk can I accept?
  • How, when and where will I be riding my bike?
  • Will I do track days? Will I run it on the drag strip?
  • How much restraint do I really have?
  • How skilled and experienced am I?
  • Am I buying more power for me, or for my friends?

There's a motorcycle out there with the right amount of power for you. It isn't necessarily the most power, nor the least. For most people, it's somewhere in between.


References and Notes

  1. Note: A variety of makes were referenced. This was not intented to imply that a given make is, in general, faster or slower than another. Rather, it was intended to hopefully correlate to the personal experiences of a wider range of readers.
  2. Data from Edmunds.com
  3. 200lbs was added to the published (dry) weights of the motorcycles, to account fluids and for the rider. This wasn't done for the cars, since curb weights are published and the driver's weight is not as significant.
  4. TV sitcom Home Improvement.
  5. QuotationsPage.com retrieved March, 2007.
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