2004 Middleweight Standards

F 650CS :: Sportster 1200R :: FZ-6 :: Ninja 500R :: Speed Four :: DL 650 V-Strom :: 599


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Recently, MO had a chance to sample seven "Middleweight Standards" of various weights, displacements and cost. The available bikes were the: BMW F 650CS, Harley Davidson Sportster 1200R, Honda 599, Kawasaki Ninja 500, Suzuki DL 650 V-Strom, Triumph Speed Four, and Yamaha FZ-6.

This class has garnered precious little attention, until the recent introductions of the Triumph Speed Four, Yamaha FZ-6 and Honda 599. Suddenly the world is full of middleweights without racer fairings, tourer saddlebags, or cruiser foreward foot controls. You buy these bikes; when you aren't trying to impress the Jones' or pretend you are Billy Bad Ass Biker Bully.

"Middleweight Standards are motorcycles for those who want capable and practical real-world transportation, without sacrificing the ability to travel long distances or tear-up the occasional back road."

 The latest line-up...

To a bike, they are capable of going faster through racer road, than 95% of riders are capable of taking them. They also do a fine job of running to the corner market or shuttling your non-pretentious behind to and from work. Yes indeed, these motorcycles are the ones you teach a friend to ride on, the ones your mom would almost approve of, the bikes KPaul really ought to ride, if he didn't so love to tell the world that he rode a ZX-6R.

Since MO does not have a full-time staff of seven riders, we enlisted the assistance of four "Guest Testers" to take turns riding each bike around town, on the freeways and in the canyons. These guests vary in riding skill from one year of experience to over twenty five years on two-wheels. Two of these guests are Martin Hackworth (sportbike_pilot) and Arthur "Buzz" Waloch (Buzglyd). Martin and Buzz are regular MO readers and frequent message board participants. They are also experienced and responsible motorcyclists with the expertise to make astute observations about the motorcycles they ride.

Our test loop consisted of 50+ miles of LA Freeways, 25+ miles of surface streets and 100+ miles of secondary and canyon roads. At the beginning of the day, I pleaded for caution from the riders and asked that they keep an open mind to each bike, so they could give me their honest impressions of each at the end of the day. After they finished laughing at me, we donned our helmets and made for the hills....

7th Place: BMW F 650CS

I'll trade you for a new R 1200GS, please?

Sean -- After watching an F 650 mounted stunter last year, I was excited when BMW said "Yes" to my request for an F 650CS for this test. I had visions of a pumped-up XR-650 Motard dancing in my head, but boy was I wrong. I expected the BMW to excel in tight/rough canyons and around town in stop-and-go traffic. I also expected it to be horrible on the freeway. Wrong Again. As it turns out, the F 650 is heavy and tall geared, making it sluggish off the line and fairly cumbersome around town. In the canyons, I could maintain a reasonable pace on the F 650, but I was also able to detect a fair amount of chassis flex.

This sapped my confidence and negated the excellent leverage from the handlebars. On the freeway, where one would think a single would suffer, the BMW comfortably cruised along at 80MPH with very little vibration or buffeting. Its low seat height, good wind protection and comfortable cockpit made it one of the best bikes in the test for sustained straight-line cruising. Its freeway prowess aside, the BMW was a big disappointment for me. I have almost gotten used to BMW's funky separate turn-signal switches (which are quite intuitive to use, once you adjust to them) but on the F 650 BMW uses a left bar mounted turn signal switch that is like a "normal" motorcycle, except for the fact that it sticks way out from the bar and takes a huge thumb to operate. Another annoyance was the clutch lever that had decent feel, but also had nearly 15mm of free play in the VERTICAL plane...sloppy, very sloppy. After the FZ-6, I think the F 650 is the bike that I'd most like to see get a thorough update.

Buzz --- The F 650CS is a do-it-all type bike similar to the Suzuki, but with less motor and a much higher price. It does have ABS which is great. The suspension is really supple which makes barnstorming through rough corners an easy task. I really was able to hustle this bike through corners quickly with the leverage offered by the wide handlebar. During our bike change and photo stops I could wander over in the dirt and do burnouts and such and stir up a big dust cloud. The seat was about as good as the Suzuki's which means it was pretty bad. I typically avoid price comparisons because if you have to have a BMW then a Japanese bike won't do it for you no matter how much cheaper it is.

Surprisingly, the F 650 single is right-at-home on the freeway.

"The Beemer is a well-composed thumper that reminds me of an XR600R that wasn't raised in a barn."

EBass -- Why BMW, why do you insist on making everything so damn funky?! When you build upscale yet aggressive looking bikes like the K1200 RS or GT or the Boxer Replika, you do such a great job of capturing the stylistic essence of what makes your cars so prized. But then there are the abominable R1200's, the Rockster, and this acid induced thang with its fuel cap in the tail section and a storage bin with hand rails where the gas tank is supposed to go. Maybe Bavarian art school grads get off on debating whether the rear disc brake centered inside the wheel's circumference is a metaphor for Nietsche's theory of the Ubermensche or a tribute to Bauhaus architectural design, but if you ask me, it's just plain weird. That's a shame too because truth be told, this bike is pretty fun to ride. Not much in the juice department but smooth and stable at all times. The seat was the best of the bunch and cupped you perfectly with nary a pressure point. The wide bars gave plenty of leverage in the turns. I actually liked the F650! I just wouldn't be caught dead riding one.

Martin -- The Beemer is a well-composed thumper that reminds me of an XR600R that wasn't raised in a barn. It is my fifth choice. I spent the most time on the BMW lane splitting on the freeway. I was terrified that I was going to clip the mirrors on every pair of SUV's I rode between (I am convinced that there are more SUV's in LA per capita than there are in Idaho -- what's up with that?) but the friendly CS with it's nimble handling, good brakes, compliant suspension, great visibility and friendly motor got me all the way across LA at the height of rush hour without incident - so I have a soft spot in my heart for it. The only complaint I have about the BMW is that the V-Strom does pretty much everything it does much better for a lot less money. Nonetheless, BMW aficionados will no doubt appreciate the opulent Teutonic styling and will happily pay the difference for the Beemer.

6th Place: Harley Davidson Sportster 1200R

Guilty Pleasure. It seems like Sportsters were made for dirt-tracking.

Sean -- Yeee Haw! I do like this here XR-750, when I'm playing tag with the rice rockets in Latigo Canyon. She sure is a ball to hustle sideways through the gravel too! Oh wait; this is just a pedestrian Sportster 1200R.... Uh kids, lets look at that torque curve. Holy crap... 73LbFt @ 3,550rpm! Not only does the revised 2004 Sportster have better road manners, it also puts out better power and offers better brakes and handling than any Sportster I've ever ridden.

A couple of our testers were a little spooked by the Harley's extra weight compared to the other bikes in this test, but once they rode it, they saw that it was actually a pretty good match for the other bikes. (Of course the fact that I spanked their asses up Angeles Crest on it, probably helped it in the respect category)

That doesn't mean it's the performance champ in this crowd, but it does mean that this bike is now a perfectly serviceable "standard" motorcycle that is willing and ready to be ridden any way you want to twist it. That is high praise indeed.... for a Harley.

Buzz -- I was prepared to be disappointed because the Sportster was in some pretty fast company here. However, this bike is so much better than the old Sporty. It has lots of low-end torque and with the new rubber mounting you can rev the engine right to its redline without a big vibration penalty (unlike the Yamaha which apparently has taken the title of "worst vibration.") Then if you choose, you can slow down, rumble around at 2000 RPM, and turn into "biker" guy and just blub, blub, blub through the forest. If Harley could figure out how to make it lighter, it would be even better. If you need to make it more powerful HD's P&A catalog has plenty of go faster kits available. The Sportster used to be the bike you would ditch in six months to get a Dyna, before all your fillings fell out. I liked this motorcycle much better than I expected.

EBass -- Canyon carving on the H-D felt like playing "Crazy Taxi Driver" or one of those other video games where you're taking a fairly pedestrian vehicle way past it's ostensible limits and finding that it keeps hangin' in there. To be honest, I'm far less interested in comparing the '04 Sporty with the rest of this class than with previous year's efforts. The rubber mounting of the engine as well as other performance and ergonomic enhancements have at last made this a "real motorcycle" that someone can love for reasons other than the fact that it gets them into "the Club". Congratulations Harley! I used to adamantly warn new riders away from the Sporty. Now I can actually recommend it. We could go on all day about how the Sporty doesn't hold up to the rest of this bunch in terms of performance, but the fact is that we all flogged the bejeezus out of this bike way harder than 99% of Harley riders are ever going to and it was fully capable of hanging with the pack. I was giggling like a schoolgirl, hanging off the side and reveling in the Sporty's torquey exit to the turns. Giggling like a very masculine, manly, butt ugly schoolgirl that is...ahem.

Martin -- The Harley is what it is; a large, heavy, low-tech, ill-handling, boat anchor that'll scare up all of the fish you can shoot because it shakes so darned much. However, lots of people on the sidewalk will give nods of approval and the 1200 Sportster engine does produce some prodigious torque so it's not all bad. Even if it's not my cup of tea, I can see how cruiser types would like this bike. Just watch out for the brakes (I thought they weren't working until Sean explained to me that that's how they always work) and the insane foot pegs.


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