Your Guide to Motorcycle Engine Types

As interest in motorcycling has grown over the decades and technology has improved, we've seen the development of various motorcycle engine types. Whether it's a classic two-wheel model or even a 3 wheel motorcycle, it needs an engine to run.

With so many options available, it can be challenging to keep track of the features, pros, and cons of each. To help you out, we've compiled a quick and comprehensive guide to some of the major engine layouts you'll likely find while looking at motorbikes.

Single Cylinder

The classic engine layout, single-cylinder models, work best on small displacement motors. As a result, most bikes with this type of engine tend to show up on budget-friendly bikes, and they're also inexpensive to maintain and fix if something goes wrong. Generally, you'll find that a motorcycle with a single cylinder will have a lot of vibration involved.

It is possible for higher performance bikes to have single cylinder engines, but it's certainly a less popular option.

Parallel Twin

Instead of relying on one cylinder to get the job done, parallel twin options have two. As the name suggests, they run in line with each other, and they also share a block to operate fun. Overall, these engines are easy to build and are more compact, while also providing a level of balance that you won't get when working with one cylinder.

This type of engine is generally in medium and high displacement models, though they still have some high vibrations when compared to other builds on this list.

Inline Triple

While a parallel twin engine will end up more balanced than a single cylinder, real balance finally starts to come into play once you get to the triple inline build, thanks to the symmetry around the crankshaft. You'll still get some rocking, but it's smoother overall while still being a more "compact" option, especially in comparison to V-shaped models, which we'll touch on later.

The more compact size means that these engines can show up in sport bikes, which prioritize small size for maneuverability.

V Twin

V twin engines share some similarities with their parallel twin counterparts, but their distinctive V shape is what sets them apart. The angle of the cylinders can range between forty-two to ninety degrees—with the broader options providing perfect levels of balance. You can also mount these engines in a bike in different ways, which can impact the overall build of the motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson bikes mostly run on forty-five degree V twin engines, which helps contribute to their distinct exhaust sound.

Inline Four

We're not entirely done with inline engines yet, with four-cylinder options taking things a step further. These engines can balance out well and also provide an incredibly smooth ride, even at high speeds. You can also rev these models to more intense levels without worrying about vibrations damaging the components,

Because they can have such extreme levels of output, higher displacement bikes between the 600 and 1000cc range will usually have an inline four engine at their cores.

V Four

V Four is the bigger, bulkier cousin of the V Twin, with four total cylinders in the same V-shaped formation. This build means that you get high performance, proper balancing, and low balancing in a package that can deliver in the realm of speed. Because of their size, though, V4 engines are overall bulkier and noisier—plus they tend to cost more due to their complex build.

You can expect 1100cc bikes and the like to have this style of engine, but you can also expect it to impact motorcycle values as a result.

Inline Six

One more hurrah from the inline camp and it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out what these engines have going on for them. With six cylinders, you have both balance and smoothness on your size. That's a pretty attractive option to have on your side, and the overall combustion chamber size can even vary to match up with the size of the bike.

This engine style inspired V6 engines that are much more common in cars than motorbikes, but you can still find inline six models if you find yourself wanting to try one out for a ride.

Flat Twin

Unlike the other styles of engines that we've talked about already, flat models don't have the pistons running in the same direction, but instead in opposing ones. Due to their appearance, this class of engine often is known as a "box" style. While expensive to maintain and manufacture, the layout lets the cylinders have better access to air-cooling when the bike is in motion, and the whole motorcycle's center of gravity is overall lower.

Some BMW and GS motorbikes use this engine layout in their construction, which again can potentially impact the price.

Flat Four and Flat Six

Like the other categories of engines we've looked at, boxer models can also increase the number of cylinders that go into them. Again, you're looking at an increase in size, but the overall operation runs much smoother than comparable inline engines. Power delivery rate is also optimal, which makes these engine builds worthwhile if you want to get the most out of your bike.

Again, we're looking at an engine build capable of intense output, making it an option for 1000cc bikes and above.

L Twin

One last option that we're going to look at is L-shaped engines—in this case of the twin variety. The different setup of the cylinders is part of what distinguishes this type from V-shaped ones. In terms of how these engines perform, you get a lightweight addition to your bike with proper balancing and decent power to size ratio, albeit with some slight vibrations produced in the process.

Midrange bikes between 650 and 800cc can sometimes have this L-shaped configuration for their engines, as seen by Suzuki and other motorcycle manufacturers.

Wrapping Up

While there are some other motorcycle engine variations on the market, we've covered the majority of what you'll see when shopping for a motorbike. The critical aspect to pay attention to is to know what sort of performance you expect out of your bike, what your budget is, and where the two come together in picking out a motorcycle for you.

When shopping used bikes, you’ll want to make sure that the engine has received proper maintenance from its previous owner. Some riders will rebuild parts of their bikes or install new parts. Check over everything and look at vehicle service reports so you can know that the parts are in good condition and worth what you’re paying to get.

If someone’s tinkered with a bike enough, you could end up with an adjusted engine that differs from the factory specs. While this situation doesn’t have to be a bad thing, you still want to know what you’re getting and see how it matches up with how you want your bike to perform.

Since not all engines are suitable for all types of situations, having at least a basic familiarity of the types and what they can do will give you a starting point for finding the right fit for you. We hope that you can use this guide as a springboard for looking deeper into motorcycle engines.