For some, the allure of the open road, rumbling exhaust and the wind in your face are irresistible. Throw in camaraderie, lifestyle and the 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, according to Consumer Reports. That makes them both more accessible to entry-level bikers and treats for empty nesters who see the new machines as easier to ride than the ones they remember.
The motorcycle landscape, though, is changing. The recession took a 50 percent bite out of sales (down to about 560,000 units per year), and they have not recovered. The average age of bikers has crept up slightly to 43. But the ratio of female bikers has doubled in the past decade, to 12 percent of the riding population.
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 Consumer Reports found is that reliability and satisfaction are not necessarily tied together. The most beloved bike belonged to an American company — Victory — even though it was not among the more reliable brands. That distinction belongs to the perennially strong Japanese-built machines.
WHY RELIABILITY MATTERS
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 things can, and sometimes do, go wrong.
Consumer Reports’ survey of its 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 mid-pack; Triumph, Ducati, BMW and Can-Am were the more trouble-prone brands.
Its 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. The analysis adjusted for mileage driven over a 12-month period and estimated repair rates for 4-year-old models without a service contract.
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 also quite happy, with 72 percent responding likewise, trailed closely by Honda at 70 percent. All other brands were below 70 percent.
SET ASIDE $400 FOR REPAIRS
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 Consumer Reports has 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.
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.
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