Old school dirt bike riders will say there is no choice; manual is the only way to go! However, the new generation of automatic dirt bikes brings a new aspect of dirt bike riding to the table and makes it more accessible to more people. If you are in a quandary as to whether a manual or automatic dirt bike is for you and how to make the choice, then we have some information for your consideration!
Choosing between a Manual or Automatic dirt bike comes down to some basic, and probably personal, choices like your skill level, and which transmission type will make your dirt bike riding more fun for you!
To assist you in making this decision, we will highlight the pros and cons of both manual and automatic dirt bikes, give you some examples of each type of bike, and draw some conclusions. This information will help you make the right choice for your dirt bike riding needs.
Before we jump into the discussion, some clarification on what is meant by a manual and automatic dirt bike is probably in order. When we talk about manual or automatic, we are referring to the transmission, or gearbox of the dirt bike, and the mechanism used to engage the various gears while riding.
What Is A Manual Dirt Bike?
A manual dirt bike is one that has a manual transmission or gearbox.
In its basic form, a transmission is made up of gears of various sizes, and a clutch to engage and disengage the gears. On a manual dirt bike, the clutch is operated via a lever on the left-hand handlebar of the dirt bike. Pulling the clutch lever in towards the handlebars disengages the gears and when released again, the gears are re-engaged. The clutch lever needs to be cycled in this manner every time a rider wants to go up or down a gear.
The actual gear change is achieved via a foot lever located in front of the rider’s left footpeg. This lever is operated by the rider’s left foot to select the gear to be engaged. Some dirt bikes can have as few as 3 gears, while others may have as many as 6 gears.
The gear selection position of the gear change lever varies with various dirt bike manufacturers, but the most common gear positions are to tap the gear lever down to engage first gear and then lift the gear lever up with your foot to change to the higher gears. Neutral is achieved by lightly tapping the gear lever down towards first gear, or up from first gear so that no gear is selected.
Operating a manual gearbox does take some practice, and for people who are unfamiliar with the mechanism, they often struggle to get the timing of the clutch and the throttle correct and end up stalling the bike. The gear selection is another aspect that people find difficult until they get used to the position of the gears on the bike.
Learning to ride a dirt bike with a manual transmission may seem like a challenging task for a beginner. Mastering the clutch and throttle coordination is well worth the effort and may take less time than you expect! With an hour or less of practice in an area with some space and free of obstacles, you should be able to master the basics of the clutch and throttle control.
What Is An Automatic Dirt Bike?
An automatic dirt bike is one that has an automatic transmission, or gearbox. An automatic transmission automates the process of engaging and disengaging the clutch and the process of gear selection.
Fully automatic transmission dirt bikes are not that common, and generally are the smaller dirt bikes that are designed for very young riders. There are some adult size dirt bikes with fully automatic transmissions, but they are not common at all. Most dirt bikes with automatic transmissions are not fully automatic as in the case of an automatic transmission in a car. These types of automatic dirt bike transmission are more correctly stated as a semi-automatic transmission.
The semi-automatic transmission takes care of the clutch operation for you, but you still need to make the gear selection with your left foot, and close and open the throttle during the gear changes.
This clutch mechanism you may hear being referred to as a DCT, which stands for dual-clutch transmission. These bikes will have no clutch lever on the left side of the handlebar. The operation of the clutch is all handled by a computer installed in the bike that is dedicated to this function. Not many dirt bikes are fitted with this type of clutch, but the Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin is one such bike that has a DCT system.
This bike is, however, more an enduro or rally style bike than a dirt track bike. This Honda is also an example of a crossover bike that is suitable for off-road use and on-road use and comes standard as street-legal.
Another technology you may hear of in the automatic transmission dirt bike sector is CVT, which stands for Continuously Variable Transmission. This system is unique in that it does not have traditional gears in a gearbox but rather uses a belt and pulley system to transmit the drive power to the wheels.
The pulleys vary in size and change according to the RPMs of the motor and speed required. The disadvantage of this system is that a lot of energy is lost in the form of friction in the belt and pulley system.
This belt and pulley type of transmission, however, gives a very weird feel to the performance of the vehicle and it often sounds like it is over-revving and the clutch is slipping. Needless to say, this technology has not proved to be very popular, and this type of transmission system is only used in very few small capacity engine dirt bikes for the very young riders.
The KTM 50 SX is one such dirt bike aimed at the younger rider and fitted with a CVT transmission system.
The automatic or semi-automatic transmission makes learning to ride a dirt bike easier, as you don’t need to worry about mastering or constantly thinking about the clutch, gear change, and throttle timing, but can concentrate on riding.
This makes the automatic transmission popular among beginner dirt bike riders, particularly those who are not familiar with the intricacies of a manual transmission.
Pros and Cons
As can be expected, there are pros and cons to each type of transmission for dirt bikes. The advantages come with associated disadvantages. You will have to determine if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for your particular riding needs.
The pros for the automatic transmission are as follows.
- The learning curve for a beginner dirt bike rider is not as steep.
- Automatic transmissions are great for kids.
- Dirt bikes with an automatic transmission are easier to control.
- Less likely to damage the transmission when learning to ride.
The cons of an automatic dirt bike are as follows.
- Acceleration is not as good, although modern automatic transmissions are improving in this area.
- They are heavier than a manual transmission.
- There are more components; this means more that could potentially go wrong.
- Less control for the rider and some riders also will tell you that automatic transmission dirt bikes are much less fun and can become boring after a while.
- Automatic transmissions for dirt bikes are more expensive to manufacture than manual transmissions.
- Not as common or as many models to choose from as in manual dirt bikes.
- Not as fuel-efficient as a manual transmission.
The pros of the manual transmission dirt bikes are as follows.
- Faster acceleration, particularly on pull off.
- More control over the bike’s performance in rough terrain.
- Fewer parts to go wrong in the transmission.
- A manual transmission is lightweight in comparison to the automatic transmission, making manual transmission bikes lighter overall.
- Manual transmissions are more fuel-efficient.
- Manual transmissions for dirt bikes are cheaper to manufacture and more common, hence easier to buy.
The cons for the manual transmission dirt bike are as follows.
- They are harder to learn to ride, particularly for beginners who are not familiar with manual transmissions.
- Usually not suitable for younger riders.
Most dirt bike riders who have started out on automatic transmission bikes will tell you that once they mastered riding them, they quickly became a boring ride. Most riders in this category have then transitioned to a manual transmission dirt bike.
Manual dirt bike riders will never change their manual dirt bike for an automatic dirt bike. Most would feel that this would be a downgrade. Manual dirt bike riders also consider the fun aspect of dirt bike riding to be greatly enhanced by the additional control that a manual transmission affords.
Most of the automatic transmission dirt bikes on the market are targeting young riders, so the bikes are mostly smaller frame machines. There are adult-sized automatic dirt bikes available, but they are not as common as the manual variety.
The popularity of the manual transmission is also reflected in the wide variety of choice available in different models and manufacturers of dirt bikes. Because of the popularity of manual transmission dirt bikes, some manufacturers don’t even offer an automatic dirt bike in their range. Their lack of popularity doesn’t warrant the effort to produce and market them.
Some bigger brands of dirt bike manufacturers will offer one or two models among the myriad of variations on offer in the manual transmission bikes. This makes automatic dirt bikes difficult to come by and may be a limiting factor in you being able to acquire one.
In my opinion, one of the attractions of a dirt bike is its simplicity, particularly the 2-stroke models. They are easy to maintain and service and because of their simplicity, fairly cheap to maintain. There are usually no specialist tools or machines needed to maintain your dirt bike, and you could even do most of it in your home garage!
Much of this simplicity changes with an automatic transmission dirt bike. The automatic transmission is much more complicated, with more moving parts and complicated engineering going into their design and operation. The clutch is controlled by an onboard computer which is another complication that is added to the mix.
These added complications to the structure and operation of the automatic transmission make it more complicated to service and maintain these transmissions. Specialized tools and computer interfaces are needed to diagnose problems or fine-tune the components. These items are usually out of the scope of backyard or home mechanics.
A specialist is normally required to work on these transmissions. This immediately increases the cost of maintenance and repair of these types of transmissions.
Manual transmission dirt bikes on the other hand can even, in some circumstances, be stripped down at the track and repairs completed on the fly, then bike put together again and you are on your way! The popularity of the manual transmission dirt bikes also makes the parts for these gearboxes cheaper and more readily available than those for the automatic transmissions.
Manual transmissions are more reliable than automatic transmissions. This is mostly due to the additional complications within the automatic transmission.
Another factor, however, is also the fact that that the automatic gearbox requires high-quality oils and lubricants and it is not wise to deviate from the recommended oil specifications.
The last difference between the two transmission types in our duel of the manual vs automatic dirt bike will be the price factor.
As we have noted previously, the automatic gearbox has many more components and is engineered with much finer tolerances than the manual gearbox. This additional design, testing, and manufacturing of the additional parts required for the automatic transmission have a direct effect on the final price for the consumer.
In short, automatic transmission dirt bikes are more expensive to manufacture than manual transmission dirt bikes. For this reason, automatic transmission dirt bikes are usually found in bikes designed for younger riders, where cost can be cut on other aspects of the bike production to compensate for the costly transmission.
The lack of availability of bikes in higher engine capacities manufactured with automatic or semi-automatic transmissions makes it a difficult task to draw price comparisons. The best price comparison, therefore, is in the bikes of 125cc or less, which is where the majority of the semi-automatic dirt bikes seem to abound.
While the difference in the purchase price is not that dramatic, usually a couple of hundred dollars, this is not the only cost factor to consider. The automatic transmission bikes are usually lacking in other features that are more common on manual dirt bikes to keep the costs down. Where the difference starts to become somewhat more substantial is in the ongoing maintenance of the machines.
Automatic or Semi-Automatic Dirt Bikes
If you are interested in automatic or semi-automatic dirt bikes then here are a few models that may be of interest to you.
The Kawasaki KLX110 is a great mid-range bike from a well-known manufacturer. Don’t be fooled by the 110cc engine, this bike is no slouch and packs quite a punch for its size. It is not only suitable for mid-teens but would even suit smaller sized adults, particularly beginners. The engine is a 4-stroke motor which gives a smooth reaction to the throttle, with no surprises. The engine is air-cooled, so no need to worry about additional liquid coolants!
The transmission is a 4-speed box with an automatic clutch, which puts this great off-road bike in the semi-automatic category. This makes the bike easy to ride for beginner dirt bike riders. There are many add-ons available for this model bike, which makes it customizable to some extent when it comes to adjusting the seat height of the dirt bike. This makes it possible for taller riders to enjoy this machine as well!
Many big manufacturers seem to have taken an interest in the 110cc range and as a result, there are many choices of automatic dirt bikes in this engine capacity. Others in this range include the Yamaha TT-R110E and the Honda CRF110F.
Due to most automatic or semi-automatic transmission dirt bikes being aimed at the younger riders, we must include a dirt bike model that is aimed at the under 10-years old group.
The Suzuki DR-Z70 fits right into this category and is ideally suited for this age group. The clutch is automatic on this model, with a 3-speed gearbox. The throttle can be adjusted to limit the speed at which the bike can be operated. This may give the parents of the young rider some peace of mind!
This model also comes in a 50cc variety, the DR-Z50, for the even younger riders. It has all the same features, only a smaller engine. Due to the small physical size of the DR-Z70 is not really practical for adults to ride, even though the motor is more than capable!
Manual Dirt Bikes
When beginning the search to purchase a manual transmission dirt bike for yourself, you will find that you are spoiled for choice. The wide range of choices between makes and models of dirt bikes in the manual-transmission category are too many to cover in detail in this post, so we will only highlight a few relevant models.
If your choice is to go for a manual transmission dirt bike, you need to be aware that there are other aspects to purchasing the right dirt bike that you will need to consider. It is important to take all these factors into account to make sure that the dirt bike best matches your physical size, riding ability, and budget.
For more on the things to consider when buying your first dirt bike, you can check out my article on it here.
As a beginner dirt bike rider, it may be tempting to go for the top of the range, pro-rider type dirt bike. The wise choice would be to rather go for a more modest dirt bike that better matches your skill level. Riding a bike that is too powerful and more complicated than your skillset is not only unnecessary, and potentially dangerous, but will also get expensive.
Manual dirt bikes can start in the range of just under $2000 and go all the way to $15000 and beyond. We will feature a couple of beginner style bikes, rather than the upper price range models.
One of the models mentioned in the automatic dirt bike section, the Kawasaki KLX110 has a manual transmission model, the KLX110L. This bike is a great beginner dirt bike which has all the features mentioned earlier, the only difference being the manual transmission. The manual version is priced at around the $2500 mark so, it is fairly affordable.
Many dirt bike riders will say that no more fun can be had than on a 125cc dirt bike! The 125cc dirt bikes are lightweight, highly maneuverable, and have plenty of power to make the off-road experience an adrenalin rush!
A very popular dirt bike that falls into this category is the Yamaha TT-R125LE. This little Yamaha is robust, easy to maintain, and has a fairly decent purchase price of about $3300. Another bike in the same price range is the Suzuki Z125L if you would like an alternative.
The higher engine capacity dirt bikes become increasingly more expensive. For example, the Yamaha YZ250F is a popular model that has a powerful 250cc motor but comes with a fairly hefty purchase price of around $7700.
The KTM 250SXF which has the same engine capacity comes in at a significantly higher purchase price of around $9000. But here you are paying for the many years of development and technology that has made KTM one of the best off-road dirt bike manufacturers in the market. This also means that these bikes are probably outside the scope of beginner riders!
Manual dirt bikes go much higher in engine capacity that the models mentioned here. The go up from the 400cc capacity all the way up to 600cc and in some cases beyond.
One such model is the ATK Intimidator 700 with a massive 700cc 2-stroke engine! These bikes however go for over $10 000 and should not even be considered by beginner riders. The power of these machines would be way more than what a beginner could handle and it would not be a wise or, indeed, a safe choice for someone starting out dirt bike riding!
Bigger engine capacity dirt bikes are available, but then you are venturing more into the world of enduro racing or rally bikes such as the KTM 950 Super enduro.
From all we have discussed regarding manual vs automatic dirt bikes, it would seem that manual dirt bikes have the advantage in the majority of areas. Other than the learning curve between the two transmission types, that is. While this is currently where things stand, what would be the likely future of manual transmission dirt bikes?
There is a move worldwide towards vehicles powered by electric motors, even for motorsports. Formula “E” as it is called in the Formula 1 world has taken off and is rapidly growing in development of the vehicles, the sport, and support amongst the motor racing fans.
While the electric dirt bike has not taken off yet, it is a matter of time before it will happen. These electric powered dirt bikes will more than likely have automatic transmissions rather than the manual variety due to the nature of the engines.
The bigger manufacturers are starting to take notice of this technology and are starting to bring out electric models. One of the biggest brand names in dirt bikes, KTM has an electric dirt bike out, called the KTM Freeride E-XC.
While these bikes may emerge as new technology, it is unlikely that they will make gas-powered dirt bikes obsolete in the short term.
Once again, for more on the things to consider when buying your first dirt bike, you can check out my article on it here.
Happy dirt biking!