Is Chain, Belt or Shaft Drive Best?

By: On: February 28th, 20150 Comments ยปUpdated: September 26, 2015

Kawasaki Ninja 300 chain drive motorcycleWhen considering which type of motorcycle to buy, one of the things to think about is whether you should get one that has chain drive, belt drive or shaft drive. Which is best? Should we care about that? Well, for the greatest majority of motorcycle owners, it all comes down to maintenance.

Over the years, chain drive motorcycles have been most popular. The system consists of two sprockets, a larger one on the rear wheel and a smaller one on the transmission output shaft, a chain, and a chain tension adjustment mechanism. This is an inexpensive, basic type of drive that bicycles still use today. It makes sense and it simple.

Similar to chain drive is belt drive. The main difference to the rider is that belt drive tends to provide a little smoother and quieter ride. Also, belts don’t require lubrication or as much cleaning as traditional chains do. Belts are more and more prevalent on large American v-twin cruisers, such as on Harley-Davidson, Victory, Indian and the various look-alikes. Modern belts are made of high tech, high performance materials including Kevlar reinforcement. A new belt costs around $400 for a Kawasaki Vulcan or Yamaha Road Star, just to give a few examples. Some belts are a little less for H-D and Victory motorcycles. A drive belt may last 30,000 miles or double that depending on conditions.

Honda Shadow shaft drive motorcycle final drive gearsLast, but not least, is shaft drive. Shaft drive has often been found on the larger, and more expensive touring motorcycles. Think Honda GoldWing. That is not always true though. A big benefit of shaft drive is that it provides an efficient, low maintenance drive system that delivers a smooth ride and is designed for long life and long distance. A new final drive assembly would cost around $1500 or more (using a Suzuki Blvd as an example), but with regular oil changes, this is not something you’ll typically ever need to replace.

So, now that we mentioned the 3 most common types of motorcycle drive systems, which should you go for when searching for a new motorcycle? For the regular commuter or long distance rider, my recommendation is to consider either belt drive or shaft drive.

Indian Scout Motorcycle Drive BeltThere is nothing wrong with chain drive, but you do have to consider doing more maintenance such as cleaning, lubrication, adjustment, and eventual replacement of the chain and sprockets. Checking the chain should be done on a routine basis. Adjustment should be done as needed, maybe every 500 to 1000 miles would be a realistic example. A replacement chain and sprocket set costs around $150-$200 as an example when looking at a Honda CBR600.

My Moto Guzzi California is shaft drive and is the first shaft drive motorcycle that I have owned. From my experience over the past several years, I’m spoiled by the luxury of shaft drive. The final drive gear assembly is expensive to manufacture compared to a chain and sprockets, but the gears will last practically the entire life of the motorcycle if cared for. Chain and sprockets are high-wear items that will be swapped out multiple times over the life of a motorcycle. Belts eventually stretch and wear out also, and need to be replaced from time to time.

In summary, the purpose of this article is to help the beginner or casual motorcycle enthusiast to consider the different types of drive systems that bikes have. If you don’t plan to do much motorcycle maintenance by yourself, then consider a belt or shaft drive bike. Same is true if you are looking for a quiet, smooth ride. The rolling noise difference is subtle, and depending on how much you ride, it may not be worth it to you to pay more for a shaft driven bike.

Moto Guzzi California Shaft Drive Swingarm AssemblyThe oil in the final drive unit on a shaft driven motorcycle needs to be changed periodically. For example, a GoldWing typically needs it changed every 24,000 miles. Some owners change it every other oil change. On mu Guzzi, the final drive housing at the rear wheel has a drain plug at the bottom, a horizontal hole pointing to the rear, and a fill hole on top. You simply fill it until the oil reaches the horizontal hole. The job is relatively easy to do yourself. You just have to take care to avoid getting oil on the rear wheel and tire. It is easier to do than changing the engine oil.

The chain and sprockets on the small trail bikes that I used to ride is not much different than the chain and sprockets on any street bike. The difference is the ease of replacement and the cost of the parts and labor. Chains stretch over time, and it is important to keep them properly adjusted. Many motorcycle manuals will say to adjust the chain every 500 miles. Basically, you should take a look at it every time you ride, but you may not need to re-adjust it very often. It is hard to predict when it will go out of adjustment from stretching and wear.

If your not comfortable adjusting the chain or belt tension yourself, have a mechanic do it for you so you can ride confidently and safely. They will also let you know how much life is left in the chain or belt and how long before you might need to change the sprockets if you have a chain. The swingarm normally will have slots for the rear axle and tension adjustment screws. You obviously will want to be sure to keep the rear wheel straight when adjusting.

<!–adsense–>Bottom line, you don’t get to choose which type of drive system a specific motorcycle comes with. Before you fall in love with any motorcycle, study and compare these mechanical items. Consider the maintenance requirements, the related costs and frequency of maintenance, and perhaps how long you think you will want to keep the motorcycle. Chain vs. belt vs. shaft is just one of several important, but often overlooked features of any motorcycle. We can ride and live with each, but if given a choice, which drive system would fit your needs the best?

About John Clay

John Clay is the author of MotorcycleInfo.Org. He and his family reside in North Carolina in the United States. A graduate of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced Rider Course, he enjoys riding his Moto Guzzi in charity rides and serves as a volunteer motorcycle marshal for an annual bicycle charity event in the Carolinas.

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