The Hidden Costs of Motorcycling

Are cheaper bikes actually cheaper to own over the long haul…?

How much does a modern motorcycle cost? As with perennial questions regarding the length of string, the answer is always “it depends”. But it’s easy to forget that the showroom price tag is just the tip of the iceberg. Every year you pay for your share of the potholes with the road fund license, shield yourself from unforeseen events with insurance, and pay your local MOT tester to confirm that your machine meets the minimum possible safety standards. On top of that you’ll be paying for fuel and servicing, both of which increase proportionally along with how much you actually ride.

These are the costs that are often forgotten when the smiling salesperson at your local motorcycle dealer is explaining just how cheap owning a brand-new high-tech, high-powered dream-machine could be. They’re keeping you focused on the cost of the equipment, and you’re forgetting that the cost of actually using it can be far higher. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who’s ever been caught in horrified surprise when the bill for the annual service is presented.

“£1000”, they said. “I’ll do it myself”, I replied.

I’m always shopping for new bikes in one way or another, and at the moment I’m semi-seriously planning for my V-Strom 650‘s eventual retirement. With my annual mileage, I could easily see 100k on the clock before the end of next year, which seems like a reasonable life expectancy for a well-maintained modern machine. It’s wearing its miles well, but I’ve decided that it’s time to figure out what I’m going to be riding for the next 100k. The great news is that there’s never been a better time to shop for an upright do-it-all motorcycle, so it’s time to do some maths.

My loose requirements have led me to a long list of Adventure-Sport and Sport-Touring motorcycles which, in their base spec, can be ridden away for £13,000 or less. That being said, I usually choose a higher-spec to start with and it’s always worth remembering that adding luggage usually costs extra still. Comparing apples to apples is very difficult indeed. I’ve used www.fuelly.com to estimate real-world fuel economy to the nearest 5 mpg (UK), and used my current local petrol prices of £1.069 per litre to calculate the cost-per-mile to fuel each bike.

Despite my considerable efforts, the miles are starting to take their toll.

I’ve also contacted dealers for each manufacturer to confirm the service intervals and pricing for each bike on my list. Some brands were a pleasure to deal with, and for some brands it was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Special mention must got to Blade Motorcycles Cheltenham who had one of their service managers call me directly to answer my questions and provide some valuable insights. Sales staff are trained to be friendly when they’re trying to take your money; knowing your dealer has a similar approach to their after-sales service is well worth while.

I’ve given up trying to get numbers from Honda, so their bikes aren’t represented in my data. I’ve called and emailed half a dozen dealers, and was basically fobbed off or ignored entirely. It’s also worth remembering that while manufacturers will specify the number of hours each service takes and the parts needed for each one, individual dealers control their own labour rates and part markups. The data I’ve gathered should be used as a guide only, and I always recommend getting quotes in writing from your local service department for any motorcycle you are considering, and then follow up with your own calculations.

Right-click & Open Image for the full raw data.

Most bikes have a different service schedule, but all follow a fairly similar pattern that then repeats as mileages continue upwards. For example, every bike I’m looking at needs a break-in service at 600 miles, and most then follow with minor/major alternating services at fixed mileage intervals. In most cases, a major service includes a valve clearance check and adjustment, which dramatically increases the cost due to the time involved. Moto-Guzzi‘s air-cooled engines need their clearances checking and adjusting at every service, but Yamaha’s only need doing every 4th visit.

To smooth things out and give a realistic estimate of long-term total cost of ownership I added up the total cost of servicing up to the point when it started to repeat, and then divided that by the number of miles it took to get there, giving me an approximate cost-per-mile for maintenance that I could extrapolate from. None of this included suspension servicing, time-based maintenance such as brake fluid or coolant changes, and tyres and other consumables need to be added on as well. But without any reliable data to draw from, estimates for those costs would be so inaccurate as to be worthless, and so I’ve ignored them here.

I’m making a couple of assumptions (purchase/petrol price) but the numbers don’t lie.

Finally, in order to get a comparable lifetime cost, I’ve assumed 100,000-mile ownership, multiplying the cost-per-mile of fuel and servicing by that number to get those total costs, then adding them to the original base-model purchase price of the vehicle. Again – these numbers are for comparison only, and your mileage will literally vary. But what we do see in these results is very interesting indeed.

Sorted by total cost, the results are somewhat surprising.

First up, some motorcycles and brands are incredibly expensive to maintain. Secondly, while some bikes are more expensive to buy up-front, their reduced fuel consumption and servicing costs can make them more competitive than they would initially seem. The obvious example here is my wildcard electric motorcycle, the Zero SR/S. Almost £20,000 for the base model with no extras, but cheap(er) servicing and tiny fuelling (electricity) costs mean that it sits right in the middle for total cost of ownership. An interesting detail here is that Zero want you to bring their bikes in for a service every 4,000 miles, something their dealer was unable to give me a good explanation for. An electric motor requires no servicing, so the only things your dealer is charging you (hah!) for are checking that nothing’s worked loose and inspecting the brakes and tyres. If there was ever a candidate for home-servicing, it would be this one.

Triumph unfortunately lose this competition right away. Not only are their bikes priced quite high thanks to their features and technology, the relatively frequent servicing costs are truly eye-watering. The bigger Tiger 1200 fares a little better here with its impressive 10,000-mile service intervals, but the thirstier engine and high purchase price cancel out the gains almost exactly compared with the cheaper Tiger 900. Clearly Triumph‘s engineers are placing ease of servicing very low on the priority ladder. That being said, the tick-sheets I’ve seen suggest that some of this is at least due to a far more thorough schedule of work – no other manufacturer that I know of includes greasing suspension linkages and changing fork oil as official service items.

Here it is: the most expensive all-round motorcycle you can own.

Seeing Ducati taking a dishonourable second place shouldn’t really be a surprise – they’re expensive to buy, you expect them to be expensive to service, and that turns out to be true. The Italians have tried to improve matters in recent years by increasing the intervals with which your dealer will empty your wallet, but empty it they will. More surprising is to see Kawasaki nipping at their heels, with the Ninja 1000SX and Versys 1000 siblings costing almost as much to run in the long term. It’s a triple-threat here, with Kawasaki pushing their pricing up in recent years as they’ve piled on the technology. This combines with frequent and expensive servicing and a relatively ancient engine design that delivers fairly shocking fuel economy figures.

Modern design and electronics, but thirsty and difficult-to-service engine raise costs.

Almost as surprising was to see Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050 close behind. Suzuki is another once-budget brand that has recently developed up-market aspirations, and the elevated purchase price coupled with eye-watering service costs make for unflattering comparisons with the competition. BMW‘s big 1250cc boxer needs servicing slightly more often than Suzuki‘s venerable v-twin, but the ease with which the mechanics can access those exposed cylinder heads means that servicing is some of the cheapest around. You can push the purchase price up with frightening ease once you dip into the not-really-optional extras, but it’ll still work out cheaper in the long run than the decidedly less sophisticated Suzuki.

Expensive to buy, but ease of access means boxer engines are cheap to service.

Yamaha’s Tracer 900 suffers from the same problem as other Japanese motorcycles. It’s becoming an expensive bike, especially if you start adding on luggage and opt for the better-equipped GT model I recently reviewed. But because valve clearances only need checking or adjusting every 24,000 miles, maintenance costs are kept under control, and like the big BMW it manages impressive fuel economy for such a powerful motorcycle. I’ll get to this later, but I’m also more inclined to believe that the Tracer 900 would last 100,000 miles without too much trouble, whereas I’m not sure the R1250RS would.

Cheap to buy, frugal on fuel, and low-cost servicing, but questionable reliability.

Our two oddballs come next, coming within spitting distance of each other. In KTM‘s case, it’s because the 790 Adventure only requires the attention of a mechanic every 9,000 miles, and owners are easily returning an impressive 60mpg (UK). Reliability is a concern, with recent KTMs becoming infamous for requiring unscheduled dealer visits even during the warranty period. Not a problem for some, but a deal breaker for me I’m afraid. The Moto-Guzzi needs more frequent servicing, but that work is very cheap thanks to the exposed cylinder heads and relatively low-tech engine. The V85TT also boasts shaft-drive meaning that chain and sprocket replacements will never be necessary. What’s more, an air-cooled engine means will never need coolant changes, a further cost savings compared to all the other bikes I’m considering. A very tempting choice indeed.

Same exposed cylinders, and also no chain or coolant to replace.

Next comes another surprise. Despite featuring an increasingly-common parallel twin engine layout, the BMW F750GS and F900XR are apparently very easy to work on, resulting in very cheap servicing, even at a BMW main dealer. They’re not cheap to buy, especially when you pile on the usual practically-mandatory option packs, but genuinely impressive fuel economy helps to push ownership costs down further still. These new engines are made in China, not Germany, so reliability remains to be proven, and BMW haven’t exactly been winning awards on that score of late in any case. But if you got lucky, either bike represents a very affordable way to enjoy that desirable BMW ownership experience.

Surprisingly cheap to own, but BMW reliability has been slipping of late.

Bringing up the rear in the best possible way are the quartet of Kawasaki‘s Versys 650/Ninja 650 pairing, Yamaha‘s smaller Tracer 700, and in last (first?) place, Suzuki‘s own V-Strom 650. I didn’t do these sorts of detailed calculations before choosing my own V-Strom back in 2015, but it’s interesting to see that even if I’d bought new and paid a dealer to take me all the way to 100,000 miles it would still have been the cheapest bike in the segment to own. In my case I’ve saved money by doing my own maintenance, then spent it again on performance modifications, but so far my own records suggest that I’m coming in way under-budget. This is important, as all four of these smaller-engined ~70bhp machines still require a big-bike-sized amount of regular maintenance. Good fuel economy and low purchase prices help keep the numbers down, but their comparatively low-tech nature makes them prime candidates for learning to change your own oil and check your own valves.

Mechanically simple engines present a realistic home-servicing opportunity.

We can draw some interesting overall conclusions from all of this. Firstly, while recommended retail price is a good indicator of lifetime ownership costs there are enough outliers to warrant closer inspection. Secondly, if a bike looks easy to service, then it probably is. Exposed cylinders make for quick, and therefore cheap, valve clearance checks, while complex multi-cylinder engines are generally difficult to work on. Thirdly, the Japanese manufacturers may want to be careful about how quickly they’re moving their products up the premium bike ladder. Most consumers – and in some cases, their own build quality and dealership/ownership experience – still mark them as more budget offerings compared to their European competition. If they drive pricing up to far too quickly, they’ll find that they’ll lose more budget-oriented customers to previously-dismissed players like Moto-Guzzi, while still being unable to tempt customers away from their new premium competition at Triumph, Ducati, and BMW.

With rising price tags, the Japanese bikes are now competing directly with the Europeans.

Fourth, Triumph needs to get their act together. I stopped taking my own Street Triple R to my dealer very early on because of the laughable quotes I was being given for scheduled maintenance, and it looks like the latest evolution of that engine is even more expensive to work on. Ducati has worked hard to shed it’s expensive-to-maintain reputation because it was genuinely hurting sales. If Triumph can’t engineer their bikes to be easier and therefore cheaper to service then it won’t be long before they pick up that particular thorned crown.

Fifth, electric bikes are getting very close to where they could be seriously considered as sensible all-weather, all-purpose commuters. The range and charge time mean that touring is out of the question, but if you rack up big mileages riding to work you can just about break even with the petrol-powered competition. Just as we’ve recently hit a breaking point in electrically-powered cars, practical home-charged motorcycles could be just around the corner. It will be interesting to see what Fuell‘s upcoming offerings look like in this regard, and even Honda are said to be preparing an electric version of their CB300R with a focus on affordability.

Sky-high purchase prices are coming down but frequent servicing is a puzzler.

But as I’ve suggested earlier on, you’ll want to do your own calculations and see how the numbers stack up for you, but this should at least get you started and it’s enabled me to draw some interesting conclusions. Most bikes will never see the sort of mileages I’m suggesting, which is just as well as I don’t trust a lot of them to last that long. What’s more, while bikes like my V-Strom are proven to be reliable well beyond their warranty period, owning the likes of a BMW could potentially get very expensive once coverage expires. I’ve never seen a high-mileage Multistrada, but don’t know whether that’s because no-one rides them that much or because they all explode long before they reach six digits. I do know that my local independent Ducati mechanic is always over-subscribed, but maybe their newer engines are more long-lasting than their old air-cooled stuff.

Owners VW have improved reliability, but would you trust a Ducati to last 100,000 miles?

One final point to remember is that every motorcycle is designed to a brief – it’s designed to fulfil certain criteria, and longevity is one of those. Honda know that Goldwing riders will hit six digits with ease and regularity, and a reputation for reliability is what keeps them coming back. That’s why Honda‘s engineers dedicated extra time, money, and resources to ensuring that those bikes probably will hit 100,000 miles without breaking a sweat. And I’ve seen a 50,000-mile tear-down of a modern Tiger 1200, and absolutely everything was still perfectly in-spec, a good sign that the engine had been designed to do big miles.

Expecting to rack up high miles? Buy a bike that’s been engineered to handle it.

BMW once told me that their customers trade their bikes in for a new one on average every 20 months, after which the bike is sold into the used market. Cynically-speaking, that second owner matters far less to BMW than someone who guarantees them a regular income for years to come by buying their bikes brand-new. If that first-owner, the person they’re trying to impress and keep coming back never sees 30,000 miles on any one bike, how much effort and money do we really think their engineers are spending to ensure that those engines will last two or three times that long?

Honda has an incentive to ensure Goldwing owners’ reliability expectations are met.

But just as important as the design brief are your requirements as a customer, as a motorcyclist. If you like buying new bikes on the regular and never rack up big mileages, then long-term servicing costs probably won’t matter to you. If you ride infrequently, then the difference between 40 and 50 mpg is completely irrelevant. And if you don’t depend on your bike for daily transport or regularly take long trips, then maybe you’re happy to risk needing that warranty every now and again. And let’s face it, thanks to PCP, a lot of people spend more on their monthly phone contract than it would cost for some new motorcycles. If that’s you, then knock yourself out – go enjoy the incredible variety of choice available to you at your local showrooms.

Money or reliability no object, my perfect motorcycle. But sadly, both are factors.

But if, like me, you want to buy and keep a bike long-term and expect to put big miles on an engine without dealing with unexpected repairs, I suggest you be a little bit more discerning. Choose a bike that the manufacturer intended for that purpose. Do the math and make sure you aren’t going to encounter any nasty financial surprises, and maybe you’ll find that some options you’d previously dismissed become viable choices after all. Do your homework and you can sometimes extend that new-bike honeymoon period to the full 100,000 miles.

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