Motorcycle vs. Motorbike – How to Tell the Difference

If you’re looking to get the best two-wheeled vehicle out there, one hot topic you’ll inevitably stumble across at some point is the difference between a motorcycle vs. motorbike. And, as you should have proper awareness of motorcycles to make the best purchasing decision, this is something you can’t afford to overlook!

In this article, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the two-wheel, open-seated motor-powered vehicle industry to find out the difference between motorcycles and motorbikes and how that could influence your decision. 

Motorcycle vs. Motorbike – All You Need to Know

Knowledge is key for anyone who wants to make a foray into the world of this mode of transportation, so we’ll start by defining the term motorcycle before moving on to the motorbike.

What is a Motorcycle?

three-wheeled motorcycle

Simply put, the term motorcycle is what’s used to refer to any two or three-wheeled vehicle. More broadly speaking, this term can also be used to describe a motor scooter, motorized bike, street bikes, and open or closed vehicles or trikes.

In this regard, the only motorized land vehicles that don’t fall into this category are four-wheel vehicles. It’s worth mentioning that the motorcycle industry and motorcycle producers, in particular, have gone to great lengths to design different devices for different motorcycle riders.

This is one of the most immediate reasons why you can easily find different motorcycles with a wide variety of specs and features such as a rear driving wheel, 550 CC side-valve four-stroke engine, and automatic transmissions.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to find a bicycle-type vehicle with a 130cc engine size more suited for commuting while electric motorcycles may be adapted vehicles for navigating rough terrains at maximum speed.

However, it’s important to remember that regardless of the type of vehicle you get – a motorcycle or a motorbike – no automobile is adapted for alcohol-impaired driving, even with protective gear on. We cannot stress this fact enough.

What is a Motorbike?


The term motorbike or motorized bike is more specifically used to refer to only two-wheel or bicycle-type vehicles. A motorbike is not to be confused with traditional bicycles as it doesn’t come with bicycle-like pedals, nor is it simply a bicycle with pedals.

An automobile driver of a motorbike may also get access to features like a rear driving wheel, automatic or manual transmissions, anti-lock brakes, and rider shift gears.

But, it’s important to stress, again, much like with classic motorcycles, this type of vehicle is simply not optimized for alcohol-impaired driving.

Having fully established the definition of each type of vehicle, let’s take a closer look at more distinguishing factors that might set electric motorcycles apart from motorbikes.

What’s the Difference Between Motorcycles and Motorbikes?

Before going into greater detail, it’s important to mention that there’s no significant difference between these two types of engines, especially in terms of engine capacity, speed limits, or the terrain and condition under which either can be used.

Having established this, there are some minor distinguishing factors that every true open-seated motor-powered vehicle enthusiast would do well to familiarize themselves with. Two of the most important elements in this category include the scope of the definition and the popularity of term usage.

We’ll be going into greater detail on the impact and importance of these two variables subsequently.

The Scope of Definition

As you may have noticed from our initial definitions of the terms motorcycle and motorbike, one has a more comprehensive scope when compared to the other.

More precisely, the word motorcycle can be used to describe more than just bicycle-like motorized vehicles, since it includes three-wheeled vehicles as well. On the other hand, the term motorbike is strictly limited to two-wheeled vehicles.

So, by definition, all motorbikes are motorcycles but not all motorcycles can be classified as motorbikes.

Of course, the argument can be made that this is merely semantics. And, for the most part, that is certainly true. However, how much of a difference this distinction makes in the motorcycle versus motorbike comparison may ultimately be influenced by what you expect from your vehicle.

The fact that the definition of motorbike makes it limited in scope automatically means that you get infinitely more options when you look at the motorcycle industry as a whole.

That being said, all of this might not matter as much if you’re simply set on getting a two-wheel, street-legal vehicle with rear-wheel functionality and decent stroke engines. In this case, whatever you end up getting can be accurately and interchangeably referred to as a motorbike or a motorcycle.

The Popularity of Term Usage

man using a motorbike

The popularity of the use of the words “motorbike” or “motorcycle” simply refers to the general level of acceptance of each term in certain conditions and scenarios. This variable can be further subdivided into two categories. These are regional usage and formal usage.

Let’s consider these two factors in greater detail.

Regional Usage

This is arguably one of the most pivotal reasons why there’s such a high degree of conflict between motorbike and motorcycle riders.

Over the years, certain regions have gotten used to using one term to refer to these two-wheeled machines over the other. That is, one term (motorcycle) is more common in American English, while the other (motorbike) is more favored in British English.

It’s relatively common to hear machines in this category predominantly referred to as motorcycles by motorized bike users in Canada and the United States. What’s interesting to note is that, even in these two regions, these motor vehicles go by a lot of other names as well.

In some cases, what name a rider will call their motorized vehicle is influenced by the motorcycle manufacturer.

That’s one common reason why Harley Davidson riders have been known to refer to their rides as “hogs.” Other motorcycle riders in the same region may refer to their vehicles as “bucks.” However, it’s very rare to hear any rider in the U.S. or Canada refer to their motorcycle as a motorbike.

In sharp contrast, perhaps due to the use of British English, two-wheeled vehicle users in Australia and the United Kingdom are more partial to the term motorbike. The one key difference of note here is that Australian drivers referring to their vehicle as a motorcycle is still fairly common, whereas it isn’t in the U.S.

Formal Usage

Another distinguishing factor in this area worth pointing out is how prominently each word features in formal or official settings.

Broadly speaking, motorcycles are considered more formal when compared to motorbikes. This is evidenced by the fact that you get motorcycle insurance or motorcycle endorsements as opposed to the motorbike variant of each word.

In addition to this, most missives and publications from official bodies like the United States Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) refer specifically to motor vehicles in this category as motorcycles.

Journalism also follows suit here, which further serves to cement the place of the term motorcycle as the formal variant, leaving motorbike as the informal version.

However, even though it sounds considerably less formal, not many motorcycle operators appear keen on using the word.

Common Myths About Motorbikes and Motorcycles

vespa motorcycle

The tussle between motorcycles and motorbikes has raged long before the advent of electric motorcycles. As a result, there are several misconceptions about what each term means and the type of vehicle it’s supposed to refer to.

The most common of these is that the term motorbike is specifically used to describe a lightweight vehicle with lower stroke engines while the term motorcycle is reserved for larger engines that can reach higher maximum speed limits.

On some level, attributing the existence of these two terms to a disparity in engine size appears logical which is one of the major reasons why this myth has sprung such deep roots. However, reality and the facts at hand do nothing to support this supposition.

Saying that engine size is what separates these two terms is untrue because, even now, no legislation or specification of features exists to support this claim. As word of mouth is the only evidence presentable here, we can only judge that statement as a myth, at best, and misinformation, at worst.

What To Remember

Although it’s a fairly common practice to refer to smaller-sized two-wheeled vehicles as motorbikes, the truth is that these machines are essentially motorcycles as well.

So, depending on the situation, it’s possible to call a machine a motorcycle accurately and interchangeably!

Bottom Line

Now that you’ve had a peek behind the curtain of the motorcycle versus motorbike showdown, it’s easy to see that there isn’t any significant distinction between these two terms.

If you prefer to speak formally, using the term motorcycle may work for you. But if you’re more laidback, the term motorbike might come more naturally.

And that’s it!

See more about motorcycle engine maintenance here.

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