Is Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) the worst motorcycle money can buy? Let's get this out of the way right now. No.
It's actually the second worst.
At least, according to Consumer Reports.
Long a recognized authority on automotive quality and value for your money in cars, Consumer Reports began branching out to reviewing motorcycles last year, publishing its first-ever report on the most reliable motorcycles from five of the biggest brands -- Harley, BMW (NASDAQOTH:BMWYY), Honda (NYSE:HMC), Kawasaki, and Yamaha. (Polaris' (NYSE:PII) Victory and Indian brands had apparently not made enough of a dent in the market to attract CR's attention by the time of the survey.) What CR discovered from its research is that quality varies "significantly" among brands -- and the best brand, Yamaha, is about six times more reliable than the worst, BMW.
Only about one Yamaha bike in 10 has experienced a major problem or required a serious repair over the past four years, according to the 4,424 motorcycle owners surveyed by CR. In contrast, about one BMW motorcycle in three has suffered from such a complaint -- and one Harley in four. Here's how the numbers break down:
Subtler variations in vehicle reliability were found within brands as well. CR categorized them according to "class" of motorcycle, noting that touring motorcycles were most problematic, and cruisers the least. This may have something to do with the fact that, according to CR, "accessories" were the most common problems encountered with bikes. Touring bikes, being designed for comfort in long-distance travel, are likely to be outfitted with more bells and whistles than a standard motorcycle -- and therefore have more accessories on them that can break.
Again, the numbers:
The good news here is that Consumer Reports says major, big-ticket repairs were few and far between in its research. Regardless of bike and regardless of brand, only about 3% of all problems reported to CR involved a motorcycle's engine, only 3% a transmission, and only 7% a clutch. More common were issues with a vehicle's brakes or electrical or fuel system, and, as already mentioned, with the accessories. Overall, CR noted that about 75% of the repairs reported to it were performed for $200 or less.
What it means to you
That last fact, the low cost of repairing most motorcycle fix-its, may be the really important news for Harley-Davidson shareholders.
It may help to explain why -- Harley's weak performance on the survey notwithstanding -- CR says Harley owners remain the most brand-loyal of all motorcycle owners, with an astounding 75% saying yes, they'd buy a Harley again. The occasional small repair bill may simply be a price they're willing to pay for owning the most famous name in motorcycles. (And it probably doesn't hurt that Harley goes the extra mile to take care of its customers when an issue with one of its bikes does arise.)
In turn, the remarkable brand loyalty of Harley-Davidson customers may help to explain why, of the publicly traded motorcycle makers on the survey, Harley carries the highest price-to-earnings ratio, selling for nearly 20 times trailing earnings. Whether that P/E ratio can bear the scrutiny now that Consumer Reports has put a bull's-eye on Harley-Davidson, though, remains to be seen.