Dearly beloved, the Truth is Out There, but it’s not always easy to decipher what it is in this 20-year old MO shootout – only four years after the world’s first online motorcycle mag made its glorious debut. Well, more tenuous than glorious. It was tough to borrow motorcycles from the manufacturers to test when the interwebs were just getting started, and even tougher to produce real-magazine quality content on a bean burrito budget. Especially when things went wrong. Which they did a lot. And yet, this is the way MO was when we were very poor and very happy. Actually, not much has changed. Amen.
So, left with three thinly disguised big-bore sport bikes, we were on the fast track to motorcycle nirvana, right? Well, not quite. Some may remember Greg McClure’s Crashing Hell article a few months back. One Triumph with over-inflated tires can ruin a whole shootout, so with only the BMW and Honda left, the staffers still standing just wanted to get through the shootout in one piece.
We were left with two very different species of sport tourer, both suited to perform the same tasks, but in very different ways. The ST1100 is Honda’s ultimate high-performance compromise, specifically engineered to handle in turns, go fast, and do it over long distances. Until the R1100S debuted earlier this month, the K1200RS was BMW’s all-out sportbike. Still, BMW is true to their sport-touring philosophy and they can’t imagine making a a motorcycle without saddlebags, which was perfect for our test.
Predictably, each motorcycle has its areas of expertise. The ST1100 was competent but very vanilla at just about everything, sticking to its unstated mission statement of being the jack-of-all-trades. The K-bike is harder-edged, with a bigger, more powerful motor and sharper handling. In packing for our journey, we discovered a rare anomaly in the otherwise well-designed Honda: the saddlebags suck. First, the latches are located dangerously close to the pipes.
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To remove the bags you have to Honda, sometimes criticized for over-engineering, has located the bag removal latches in the worst place possible. insert the key, turn, lift halfway up (the key gets in the way of fully disengaging the clasp), turn the key back, remove it, then lift the latch fully. You then slide the bag towards the back of the bike. This was by far the worst system of the three tested. The Beemer bags simply have two handles — one to unfasten the bags from the bike and one to open the bag. This system is great for over-stuffing, but even without over-filling the bags the BMW held more than the Honda, although not as much as the Triumph. The Sprint Executive had the easiest system to use and stored the most gear. Pity it didn’t last the test.
Every escape from Los Angeles involves a freeway. In most ways the ST1100 is superior at freeway riding: Better weather protection, cushier suspension, relaxed ergonomics, and a power band that’s all midrange. In jurisdictions that allow lane splitting, maneuvering through traffic is easy. Its narrow and low-placed mirrors aren’t at the same height as most car mirrors while the bags tuck in nicely and the fat powerband tugs you past any obstructions. One problem is that the super-quiet exhaust note does not alert cars to your presence. In contrast the K1200RS is a complete pig in traffic.
Its top-end-happy powerband likes to be revved, the steering damper slows low-speed maneuvers and the bags too wide.
Out on the open highway the K is still edged by the ST, because the K’s ergonomics are uncomfortable for many riders. The rear sets are too far forward and the reach to the handlebars is far too long.
The one area where the K12 flat stomps the ST11 in is in high speed passing. Once the K reaches speed, it hauls.
In fact the K1200RS begs you to leave the freeway, and once you do you won’t regret it. You should plan entire trips in the twisties, staying clear of any road with more than four lanes. The K1200RS is that good in the twisties.
Although heavy steering around town, gently lean into a curve and the K12 is right there for you, tracking more predictably than a bike its size has a right to. Although it lacks the outright power of bikes like the ZX-11 and the CBR1100XX, even fully loaded with bags it should give them a run through the canyons.
Until we got into the tight stuff we were enamored with the Honda’s smooth-shifting transmission, but when pounding through the gears in the canyons, the clunky accuracy of the BMW was a plus. The softer-edged Honda had to push to keep up with the BMW K1200RS because in the twisties, the ergonomics that served so well on the open road didn’t allow for same sort of aggressive riding that the K1200RS did. The fact that the ST1100 weighs 80 more pounds didn’t help either.
Across the board, the ST1100’s excellent brakes and traction control out-performed the Beemer’s. Honda’s ABS II is very non-intrusive, slowing you steadily to a complete stop. Even stomping down hard on the rear brake will cause only a controlled stop.
Try doing the same on the Beemer and the ABS will pulse and click but you won’t slow much. The Traction Control System (TCS) on the ST1100, which compensates for wheel slides, is very handy in the rain and is selectable at startup. We rode both in the rain and both handled without any surprises.
If you want to do wheelies (as if ST1100s are purchased as hooligan bikes) you’ll have to turn it off. There is no TCS system on the BMW, but it did seem overly reluctant to lift the front wheel off the ground. This isn’t a bad thing for most riders, particularly the sensible, middle-aged sport-touring demographic both manufacturers are targeting with these bikes. Wheelies aren’t why people buy these bikes.
Basically, it comes down what kind of riding you want to do. If you value character and a more-sporting edge and you aren’t so concerned with price, buy the K1200RS. The Beemer’s a better choice if you plan to sport tour on nothing but twisting roads with gas stations every 150 miles. If your interested in overall utility, a mix of freeway and back road touring capability and price, give the nod to the Honda ST1100, the first bike in MO history to win consecutive shootouts.
1: Billy Bartels, Associate Editor
That’s what this test comes down to. What purpose do you want to put a sport-tourer to? If you want to travel vast highway miles at a serious clip but desire to to scoot down the scenic route with a few extreme leans thrown in, if you are a disciple of function believing after all is said and done that character and soul lose out to utility, then the ST1100 is for you. There are very few motorcycles that do the range of things well that this bike does. Touring, commuting, whatever, motorcycles don’t get much more vanilla than this.
However, if you want a Sport Tourer with killer handling, and a great top-end rush, the Beemer should be your choice. And this on a Touring Bike! The ergonomics are definitely meant more for sport riding than touring, but if you keep it above 70, the wind holds you up. Ergos? Who needs stinking ergos!
2: Mark Hammond, Managing Editor
The ST1100 is absolutely dowdy looking. Like the Pacific Coast, this is a motorcycle that wishes it were a car, perhaps an Accord to the PC800’s Civic. Still, I have to admit that it is one fine dorky-looking motorcycle. It’s comfortable, one of the most comfortable motorcycles I have ever ridden. It has excellent wind protection and great ergonomics. The ST1100 is also smooth and fast, so smooth that it’s easily to wander into triple-digit speeds without really noticing.
“The BMW K1100RS looks fast and it is. Even more so than the ST1100, triple-digit speeds are virtually unnoticed until you see the flashing red lights in your mirrors.”The K1200RS likes to go fast. And, like all BMWs, the K1200RS is a beautifully designed motorcycle. Unfortunately the consumer often pays for BMW’s attention to detail, they are very expensive motorcycles. With bags, the K12 will cost you almost $17,000 before tax, fees and insurance.
Even so, the Beemer might have won if it weren’t so uncomfortable. Basically, to feel comfortable on the K12 you need the legs of Toulouse Lautrec and the arms of an orangutan. I was good for about a half an hour before I had to get off, my legs cramping and my arms and shoulders aching in pain. If I wanted to feel like that I’d mount a Gixxer.
Between the two bikes I’ll have to choose comfort over cool since the cool wasn’t so cool that I’d schedule weekly appointments with a chiropractor. BMW offers a riser and peg kit that helps ease the pain, but after ponying up $17,000, I don’t want to pay another few hundred dollars to make something comfortable that should be so in the first place. If I wanted to spend even more money just to make a motorcycle feel right after forking over 17 grand, I’d buy a Harley. However, I think I’ll hold on the my money and wait for the BMW R1100S, the Ducati ST4 or the Buell S3.