How to avoid motorcycle problems

Japanese bikes have fewer problems than BMW and Harley models

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2013
Photo: Honda

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Yes, the artfully sculpted lines of a BMW motorcycle and the throaty rumble of a Harley V-twin motor can stir your senses. But they’re often accompanied by more problems than Japanese motorcycles from Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha. Those are the findings from our first motorcycle reliability survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, in which we asked subscribers to tell us about any serious problems or repairs they had experienced with their bikes in the previous four years.

As more people take up motorcycle riding, whether to save gas or simply pursue a new or rekindled passion, those new findings can help you avoid problems when you shop for one.

What your mechanic wants you to know

Motorcyclists could easily prevent many of the problems they encounter. That’s the unvarnished message we got from motorcycle mechanics from around the country who discussed common problems they see in their shops. Here’s how to prevent unnecessary expense and downtime:

  1. Stay on top of maintenance. What makes mechanics shake their heads are the regular and egregious examples of neglected maintenance: brake pads worn down to the metal, drive belts and air filters with holes from rocks worn in them, and long-overdue oil changes.

    "Preventive maintenance is definitely the key to motorcycle longevity and keeping your maintenance cost down,” says Joe Dane, master Harley-Davidson mechanic at Motorcycles of Manchester, in N.H. In addition to engine oil, that includes changing brake fluid, which can absorb moisture; lubing chains; aligning wheels, steering heads, and drive belts; and cleaning or changing air filters.

  2. Keep your tires properly inflated. Each mechanic mentioned low tire pressure as a consistent problem. When tires are underinflated, “handling gets really hard, steering gets hard, and the bike doesn’t want to lean,” says Mike Franklin, owner of Mike’s Garage in Los Angeles. “It causes all kinds of problems.” Check the tires’ pressure weekly.

  3. Check the brakes. Motorcycle brake pads cost as little as $50, says Dane, but once they’ve worn too far, “you have to replace the rotors and everything else, and the bill jumps up enormously.” Franklin adds, “When the [brake pads] get down to metal-on-metal, they make an unholy grinding noise. And yet people just continue to ride them.”

  4. Inspect your bike regularly. “Really check your bike over before any long trip,” Dane says. A lot of maintenance is simple stuff that you can easily see: lights, forks, and belts or chains. “Make sure you have no leaks,” he adds.

    Jon Roppe, chief Harley-Davidson instructor at the Motorcycle Maintenance Institute in Phoenix, says, “Everybody wants their bike to look amazing, but they tend to really lose the safety aspect.”

  5. Store the bike properly. Motorcycle storage is a big issue. “It’s the guys who let their bikes sit for weeks and months at a time that run into problems with failures,” Roppe says. His advice: Use fuel stabilizer to keep filters, pumps, carburetors, and fuel injectors from clogging. Lift the tires off the ground to prevent cracking and flat spots. Put a tender, or trickle charger, on the battery to keep it charged. And if you can, store your bike in a garage or under a cover out of the wind.

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