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What are the pros and cons of belt driven motorcycles compared to chain driven bikes?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Belt vs Chain in Motorcycles

It's difficult to say which one is better. Depending on the application, one can be better or not in the particular role. High horsepower applications are not the place of belts and low maintenance is not the place for chains. Applications vary and one is not necessarily better than the other overall. The role of the final drive decides which final drive is best suited for the application.

Pro's for Chains

  • Chains have more strength for higher performance/high HP applications

  • Broken chains can be fixed with a new master link

  • Final drive ratio is easily changed through various sprocket size changes and combinations

Con's for Chains

  • A chain failure can be catastrophic, potentially puncturing and engine case when they fail

  • A chain has considerably more inertial mass than a belt

  • Chains weigh up to 10 lbs and are heavy

  • Chains require regular maintenance and require ongoing adjustment throughout their life

  • Chains require lubrication that can get flung about and require ongoing cleaning

Pro's for Belts

  • Belts are very light

  • Belts rarely do damage to the vehicle when they fail

  • Belts can last up to 100,000 miles, longevity

  • Belts require very little maintenance, lower operation cost

  • Belts are have a lower cost per mile than chains

  • Belts transfer power more efficiently than chains

Con's for Belts

  • Difficult to repair on the side of the road

  • Less strength than a chain

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I've got a belt drive F650CS and the belts (and sprockets) are NOT inexpensive, though that might be the cost of printing a BMW logo on the belt ;) Normally only the belt needs changing when it wears out and that costs 2-3 times as much as a cheap chain and sprockets. They can also be infuriatingly difficult to tension correctly. I'd also like to add that a chain failure can puncture a lot more than your engine case. A broken chain can wind round the back sprocket and flail everything on the back half of the bike, including the rider's leg. – squigbobble Jan 12 at 8:46
    
Indeed, not a fan. Their supposed to last a very long time according to all the Harley people hence their cost per mile is supposed to be lower. I'm sure the Bavarian kind have a pretty hefty price tag associated to them. – DucatiKiller Jan 12 at 8:49
    
I edited the post to reflect cost per mile... – DucatiKiller Jan 12 at 8:50
    
I think in cost per mile it's about the same as a chain. – squigbobble Jan 12 at 8:52
1  
You said "low maintenance is the place for chains". I think you might have meant to say the opposite? – Simon East Jan 12 at 10:38

Here are some reasons why some manufacturers use belts.

  1. Smoothness of the drive: The belt has the quality of putting down the torque of the engine much more smoothly and gradually than the chain counterpart, in a belt driven motorcycle you wont feel the sudden TUG when you twist the throttle.(This is the reason usually cruisers have this design and not the super-bikes but there are exceptions)
  2. 0 Noise:There is literally 0 noise in the belt driven design compared to a chain drive which will need constant tightening in order to avoid rattling noise which might be unpleasant, belts however do not emit any kind of noise way until their last leg of useful lives.
  3. Better for dusty environment: Belts do not accumulate dust or dirt and need far less maintenance when compared to chain driven design , thus causing very low maintenance.

Source: My friend works at Harley Davidson India and I asked the exact same question to him some time ago.

For Issues with the chain drive I think Ducatikiller has explained in his answer.

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3  
good points on that.....I would have just said good points but the character min drove me to add..on that...so you get all these extra words and didn't even have to pay for them. – Ppoggio Jan 12 at 5:39
    
@Ppoggio ROFL .... here take some more – Anarach Jan 12 at 6:07
    
Good points.....on that :-) – DucatiKiller Jan 12 at 6:11
    
Excellent, thank you! – Ppoggio Jan 12 at 7:39
    
The lack of jerky engagement is because chains have to have slack in them whereas belts are always taut. The jerk is because the transmission can build up a little bit of momentum as the slack in the chain is taken up and that momentum is then dumped into the back wheel when the chain goes taut. – squigbobble Jan 12 at 8:57

This is more additional points to the above (good) answers.

With cost per mile it probably depends a lot on the OE parts prices. With the old Kawasaki belt system used in the 1980s they lasted maybe 50% longer, but failed with little or no warning and cost a LOT more to replace (plus the far greater labour to change them).

Belt life on Buells does not seem that long, while they are not ultimately that high power. Possibly down to the amount of suspension movement and its effect on belt tension.

Further in some countries automatic chain oilers are available which greatly reduce chain maintenance.

Chains are more efficient when new, but that efficiency reduces with wear. Hence soon a belt does become more efficient. This I have heard as the primary reason why belts are not used in GP racing, as the chain is likely to be binned long before its efficiency degrades.

For some uses the difficulty in changing pulley wheel sizes to alter gearing will be a major issue. Some of this could be overcome (more belt adjustment margin to allow a greater range of pulley wheel sizes), but that still leaves a significantly higher cost for alternative sizes of pulley wheels compared to sprockets, and the impossibility of doing the equivalent of taking a couple of links out of a chain (or indeed the impossibility of swapping out a belt in a hurry without removing the swinging arm).

Belts are quieter than chains (which might become more of an issue as noise laws get tighter).

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Highlighting only benefits of belt driven vehicles. 1) They operate less smoothly. (noisless mostly) 2) They support high tourque ( cruiser need) 3) The need to lubrication is null and void. 4) Swing arm readjustment is history. 5) They are less heavier in comparison to other final drive systems.

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I'll take issue with only the high torque claim. – DucatiKiller Jan 21 at 6:44
    
I don't agree with operate less smoothly. I've ridden a Buell and there is no chain lash...as well as the BMW F800...AND the high HP HD's always have belt swapped for chain. -1 – Ppoggio Jan 21 at 9:13
    
I would also take exception with cruisers having more torque (ie, real torque, not flexibility that is colloquially referred to as torque) for a belt to deal with. By the time it reaches the final drive it has gone through the gearbox, and a low revving engine needs higher gearing for the same road speed (use gearing to double the speed and you halve the torque), hence after the gearbox a big loss in actual torque. – Kickstart Jan 21 at 9:45
    
I have an indian scout in the stable and ktm 390. Prolonged use points out that belts dont loosen up like chains do. The ktm demands chain attention every 900 kms if iam touring and 400-450kms if i run city chores. Once the chain is taken care of i agree it is butter smooth. – Seeker Jan 21 at 13:25
    
A single is always going to give a chain (or a belt if fitted) a very had life compared to a twin. But a Scott Oiler might well help. – Kickstart Jan 25 at 9:28

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