AUTOS

Consumer Reports will continue controversial motorcycle ratings

Early last year, with little fanfare, the buyers' advocate magazine Consumer Reports began rating motorcycles for reliability and customer satisfaction.

The results of their first study have confounded some bike owners and manufacturers.

The study, conducted among the 3 million subscribers to the publication's magazine and website, had responses from 1 million automobile owners, and got responses from more than 11,000 motorcycle riders. They shared their experiences and opinions on more than 12,000 individual motorcycles purchased new from 2008 to 2014.

The survey found that the Japanese brands Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki were the most reliable brands, while Triumph, Ducati and BMW were, in the report's delicate language, "more repair-prone."

Statistically, that meant that Yamaha owners are least likely to experience "serious problems" with their bikes, and owners of the Can-Am three-wheelers are most likely -- four times more likely, of the brands included in the survey.

In raw numbers, the study said, only about 11% of new Yamahas will need serious attention in their first four years of life.

Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki ranked very tightly behind Yamaha -- all under 15%.  Then came everyone else.

Harley-Davidson owners are twice as likely to experience problems that require repairs as owners of the Japanese brands, with 26% of new bikes needing attention. Triumph owners were a little more likely than that. But Ducati and BMW owners can expect problems. The study predicted that 33% of new Ducatis and 40% of new BMWs will require repairs. Can-Am scored lowest, with 42%.

"There is a four times greater chance that a BMW will need repair than a Yamaha," said Consumer Reports' deputy editor Jeff Bartlett. "That's pretty significant, when you consider the cost of servicing a BMW is substantially higher. BMW makes great bikes, but the BMW owner has to have a few dollars set aside for repairs."

The report drew measured responses from motorcycle brands. Most major manufacturers declined to discuss or comment on the study's findings. Others said studies of this kind can be helpful, under certain conditions.

"It's a great thing for consumers as long as the ratings are overseen by experienced motorcycle editors," said Indian Motorcycle's Robert Pandya.

"People really know and trust Consumer Reports," said Victory's Gary Gray, who said the study  may have contributed to an uptick in Victory sales. "They didn't double, but these things are always good for retail."

Bartlett said multiple factors went into analyzing the results. The publication's readership skews older and more affluent, he said, and among motorcycles prefers Harley-Davidsons and BMWs. Those big bikes tend to be ridden more miles, too, than do smaller size Japanese bikes.

Curiously, despite these statistical results, the most reliable motorcycles were not the best loved by their owners. Harley-Davidson owners rated their machines second-highest, after the smaller Victory brand, among those who were asked whether they would buy the same motorcycle again.

An impressive 72% of Harley owners said they would, as compared to 70% of Honda owners, 68% of BMW owners, 66% of Ducati owners and 63% of Yamaha owners.

Of major brands, Kawasaki and Suzuki scored lowest, with slightly more than half of owners saying they'd buy the same bikes again.

But survey participants were also asked to rate their brands in terms of overall satisfaction, styling, acceleration, handling, cost of maintenance and repairs, comfort and "fun."

By those terms, the results differed somewhat. Only 66% of Ducati riders said they'd buy another, but that brand ranked at the top, category by category, hitting the highest grade for everything but cost of repairs and "owner satisfaction." BMW was just a tick behind, giving up a bit on "comfort."

"Enthusiasts really are more motivated by style, cool factor and brand image," said Bill Nation, co-owner of the high-end Los Angeles motorcycle shop ProItalia.

And paying more for purchase and maintenance may actually support brand image.

"There is a truism that [the customer] who pays retail  seems to be more satisfied with his purchase than those who grind us on price or seek out the low-ball dealer," Nation said.

Bartlett agreed the numbers were a little surprising -- especially the Harley numbers.

"We've all heard stories about their darker days, but what came through is their reliability is about average," Bartlett said. "But when we looked at owner satisfaction, we found that people really enjoyed their Harleys."

Harley owners were more likely than others to dispute the results of the study too.

"They're very passionate, and they would say, 'My bike has been reliable,'" Bartlett said. "But an anecdote doesn't make a trend."

Bartlett said marketing and the "culture" of the brand might explain that disparity. "There's a certain kind of lust around Harley-Davidson that extends past the actual motorcycle. It's a lifestyle choice, and a club you belong to that helps define you. The Japanese brands don't have that."

One owner of multiple brands made a similar point. Chris Day, head of corporate communication for the talent agency UTA, is a passionate motorcycle enthusiast who currently owns bikes made by BMW, KTM, Suzuki and Honda.

The two European brands are reserved for street riding, usually cruising the Southern California coast and canyons on the weekend. The two Japanese bikes are for the race track or the open desert.

"It’s telling that the bikes I ride on the street are a BMW and a KTM, but the bike I ride at the race track is a Suzuki and the bike I ride in the dirt is a Honda," Day said. "The ones where reliability is a real factor are Japanese."

What's the difference?

"European bikes are engineered for character and sex appeal, and Japanese bikes are engineered for reliability," Day said. "The Japanese bikes are bulletproof, but there's a perception of exclusivity that comes with the Ducatis and KTMs. The idea of owning a European bike still feels more special."

The 2015 study, Bartlett said, is the first of a planned seres of ongoing surveys. A new one is underway now and may include brands for which the first survey didn't have enough data -- Indian, KTM and Motoguzzi, for example. The results will be published in 2017.

Twitter: @misterfleming

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