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European vs Japanese Motorcycles — Fundamentally different

The two-wheeled experience can be very different depending on what side of the world your bike comes from.

European vs Japanese Motorcycles

A continent versus a country, Europe versus Japan. Whether you’re a Euro enthusiast or a Japanese loyalist, you cannot deny that there are some fundamental differences between bikes made on either side of the fence. Seasoned motorcyclists who’ve tried, tested, and even owned bikes from Japan or Europe will note that there are some very conspicuous differences between these machines. 

Newer riders should know that there are some pretty interesting dynamics at play between European and Japanese bikes. Let’s go over a few key differences between Euro and Japanese bikes and what it is like to own either. 

Editor’s note: We will be speaking in the context of big bikes and with regard to our experience predominantly with mainstream production motorcycles in the middleweight category, and with some in the liter-bike category. This article is also based on our experience dealing with new motorcycle launches and based heavily on our personal and professional observations in the industry and as owners of both Japanese and European bikes. Most of our observations will also be skewed towards naked bikes and some adventure bikes. 

European bikes: Superior performance and tech (on average)

KTM 890 Duke R and Triumph Street Triple RS

For starters, European big bikes have a tendency to skew heavily toward performance. If you take each displacement class and segment into account, on average, Euro bikes will have more horsepower, better suspension, and overall a more decked-out tech package. European motorcycle manufacturers are constantly looking for new technologies and innovations for riders, and it’s not impossible to see revolutionary updates more often than not. 

KTM 790 Duke

KTM comes to mind here when thinking about the innovation and the early adoption of new technologies in the segment, as the 790 Duke at the time of its launch (2017) was a cutting-edge street weapon in comparison to the other middleweights. Triumph caught up recently in 2022 with the launch of the new 2023 Street Triple RS coming with a six-axis IMU. Meanwhile, Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki are catching up slowly, but the Japanese bikes are still lagging behind in terms of riding tech. ABS and traction control is a common features among heavy-middleweight models, but the Japanese models are still quite lacking compared to their European counterparts. 

Ducati Panigale

Following that, we’re also seeing a trend, as Euro bikes tend to be more high-strung compared to their Japanese rivals especially when it comes to big bikes. While scooter, underbone, and commuter segments see a little rivalry between the two (Japanese bikes almost always dominate these small-displacement segments), in the big bike arena, it’s common to see European bikes eeking out rather high displacement figures given the number of cylinders they have. For reference, take the Kawasaki Ninja 400, with its 49 hp-capable parallel twin engine. Now, look at the KTM 390 Duke with its 43-hp single-cylinder. Per cylinder, the Kawasaki is getting about 24.5 hp while the Duke is getting a total of 43 hp out of a single piston. Going even bigger, look at the Ducati Panigale V4S with its up to 240 hp-capable engine at the highest trim level, then compare that to a similar Japanese rival, the Yamaha R1M, with only 198 hp. What about Honda’s supersport Fireblade with a million Rs to its name? That bike nets 215 hp, still 25 hp off the Ducati’s gargantuan top-spec figure. 

Japanese bikes: Simple, over-engineered, and easy to work on

Yamaha MT-07 OIl Sight Glass

How often have you heard of European bikes being holed up at the dealership service center? How many Euro bikes have you encountered with tons of mileage? Now compare that with the Japanese bikes out on the road. It’s not uncommon to see tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of miles on a Japanese motorcycle. 

Yamaha MT-07 Mitas

That doesn’t mean that European motorcycles are programmed or engineered to break sooner than Japanese bikes. It’s just that the maintenance required on a European motorcycle is going to be a little more intensive due to the amount of stress that the engine is in. As touched upon earlier, the high-strung nature of a good number of Euro bikes may give rise to a more intensive maintenance regimen and high-spec componentry also means high-cost consumable parts like brake pads among other things. It’s also good to point out that the more technology is in a motorcycle, the more systems need to be in check for the bike to work properly. The more complex a motorcycle is, the more parts there are to break, but that doesn’t mean that you should stay away from high-tech stuff. 

Motorcycle disc Brakes

With all that being said, Japanese bikes also aren’t immune to breakdowns. A machine is still a machine, and proper maintenance is key to a hassle-free ownership experience. If you neglect a bike for long enough, it will break down regardless of its country of origin. Do what the maintenance guides tell you, follow your service schedule, and befriend your service center of choice. Make sure that you surround yourself with knowledgeable people or even learn how to do things yourself (at your own risk, of course). Just note that European motorcycles will be costlier to maintain whether it’s because of part costs or whether it’s due to the know-how that is required. Remember, added performance and high-tech features usually come at the tradeoff of more expensive consumables and more intensive maintenance intervals. 

Motorcycle Engine Oil Change

We’ve been able to do oil changes ourselves on our motorcycles, and we can safely say that Japanese bikes have the upper hand when it comes to being easy to work on. Some European brands actually fit star, or even proprietary bolt patterns on their motorcycles, such is the case with BMW and its R 1250 GS. The German marque does this in order to have only certified technicians work on the more sensitive parts of the motorcycle like the valve train. Meanwhile, as long as you have a socket set and a bunch of allen wrenches, you can probably work on a Japanese motorcycle yourself. 

European bikes: The latest and greatest

BMW R 1250 GS

Whenever a new bike from a European brand comes out, there’s usually a big update, and whenever a new model comes out some purists will question the viability of the update. A recent example was the Ducati Monster 937 at the time of its launch. The changes made to the latest Monster were so different from the nameplate’s predecessor due to the fact that Ducati chose to go with a new chassis instead of the traditional trellis frame. Other than that, updates usually mean totally new styling, componentry, or a major update to the engine, if not a totally new engine altogether. Aside from that, the rate at which bikes are updated usually come every five years or so, quite often in contrast to Japanese motorcycles. 

Ducati Monster 937

With that being said, European brands like being at the forefront of innovation, and new models tend to look radically different from generation to generation. Japanese bikes are more iterative every time a new model year turns over. Bikes like the Suzuki SV650 have been around since the 90s with upgrades being added with every update. The usual theme whenever Japanese bikes get updated is marginally better than before. Minor updates like livery and paint job updates, a revision with the suspension spring rates or valves, different tires, and different fonts, are just some of the updates that Japanese brands can field whenever an existing model is refreshed. It’s not often that a totally new model with a totally new engine will be fielded. The life cycle of an engine or a nameplate usually lasts many years, and Japanese brands also have a tendency to share many of their powertrains across a variety of models to keep production streamlined. It’s not uncommon to see the same powerplant being reused but improved upon every other year from the Japanese brands. Kawasaki’s been keeping its parallel twin platforms essentially untouched for quite a while now, and Honda’s been fielding its inline-four 650cc motor for close to a decade already with some updates made over the years as well. The net effect is that the brands learn to master engine manufacturing over a long period of time, which helps quite a bit with longevity

Ducati Monster 937

The chief concern when it comes to European bikes since they’re so cutting-edge is the growing pains that will be associated with the new models. With every new iteration, there is bound to be a recall here and there or a warranty claim if a model is totally new, regardless of how many testing hours a manufacturer has logged prior to the model’s release. In contrast, by keeping and iteratively upgrading a motorcycle, Japanese brands tend to be ready and reliable right out of the dealership floor. While you may not be getting the latest and greatest, tried and tested is usually the name of the game for Japanese bikes. 

Accessories: In stock or in transit?

KTM Sliders
Honda CBR500R Zard Exhaust

One hurdle that we’ve had to overcome when purchasing an accessory for our motorcycles is the waiting times associated with the parts that we want. For starters, it’s quite common for a Japanese bike to have accessories in stock. Shops normally keep popular models’ parts in stock since the turnover rate and the demand for these pieces often incentivize them to have stuff at the ready. Meanwhile, quite a number of European bikes are on a by-order-basis which means that customers will have to wait for their accessories to arrive if they’re tailor-made to the bike. 

Objectively speaking, there are a lot more Japanese big bikes on the road and in the garages of riders. If your bike isn’t as popular, then you might need to dig around a little bit more or wait for the next shipment to come in. For example, I personally had no problems buying sliders for my Honda, but the KTM had to wait quite a while since there were no new products in stock at my local shop. 

Japanese or European bikes?

When it all boils down to it, there are some considerations that you need to know with regard to which side of the world you’d like to purchase your bike from. European bikes are a ton of fun to ride, and Japanese bikes are too, but if you like having the latest and greatest riding technology and architecture available, then Euro is the way to go on most days. However, if your lust for performance isn’t as high, and you value robust reliability and longevity, Japanese bikes are the traditional choice for most motorcyclists. 

With that being said, it’s a non-negotiable rule to always stay on top of your maintenance intervals. The MotoDeal team owns European and Japanese bikes currently, and so far so good between the two sides of the fence. While we will say that maintaining a Japanese bike is more on the cheap and cheerful side of things, we will note that the performance of a European bike is worth investing in, especially at higher levels of performance. 

Do we think that Japanese bikes can’t hold a candle to the performance of a European rival? Absolutely not. Do we think that European bikes can’t be simple and easy to maintain? Heck no. There are quirks to a European bike versus a Japanese one and your mileage definitely will vary. Just remember, to keep your maintenance intervals in check, manage expectations, and always make sure to have a trusted mechanic or service center on call. 

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