Common Motorcycle Engine Types

Motorcycle

There are many different motorcycle engine types to choose from. But if you don’t know much about bikes and you’re considering getting one, doing your research to learn how each engine works and what makes one different from the other can clue you into the type of engine that’s right for you and your need for speed and power. This guide will go over the different options available, the three types of drive systems, and what signs to look for that can indicate your bike’s engine is struggling.

Singles

This is the simplest internal combustion engine, featuring a single large cylinder that thumps away in order to generate power. Single cylinder engines are easy to maintain and repair, cheap to make, and simple in operation, which is why they are used to power millions of budget-friendly motorcycles. The good bottom-end torque and power of one of these engines also make them a good choice for dirt bikes and many types of dual sports bikes also use this type of engine. These engines offer decent bottom-end torque and are mechanically simple, with a narrow and light design. Yet, they’re not without their weaknesses including serious vibration that requires the use of balancers and a larger flywheel to counteract it. Additionally, these engines tend to create a lower weight to power ratio compared to multi-cylinder engines that are of similar displacement.

Parallel Twin

This engine offers plenty of power, is fast-revving, and can commonly be found in many sportier bikes. The engine is best described as very responsible, a good choice for commuting and general riding, cheap and easy to manufacture, and light and narrow. The biggest drawback is the noticeable vibration.

V-Twin

The V-twin is one of the most recognizable and iconic engines in America. It features a couple of large cylinders that are oriented in an AVA pattern and powers pretty much every American cruiser. The off the line torque, quick powerband, and the signature sound it produces it what continues to make this type of engine a popular one. The engine generally puts out less power compared to similar-sized engines, however, it does make up for it with its brute torque. However, these engines can be too fast for beginners to handle. Aside from offering a wide powerband and plenty of torque, these bikes also feature a low center of gravity, not to mention the unmistakable engine sound. Yet, they also have some drawbacks such as difficulty when it comes to cooling the rear cylinder, high vibration, and the fact that the engines tend to create less power per unit of displacement compared to three or four cylinder models.

Triple

This engine offers the perfect middle ground between inline fours and torque-loaded twins. However, the triple isn’t one of the most popular options, yet there are some riders who will swear by them. This type of engine doesn’t offer the same type of impressive horsepower that inline fours do, however, they’re perfect for aggressive track riding and commuting. Bottom line, these engines offer the perfect balance of characteristics of inline fours and twins, are very versatile and will work well in a variety of riding situations and offer a unique exhaust sound.

Inline-4

These engines are extremely popular, fast-revving, and smooth. This engine powers most types of sports bikes and is a popular choice among Japanese manufacturers for its solid performance, reliability, and easy production process. These days, this type of engine powers most types of Japanese sports bikes and many road racing bikes. Riders love these engines for their excellent power delivery, top-end rush, and screaming high revs. However, the torque is not the engine’s strong point and most need to be tuned for higher-end power.

V-4

v-engine

The V-4 is often found in higher-end bikes due to the high cost and complexity of the manufacturing process. However, these engines can provide smooth power delivery, a narrow profile, and a high performance. Their unique sound is one of the best parts about this engine type. While they provide a smooth torque power delivery they’re also much heavier than inline 4s.

Final Drive Systems

In a motorcycle, you’ll come across a few different types of final drive systems. A final drive system focuses on how power is transmitted to the rear wheel. Each of these three main final drive systems will have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Chain-Driven

The chain-driven final drive system is the most common type and it consists of a couple of sprockets with the rear sprocket connected to the back wheel and the front sprocket connect to the engine. These are the most affordable final drive systems to manufacture and are very easy to change out or replace. This type of final drive system will use the least amount of power between the back wheel and engine. Because of this, the chain-driven type is often used in race machines and high-performance bikes.

As the most affordable option, it comes with plenty of downsides. Unlike a belt or shaft drive, this type will require regular lubrication and cleaning. The chains also tend to stretch out over time and much be tightened. The chains can also snap, which is bad for a variety of reasons. Since they’re covered in oil and left exposed, they can get very dirty and will fling oil and gunk. They are also considered the loudest option, yet the fact that they’re so easy to work on makes them a popular choice among many riders. To learn how to replace a motorcycle chain, click here to read my in-depth article.

Belt-Driven

This system uses grooved rubber belts that have been reinforced with metal wiring instead of sprockets and chains. This type of final drive system will not require lubrication and offers an impressive lifespan. They’re much quieter running compared to chains and provide a smoother delivery. A chain tends to stretch out much faster compared to belts, especially when it comes to the type of low-end torque that you’ll find on a large cruiser. Belt-driven systems utilize pulleys, which are often too large for small bikes. While power is lost between the rear wheel and the crank, this type of system will lose more power than a chain system. Routine maintenance isn’t really needed, yet replacing this type of system can be a complex process.

Shaft-Driven

This final drive system features a spinning shaft that’s enclosed and turns a cog that’s connected to the back rim, which is what powers the motorcycle. This type of design is similar to what your average car uses. Since the system is enclosed it’s impermeable to dirt, mud, water, and other types of grime that you can encounter when you’re out riding around. The shaft drives are more popular on touring models because of this.

These systems weigh a lot more than either belt-driven or chain-driven systems and are more expensive to manufacture. They also have the liability of the shaft effect, which involves a jolt of acceleration that will cause the rear wheel to lift up. A choppy throttle can make this effect worse.

Maintenance Needs

Bike safety is essential. This can be in the form of always wearing the best motorcycle helmet and being hyper vigilant when you’re on your bike, but maintenance can also have an impact on how safe you are on the road. Additionally, proper engine maintenance is the key to longer motorcycle life. Keeping track of all the maintenance recommendations by the manufacturer can keep you from guessing when you need to work on your bike. When you follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule you can ensure that your bike remains mechanically sound and road-ready.

To learn more about bike maintenance after your motorcycle has been stored for the winter, click here to read my guide on spring motorcycle maintenance checklist.

Oil Change

The oil should be changed every three thousand miles or every six months. The main function of the oil is to act as a lubricant. Oil also helps to keep other parts of the engine cool, reduces engine noise, and acts as a seal for the pistons. Oil should be at the right consistency in order to keep the bike functioning properly. It shouldn’t be so thick that it isn’t able to get in between tight moving parts properly. The type of oil you use for your bike will be as important as how often it’s changed. To learn more, read my guide on how to change motorcycle oil.

Fuel

The type of fuel you use for your bike will be crucial. You may need to use a higher grade fuel depending on the type of engine you have since some engines will be more prone to malfunctions than others. Only use the grade of fuel that is recommended by the manufacturer.

Fluids

Changing engine fluids should also be done based on the manufacturer’s guidelines, especially if your bike is still under warranty since using the wrong type of fluid can void the warranty on the engine.

Chain

Take a look at your bike’s chain a couple of times a month or every seven hundred miles if you don’t ride very often. A chain may need to be adjusted or cleaned, depending on your riding habits. Chains that are defective can cause a major malfunction and serious engine issues. To learn more about chain maintenance, click here to read my guide on how to change a motorcycle chain.

Signs Your Engine Needs Some Work

Many bike owners are tuned into common signs that will indicate that their bike’s engine needs some work, but a new rider may not know something is off unless the check engine light pops on. Fortunately, there are some signs that you can look for that can indicate that your bike’s engine may not be functioning properly. Recognizing these signs can help to prevent further damage.

  • One of the most obvious signs that something is up with your engine is a loss of power. There are many different issues that can cause a loss of power, some of which are simple fixes, while others can be very costly and complicated. If you make repairs early, then you can help to prevent additional damage that can be more complex to fix.
  • A change in fuel efficiency can also indicate an issue with compression. This can be easily cleared up with a fuel system service. If it’s been months since your bike has had a tune-up, then it may be time to take your bike in for a thorough once over.
  • A strong foul smell from your bike’s exhaust can be a sign that the exhaust stroke is beginning to fail. This can be a clear sign that an engine needs the help of a professional.
  • Is your bike making knocking, spitting, popping, and backfiring noises? These are all signs that there may be a serious problem going on with the combustion flow in your engine. Just like with a foul-smelling exhaust, this is a major sign that your bike’s engine needs to be checked out immediately.
  • If you notice that your bike’s engine keeps running after the ignition has been switched off, this issue is known as run-on. This issue usually occurs when the octane in the gasoline isn’t right. Other causes can include a failing solenoid or an overactive carb. This issue will require the help of professionals.

Final Thoughts

You may not need a faster, more powerful engine if you’re looking for a slower, reliable bike that you can use daily for commuting purposes. Or, if you enjoy dirt bike racing or an engine that provides a ton of speed and a higher performance, then you can expect to pay more, since these engines are only commonly found in higher priced bikes, due to their complex production requirements and cost. As you can see, there are many different motorcycle engine types to choose from, each of which can offer the type of power, fuel efficiency, and torque that you’re looking for, based on your riding style, needs, and budget. But choosing an engine type can still be a complicated choice for many. Remember, each type of bike engine has its own unique pros and cons. Choosing a model that’s a good fit for your riding style and commuting needs, in addition to your experience, is a good start.