The Test Ride . . . And How to Get One

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One of the weird things about buying a new motorcycle is buying it before you’ve actually ridden it. This happens a lot with bikes. It almost never happens with a car buy – because it’s contrary to practice and what people expect. With cars, a test drive is obligatory, part of the process. In fact, most car dealers – most car salesmen – will do their all to get you behind the wheel, to foster an emotional attachment between you and the car. It’s a proven winner. Sometimes, they’ll even offer to let you take a demo home for the night – knowing this will almost certainly cinch the deal.test ride pic 1

A bike dealer, on the other hand, might let you take a demo bike out for a ride if you are not a young kid (under 35) and you have a motorcycle endorsement and they’ve run your DMV record and it’s absolutely “clean” and you have primo insurance, an 800 credit score – and you’ve proved to their satisfaction you’re seriously looking to buy a bike, not just ride one.

It can be a PITAS.

No. It is a PITAS.

But, in defense of the bike store and its staff, they probably don’t know you personally – much less how well (or not) you can ride. And even a good rider can get into trouble on a new/unfamiliar bike. And unlike a car test drive, the bike store can’t send a saleseman out with you in the shotgun seat for the demo ride to show you how this/that works, the bike’s quirks, etc. Huge liability for them if you inadvertently throttle wheelie a new ZX10 at 80 MPH and lose it all over the interstate . . . or drop a 900 pound dresser because the weight got away from you at a traffic light.test ride pic 2

Also, unlike a car dealership (most car dealerships) bike stores frequently do not have a parking lot full of demo bikes. They may only have one bike of the particular type you’re interested in – and are understandably reluctant to put miles on the clock because once they do, the bike’s no longer “new” – at least, not in the eyes of other prospective buyers in the event you do not buy the thing.

Would you want to buy a “new” bike  – and pay new bike money for it – if someone else has already ridden it?

So, that’s what you’re up against.

But, it is very important to get seat time on any new bike you’re not already very familiar with before you commit to buying. Bikes – to a much greater extent than cars – are highly individualistic. The seat height, the positioning of controls relative to your limbs, the bike’s weight, the engine’s power – and power delivery characteristics – its handling  . . . all of which can vary to an extreme extent, bike to bike. With cars, the money is a kind of fail-safe. Most people who can afford a new Corolla can’t afford a Porsche 911 GT3. So they cross shop Corollas and Civics and Malibus.

But with bikes, it’s a much shorter hop from say a $6,000 KLR 650 (a very mild dual sport/street-trail bike) to a $10,000 hypersport bike capable of a 9 second quarter mile and 170 on top. And if your riding experience is limited to the KLR . . .  .test ride 3

Still, you want to ride – hopefully, shiny side up – before you buy.

It’s no fun realizing the bike you just bought is not the bike for you. And not only that, bike depreciation is steep – and immediate. Once it’s yours, you’d better be committed – and happy – or else be prepared to take a hit. Even if it’s only a couple weeks off the dealer’s lot and you’ve barely put 300 miles on the thing.

So, ok – how to get that test ride?

Some dealerships have occasional mass-ride test days. But you will probably be limited to certain models only – and it will be chaotic, because you’ll likely be lining up with a dozen (two dozen?) other people itching-to-ride. The ride itself may be restricted to the dealership’s parking lot. Or the amount of time you’re allowed to take a bike out.

What you want is a thorough ride in real-world conditions, meaning how you’d ride the bike in the real world. You want an hour’s seat time, at least.

The surest fire way I know – and this is based on years of personal experience – to wrangle this is by first developing a personal relationship with a bike store – long before you come in to ride and buy.

It’s convenient (and often cheaper) to buy stuff like oil, filters and other things like that online – but it’s better (for you) to buy it at you local bike store. Get to know the counter people and sales staff – they’re often the same people. Usually, the staff is small – even at a bigger bike store. Buy tires for your current bike there and have them do minor service, maybe.test ride 4

Once you get to the point of “Hi, Bob! How are things today?” getting a test ride will be much easier.

Next, be serious.

Have your money (cash or financing) lined up and ready – and be ready to buy and make it clear you will buy, if the bike feels right. If the dealer thinks you’re a joyrider, forget about it. And can you blame him, really?

Come geared up. No shorts and a T for a ‘Busa test ride. Your gear speaks to your experience – and your maturity. Serious riders have serious gear. Squids have $70 helmets and come to ride superbikes wearing street jeans and a wife beater.

Know the bike.

You may not have ridden it yet, but you should have read up on it. Know its specifications, what it can do. It will ease the sales staff’s jitters if they know you know this is a 180 hp (and 200 MPH) bike… before you twist the throttle. Be honest with yourself, too – about your experience as a rider. If you’ve never ridden a supersport – or a 900 pound dresser – don’t pretend that you have. It’s a good way to get in over your head and end up breaking something.test ride last

And that something may be you, too.

Do not come to the store with anything less than a clean DMV record and a great credit score. If you haven’t got one or the other – much less both – your test ride opportunities are going to be slim.

Finally, be nice.

Ask about a test ride – don’t get all huffy and demand one. At least, not right out of the gate. Talk with the sales staff about the bike, explain your interest – impress them with your level-headedness and knowledge of bikes. Offer to show them your motorcycle endorsement before they ask for it. Tell them it’s fine to run a DMV and credit check – again, before they bring it up.

Then the ball is in their court. You’ve made it clear you’re a for-real buyer (and for-real rider). You haven’t been pushy about it, but you’ve let them know you expect to be able to try the bike our before you commit to buying it. This is entirely reasonable – and if you’ve been reasonable, probably, they will be too.

And if they’re not, then try another store.

Throw it in the Woods?

About the writer: Eric Peters is a veteran car/bike journalist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs.

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  1. My experience back in the day was that Harley dealers would typically have one of every type of Harley to test ride (Sportster, Dyna, Softail, Dresser). However if you wanted a Sportster 1200, maybe they only had an 883. Also the HD factory in York, PA has the entire demo fleet, with every model, available during their open house weekend. Rice dealers were quite different. Basically, they would let you ride any bike they had, but you basically had to buy it first. So, you’d buy it, they’d to all the paperwork, you’d sign all of it.. then you’d ride. After the ride, they’d tear up the paperwork. (I guess after which, you’d start to make the deal…) Never did that with the ricer, but did with Harleys. (BMW’s too BTW) Like you said, showing up with full gear certainly helps. Lotta times, if they see you ride up, they know you are okay to test ride.

    • Hi Tom,

      In my experience, “gear” – and riding up (rather than driving up) makes the right impression. Especially if your gear looks like it’s been used. And you’re riding a not-beginner bike.

      Ride up on a classic bike and you’ll be treated like royalty!

  2. Boy, does this article strike a nerve. Many years ago, I purchased a Suzuki DRZ400 on the advice of everyone I asked. Local dealer in Orland had one, looked nice, bought it. 20 minutes into the ride home, the bitches started. Over the term of ownership, I found several items that should have been deal breakers if I had done a little more research or been given a test ride.

    The biggest was the fact that the seat felt like an edgewise 2×4 after 20 minutes. even after a reshaping with a hacksaw it was still bad. With the reshaping came a small reduction in the height of the seat, which was something like 34-36 inches from the factory. My inseam is 30 inches….A lot if tip-toeing and bouncing back and forth to keep my butt-cheeks from catching fire from the seat hardness/shape. Would have been nice if Corbin made a seat…

    Other nags: No sixth gear even though the engine had enough steam to pull it. No tach and the most ridiculous speed/tripmeter I’ve ever seen. It was sophisicated enough to time station passage (it WAS an enduro after all) down to the foot and second which is really important when riding in town, but resetting the odometer for tank mileage took a cryptic set of button pushes that would have made a cypher-lock blush.

    And speaking of tank mileage, with the mandated EVAP emissions package with the required expansion space inside the tank, you could only squeeze in a little over 2 gallons, which meant that you were thinking about the next fuel stop as you were leaving the gas station. Best gas mileage I ever got was about 55 mpg, much less if spirited off-roading was happening.

    So two things I took away: My friends really don’t know squat about bikes, and a test ride-no greenbacks.

    • Dale, I rode a friend’s GS 1000 Suzuki and really liked it. The dealer had none but had several GSL’s but no ridey. Ok, it’s the same bike but different bars and fork angle. Screw me, the ride height had me tip toeing the entire time I had it. Sold it to my nephew and he promptly put it in the barditch at about 120mph and walked away. I’ll never buy another without a test. The ride height wasn’t the only thing I didn’t care for either. I didn’t like the hangar bar style bars, greatly preferred the GS bars since I did most of my riding on the tank behind a racing fairing and my feet on the rear pegs.

    • Dale Alexander – You are right on the money about the DRZ-400. Fortunately, I was looking at a used one nearby and the owner (seeing I was a 50+ middle class male with a wad of cash in hand) had no problem letting me take it out for a spin. I disagree with your edgewise 2X4 seat description though; I thought it was more like the sharp end of a splitting maul and it only took me about 5 miles to come to that conclusion! I wasn’t crazy about fuel tank capacity either. I don’t remember if the transmission was 5 or 6 speed because my butt was so sore all I could think about was taking the infernal machine back to its owner. Then I test rode a KLR-650 and it was night and day. I bought it on the spot without even haggling (the owner had it listed so low there was no point).

      I did the same thing with my Z-1000; I arrived with my own helmet and gear, showed the owner the cash and said the only way we’d deal is if I rode it first. He agreed, I did so and bought the bike. Of course I’m not a joy rider. If I answer your add and show up with cash, I’m not there to ride your bike for grins and giggles; I’m seriously considering the purchase and I believe most folks can tell if you’re serious. But a dealer does have to consider how many miles are on a “new” bike. If they let every yay-who that comes in looking go for a test ride, they know they’ll end up with a “used” bike pretty darn quick, if not a wreck and an insurance claim.

    • Hi Dale,

      Ditto all that, amigo.

      I’ve been riding a long time – and this article was the result of “been there/done that.”

      It’s not so much that one’s friends know (or don’t know) bikes. It’s that we’re each individuals and things that might bother you might not faze me at all (and vice versa).

      Which is why we each should walk away from any bike deal that does not allow a test ride.

  3. If you pressure a dealer enough they might allow you to take a ride on a used bike. Unlike car sales if a motorcycle has more then say “1” mile on it it’s considered used. Then there is the legal aspect of fault should an accident happen and who pays. Unlike cars a motorcycle is easily trashed and so is the rider. If I owned a dealership I would not allow any test rides! People don’t buy a particular style or brand because of the “ride”. They buy because it gives them a thrill or peer pressure and the sticky tranny/bad ergonomics are dealt with.

    • Hi Joe,

      In re “People don’t buy a particular style or brand because of the “ride”. They buy because it gives them a thrill or peer pressure and the sticky tranny/bad ergonomics are dealt with.”

      That may be true for some people, but it’s an unfair characterization to make of everyone who rides. I’ve been riding for decades (and have many friends with extensive riding histories) and can assure you we’re not in the category of people you describe.

      The thrill goes away fast if the bike is not for you – or too much (or too little) for you.

      Peer pressure? I’m 46! The last thing I give a damn about is what someone else thinks about my bike.

      • Hi Eric. I’m sorry but I stand fim in my opinion of why most people including our age group buys a specific type of bike. Some are brand specific like Harley and their loyalty. Others ride “rice burners” or “tree darts” and do so to impress their fake friends. I call them fake because when I sold my Harley turd and bought a Honda my Harley “friends” vanished. You’ll find few riders in a motorcycle dealership looking for true adventure and travel. I bought my bikes based on comfort and travel and have been on several thousand mile trips. Most watch their bikes sit in a garage and brag about all the “chrome”…

        • Hi Joe,

          Your experience is different than mine!

          In my circle, people ride old, new, powerful (and not), Japanese – and other. Everyone has their preferences (I am a “Kaw” guy, though I own and have owned others) but no one I know owns a bike because it’s “cool” – except perhaps to them.

        • @JoePA – I would tend to agree that Harley is a religion, and if you self excommunicate you are no longer one of “them.” But they are mostly the frustrated cubical dwellers and insurance salesmen who can’t wait for a warm weekend to stretch their poser baddass alter ego with an overpriced bike, branded clothing, and the “made in the USA” nose in the air claim. But at the $25,000.00+ price tag I expect the look-down-on-the-rice-burner heard mentality. No one laughs harder at them then the real 1%’ers. Fortunately enough of them still give another rider the wave.

          The remainder are the single wide dwellers who think it is cool to make “look at me piss you off” big noise with their messed up chopper invention. They maybe go fifteen miles before the tool kit or their neighbors pickup truck comes out.

  4. If I were to buy a brand new bike (I never do because of depreciation and too many good used ones out there) I would get some big city dealership prices. Usually they are cheaper then you local town dealers because of volume. Armed with those numbers you may have some ride negotiation room with the local dealer, telling them you are willing to give them a couple dollars more if they will work with you. But it is the dealers attitude & call, and they seem to do what ever they want to do.

    • Hi Gary,

      Another issue is that bike stores are fewer – and farther in between – than car dealerships.

      A given town might have one Suzuki dealership; maybe two. Almost never three – and usually, you’ll have to ride/drive a good distance to find the next one.

      For the non-Japanese (and Harley) stuff, it can be even more challenging. The closest-to-me Ducati store is almost 200 miles away in Richmond. We only recently got a Triumph store.

      • Hi Eric. Yup. That is what makes me think twice about Aprilla, Ducati, the other exotics. Even here in Calif. BMW only has a few stores.

        On a trip a couple of years ago my Honda ST decided to declare the rear brake pads gone in the middle of Michigan. Fortunately a dealer was nearby and fixed me right up.

        • That’s the ticket!

          I have friendly relationships with a big bike store (buy a lot from them, plus they know I am entrusted with expensive new cars to test drive every week ) so they’d let me take a bike out. But the general policy is much more restrictive.

          And, I’m sympathetic.

          We’ve got a lot of squids on this side of the ocean. How is it over there?

          Guy I know – who used to be in sales – got transferred to parts because he wanted nothing to do with facilitating the acquisition of a hypersport by an 18-year-old who just traded in his DR 250….


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