Guide to engine types

From singles and V-twins to triples and inline fours, you may or may not be familiar with the different types of motorbike engines.

Bike manufacturers use various types of engine configurations, all of which have their own characteristics and are used in different styles of machines. Some bikes are actually defined by their engines – take the BMW boxer twins with their horizontal piston layout, and the Harley-Davidson V-twins. 


The buyer’s guide for single engines

These compact and lightweight engines consist of a single cylinder. Commonly found in small cc bikes (50cc - 125cc), including mopeds and scooters, they’re also used in many trail and off-road bikes due to their relative simplicity and durability.

Offering a punchy delivery, these are not very powerful as a result of their size, and are not suited to high speeds.

Examples of bikes which use single cylinder engines are:

  • Honda CBF 125

  • KTM 200 EXC

  • Yamaha XT660Z Tenere

  • Yamaha YQ50 Aerox 


The buyer’s guide for twin engines

These engines use two pistons and are most commonly seen in a V-twin or parallel-twin layout. As they can use pistons of various sizes, twins can cover the full spectrum of engine size, from the 125cc Honda XL125V Varadero, to the 1900cc Yamaha XV1900.

Twin cylinder engines in the V format are often found in cruiser bikes – you can see the distinctive V layout of the two pistons on any Harley.

The parallel format is more compact and fuel-efficient and is commonly found in middleweight, commuter-style machines, like the Honda CB500F and Kawasaki ER-6. 

Examples of bikes with twin cylinder engines include:

  • BMW R1200GS

  • Harley Davidson Sportster

  • Honda NT700V Deauville

  • Kawasaki Versys 


The buyer’s guide for triple engines

As the name suggests, these are engines with three pistons mainly in an inline format, where the pistons are adjacent to one another. They are mainly used by a small number of bike manufacturers, including Triumph and MV Agusta.

With the ‘low down’ drive of a twin cylinder engine and the increased BHP and top-end power of an inline four engine, triple engines come in all sizes, from 675cc to 2294cc. It’s currently the world’s largest production motorcycle engine, with Triumph in particular putting its flexibility to good use in sports bikes, adventure bikes, sport tourers and nakeds.

Examples of bikes with triple cylinder engines include:

  • Triumph Daytona 675

  • Triumph Speed Triple

  • Triumph Rocket III

  • MV AgustaBrutale 800 

The buyer’s guide for four cylinder engines

These are four cylinder engines primarily in an inline format, and are the ones which traditionally create the most power, BHP and highest speeds.

Most 1000cc sports bikes will have an inline four engine, although they can be found in other types of bikes, generally 600cc+. Most manufacturers will use inline four engines in their range, especially in naked bikes, sports bikes and sports tourers.

Examples of bikes with inline four engines include:

  • Honda CBR1000 Fireblade

  • Kawasaki Z1000

  • Suzuki GSF Bandit

  • Yamaha XJ6 Diversion

Note that this is by no means a definitive list – there are still other engine configurations available, including the Honda Gold Wing’s six-cylinder engines and V fours, as found in the Honda Crossrunner and Yamaha V-max.

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