The question of what are the “most reliable motorcycle brands” is a common-asked, but difficult-to-answer one. It’s plagued with opinion, bias, and little data.
But the question of motorcycle reliability is an important one. No matter how great the ride, being stranded can really ruin an experience. So knowing whether your brand of motorcycle — or specific model — is a reliable one is a very important metric.
Here I’m compiling data from a number of different sources to try and zone in on an answer to what the most reliable motorcycle brand is — and why.
This was originally published in 2021, but has been updated with a huge new data set from Riders Share in 2023.
Are you obsessed with motorcycles?
Well, I am. That’s why I created this site — as an outlet. I love learning and sharing what others might find useful. If you like what you read here, and you’re a fraction as obsessed as I am, you might like to know when I’ve published more. (Check the latest for an idea of what you’ll see.)
Opinion — A Survey of Owners on Facebook
In a poll on one of the Facebook groups I used to frequent, someone innocently asked “Which manufacturer do you consider to build the most reliable bikes?”
This was an innocent (and frequently-asked) question, but this time there were nearly 500 responses! I thought it was so interesting that I started to collate it all into a Google Sheet.
General disclaimer: This isn’t answering the question of “What is the most reliable motorcycle”. This is just collective opinion, which is riddled with bias — see the section on bias below. So think of this as “a quantified summary of people’s subjective opinions”.
Here’s a pie chart (which my former bosses back at The Firm are screaming at me about) summarising everyone’s responses.
In a nutshell, Honda and Yamaha were the most-named most-reliable motorcycle brands.
“Any Japanese” motorcycle was mentioned after that. That would include Honda and Yamaha, but also includes Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Together, the big four Japanese Brands — Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and Kawasaki — make up ~80% of respondents’ answers to the question of the most reliable motorcycle brand.
Fewer people specifically mentioned Kawasaki and Suzuki, but some did (and usually together with the other Japanese brands).
There were some mentions of the European/British brands BMW, Triumph, KTM, Ducati, and a couple of others.
But it should be pointed out that a few people mentioned KTM and Ducati ironically (with a wink or laugh emoji). I didn’t count those. But they almost count as anti-votes.
Data — Rental Towing Events
One interesting pool of data that spans brands is rental returns from our friends at Riders Share, a service that lets you rent out your bike, or find other local rentals (great way to try out bikes you’ve had an itch to try but don’t want to own or can’t get a test ride on).
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Riders Share shared operational data for many tens of thousands of successful rentals over the past few years for a huge range of motorcycles. A proportion of those rentals, however, resulted in incidents in which a motorcycle needs to be towed. I think of this as one sign of unreliability — an unreliable bike is a bike that leaves a rider stranded. (There are various definitions — see the section on definitional vagueness below.)
Because rentals are very short term — often just a day, and rarely more than a week — I found it useful to analyse the data in terms of “incidents per thousand rental hours”.
General disclaimer — You can use data to show anything. Data sets are twisted by bad operators to suit their needs. An analysis depends vastly on the data collection source and method, and then the analysis method. I’m trying to present an impartial view — but the results may still surprise you!
On the analysis:
- I excluded brands where there were very few rentals, and scooters. (Scooters are almost a separate question from motorcycles — they have very different purposes and target markets.)
- Also, I’m showing confidence intervals (a “range of values”) using a confidence interval based on the standard error. Some brands (Harley-Davidson in particular) get more rentals, which means the confidence interval is narrower.
Finally, bear in mind that peer-to-peer rentals are a subset of motorcycles (generally older, though well-maintained ones), of renters (visitors from out of state / the country, who don’t even know the bike well, like me!), doing unusual things with bikes, taking them to places they don’t normally ride, with luggage and so on. A towed bike may be one that a rider crashed out of inexperience with the bike, the road, or the area’s traffic norms.
OK, here’s how the data shakes out.
So, what’s going on here? The first thing worth mentioning is that all brands of motorcycles have similar reliability (per this definition), within a very narrow band. The bottom of Suzuki’s confidence interval is still above the top of BMW’s.
And secondly, overall, motorcycles are very reliable! This means there’s one towing incident per 10,000 rental hours (like ownership hours, but assuming you ride a lot). So if you ride generally every day, you’ll be towed about once every three years on average. Sounds about right to me. Some people are never towed. I’ve sometimes pushed a bike to a gas station. And I’ve been towed once in my life when a starter motor failed on a Ducati, and it was uphill all the way home.
Secondly, the data contrasts with people’s opinions of reliability. Mostly, BMW, Harley-Davidson, and Ducati aren’t as patently unreliable as people think. (There weren’t enough KTM rentals to include them here.) Why is this? Could be any number of reasons — older riders, older renters, or Harley renters being more gentle or experienced riders in general.
I also think there’s an element of ownership vs rental bias (I have a section on bias below). If I paid $30K for a bike, I’d be mad if there were one bolt loose. If I’m renting, I wouldn’t care about much as long as it doesn’t affect my ride.
And finally — a quick read of this may say “So, Suzuki seems super unreliable”. Again, snap judgments are bad. Look at the confidence intervals. Even in this amount of data, there’s not enough to conclusively say that. I pored over it and differences seem within the margin of error.
Consumer Reports Study
There was a study done in 2015 by Consumer Reports that surveyed thousands of motorcycle riders on the same question of reliability. This is another question of subjective impression.
They surveyed over 11,000 subscribers and the results were that the most reliable motorcycle brand were (in order): Yamaha, Suzuki/Honda (tied), then Kawasaki.
The way they assessed reliability was to estimate the mean time to failure — asking the question whether in a given four-year period their motorcycle had broken down. This is one definition of reliability that’s very important.
Then they assessed the percentage of motorcycles in each brand that had broken down in a four year period, adjusting for mileage and age. On that basis, they concluded that the most reliable motorcycle brands are the Japanese brands.
Another thing they concluded, by the way, is that cruiser motorcycles are typically the most reliable. This is really interesting to me because they’re often the least complicated motorcycles, and the parts of motorcycles that are most likely to fail, per consumer reports, are electrical components.
Per the Consumer Reports survey, these are the parts that tend to malfunction:
|Repaired parts||Percent of repaired motorcycles|
Consumer Repairs also did survey on motorcycle satisfaction. Per their findings, this is how likely owners of various brands are to buy another motorcycle of the same brand:
|Motorcycle brand||Likelihood of buying same motorcycle brand 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.
Another interesting thing that CR pointed out is that asking motorcycle owners about comfort gets responses closely aligned with overall satisfaction. So if you ask “how comfortable is your motorcycle?” you’re likely to get an answer which tells you how happy they are with it. This gels with me… many Victory and Harley Davidson (and Indian, not in their survey) motorcycles are like arm chairs.
Motorcycles are luxury items. These days, few people use full-size road motorcycles for anything other than vacations, weekend scratching, track work, and long-distance travel. A small scooter or a car is always a more practical choice.
So I expect people to buy motorcycles for love, not because they’re a few percentage points more reliable, but it’s also good to be armed with reasonable data in your head.
Does this information make sense?
Whenever you ask someone’s opinion, including about the most reliable motorcycle brands, their answers are riddled with bias. The most common types of bias are
- Confirmation bias — if you expect a motorcycle to fail, and it does, you’ll think “I knew it!”; and if you expect it to be reliable, and it fails, you’ll think “that was bad luck” and discard the data
- Recency bias — a motorcycle that failed on you this morning will seem like more of a lemon than one that failed a few times ago twenty years prior (which you might even have forgotten about)
- Halo effect — a motorcycle you really love riding or owning will always give you a more positive feeling than one you don’t love.
Those are actually just a few kinds of bias. The fact that we’re all riddled with biases (because we humans are just squishy blobs of organic goo, not machines) is why we try to rely on data.
Data is never perfect either. In fact, some of the data here is just asking people for opinions. But sometimes, collective opinions — when correlated with other sources — can get closer to the “truth” about the most reliable motorcycle brands.
Let’s get anecdotal — the following doesn’t prove anything. But it’s an example of personal experience, of which you may have your own.
One person I know has a motorcycle rental business. They rent out touring bikes to visitors from BMW, Triumph, and Honda, among a few other brands. Per his account, the only motorcycles to never have problems are the CB500X models they have. It could be that people ride them gently, but whatever the reason, that’s the output.
Here are the failures I’ve had on my Ducatis and Hondas, of which I’ve had enough to form a small amount of personal data.
|Motorcycle & years owned||Repairs needed (aside from regular maintenance)|
|1981 Honda CB900 Bol D’or (2001-2007)||Slightly weeping fork seals|
|Ducati Monster M900||Failed stator coil (did not start)|
Failed regulator/rectifier (did not start, blew headlamps)
|2003 Ducati Multistrada 1000DS||Failed oil pressure sensor (limp mode back to mechanic)|
|1988 Honda Hawk 650||–|
|2003 Honda CB900 919||–|
|2007 Ducati 1098S Superbike||Failed fuel level sender (I ran out of gas as there was no warning)|
|1998 Ducati Supersport 900||Failed crank position sensor (did not start)|
|2001 Honda CBR600F4i||–|
|2014 Honda VFR800||Cover of the heated grips button fell off|
I have had so many problems with old Ducatis that I’m taking a break and going just Japanese. Other brands may be more reliable, but their parts are more expensive. So in the chance of a failure, a repair will always cost more.
Other owners of Ducati motorcycles talk about it as being a love-hate relationship. It’s mostly love. But even newer Ducatis fail on people (see this 2023 thread on the Ducati Streetfighter V4’s programming error that can result in a “crawl home” state). While they make amazing bikes that can serve people wonderfully, to date, Ducati has not earned the reputation of being one of the most reliable motorcycle brands.
A good way of assessing whether a motorcycle is very reliable is to browse forums specific for a motorcycle. Join the Facebook groups and watch for what people say. If it’s all talk about tyre pressure, accessories, and what oil to use, then it’s a good sign. But if people mention things like “I’ve got the famous xyz error” or “bike won’t start” and many people rush to suggest common problems, then you may have found a problematic bike.
(Note that I don’t think you can ask “Is this bike reliable” or “Are there common problems”. It’s a leading question, and polarising. Usually, I haven’t seen useful answers to those questions. Some will mention a few, and then more than one person will say “four bikes, 100,000 miles, no problems”, and you’re left wondering where the truth lies.)
“But my bike is super reliable and doesn’t deserve this reputation!”
It’s interesting to me when people cite their specific experiences. It highlights one of the above examples — confirmation bias.
Here are three things to bear in mind:
- “Reliable” is poorly defined and very vague. Does it mean a bike where nothing breaks, ever? Or one that just doesn’t fail catastrophically, leaving you stranded? People sometimes discount trivial or small faults. A button failing is very different to a crankshaft failing. So you don’t know what people are not counting as a “fault”.
- We mature with experience. If you’ve done 100,000+ miles on various bikes, survived many crashes and are still riding, you probably discount into oblivion the time when your clutch cable failed a little early, particularly if it was an epic bike you loved. But a new rider would care a lot and might say “this bike is junk”.
- Sometimes we get defensive about machines we love. A lot of people rag on KTMs and Harley-Davidsons as being unreliable. But another thing common to both KTM and Harley-Davidson is people are passionate about those bikes. People are generally less passionate about something on which they just commute or do Uber Eats deliveries, and maybe that’s why they react less emotionally to something on those bikes breaking.
As I mentioned above, bias affects us, especially if we are paying a lot. If I buy a rattly dual sport and have to clean the carbs regularly, I might think nothing of it. But if I had a tiny leak on a brand new $20K+ premium machine, I’d be apoplectic.
What do you do with this information?
“Reliable” isn’t everyone’s first priority. Some people want a motorcycle with soul. Some people want a motorcycle that’s a classic. And some just want one to get from A to B.
But for those of you who want a bike from the most reliable motorcycle brands, there are a few data points that make owning a Yamaha or a Honda a compelling option. For example, before you dismiss Honda as being “boring”, have a look at this list of super interesting Honda motorcycles that most people would be hard-pressed to not get excited about.
And if you look at reliability as “Is this thing going to get me home?” — well, it looks like you’re about as equally likely to get a tow home on any brand of bike.
Reliability isn’t my own top priority, but it’s up there. I look for motorcycles with soul and personality that I can fix myself and that still are reliable enough to not break my spirit.
And another aspect of reliability for me is being able to procure parts without having to pay a fortune or wait for them to arrive from Italy. The reality of owning a Ducati (on a budget) is often knowing how to cross-reference parts diagrams and scour forums for compatible components.
Anyway, I hope the above is helpful and not too contentious. For all of you who say they’ve put 100,000 km or miles down on a motorcycle doing nothing but oil changes and cleaning it: tell us about it! Because chances are someone reading this post would love to buy that model bike.