Consumer Reports: BMW & Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Are Less Reliable than Japanese OEMs

03/26/2013 @ 4:17 pm, by Jensen Beeler40 COMMENTS

Consumer Reports: BMW & Harley Davidson Motorcycles Are Less Reliable than Japanese OEMs motorcycle repair price list 635x476

In its May issue, Consumer Reports dives into the topic of motorcycle reliability, and confirms what many of us already knew: bikes from BMW and Harley-Davidson were reported to be less reliable than those from the Japanese OEMs.

Interestingly enough however, BMW and Harley-Davidson owners were also far more likely to make a repeat-purchase with their chosen brand than were owners of Japanese motorcycles, sans those of Hondas, which scored just slightly lower than BMW and Harley-Davidson on customer retention.

Looking at customer complaints of “major” mechanical problems from the last four years, the report from over 4,000 motorcycle owners confirms the high-water mark set by the Japanese OEMs on motorcycle reliability, but also shows the power of good branding as it translates into brand loyalty and customer retention.

While Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha may be winning the minds of riders with their production prowess, they are losing the hearts of consumers, which is interesting since any salesman will tell you it is easier to keep a current customer, than to make a new one.

Outlining its findings, Consumer Reports says that one-in-four Harley-Davidson owners experience a major problem with their machine, while an even more staggering one-in-three BMW owners made a similar complaint. Contrast those figures with Yamaha, which saw similar reports in only one-in-ten of its owners, with Kawasaki and Honda owners posting similar figures.

On the other side of the coin though, when asked whether they would buy their bikes again, 75% of Harley-Davidson owners said “definitely yes” while 74% of BMW and 72% of Honda owners made a similar remark. Meanwhile, only 63% and 60% of Yamaha and Kawasaki owners, respectively, said the same about their motorcycles.

From its findings, Consumer Reports says reliability was a strong variable in the decision-making process for motorcycle purchasers, but as we see here with the data, brand loyalty and other intrinsic qualities played a factor as well. In short, in order to be a true sales success motorcycle companies need to make not only good machines, but also good brands/customer experiences. Shocking information, we know.

Source: Consumer Reports

Comment:

  1. “Confirms what many of us already knew: bikes from BMW and Harley-Davidson were reported to be less reliable than those from the Japanese OEMs.”

    That’s laughable. I know a LOT of people with all kinds of bikes and most modern bikes are pretty reliable. With a pretty decent sample size, none of the brands come close to these numbers. There are issues across brands – think VFR R/R, KLR doohickey, etc… That said, a couple of questions:

    -What’s a “major problem”? For Harley guys, it could be “stock pipes weren’t loud enough.” For the Beemer guys, it could be “The final drive died when I didn’t change the oil in it for 80,000 miles.”
    -Was there a mileage or usage component? BMW riders and some of the Harley folks tend to actually ride their bikes a lot, whereas I think that will apply less across the entire lineup of the Japanese manufacturers – excluding certain models, of course.

  2. Bill says:

    Is this across the board motorcycles or just cruisers? 4000 is a small sample size depending on the segment this covers. HD sold 247000 motorcycles last year so even 4000 of their customers is small sample. That’s 6 manufacturers and less then 1000 people per manufacturer. Too easy to skew data.

  3. Japanese bikes today, and really beginning in the 90s, can last a rider for a lifetime, so there really is no need for a repeat purchase. In this they have achieved something that auto manufacturers dare not do. But repeat purchases of motorcycles are not about usability or reliability, at least not for Japanese bikes. :)

    The car and truck market in general has always been about building disposable vehicles, something that needs to be replaced after 5 to 10 years maximum. We certainly have the technology to build a car that could last for 50 to 100 years, driven daily, simply by making component parts that are continuously replaceable and upgradable. But of course the automotive business model is designed to sell a new car to the same customer every year over the course of their lifetime, that is the max profit, image based status business model, and it is by far the most profitable. In that model there is really no need to incorporate or even try to achieve genuinely high reliability, since most of those cars will wind up being sold, and manufacturers can make further profit selling parts and labor to those used car customers.

    In general selling the same customer a new bike every year has never worked in the motorcycle market. Even those with the means seldom buy a new bike more often than every three to five years. But buying a new bike every few years has its basis in the status model.

    Motorcycles for most people in the US and in the northern latitudes are luxury items, not something that most customers use for daily transportation. In the US only for those who live in Southern California and South Florida is riding year round a genuinely practical proposition. Riding below 40°F is just too uncomfortable, even with winter gear particularly when it’s wet, and riding on snow and ice is not advisable for anyone who doesn’t have a death wish.

    The countries that are located in equatorial latitudes, where two wheeled transport is practical year-round, rely almost entirely upon scooters and small displacement Japanese, Korean or Chinese made motorcycles, since they are low initial purchase cost, low maintenance and low fuel consumption. Harleys and BMWs do not qualify, nor have they ever been interested in going after those markets, since the low profit margins have never appealed to their Boards.

    Simply put, the Asian motorcycle and a few European scooter manufacturers provide the only practical transport for most of the world, so they have a genuine profit interest in building the most reliable bikes, because those are the ones that their customers will buy.

    The US, German and Italian manufacturers are, for the most part, not selling transportation, they’re selling image to people who have disposable income they don’t know what to do with. The Japanese get a significant portion of this market as well, but on average those who buy Japanese motorcycles are much younger, have far less disposable income, and ride the motorcycles they purchase a whole lot more. And many if not most of those customers will stop riding as they get older, take on financial responsibility and have children to look after. So they don’t offer the opportunity of repeat purchase.

  4. Dan says:

    I would think that part of the reason the less reliable brands outsell their counterparts has much to do with the emotional aspect of motorcycle buying. Not many people buy the practical bike as opposed to those who buy the bike they dream about. Also, no Italian bikes in the data?

  5. Damo says:

    “BMW riders and some of the Harley folks tend to actually ride their bikes a lot, whereas I think that will apply less across the entire lineup of the Japanese manufacturers – excluding certain models, of course.”

    Funny out here in the North East it is completely the opposite. Harley riders seem to only go out when the sun is out and it is above 70 degrees and BMW riders take their bikes to the Cafe to pose.

    The bottom line is Japanese bikes are more reliable, just like they always nave been. Everyone knows this. They do tend to be slightly more boring as a result.

  6. Shawn says:

    I’d really hoped to hear how Triumph fared. In my mind, they’re doing a fantastic job at building s loyal customer base like H-D and Ducati, now I’d like to know if they’re more reliable.

  7. proudAmerican says:

    Heck, I’ve been doing my own research over the years, just by purchasing motorcycles.

    At this point in life, my garage contains nothing but Honda motorcycles. It doesn’t matter which one I care to ride–I know I can go out there, turn the key, and it will start right up, and do what’s expected of it.

  8. Gutterslob says:

    Well, they often say that Hondas tend to outlast religion. No surprises here.

  9. “Funny out here in the North East it is completely the opposite. Harley riders seem to only go out when the sun is out and it is above 70 degrees and BMW riders take their bikes to the Cafe to pose.

    The bottom line is Japanese bikes are more reliable, just like they always nave been. Everyone knows this. They do tend to be slightly more boring as a result.”

    I was up in the Sierras Saturday on various twisties and sweeper-y roads and I saw probably 15-20 Harleys, a ‘Wing, a V-strom, a few RTs, and one sport bike. When I got to Sacramento, I did see a bunch of jokers riding sportbikes in short – serious riders, for sure. I see the same stuff on my daily commute into San Francisco, even on cold days. Bunch of Beemers, some of the Triumph adventure bikes, a smattering of other bikes.

    As for Japanese bikes being more reliable – there are lots of recurring issues with Japanese bikes over the years too: my previous examples of VFR R/Rs, KLR doohickeys, top end problems across the board with the early Honda V4s, and so on. I’ve had several problems with various Japanese bikes with less than 30k on them over the years. No such issues with my Beemer, haven’t owned a Harley, but my Speed Triple did leak a bit of oil from the factory. I know a lot of folks with Beemers with lots of trouble-free miles on ‘em, too.

  10. Gutterslob says:

    ^ All anecdotal evidence.

    I could say the exact opposite about the place I live. Western makes tend to see a lot more servicing compared to Jap makes. Mostly sportsbikes in my case, because that’s the crowd I mix with. Euro bikes just don’t have the ability to cope with the humidity here in Singapore..

    I’ve seen KTM Dukes destroy their clutch, stock S1000RRs having various temperature/overheating issues, Duc 1098 owners complaining that replacement subframes sold to them direct from Ducati via official dealers not even fitting properly, etc, etc. My current 2009 Triumph Speed Triple has had multiple electrical problems – all minor, but annoying nonetheless – and a problem with screws loosening (which the warranty covered). Only complaint I’ve gotten from Jap sportbike riding acquaintances are regarding the R1′s underseat pipes roasting their bums, which is more a “feature” than build quality issue.

    Oh, and where I live, I can pretty much guarantee that Japanese bikes get much more mileage (street AND track) than their Euro counterparts.

    Like I said, all anecdotal.

  11. Gutterslob says:

    @Lanesplitter
    That last comment wasn’t aimed at you, btw. The one I replied got deleted, it seems.

  12. nick says:

    I’ve been a m/c mechanic since 1986.. and last week had the misfortune of working on the worst designed bike I have touched yet.. a Buell xb12s… absolutely the most backward engineered pile of shite I have ever come across… I dont even know where I would start… maybe an engine removal if the lambda probe failed… the designers clearly looked at tried and true methods… and went the other way.. hence the concrete mixer (HD) engine… not to mention the huge engine vibration under brakes combined with a near vertical set of forks… feels like riding up a railway line…
    J model stuff has its own set of problems too… primarily wearing out too quick.. (price you pay for performance) .. BMW… bit like grandads axe when you ask an owner how many miles its done… as for Duclattery’s… pretty much built broken… but just my opinion..

  13. smiler says:

    Consumer report is clearly lying then? Not.

    Just shows that quality is not everything. No surprise with Harley though. God forbid if they ever made an advanced motorcycle.

    It might also be related to what people call a serious issue. Both these bikes are pricey and perhaps BMW owner are more fastidious than other cheaper brands?

    Wonder where Ducati, KTM, Triumph are, anyone got the link?

  14. JoeD says:

    To some folks, no one else makes bikes excerpt for the Asians, Germans and HD. Don’t bother with those oddities from Italy.

  15. Gonçalo says:

    Just goes to show that Brand Image and building personality into the product is more important than reliability. I have ridden Japanese bikes and while I cannot find one negative thing to say about The R6 and GSX-R that have passed through my hands, I never bought a second. Didnt keep either for more than 3 years to think of it. However after purchasing my Triumph, I realized 2 things…How much more reliable the Jap bikes are and how much it didnt matter. The triumph (much like what I imagine people see in the germans and italians) has personality. I can identify with it. It’s flaws give it character. The japanese brands are boring and except for honda, have a very difficult time getting their customers to associate themselves with the brand.

  16. Chaz Michael Michaels says:

    Japanese bikes are nothing if not ridiculously dependable and cheaper to service. Which, oddly, makes for a forgetable experience…more like a kitchen appliance than a machine to stir your soul.

    I never understood why the old-timers loved Norton or Triumph. The old guys speak lovingly of how many times these bikes left them stranded…those bikes stirred something really primal and important and it made all the difference in the world.

  17. Dc4go says:

    So how about Ducati, Aprilia and Triumph im curious to see where they stand in this survey?? I’ve had over 20 motorcycles and all have been reliable as can be except for one , as far as im concerned motorcycle are the best engineered products out there.. Chime in any major bike problems???

  18. Norm G. says:

    re: “While Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha may be winning the minds of riders with their production prowess, they are losing the hearts of consumers”

    behold, the “devaluing mentality” as confirmed now by consumer reports…!!!

    re: “which is interesting since any salesman will tell you it is easier to keep a current customer, than to make a new one.”

    by an order of magnitude.

  19. Aaron B. Brown, you are a wise man.

    There is nothing in this article, or the data published by CR that should raise the ire of anyone. Facts are not related to human purchasing patterns when it regards luxury goods. Just as a $50 wrist watch keeps time as well as (in most cases better than) a Rolex, a Thai-built $4000 Honda is as well crafted (in some cases better) than a Harley-Davidson or BMW, both of whom, it should be noted, source many components from the very same suppliers the Japanese do.

    At the end of the day, people should stop arguing about what is “better” and just enjoy riding whatever they like. The overall level of motor vehicle reliability is so high that its almost a moot point. Having said that, I have never heard of Japanese motorcycle frames cracking (hello BMW).

  20. Norm G. says:

    re: “Motorcycles for most people in the US and in the northern latitudes are luxury items, not something that most customers use for daily transportation. In the US only for those who live in Southern California and South Florida is riding year round a genuinely practical proposition.”

    re: “Harleys and BMWs do not qualify, nor have they ever been interested in going after those markets, since the low profit margins have never appealed to their Boards.”

    re: “The US, German, (Bri’ish), and Italian manufacturers are, for the most part, not selling transportation, they’re selling image to people who have disposable income they don’t know what to do with. The Japanese get a significant portion of this market as well, but on average those who buy Japanese motorcycles are much younger, have far less disposable income, and ride the motorcycles they purchase a whole lot more. And many if not most of those customers will stop riding as they get older, take on financial responsibility and have children to look after. So they don’t offer the opportunity of repeat purchase.”

    yeah, what aaron said. ^ ^ ^ ^

  21. Norm G. says:

    re: “Having said that, I have never heard of Japanese motorcycle frames cracking (hello BMW).”

    just means you haven’t heard of it is all. not the same as it hasn’t occured. busa subframes, gsxr and zed mainframes, etc. anything we can think of has happened at one point or another. the trade off for having highly engineered, sporting vehicles is that the manufacturers are always pushing the limits.

    in contrast, by proxy of car world’s high volume, stateside, there are policing bodies known as the NHTSA and the NTSB looking over shoulders making sure that NOBODY is pushing the limits.

  22. Bruce says:

    Consumer Reports have never been good at math or being objective. A sample size of 4000 compared to the total number of registered motorcycles in the US should not be used for any conclusions. And where did they find these 4000 people?

  23. Craig S says:

    Aaron,

    You’ve made a lot of assumptions which I disagree with. I ride a BMW R1200R and I average 11K miles per year and never hang out at cafes. I’m sure many of your other assumptions are equally incorrect. One can never assume anthing. I commute to work at least three days per week, 96 miles round trip, weekends I do half day rides with friends and once a year we do a 7 – 10 day trip. Last summer we rode to and around Southern Ontario Canada. The trip covered 2900 miles.

    Most of the people I ride with have either BMW’s or Triumphs and they are all long time riders with no interest in ‘fitting’ into someone’s marketing analysis.

    In the end, as others have side, ride what makes you happy.

  24. Speedo says:

    Might be a sign that Japanese need to built bikes with more “soul”. I’ve had bikes from many brands and origins, and yes reliability is super important, but I don’t want a boring bike. I want something with style and mechanical character.

    H-D certainly have made their brand a religion (and I’m not a believer) but nobody can deny, they do know how to maintain their crowd. As for all Japanese bikes they are all excellent but pretty much interchangeable. I like Triumph and Ducati for offering very different bikes in different categories and not just a load of perfectly engineered inline 4s that can only really be enjoyed on the track.

  25. Bob Krzeszkiewicz says:

    Of the 20 or so bikes I’ve owned, I’ve only had issues with 2… a BMW R1100S and a Guzzi Stelvio NTX. The first had a leaky airbox that allowed water in…sue me…I tour rain or shine or hurricane. The second was just a effin’ paintshaker, with bad fueling, excessive heat and a fork lower that broke at 80 mph.

    The other Beemer, 1 Kwak, 3 Hondas, 6 HDs and 7 Buells have all been solid no matter how high I racked up the odometer and how much I abused the throttle. A couple HDs abd Buells were raced even.

    It’s been my experience with HDs and Buells that they only really have problems beyond the typical niggles that all bikes have is because the owners like to modify them without understanding how to properly create a performance package. The put this in and that on, and this in, etc but have no idea how the various bits work together. If you leave them alone as delivered, they generally last well into the 6 digit realm.

    Besides, with the sheer volume they sell, on a percentage basis, they’re ahead of the game. If you count in the made for India/China market small displacement bikes the japanese make to equal up the numbers, they’re not that reliable either. They are just easy and cheap to repair but they do have the advantage of not having an EPA and CARB to satisfy by running ultra lean. But in terms of large displacement crusisers, HD does ok. I’ve seen quite a few stranded GWs and Valkyries over the years.

  26. Paul McM says:

    A month ago I chatted with a guy with a Suzuki V-Strom. He liked the bike though admitting it was a “plain Jane”. He told me he had been a loyal BMW owner for over 20 years, up until 2010, when he sold his last BMW after being stranded many times with two different recent vintage BMWs, once with the dread catastrophic rear drive failure. That bike, purchased brand new by him, had just 12,000 miles and had all the factory maintenance, by the book. He told me: “I will never own another BMW. It used to be you could tour on a BMW, and all you needed was the tool kit that came with the bike. Now you need a Sat phone and a tow-truck.”

    I question the utility of water-cooling the GS motor, and I think all the electronics on the latest machines are potential problems. That said, I wish Honda would produce a real alternative to the R1200RT. The VFR1200 failed as a sport tourer and the ST1300 is too big, too heavy, and too ugly for me.

  27. buellracerx says:

    All of these replies are truly entertaining, thank you all :)

    1) As mentioned above, researchers at Consumer Reports clearly all slept through prob & stats, as this sample size is much too small to make any worthwhile conclusions.

    2) Indeed, we have technology to produce outstanding longevity. But at what duty cycle? 100% WOT? 10-20%? And try integrating those technologies/materials into an engine, then selling it to real consumers. Your profit margin, if any, will be shit and you will soon be out of business. Whoever makes comments to the contrary is asinine on the various engineering aspects of engine design.

    Jensen, you are the master at stimulating discussion through controversial articles.

    @nick – I agree, there are some truly idiotic designs on just about any Buell you run across, along with some very good ones. Ride it a little longer, maybe through a chicane…you will giggle like a schoolgirl

  28. meatspin says:

    does a motorcycle have to be unreliable to have “soul” or just not Japanese? I seem to hear that a lot on a lot of forums I go to. We can be discussing motorcycles, cars, or even watches. After awhile, you’d think anything the japanese produce is made by soulless automotons. To me, these declarations have gotten to the point where everytime i see it, it just smacks of racism.

    My Suzuki isnt as reliable as my Honda, though I’d rather take the Suzuki out more. Neither bike however beats my Subaru for reliability. I wish Subaru made bikes.

  29. paulus - Thailand says:

    we all bought our rides for a reason. Our own personal reason.

    We are a brotherhood of two wheels

    Get out and ride

  30. lars says:

    I wish they had the customer-retention and major-problem numbers for Suzuki since they had the other three Japanese brands. Cool article!

  31. Norm G. says:

    re: “I wish Honda would produce a real alternative to the R1200RT.”

    they did, it was the VFR12.

    re: “The VFR1200 failed as a sport tourer”

    don’t think it failed so much as honda’s motorcycle division (for whatever reason) continues to show up late to the party. the market’s on about ADVENTURE kit now.

  32. Gonçalo says:

    I don’t think it’s racism. Just stereotype. Everyone knows stereotypes are true. I don’t think ALL Japanese products all character. My Japanese motorcycle did everything so well almost too well which makes it difficult to like…there’s no personality to them. Not to say that it takes flaws to have a soul. My triumph street triple has been bulletproof yet it still sends this vibe when you are riding it that I never got from the better performing Japanese bikes. Nothing about their power delivery or handling was bad, but nothing was memorable.

  33. Marc F says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhMKmovNjvc

    4000 is a sufficient sample size, though a rigorous report would include a confidence interval. The overall market size is irrelevant when determining a sufficient sample.

    Anecdotal evidence makes for a good story but useless data, whether you agree or disagree with it, or experienced it first hand.

    While I don’t have site access, it’s a near certainty that CR has a consistent definition of “major failure” and corrected the data for miles ridden.

    As Michael U wrote, the data is the data. It’s not a moral judgement.

  34. Robert Chase says:

    I have several Japanese sport bikes an Italian bike and a Harley. I’ll be the first to admit my Harley is not the most reliable thing on the planet. BUT there’s simply no comparison at all quality wise with what the Japanese makers consider a cruiser. Plastic chrome, vinyl and paint with orange peel just does not cut it when it comes to a cruiser. Harley’s are hand made in America and have beautiful fit and finish. I’m ok with them not being reliable. Italian bikes also have some of the same qualities. I love my Japanese sport bikes but the comparison to my MV Agusta F4 is just silly. The MV while not as reliable as the Japanese machines and more expensive to run on the track is simply a work of art. Paint, Fit and finish and fasteners are simply on a level beyond Japanese bikes. The sound that comes out of the quad organ pipes in the rear is soul stirring and the handling and feel of the bike is simply decadent. The Japanese sport bikes that I own are great but a bit antiseptic feeling. The MV feels like it’s a living and breathing thing. It’s truly better than the sum of it’s parts.

    It all depends on what you think is important. If you want a super reliable bike buy Japanese. If you want a bike that stirs your soul consider American or Italian. While not as reliable they have other qualities that people pay lots of extra money for.

    There’s no need to make judgments on people based on their choices. If you want to do that it’s a two way street. If you think the people who bought “unreliable” bikes are idiots they probably think that your a little light in the wallet for buying the cheap option. I prefer to reserve judgement as I own all of the above for their strengths and just deal with the weaknesses. There’s no “perfect bike” and everything is a trade off.

  35. Shawn says:

    Thank you Mark F. I’m a scientist and I have a hard time not badgering my friends about statistics and anecdotal evidence. We make predicts on Presidential elections using much smaller polling sizes, percentage-wise. And while some get it terribly wrong (I’m looking at you FOX), Nate Silver accurately predicted the voting outcome of 100M people with polls covering a few tens of thousands of people.

  36. “I never understood why the old-timers loved Norton or Triumph.”

    I felt the same way about H-D. One day I pulled my Daytona Special up in front of my dad’s place. He tossed me the keys to his Wide Glide and, fifteen minutes of rumbling about later, I came back. It took a long, long time for me to get the grin off of my face. I finally understood.

    He never did convince me to try his Jawa 350 with the sidecar, although it totally make me laugh to watch him lifting the rig through the corners. Despite riding the RD like a total squid, I just thought that was bonkers.

  37. dipthroat says:

    Well, I am not a math genius. But if 1 in 4 HD owners experienced a serious problem and 1 in 4 (100%-75%=25% i.e. 1 in 4) will not buy again HD, it looks like a pretty straightforward explanation to me! LOL

  38. RobG says:

    As a dual sport rider, I’ve noticed that the BMWs are the least-reliable. I’ve known people who have lots of trouble with their bikes, and read many horror stories about all the crap that fails on them. Stuff like failed shaft drives on the R1200GS, snapped swingarms (on all of them), electrical problems, and so on. Heck, just last weekend, I was at a lunch with a friend and we saw a poor guy unable to get his F650GS started. If I had had my truck there, I would have helped, but he ended up calling for roadside service. My DR650 on the other hand, has never given me ANY trouble because it’s a model of simplicity.

  39. Nick G says:

    I’ve owned three ZX-14s in 6 years. The only reason I traded them was for an upgrade in performance, handling, etc. I love that bike. I’m 49 and won’t ride anything else on the street. It gives me everything I want. I’ll stick with Kaw because they acutally listen to their customers’ feedback. The new Concours is one example.

    I know several HD and BMW owners and they know their bikes are unreliable. But they like being “part of something”. It’s a clique thing. Especially HD riders. That’s all good until you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a busted bike. You can keep that BS. And the price to repair is ridiculous. BMW charges $11 for one freakin’ screw. Insane!

    I’ll stick with the clique of reliable bikes that perform and handle like no other. Kaw owner for life.

  40. Lars N Jensen says:

    No surprice. After 10 years and 50.000 flawless km on a Honda VFR 800 I bought a 3 year old BMW F800ST.
    What a mistake. Endless problems with the quality and reliability. Afte 9 returns to the local BMW shop they gave up and offered med a very reduced price on a new F800ST. So far no problems with that. But the quality issues with BMW is known and discussed here in Norway.