A guy on Advrider posted this question: Would you pay an equal price for a Japanese dual sport (DS) that is totally equal to a European one? I think that is a really interesting question. 68.3% of the respondents claimed they would pay an equal price if they could buy a modern, light, powerful dual sport bike from one of the Big 4 (Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki) that was competitive with the Euro bikes. 26.8% said they would not pay as much since they expect the Japanese manufacturers to provide more value than other motorcycle manufacturers (i.e. I want to buy Euro performance but pay less for it).
While I believe that 68.3% of the respondents would pay an equal price, I suggest that those 68% are not representative of the majority of dual sport motorcyclists.
In the past 10+ years there have been numerous threads on Advrider lamenting the fact that the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers don’t, and won’t, build modern dual sport motorcycles. The underlying belief of all of those threads is that if the Big 4 were to build a modern, high performance DS bike it would match the Euro (i.e. KTM) bikes in performance while also simultaneously matching the cost, reliability, maintenance intervals, and dealer support of the current crop of aged DS bikes the Big 4 sell. In other words, if the Big 4 were to build a modern, high performance DS bike, it would rival the KTM 500 EXC in performance and weight, yet be priced about the same as a new KLR (or the DRZ, or DR, or XR650L – take your choice), be as reliable as the KLR (or the DRZ, or DR, or XR650L – take your choice), have the maintenance schedule of those old bikes, and have lots of dealers everywhere.
However, the truth is that if one of the Big 4 ever builds a modern, high performance DS bike that is the equal of a Euro bike, it will:
– cost about the same as modern, high performance Euro bikes
– be about as reliable as modern, high performance Euro bikes
– require about the same maintenance as modern, high performance Euro bikes
There is no magical manufacturing elixir the Big 4 can use to somehow build a modern, high performance DS bike that is also cheap, reliable, and easy on maintenance (has low maintenance requirements).
1. I want a high performance DS bike
2. I want a cheap DS bike that is reliable and easy on maintenance
The current state of manufacturing limits us to only picking one of the above options. You can choose “performance” or you can choose “cheap, reliable, and easy”. And the Big 4 Japanese manufacturers don’t have a way of overcoming this – they cannot build a high performance DS bike that is also cheap, reliable, and easy.
Let’s use the Yamaha WR250R as an example. In 2008 Yamaha decided to up the game in the 250 DS class by building the class leading WR250R. And they succeeded. The WR250R was a modern, higher performance 250 that easily beat everything else in the 250 DS class from the Big 4. It also cost about 40% more than any of those old-school competitors ($7000 for the Yamaha versus about $5000 for the competition). It simply costs more to build a modern, higher performance DS bike, even for the Big 4, as shown by the WR250R.
(Note that calling the WR250R “higher performance” is in comparison to the other Big 4 250 dual sports available in 2008. The WR250R is clearly not high performance compared to the standard set by Euro DS bikes such as the KTM 250 EXC. If Yamaha were to build a 35+ horsepower, 240 lb, 250cc DS thumper then it would actually be a “high performance bike” competitive against a Euro DS bike like the KTM 250 EXC and not just “high performance in comparison to very old technology DS bikes from Japan Inc.”)
Based on sales volume, it is abundantly clear that a very large majority of riders choose option 2. When voting with their own money, a cheap price trumps performance for most DS riders. Many claim to want option 1 but clearly value cheap, reliable, and easy over performance. In other words, they want high performance but only if it is first cheap, reliable, and easy. The large majority of DS riders will not pay for high performance if it costs more, hence the reason the Big 4’s old bikes outsell the modern Euro bikes by a wide margin.
None of the above is meant to say that option 2 is bad. There is nothing wrong with choosing option 2 – it’s a choice and there is no right or wrong answer. Ride what you want. But the reality of the situation is that while many say they want high performance, they won’t actually pay for high performance or else the Euros would outsell the Big 4.
One the two arguments advanced by fans of old-school Japanese thumpers is that they are easier to repair in the field, especially in less developed countries with few dedicated motorcycle repair shops. This idea is represented by a comment made on this website. “Have you traveled beyond the USA and Europe on a Husqvarna? It’s a lot less reliable and difficult to fix in primitive conditions. It pretty much has to be dealer serviced. It’s also a lot less robust off-road than a deathproof XR.”
It is an interesting argument. Are Japanese bikes truly easier to get repaired in less developed countries than Euro motorcycles? Or do they only seem that way since riders are presumably more comfortable and familiar with older,unchanged technology found on Japanese motorcycles?
Let’s analyze this in detail and see what we come up with.
First, it seems to me that there is no real difference in the reliability of the wheels, forks, shocks, handlebars, levers, grips, seats, foot pegs, brakes, brake lines, master cylinders, fenders, tail lights, blinkers, headlights, etc. of any of the major motorcycling brands. All of these common items are basically on par in every brand. Some of the mentioned items aren’t even manufactured by the motorcycle OEMs – they are bought from third party vendor who sell them to multiple motorcycle manufacturers. It would be hard to argue that there is a difference in reliability for any of these type of items. Is the Renthal handlebar mounted on a Honda motorcycle more reliable than the exact same bar mounted on a KTM? See my point?
Which leaves us with this – the only major differences in reliability between the brands would have to be found in the engine, fueling system, and electrical system.
If you have a major engine problem in a third world country, is it easier to fix if you are on a Japanese motorcycle? Let’s say the main bearing goes out or you drop a valve and ruin your piston. How difficult would something like this be to solve on a Japanese bike versus a Euro bike? My guess is that something like this would take weeks to solve, no matter what brand you are riding. Things like valves, bearings, & pistons will be very specific to any make/model of motorcycle and it would be unlikely that you would find these items on the shelf in the far reaches of a second or third world county. Which would mean you would have to order them and wait however long to receive the parts, after which you would hopefully be able to locate a mechanic competent enough to make the necessary repairs. All of which means engine problems likely can’t be solved roadside, especially in less developed countries.
What about electrical issues? Are they somehow harder to fix on modern Euro dual sports than on Japanese bikes? One can rightly argue that modern bikes have more electronics than old-school thumpers – at a minimum, modern bikes have fuel injection, which is powered by electricity, while all the Japanese bikes are fueled by gravity fed carburetors – which would at least mean more potential for electrical issues on the Euro bikes. But that’s an issue of reliability, not ease of repair. My guess is that there really isn’t a difference in the reliability of electrical systems on any of the bikes. The batteries, alternators, regulators, rectifiers, wiring, fuses, and so on are all of similar reliability. And, as noted above, third party vendors manufacture many of the components used in motorcycle electrical systems and sell them to more than one motorcycle OEM, with zero difference in reliability when they are used in brand X versus brand Y.
Bringing us to ease of repair. My belief is that any electrical issues that you can easily solve roadside on a Japanese bike could also be easily solved on a Euro bike. There is nothing inherently more difficult about diagnosing and repairing a blow fuse, broken wire, or an electrical short on a Euro bike versus a Japanese bike.
For more difficult electrical issues, such as a fried rectifier, I don’t think there is a difference in ease of repair or the amount of time it takes to get replacement parts. Would you really argue that it is easier to do a roadside repair of a rectifier on a Kawasaki versus a KTM? I suggest that you can’t fix either because you a) don’t have the specialized tools with you to do so and b) probably don’t have the expertise. Again, you would likely be forced to order replacement parts, however long that may take.
Lastly, we come to fuel systems. This is the one area that always gets mentioned by fans of old school Japanese thumpers. The belief is that carburetors generally don’t break and, on the rare occasions when they do have problems, those problems are easily solved roadside or by any reasonably competent mechanic.
Look at all the different pieces that combine to make the carburetor on the Honda XR650L. There are a ton of potential failure points. How easy do you really think it is to diagnose and effect a roadside repair on a typical carburetor like this?
One anecdote to emphasize this point – I once had a friend who spent almost two full days getting the carburetor on his DRZ fixed in down in Mexico. The carb was continuously leaking gas into the engine, filling the cylinder with gas and preventing the bike from even cranking over. My friend worked on it for a day. Then took it to a local repair shop where the mechanic took another day trying to diagnose the problem. The fix was new O-rings, which proved to be a challenge to find in the correct size.
The truth is that aside from cleaning dirt out of the carb (a most common problem) there likely isn’t a lot of you can do roadside. Luckily, carburetors are actually quite reliable and don’t usually require roadside repairs – aside from cleaning dirt out of the jets every so often.
What about those new-fangled fuel injectors? Those mysterious things surely must be complicated and hard to repair roadside.
This is the KTM 690 fuel injector. The first thing we note is that it has a lot fewer parts than a carburetor, which automatically means less things to go wrong. Also like a carburetor about the only you can do roadside with a fuel injector is clean out debris or dirt. Finally, fuel injectors have proven over the last 70 years to be both robust and reliable – at least as reliable as carburetors, if not more so.
In summary, are Japanese bikes generally easier to repair roadside, in some far away country? I believe the answer is clear – any roadside repair you can make on a Japanese dual sport is the same roadside repair you could have made on a Euro bike.
It’s an interesting time in history for dual sport bikes (street legal but off-pavement capable motorcycles weighing 300-400 lbs). What makes it so interesting is that there is a very distinct duality in the dual sport world. An old versus new situation, with little else being available.
On one side are the Japanese manufacturers which, with just one exception, only sell very old technology dual sport bikes in the USA. For example, Honda sells the XR650L which has been unchanged for the past 26 years. Kawasaki sells the KLR650, which has had one update in the 31 years. Suzuki’s DRZ400S is going on 18 years with no changes.
On the other side, the European manufacturers don’t sell old-school motorcycles. Everything the Euros are selling in the USA are modern bikes with regular upgrades. For example, Husqvarna released the 701 Enduro in 2016 and then promptly updated it with an entirely new motor in 2017.
So fans of dual sport motorcycles, of which I’m one, get two basic choices – inexpensive Japanese bikes with very old technology or significantly more expensive Euro bikes with modern technology.
Fans of the old Japanese dual sport motorcycles typical advance two arguments when discussing the relative merits of Japanese thumpers versus European thumpers:
- Japanese bikes are more reliable.
- Japanese bikes are easier to repair when you break down in less-developed countries with few motorcycle service shops.
Here is an example of this argument from a comment posted on this website: “Have you traveled beyond the USA and Europe on a Husqvarna? It’s a lot less reliable and difficult to fix in primitive conditions. It pretty much has to be dealer serviced. It’s also a lot less robust offroad than a deathproof XR.”
This particular commenter was addressing my comparison of the Honda XR650L to the Husqvarna 701 but I’ve seen the same sentiments expressed about other makes & models.
Let’s talk about the supposed superior reliability of Japanese motorcycles over Euro bikes first.
The major challenge with debating reliability is the lack of any actual supporting data. I have yet to find any public reports on the reliability of any motorcycle brand. While I think that riders generally believe that Japanese bikes are more reliable than other brands, that belief is never backed up with any verifiable data. We don’t have any real numbers – facts, figures, studies, etc – comparing long term reliability of one brand of motorcycle to others. Consumer Reports informs us of the expected reliability of any make or model automobile but does not offer the same insight when it comes to motorcycles. Which leaves us all guessing as to the actual long-term reliability of any brand or model of motorcycle.
I’ve personally owned two KLRs (one 1st gen, one 2nd gen), two DRZs, one Honda XR650L, one KTM 500 EXC, and three Husqvarnas (TE610, TR650, 701 Enduro). My personal experience has been that the KTM and the three Huskys were noticeably more reliable than any of the five Japanese bikes. The first KLR I owned had multiple issues, one of which required a new head. The second KLR was an oil burner from day 1 and had electrical issues which left me stranded on the side of the road a long way from home. The DRZs were the most reliable of the Japanese bikes I’ve owned but both had multiple minor issues. The “deathproof” Honda was the least reliable motorcycle I’ve ever owned, also leaving me stranded on the side of the road a long way from home. The motor had to be rebuilt twice during the time I owned it at a cost of several thousand dollars.
In comparison, I put almost 20,000 miles on the TE610 – twice as many miles than I put on any of the Japanese bikes – and had one significant issue during that time. The rectifier fried, leaving me stranded on the side of the road. I never had any issues with the TR650 in 10,000 miles of ownership. I’ve put 5,000 miles on the KTM with one minor issue (the horn bracket broke). I’ve only put 3,000 miles on the 701 and though it’s a bit too early to judge long-term reliability I’ve had no issues yet.
None of the above is to suggest that Japanese motorcycles are not reliable or that Euro motorcycles are more reliable than other brands. There is no way to tell if my personal experiences with the motorcycles I’ve owned is representative of other’s experiences owning the same model bikes. For example, none of us have any way of determining the overall reliability of the XR650L compared to similar motorcycles. Were the issues on my XRL an anomaly or have other XRL owners experienced similar issues? Unfortunately, we have no way to tell.
All that being said, my personal bias is that there likely isn’t any real difference in reliability amongst the various major motorcycle manufacturers. I suspect that they are all about the same when it comes to reliability. But that’s one man’s opinion – unsupported by any verifiable facts or figures. And the same goes for everyone else’s opinions too – there is no definitive data to prove the point one way or the other.