This is a car site. We’re car enthusiasts, and we like cars. Four wheels good and all that. Personally, I like motorcycles too. Not everyone agrees, and that’s OK. As I’m enjoying my last few days of riding through an unusually warm streak before putting the bike away for another New England winter, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ll miss about my two wheeled travels over the next few months, as well as what vehicles with four wheels and a roof can do better at any time of year. Sometimes you just think about stuff like this when you ride.
Acceleration: Two Wheels
It’s a simple matter of power-to-weight ratios. A Kawasaki Ninja 500R is far from a top end sport bike, but with 60hp motivating only 388lbs, it has roughly the same power to weight ratio as a 707hp Challenger Hellcat. It’s also much easier to put that power to the ground effectively, while the Challenger has trouble turning its power into speed rather than tire smoke. People say my 200hp Subaru BRZ is underpowered. The popular Suzuki GSX-R 1000 has only 185hp, but weighing an entire Miata less than the BRZ gives it a better power-to-weight ratio than any car on the road.
Handling: Four Wheels
Cars have four contact patches with the road. Motorcycles have two. On that point alone, cars can grip better in the corners than a bike, despite their significantly higher weight. Additionally, motorcycle tires are rounded because they lean in the corners, while car tires are flat across their entire width. Since cars don’t lean nearly as much (unless they have a terrible worn out suspension), they can go around corners faster than a motorcycle.
This applies to braking, too, for exactly the same reasons. Most sport bikes have enough front braking power to do a stoppie, at which point 100% of their braking power is through a single wheel. Unless it’s the Redneck Rollercoaster, cars can’t do stoppies, and though the front wheels still provide the majority of the braking power, it’s still spread across four wheels rather than two, or one.
At this point I’d like to pause and insert one of my favorite car vs. motorcycle videos. Though it’s not realistic, all for show, and doesn’t prove any of my points, I still really love watching this.
Comfort: Four Wheels
Whether it’s the dead of winter, a hot and humid summer day, or a torrential downpour, it’s much more comfortable to sit in the comfort of an enclosed vehicle than tough it out on the bike. Even an NA Miata has top and a heater, two things motorcycles lack.
That’s not to say that bikes are terrible. The ergonomics of some let you ride all day without getting tired. Windshields and fairings keep the worst of the elements off of you. Modern riding gear (you are wearing gear, right?) can keep you dry in all but the heaviest rain. Electric heated vests and insulated gloves and boots can keep you warm. Remove the liners and open up all the vents, and you can still stay fairly cool while remaining protected. But it’s not nearly as convenient or comfortable as sealing yourself into a car. Plus you don’t need a helmet or special clothing unless you’re racing.
Maneuverability: Two Wheels
The car may be able to gain back some of the time lost to the motorcycle in the corners on a track, but when it comes to real world maneuvering, the bike wins hands down. It’s small enough to scoot through gaps in traffic where a car won’t fit. I can easily swoop around bumps and potholes, and unless I’m riding in staggered or double file formation with a group, I take racing lines through all the corners without leaving my lane just for fun.
Though not legal in most of the US except for California, lane splitting is legal in much of the world. In heavy traffic, motorcycles are allowed to ride between lanes of traffic at a slightly higher speed than cars. This doesn’t mean you can do a 120mph wheelie between cars down the highway, but in 15mph bumper to bumper traffic, you can safely do 25mph between cars. At stop signs and red lights, bikes can slowly filter their way to the front of the line around stopped traffic. This is not only convenient for the bikers, but also safer. It eliminates the possibility that an inattentive driver may hit the stopped motorcycle from behind – a minor fender bender for cars, but potentially deadly for a bike. Which leads us to…
Safety: Four Wheels
I love going fast on a track, but I won’t do it unless I have a metal cage around me and a low possibility of getting hurt if I mess up and hit something solid. Even on the street, every time I get on my bike I silently accept that I’m 26 times more likely to not reach my destination alive than if I took the car. The primary purpose of a car’s seat belt is to prevent ejection. On a bike you’re already exposed, and if things go wrong there’s nothing between you and whatever you’re going to hit. Even an empty road is going to hurt a lot as you tumble down it. Plus there’s that minor factor that a bike tips over when stopped, something cars don’t do (except the Reliant Robin).
DIY Maintenance: Two Wheels
Many auto enthusiasts yearn for the good old days where duct tape, bailing wire, and a hammer could fix just about anything on older, more simple cars. Those days are still alive and well in the motorcycle world. Many modern bikes are still in the stone age, technologically, compared to cars. That makes them easier and cheaper to work on, especially for the shadetree mechanic who likes to do their own work. Motorcycles are much simpler machines than cars. Even better, on some styles of bikes everything you need to reach is already exposed for easy access.
There are exceptions, of course. Some modern high end motorcycles can be quite sophisticated. Even some Harleys are fuel injected these days. But generally speaking, if you know what you’re doing bikes can be much easier to maintain than cars.
Track Opportunities: Four Wheels
This one’s a tough choice to make. Cars and bikes both have their own distinct advantages in this area.
It’s easy to find track days at your local road course whether your weapon of choice is a car or a bike. But thanks to motocross, there are more tracks available for bikes if you extend the definition of “track” to include the dirt variety. If you have enough land, a path around your house can become a track where you can hoon as fast as the laws of physics rather than the road will allow. Not so easy for a car. It’s also much easier to transport your race vehicle to the track if it only has two wheels. Where a race car needs a trailer and a truck big enough to pull it, I’ve seen a NASA RallyMoto competitor load his bike onto a home built Harbor Freight trailer towed behind his Toyota Yaris. You don’t even need a trailer if you have a pickup truck or large van – just ride it in, tie it down, and drive away.
But because of the safety factor, you need a whole lot more protective gear to track a bike than a car. While any rider should already have decent gear for the street, gear for the track – whether paved or dirt – is far more extensive, with back protection and more solid armor all around. You need to invest in all of this equipment before you can even try it out on a track. With a car, all you need it an acceptable helmet and you’re good to go for autocross or track days. Because it’s more accessible, I give the car a win in this category, but not by much.
Affordability: Two Wheels
I’ve had a few cheap cars, but those have been the rare exceptions. Out of the many bikes I’ve owned, only one, my current Honda PC800, has cost me more than $1000. Most have cost me $500 or less. Obviously such bikes aren’t new, but very well used, to the point that they’re fully depreciated. Even a new Honda Rebel, a very popular first bike, sells for just $4,190 new, a fraction of the Nissan Versa or Mitsubishi Mirage, two of the least expensive new cars available. So even when you factor in the extra expense of riding gear, it’s still far more affordable to get rolling on two wheels than four. Top Gear proved this in their Vietnam Special, which remains one of my favorite episodes ever.
So Which Is Better?
Despite me setting this whole piece up as a competition, in my mind it isn’t one at all. The experiences of driving a car and riding a motorcycle are so different I can’t say that one is better than the other. In the middle of a snowstorm I prefer the heated comfort and safety of my winter beater Focus. But on a beautiful spring day in the twisties of Vermont, though I certainly enjoy driving my BRZ there, I’d rather be on the bike. A car can carry more stuff, but I took a week long trip to the far end of Nova Scotia on my bike without being cramped for space, camping gear and all. Try that in a Miata.
Since I learned to ride, I’ve only been without a bike of some kind briefly, and only then because I lost a job and ran out of money. Having both options available works best for me, so that I can choose the right tool for the right job on any given day. I’m also not brave enough to try motorcycle racing, so when I feel the need for speed, I’ll take the car to the track.
(Top photo credit: Lifestyles Defined)