Motorcycle reliability and owner satisfaction

Japanese brands have the edge when it comes to staying out of the repair shop, but an American maker has the happiest owners

Published: April 07, 2015 06:00 AM

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For some, the allure of the open road, a rumbling exhaust, and the wind in your face are ­irresistible. Throw in camaraderie, lifestyle, and spirit of adventure, and it's easy to understand motorcycle riding's escapist appeal.

Over the years, motorcycles have increased in refinement, sophistication, comfort, and safety. That makes them both more accessible to entry-level bikers and treats for empty-­nesters who see the new machines as more ridable than the ones they remember.

The motorcycle landscape, though, is changing. The recession took a 50 percent bite out of sales (to about 560,000 units per year), and they have not recovered. The average age of bikers has crept up slightly to 43. But also, the ratio of female bikers has doubled to 12 percent of the riding population in the past decade.

With those demographics in mind, Consumer Reports surveyed owners to find out two things: how reliable top-selling brands are in terms of frequency of repair and how happy those brands make their owners.

What we found is that reliability and satisfaction are not necessarily tied together. The most beloved bike belonged to an American brand—Victory—even though it was not among the more reliable brands. That distinction belongs to the perennially strong Japanese-­built machines.

Why reliability matters

Yamaha YZF-R1

The last thing a biker wants to worry about is a breakdown on the open road. Choosing a bike from a brand with a better-than-average reliability track record can tilt the odds in your favor. But the reality is, things can and sometimes do go wrong.

Consumer Reports' survey of our subscribers shows that the Japanese brands are significantly more reliable than most bikes from other regions—led in order by Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, and Kawasaki. Domestic brands Victory and Harley-­Davidson were midpack, and Triumph, Ducati, BMW, and Can-Am were the more trouble-prone brands.

Our survey of subscribers who reported on more than 12,300 motorcycles from model years 2008 to 2014 also showed that bike categories have differing levels of reliability. For this analysis, we adjusted for mileage driven over a 12-month period and estimated repair rates for 4-year-old models without a service contract.

See our motorcycle reliability by brand.

Where the seat meets the street

But owner satisfaction—i.e., happiness—is an entirely different measure from reliability. Eighty percent of Victory owners said they would definitely buy the same bike if they were to do it all over again. Harley-­Davidson owners were quite happy, with 72 percent responding likewise, trailed closely by Honda at 70 percent. All other brands were below 70 percent.

If you want to know how satisfied riders are with their motorcycle, ask them about comfort. We found that comfort ratings track most closely with overall satisfaction scores. And among the 10 brands surveyed, only Victory earned our highest rating for comfort; it also beat out the other brands for overall satisfaction and got a top mark in almost every category.

Ducati, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Triumph each garnered our lowest mark for comfort.

Most other satisfaction categories—­acceleration, fun, and styling—saw close ratings across the brands. But there was one exception when it came to handling. The Can-Am, from Canadian maker BRP, with its distinctive three-wheelers (or trikes), was judged to have average handling satisfaction—a lower rating than every other brand.

See our motorcycle owner satisfaction ratings.  

Set aside $400 for repairs

Can-Am Spyder ST

Cruisers appear to require fewer repairs than other types of motorcycles, with just a 15 percent failure rate by the fourth year of ownership. The range of problems from cruiser, dual-sport/adventure, standard, touring, sport touring, and sport bikes ranged from 15 to 23 percent, in that order. But none is statistically more failure-­prone than the others.

At the other end of the spectrum, three-wheeled bikes had significantly greater risk of repairs, especially those with two front and one rear wheel. Can-Am, which makes only trikes, was almost twice as likely to experience a problem as most other types of motorcycles.

Among those bikes needing repair, 45 percent incurred no expense—suggesting that many riders are performing the work themselves or having the bikes repaired under the original manufacturer's warranty.

Of those that did incur out-of-pocket expenses, the average motorcycle repair bill was $342, with the cost being heavily dependent on brand and type. For those brands that we have adequate data on, median repair costs ranged from $269 for Kawasaki to $455 for BMW. Dual-sport/adventure bikes and cruisers were less expensive to repair, costing $313 and $322 on average, and sport touring models were pricier at $383.

We realize that buying a motorcycle is often more about passion than practicality; even so, our findings can help you make an informed purchase decision. If you're riding locally, and usually with friends, reliability may matter less than if you intend to take long-distance trips. Your own wrenching talents and proximity to repair shops can also factor in.

The main takeaway is that no matter which brand you favor or type of motorcycle you buy, squirreling away $400 to cover surprise repairs would be wise. And if you plan to customize your bike, leave the complicated work to the professionals.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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