The Most Reliable (and Unreliable) Motorcycle Brands

Jun 26, 2023

Tags:renterownerindustry-newsnews

Since we started collecting the data in 2021, Riders Share's customers have completed approximately 20 million miles of riding across 49 states and all kinds of motorcycles over the course of more than 120,000 rental days. Our mission is to make powersports more affordable, and we were looking for ways to cut roadside assistance costs to be able to reduce prices. Are there some brands driving most of the tows?

That's when we realized we are sitting on a gold mine of information: empirical data on which brand is the most reliable. Maybe we can end the debates among riders once and for all.

Consumer Reports relies on surveys, which are notoriously flaky, and Consumer Reports stopped surveying motorcycle owners years ago anyways. We often have to form opinions based on our own experience, our friends, or maybe online forums and reviews. I am guilty of buying a bike with great media reviews that was actually a poor performer in the real world. Fortnine did a lab test on the oil contamination of brand new bikes and concluded Royal Enfield had the best manufacturing quality - but is oil pollution a true predictor of future motorcycle reliability?

Surprisingly Low Tow Rates

On Riders Share, maintenance of the motorcycle depends on the owner. Many of you may think this could lead to reliability issues. However, the stats show people are taking care of their bikes: only 0.25% of rental days required a tow - and the main reason was a dead battery. Our tow providers have told us in the past that they saw significantly lower tow rates from Riders Share than from brick and mortar motorcycle rental businesses, which was interesting, but the stats seem to corroborate the story. We can only imagine that since your life depends on it, you are more likely to take good care of your bike than if you are an underpaid mechanic at a rental shop whose life is not at stake.

We excluded tows caused by nails on the tire because these are truly outside the control of the bike owners or the bike manufacturers.

How many of these tows are caused by bad riders? We scrubbed the data really hard to ensure we excluded tows that were the result of an accident or rider error. We then went a step further, and grouped our riders between those at high risk of causing an insurance claim vs. those at low risk. Think experienced, older riders with clean driving records and good credit vs. young riders on sport bikes:

  • Low risk riders: 0.19% of rental days
  • High risk riders: 0.48% of rental days.

It turns out the risk taking behavior of a customer correlates significantly to tow rates, even if there were no accidents in the trip. We estimate roughly 15% of our tows were caused by the rider and not by improper maintenance of the bike. We are using this data to inform future decision making about tows, but also as a disclaimer that it is not perfect. The data speaks to the kind of owners maintaining the bikes and types of riders, not just the manufacturing quality.

An AI's attempt to draw a truck towing a motorcycle. Not even close

We asked an AI to draw us a truck towing a motorcycle. It failed.

Tow Rates By Brand

Our public relations guy said releasing this data would be a very bad idea, that we don't want to upset any of the OEMs, which are all potential partners of Riders Share (we can help provide extended test rides or create rental programs at their dealerships). Of course, every employee at Riders Share rides a motorcycle, so when told not to do something, our instinct is to go do it immediately.

Whether controlling for rider risk or not, the tow rate ranking was consistent. Similarly, the results hold fairly well when we use tows per mile instead of tows per rental day, and when we control for model year. We went with rental days because a lot of our mileage data is incomplete or fat fingered, especially when there has been a tow during the trip.

Without further ado:

One of these stands out more than the others...

Tow Rates by Brand/Make:

  1. INDIAN 0.18%
  2. BMW 0.18%
  3. KAWASAKI 0.20%
  4. HONDA 0.20%
  5. HARLEY-DAVIDSON 0.22%
  6. KTM 0.23%
  7. Others 0.24%
  8. YAMAHA 0.30%
  9. TRIUMPH 0.32%
  10. CAN-AM 0.32%
  11. DUCATI 0.34%
  12. SUZUKI 0.35%
  13. ROYAL ENFIELD 0.86%

BMW did really poorly in the last Consumer Reports motorcycle survey in 2015, so my dad was really proud about this result, as he's always been saying BMWs are the most reliable bikes (although expensive to repair!). Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo is an old saying about how experience makes you more knowledgeable than even the devil, and he often quotes it to me to remind me I should listen to him. I guess those boxer engines are worth the hype! "Your father is always right", he said after hearing the news.

Indian tied for the lead. This was a pleasant surprise for the growing brand from Polaris. Part of the reason Indian, BMW and Harley Davidson did so well is that they attracted more experienced riders, so take this data with a grain of salt. Or perhaps they attract owners that are more careful about maintenance, which is outside the control of the bike makers, but something to keep in mind when buying a used bike.

At the other end of the extreme, Royal Enfield's tow rate is almost 4x the average for the other brands albeit still below 1% of rental days. This is despite the relatively new lineup, as most of the Royal Enfields in our data were model years 2017 or newer. We can confidently say that the pollutants in the oil of a brand new bike are NOT a good predictor of motorcycle reliability, like Fortnine's video implies. This made my cofounder Brendon really sad, because he went and bought a Royald Enfield Himalayan after watching it. Of course, he questioned our results, which is why we had to look at them in so many ways (off roading bikes vs street bikes, bike, types, riskiness of the rider, etc.).

Let's be honest, we all expected Ducati to be in the bottom half of this list. Suzuki was perhaps the biggest surprise, as Japanese brands are known for their reliability. Are Suzuki owners on Riders Share less dutiful about maintenance than Harley owners? That's a possible explanation, and perhaps we need to enrich our data with the age of the bike owner.

Can Am's Rotax engine is not exactly known for its reliability although it does bring a lot of fond memories. We had a case in which a tire came off a trike while the rider was driving. Luckily he was not hurt, but a few months later Can Am issued a recall to address this issue, so it must have been widespread.

The "Others" category include brands too small in our sample to be represented on their own (Zero, Husqvarna, Aprilia, etc.). You would think these smaller brands would have lower reliability due to the lack of scaled and advanced manufacturing operations, but it does not appear to be the case.

Tow Rates by Type:

  1. Super motard 0.09%
  2. Scooter 0.15%
  3. Adventure 0.16%
  4. Touring 0.18%
  5. Cruiser 0.26%
  6. 3-Wheeler 0.28%
  7. Sport touring 0.29%
  8. Retro 0.32%
  9. Sport 0.33%
  10. Standard 0.35%

It is worth nothing that the bikes we allow to go off-road (super motard and adventure) have some of the lowest roadside assistance rates, but also that our roadside assistance provider can't help when people are off-road: the trucks are limited to paved roads. That said, most trips on Riders Share are on the road, so it's probably not the reason why off-road capable bikes do so well.

Seeing sport and standard bikes so low in the rankings, and touring motorcycles outperforming cruisers, it made us think perhaps high RPMs are not so good for your engine's longevity after all. Perhaps large displacements correlate to lower tow rates?

Tows Per Rental Day By Engine Size (cc)

<150 0.17%

150-650 0.28%

650-1150 0.32%

1150-1650 0.22%

>1650 0.17%

Generally, bigger bikes are more reliable, but small scooters appear to be fairly reliable too, likely because they aren't going on the highway and facing the same wear and tear as a motorcycle.

What's next?

Read Part II where we go a bit more in depth in the rankings.

We buy a database from PriceDigest to determine the type of bike, the make, model, and trim, as well as motorcycle specs that we used in this dataset. It is far from perfect, but it's the best we've found so far. Excuse us if our definition of "Adventure" is not what you have in mind, but we plan to start drilling into specific model comparisons in the upcoming weeks - and publish them yearly.

Would you like to look at specific segments like middleweight cruisers or how the BMW GS1250 specifically compares to its rivals?

We hope it helps OEMs benchmark against each other and find areas for improvement (we are looking at you, Royal Enfield). I also hope you feel better about renting motorcycles on Riders Share.

Thank you,

Guillermo Cornejo

CEO | Riders Share

PD: If you are a journalist writing for a large media publication, we'd love to share the underlying data with you. Shoot us an email!