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Not having saddlebags on your ADV bike is good for at least one thing: a good excuse not to camp out – and since these three all clock in at around $13,000, the occasional cheap hotel or Airbnb cabin won’t break the bank. Ducati, in fact, offers a Touring Pack for its new Multistrada 950 that includes (really good) sidebags, Suzuki offers same-key hard bags too on the V-Strom 1000 – but we left them behind because we’re going bare-bones with this little less-is-more test.

What at first seemed to us like a pretty disparate threesome actually turns out to have a lot in common: The wet weight spread is only 28 pounds, the horsepower spread is just 6 – and all three bikes stroke their 19-inch-front / 17-rear wheel combos through a decent amount of wheel travel, even if the BMW R nineT Urban G/S has least and is the lowest of the three. That seems fitting since it’s also the hipsterish mount here, more suited for taking your best gal to a picnic of organic wine and kale salad (though there’s no place to carry the basket, really) than crashing manfully through the underbrush like the other two bikes.

Which is why it finished last in this group, but maybe only because we had no flower children pillions along on this ride? In any case, when you’re shopping down here in the discount ADV bin, you’re probably only having one bike, which means that one has to do it all: Short hop, commute, sport ride, weekends away. Here’s how we rank them after a fair bit of each.

BMW R nineT Urban G/S – 85.3%

The Urban G/S actually does have a bit more suspension stroke than the original R nineT, but only a bit – 5mm more stroke in its right-way-up 43mm fork, and 20mm more stroke in its rear Paralever – for grand totals of 4.9 and 5.5 inches of wheel travel. That places it at a slight disadvantage when it’s time to follow the other bikes down the rock-strewn dirt road we chose for part of our test loop this time. Though it’s the lightest bike here, at six pounds under the quarter-ton mark, it’s also the closest one to the ground, which causes prudent riders to pick their lines a bit more carefully and take a little more time. (Okay, just me maybe. Sean and Scott left me in their dust whichever bike I was on.) It’s also got a lower handlebar, which makes standing up on the pegs not nearly as natural as on the other two bikes.

R nineT First Ride Review

In slashing the price tag to $12,995, one of the things BMW did was to use cheaper suspension units with no adjustability save rear preload, and what you see is what you feel as you carry as much speed as you dare along yon rocky mountain road. She’s pretty short of wheelbase, too, and letting your speed creep up can result in a handful of plunging, bucking Beemer if you should hit an unexpected pothole or two in between a couple of large rocks, whoa Nellie…

Mild wall rides are perfectly appropriate for some softcore ADV fun.

All you have to do to make it all good, though, is take it a bit slower. For short people, it’s nice that they can touch the ground when they need to. Being able to turn the ABS off is a good thing, and the short gearing, light clutch, and torquey Boxer make picking your way along feel safe and sure-footed in mostly second gear. On a smooth dirt trail, its low cg would make the low, grunty Urban a hoot. If you want to go fast off-road, BMW makes a few other motorcycles for that.

The wire spoke wheels are actually a $500 option, but we’re pretending the Urban doesn’t have them for this test.

Our man Scott Rousseau from Dirtbikes.com is also down with the Urban program, agreeing that in spite of its limited travel, the BMW (and the other two bikes) work surprisingly well off-road given their intended usage. We assumed the Urban was more styling homage to the original 1980 GS, but its performance is more than skin deep.

Back on pavement, it’s just as big a hoot to ride as the other R nineTs. In fact, if your intended usage is Urban runabout (which its name doesn’t just imply but states), the Urban maybe wins this thing, thanks to its light-ish weight, off-idle grunt and short stature. For some reason it seems to take up less garage space, and of these three it’s the one you naturally hop on for a quick blat to the beach or to pick up a couple items at the H.E.B.

The BMW is kind of the Walden Pond Special. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but heated grips are standard and so is switchable ABS.

For longer overnight jaunts like the one we went on, though, the BMW’s vestigial beak and snout give the least wind protection, its handlebar makes you compress your intestines the most to reach the grips, it’s got the least legroom, and its seat is the least comfortable after an hour.

Also as we’ve mentioned before, any time cruising speed gets much past 75 mph, short overall gearing introduces quite a bit of Boxer rumble into the grips and footpegs. Where the V-Strom and Multistrada just seem to be hitting their 80-mph stride, the Urban’s big 1170cc Boxer is busier than it needs to be.

Ducati Multistrada 950 – 89.0%

We’ve loved us some Multistrada 1200s in the past, but the 1200 S that came close to winning our Epic Eight-Bike comparo two years ago is a $21k-plus, 567-pound (with bags) rig. Then there was the 647-pound, $24k Multistrada Enduro Pro that finished second in last year’s Wire-Wheel Adventure Deal. Great bike if you can deal with all that weight from a 34.3-inch seat. I’m sure I speak for many of us who love the idea of a Ducati ADV bike of more manageable proportions.

Multistrada 950 Preview

Well, here it is. The official MO scales have the 950 at 522 pounds all topped up with 5.3 gallons of Premium (no bags), with a 33.1-inch seat height, and lower and taller ones available. Instead of the big 1200 V-Twin with Desmodromic Variable Timing, you’re getting a 937cc 11-degree Testastretta unit which is almost as lovable. Other things you won’t be getting include the 1200 Multi’s TFT display, electronic suspension, cruise control… personally, the only thing I really miss is CC.

The Ducati’s clean lines are impressive, especially around the rear. It looks as good without its hard bags as it does with them.

Just like the bigger-engined Multi, Rousseau was impressed (all of us were) by the 950’s ability to run smoothly along at 2000-4000 rpm, in first or second gear, through miles of rocky switchbacks. Last year, Scott said of the 1200, “I would never have believed that an engine designed primarily for road use can be so capable in the dirt,” and the 950 upholds that tradition. With it’s light slip/assist clutch, you can pretty much leave it in second gear and trail ride happily along at any speed from 10 to 30 mph, first gear’s good for crawling along through tough sections.

It’s a pretty comfy cockpit in there, and a plush ride that sucks up big bumps when it needs to. No more electronic suspension for you, though, and no more cruise control.

Switching the Duc into Enduro mode dials the power back a bit and adjusts the ABS and TC (you can go in and adjust them independently as well), and 6.7 inches of suspension travel at either end seems like almost enough most of the time – the Multi maintaining its composure pretty well through all kinds of semi-big hits and g-outs. (With cast wheels on two of the bikes, street tires and no real engine guards on any of them, we took it slightly easier than we would’ve if we’d been wearing protection, as none of us are big on hiking.)

The biggest complaint concerned engine heat. In slow going, the Ducati puts out a bit more around the rider’s lower legs and feet – and this was on a day where temps at 6000 feet never exceeded about 80 degrees. The Duc’s sit-down-in-it ergos feel really natural for most riders whether sitting or standing, and popping the rubber inserts out of the footpegs turns them into large, knurled platforms if needed for snotty conditions.

Some complain it puts out a bit more heat in fast going on the road too; Rousseau thinks the engine should be called Testaroasta. But I think that was more the ambient 109-degree temp we encountered when life intruded and forced us down to the base of the San Bernardino Mountains. Luckily, right when the heat was beginning to suck, a cloudburst provided us with a nice cooling shower.

On the freeway, the 950’s got plenty of smooth power, a compliant ride, and a comfy saddle. Its narrowish windshield has an excellent one-hand mechanism for sliding up and down, and in the taller position it provides a quiet still-air pocket for most of us.

On the Dynojet, we’re looking at 100 rear-wheel horsepower, which is more than enough, and the fact we’re producing really good torque at just 3500 rpm makes the 10,000-rpm redline even sweeter: You’ll seldom rev the Multi that hard, but that’s 2000 rpm more headroom than the other two bikes, and it sounds as fantastic as any Ducati. It’s a miracle of modern electronic control that the thing can be such an animal on top and plonk so easily along at jogging speed.

The Ducati makes the most horsepower, but its smallest engine produces the least torque. Even with 133 fewer cc, the Suzuki traces a smoother, cleaner line than the Boxer that you can feel on the road, though both make nearly identical numbers.

In street-racer mode, for 170-pound me, the ride is almost too compliant. Even after I stiffened up the all-adjustable suspension, I was feeling more fore-and-aft pitching on the brakes and gas than on other Multis. Sean and Scott, who both outweigh me and must’ve been riding lower in the bike’s stroke, said they were having none of it.

Again, the slip/assist clutch is light but with a narrow engagement band that can be a little awkward. The gearbox is good, but not great; some riders find the occasional false neutral.

End of complaints.

Suzuki V-Strom 1000 – 89.9%

I don’t remember the last time a Suzuki won a comparison, and I don’t remember the last time it was the most expensive bike compared to a BMW and a Ducati. But the new V-Strom 1000 has achieved both things here, if only by $4 over the BMW. Maybe it was unfair of us to throw the big V-Strom 1000 in with all those other bigger, more expensive ADV bikes two years ago? This lighter, smaller group is really where it belongs – and the subtle but significant upgrades Suzuki gave it for 2018 make it even sweeter.

2018 V-Strom 1000 and 1000 XT First Ride

While they were making the 1037cc V-Twin Euro 4-compliant, they were also able to make it more user-friendly; there’s very little off-idle abruptness anymore, though Sean A. did remark upon a bit of low-rpm surge in the slowest parts of our rocky off-road section. I frankly didn’t notice as I was busy target fixating on the largest rocks, but I do love that this engine’s torque peak happens at just 4000 rpm, and that that peak is damn near 70 lb-ft. The whole package, at 511 lbs, is 10 less than the Ducati (and exactly what Suzuki claims).

Concentrate on how well the bike fits Big Dirty Sean and ignore the Kawasaki jacket.

For off-road, we all liked the Suzuki’s suspension best; I think somebody said “magic carpet,” and a proficient rider on this thing can motor down rocky fire roads at speeds that appear semi-foolhardy. That excellent suspension tuning had it easily winning both Suspension and our Ergonomics/Comfort categories. She’s sprung a bit stiffer than the Ducati and can be flung down the road like the old TL1000S this engine first saw daylight in, but much more comfortably and controllably. Sean felt like what niggling suspension problems he had could be fixed with a flat-blade screwdriver, but none of them were serious enough that we bothered.

Big guys fit the V-Strom better than the other bikes, and most small ones do also. Sean, who’s the biggest of us all, complained about a little helmet buffeting, but for the rest of us, the slipperier and svelter plastic and the taller, more aero windscreen make the V-Strom the most serene of these three for sucking up long stretches.

Everybody likes the Suzuki’s clean, easy-read instruments best – and the 12v outlet is right there too.

The ’Strom doesn’t have a bunch of different ride modes like the Ducati, and we don’t really miss them. What it does have is three-level TC that’s super easy to adjust on the fly: Level 1 is good for most off-road situations, 2 is good when it’s slick and slippery, and 0 is good for guys who don’t like TC. You’re not allowed to turn off the ABS, but the good news is that the new IMU-controlled lean-sensitive system also works pretty well in loose off-road conditions. And if you really insist, you can just pop the fuse to disarm the system.

On the road in maniac mode, those brakes are the strongest ones here, and the V-Strom feels like it needs its TC powering out of tight corners in the lower gears, thanks again to that bull moose of a grunty engine. Funny, it’s all done at 94.1 horsepower at 8000 rpm, just like the BMW, but somehow the Suzuki’s V-Twin feels more satisfying. For one thing, it’s got a broader spread from torque peak to power peak, and the Suzuki’s geared taller for a much more relaxing 80-mph cruise. Its light clutch and six-speed gearbox easily won that category also.

Almost military looking in its basic, rugged design, but purposeful with it. Note the big rear rack and grab handles and plenty of places for bungee hooks. Still a shame about that exhaust valve right before the muffler, though.

Sean and Scott both rated the Ducati’s handling higher, and I’m with them on dirt roads. On pavement, for me, the Suzuki is the most planted and confident – feeling more like a tall sportbike than the other two. Once back on the freeway home and registering 109 degrees ambient air temp on its easy-to-read and inclusive instrument panel, the Suzuki’s excellent ergos and heat control also make it the ride of choice. Add all that stuff up and it’s an easy win for the V-Strom 1000. Better still, for just $300 more you can get the 1000 XT, which comes with tubeless wire-spoke wheels and an aluminum handlebar.

This is a great class of motorcycle for people who want to go adventuring without breaking the bank, and this one might be MO’s favorite Suzuki of them all. Very nice.

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