Before the onset of the global pandemic, I’d never have imagined that a video conference call could be the stage for an impassioned debate on used motorcycles. But that’s precisely what I had with some riding buddies last weekend. The question that sparked the heated discussion? What’s the best used touring motorcycle that one can buy on the open market?
If you ask this question of a dozen motorcyclists, you’re almost certain to get a dozen different answers. As became apparent during that conference call, it seems almost impossible for a bunch of riders to arrive at some kind of consensus on this topic.
In light of which, I reckoned there’s only one sensible thing to do: look at what the data says. Of course, data can't tell you how much you would enjoy riding a particular model over another, but then neither can anybody else, since that's such a uniquely individual experience. But what data can do is show you which models offer you the best odds of finding a used bike in great condition.
So, without further ado, I present to you my super-ultra-scientific analysis of the top 15 models of pre-owned touring bikes that money can buy.
Step 1 - Gathering the Juicy Data
The first step was to find the top Google results for websites with listings of used motorcycles. I narrowed down on Cycle Trader, CycleSoup, and the classifieds section on good old Motorcycle.com. (PS: If you’re the webmaster of Autotrader, you might want to fix the motorcycles section on your site -- it was down; I checked several times, and it’s still down at the time of writing.)
The next step was to collate listings data for all the used touring motorcycles on these sites. This includes make, model, variant, year, miles clocked, and of course, selling price.
My searches returned a total of 1,974 listings. After weeding out duplicates, irrelevant results, and listings with insufficient data, that came down to 873 listings for used touring motorcycles, spread across 92 models.
Step 2 - Crunching the Delicious Numbers
With the data in place, I surveyed a bunch of experienced riders on the most important factors they’d consider when buying a used motorcycle. The poll result was unsurprising: mileage (the number of miles that a bike has clocked), year (the bike’s age), and price, were the three most important parameters at the top of everyone’s list.
But whether or not you consciously factor it, there’s another variable that affects your used motorcycle purchase choices -- availability.
Think about it. Let’s say you want to buy a Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird. Regardless of how well these bikes have been maintained by their previous owners, how few miles they’ve done, or how recent a vintage exists, none of these things matters unless the bike is actually available on the market.
(If you actually can afford to buy a 1999 CBR1100X, AND you find one up for sale -- well, good on you!)
If you did the math, you’d already have noticed that 873 listings across 92 models works out to an average of 9.48 listings per model. That isn’t what you’d call a wide choice set for buying a used bike. Fortunately though, that’s just the average, and there are plenty of models with a lot more than 9 listings to choose from.
Note: For the sake of simplicity, I’ve counted all the different variants of a model as belonging to a single model. For instance, the Multistrada 1200, Enduro, Enduro Pro, 1260, 1260 S, and 1260 Pikes Peak, have all been categorized as a single model. The Multistrada 950 is counted as a different model, though.
Lastly, in addition to the four parameters covered so far, another one that often influences purchase decisions, is a brand’s reputation for reliability. When it comes to maintenance issues, not all motorcycle manufacturers are equal. See for yourself -- ask any motorcycle mechanic if they’d recommend buying a pre-2010 BMW or a modern-day Benelli.
(If you ever get an unequivocal yes, mayyyybe get a second opinion.)
Step 3 - Ranking the Who’s Who of Used Touring Motorcycles
To make sense of the ranking, here’s a quick overview of the criteria I’ve used.
Miles clocked: Broadly speaking, a well-maintained motorcycle can serve you well past 100,000 miles, especially the sport tourers at the premium end of the price band. I’ve used 30,000 miles as the benchmark for miles clocked. This way, you can still enjoy many, many miles of fun as a bike’s new owner.
Age: Time isn’t a kind master even to motorcycles, and even to those with low miles. The average lifespan of a modern motorcycle is around 15 years. Of course, with proper care and maintenance a modern bike can last much, much longer than that.
(A former coworker of mine rides a ‘94 CBR600F, for instance. Over 26 years old and 140,000 miles on the clock, and still runs as smooth as the day it left the dealership.) Still, to err on the side of caution, I’ve used 7 years as the benchmark for age. Under 7 years old is good, more than that, not so much.
Price: This one is slightly trickier. Obviously, lower is better, but you can’t reasonably compare a $5,500 Kawasaki Versys-X 300 to a $22,000 BMW K 1600 GTL.
Ratios like price-to-horsepower don’t make much sense either. Despite what most motorcycle journalists might have you believe, there’s a lot more to a motorcycle than just its power output. Besides, there’s plenty of people that actually want bikes without the power output of a Death Star -- such bikes are a hoot and a half to ride.
All things considered, the best approach seems to be to compare a bike’s selling price to its own original MSRP. Computing this for all 873 listings, I could see that the average rate of depreciation for these bikes is around eight percent per year. So, bikes that have depreciated more, relative to their original price are rated as offering a better deal than those that depreciate relatively little.
But there’s a caveat here. Often, all other things being equal, depreciation is an excellent heuristic for utility. If bike X depreciates like fine wine while bike Y does like milk, that usually indicates that nobody wants to buy bike Y, for some reason.
Typically, this comes down to maintenance-related issues, like a model being unreliable, expensive to maintain, difficult to find spares for, and so on. Which brings us to the next parameter that I’ve factored into these rankings…
Reliability: When it comes to the reliability of motorcycle models, there isn’t really a… well, reliable way to assess it. Ironic, yes? The problem is, short of comparing actual maintenance data from dealerships or mechanics, it isn’t possible to evaluate their reliability quantitatively. As you might imagine, these businesses aren’t very keen to divulge this sort of proprietary data.
And anecdotal accounts are of limited value since you can find owners with glowing or scathing reviews for pretty much any bike. In the absence of better data, I decided to use the figures from a 2018 survey that polled more than 700 motorcycle owners in the US about their experience of reliability of different motorcycle brands. So this isn’t so much the absolute reliability performance of these models as it is their reputation for reliability.
Availability: As I said before, availability matters. If a particular model scores well on all the previous parameters, but there’s just one single bike listed for sale on some site, odds aren’t great that you can find the listing, be in the right location to meet the owner, and strike a deal.
To address this, one component of the overall ranking is an availability score, calculated by sorting models by the percent rank of availability relative to the most commonly available model. Incidentally, the most commonly available model was the Ducati Multistrada 1200, with 71 listings. The least available of the top 15 was the Tracer 900, with just 14 units listed.
Step 4 - Putting It All Together
The last piece of the puzzle was to assign weights to all the parameters to arrive at a final score. As you’d expect, mileage and age were the most important factors, followed by price. Because the survey figures representing reputation for reliability seem somewhat questionable (the survey rates BMW as more marginally more reliable than Yamaha, for instance), this score has the least weightage, alongside availability.
Finally, to avoid the confusion of some parameters running on lower-is-better logic while others don’t, I’ve converted all of them to scores on a 100-point scale. (Higher is always better for the scores.)
And now, folks, the thing you’ve all been waiting for: the comparison of the 15 best touring motorcycles that money can buy.
As you can see, miles clocked is the first ranking parameter. The Yamaha Tracer 900 had the lowest average miles of any model on the top 15, at just 2,633 miles. This isn't surprising considering the average age of the Tracer 900 listings was just 1 year.
But at the time of researching this post, there were so few Tracer 900 models available that it narrowly misses out on the top spot.
I was surprised to see that the top two ranks were filled by Yamaha models. Despite its middling average age of 4 years, the FJ-09 beats the Tracer 900 thanks to its higher availability score. I should point out that although the average year of FJ-09 models was 2016, with 60 units listed, the odds of finding a good one are pretty good.
Further down, the Ducati Multistrada comes in at number three on strong value-for-money and availability. Consider that while the MSRP of a 2015 Multistrada 1200 (the average year of models listed) was $19,999, the average selling price is just $10,786. With 71 listings available, your odds of finding one in great shape are not bad at all.
On the other hand, bringing in the rear of the top 15 is the KTM 1190 Adventure. With the lowest reputation for reliability of any make on this list, the two KTM models rank much lower than they might have otherwise fared.
Surprisingly, both BMW models on this list rank almost at the bottom of the top 15. Mainly because of their relatively high miles clocked, at around 24,000 and 18,000 miles. (Looks like BMW owners do ride a lot farther than just to the local Starbucks.)
There are some really interesting models in the middle, too. The Honda Gold Wing, for instance. The average MSRP of a 2016 Gold Wing was $23,999 for the base variant, and as much as $30,599 for a top-of-the-line variant. Meanwhile, the average price for a used Gold Wing is $15,984 -- that's between 33 and 48 percent less than the original MSRP.
And of course, with Honda's legendary build quality and reliability, these things will last forever with a little care, so the average 10,277 miles clocked is no concern at all. The Gold Wing isn't to everyone's taste, but if you do like yourself a Gold Wing, you might want to consider buying a used one.
The other really interesting bike on our top 15 is the Versys-X 300. Not only is the average age just 3 years, but the average miles clocked is also just 3,620, too! Given its Japanese reliability, that's as good as new.
The only problem is, a brand new 2020 model (which is exactly the same, no feature changes), goes for just $5,499 MSRP, so paying $4,210 isn't necessarily a huge difference. Hunt around for a better price and negotiate your way down to a better price, and you'll have yourself a real steal.
What is your take on this top 15 ranking? Would you buy a Tracer 900 or KTM 1190 Adventure? Or some other model on this list? Or do you disagree with the method or results?
Do let me know in the comments below! I look forward to reading your angry letters or wholehearted concurrence, as the case may be.