Depending on how sporty you like your touring bike, or how touring-oriented you like your sportbike, there is something for every taste these days.
Which is the best? To answer that, we first spent some time hashing out here at MO what a "Sport-tourer" is. Does it mean factory hard bags? Anything lighter than a Goldwing? Better handling than a Suzuki Madura? Since the five of us couldn't really agree, we figure the thousands of you out in MO land wouldn't agree either.
In that spirit, we decided to include some inarguable sport-tourers, as well as some new notions of what may constitute a Sport Tourer. We think a Sport Tourer should be able to carry you, a passenger and your luggage and have enough power and handling to keep you both happy and entertained on whatever pavement you encounter. It also should have enough comfort to keep your marriage -- or whatever sort of relationship you have -- intact through the trip.
With that in mind, allow us to introduce the cast in alphabetical order of this year's Sport Tour!
"Do you think we're idiots?" That's some of the kinder feedback we've gotten regarding the more unorthodox choices we've made in some of our shootouts this year.
No, we don't think you're all idiots. Only some of you. We do, however, like to think a bit outside the box when we choose machines to include in our comparisons.
For instance, we couldn't help but notice when Maximum MOron Sean Alexander rolled a new BMW R1200RT into the MO garage next to more conventional ST bikes like the FJR and the VFR.
"Hey", said Feature Editor Gabe Ets-Hokin, "didn't they have the R1200ST available?" "I didn't want the ST", replied the Great Pink One. "I like the RT better." "But Sean", said Gabe, using a high-pitched tone that is especially grating, "this is a Sport Touring comparo. After the Value Supersports thing, we'll be lynched." With that, he subconsciously touched his neck, as if he could already feel the improvised noose made of tie-down straps around his delicate throat.
"Don't worry about it", said Sean. "I rode both bikes back in March, remember? The RT offers the same power, chassis and brakes as the ST and is only 50 pounds heavier. It is also significantly more comfortable than the ST, not to mention more practical, thanks to its better airflow management, roomier passenger accommodations and capacious standard luggage."
Basically, what we're saying is this: sure, the ST looks more like a Sport Tourer, but the RT gives up nothing in handling or speed and is more comfortable. And although it's big, at just 571 pounds claimed wet, it's still one of the lighter bikes in the test. We could have gotten the sportier looking bike, but we had passengers and plenty of stuff to carry. After much argument and many helpings of fried foods, Gabe saw the light and conceded the RT was the best ST offering BMW had for this test.
"The Ulysses is Buell's idea of a modern sport-tourer."
The next day, Sean rolled the Ulysses in. Gabe passed out. When he was revived, both Photographer Alfonse Palamia and Managing Editor Pete Brissette had to forcibly prevent him from leaving. "How are we going to sell this one? They'll tear us apart like wild animals! We're doomed!"
Sean pulled a Cohiba from his gold "Buell" cigar case and reflectively sliced off the ends with a pearl-handled pen knife. "I was golfing with Erik just the other day and I asked him that same question." Sean paused, motioning for Abdul, his manservant, to light his cigar. "The Ulysses is Buell's idea of a modern sport-tourer. They actually call it an "Adventure Sportbike".
It's fast enough for any street riding situation, has fantastic handling characteristics, and is by far the most comfortable motorcycle Buell has ever made. It has dual 12 volt power outlets and a 4.4 gallon fuel tank. The optional luggage is excellent and it even has an adjustable backrest for the passenger. What more do you need for a Sport Tourer?"
The XB12X was envisioned as a do-anything sportbike, the kind of motorcycle you can ride all day, with a passenger or not, on any kind of road, for almost any distance. Some of you might feel it's a better choice for an Adventure Tourer, but we felt that with the 17" wheels it was not really in a league with bikes like the KTM Adventurer or BMW K1200GS. Hey, Gabe has said he'd tour on an XB9S, so there are worse choices we could have made.
Honda ST 1300 ABS
Ahhhh. Now this is uncontroversial. An inarguable choice. Honda's ST 1300 is clearly a sport-tourer, if a rather large and heavy one. The ST1100 has been with us for years and years, and has accumulated almost as many fans as the legendary Goldwing for its smooth motor and excellent ergonomics. The 2002 redesign made the ST faster, smoother and better handling by adding fuel injection, 200 more CCs of displacement and an aluminum frame. We loved it in our 2004 Sport Touring comparison, and what's not to love?
The ST 1300 is just loaded with features, from an adjustable windscreen (standard on the non-ABS model for 2005) to anti-lock brakes and locking hard luggage. At over $15,000, it's not 99-cent store materiel, but this isn't a budget commuter shootout, now is it? The big red Honda is as solid a choice as Joan Baez at a folk music festival. Luckily, for 2005, the ST 1300 shaves its armpits.
Honda Interceptor ABS
Do I really have to introduce the Honda Interceptor? For those of you either very new to motorcycling, or who have been in prison for more than 20 years, the Interceptor is the latest in a succession of Honda's V-four powered motorcycles. Once the most sporting in the Honda lineup, the 16-valve, liquid-cooled, V-four engined motorcycles were made into sport-tourers starting in 1990, when they were given a larger fairing and stylish single-sided swingarms like the RC-30 Superbike contender.
"Since that model, the Interceptor/VFR series has garnered zillions of "Best-bike" type awards from motorcycle publications all over earth."
The smooth motor, neutral handling and humane ergonomics made it a favorite of those who desired sportbike performance and touring comfort. This latest version is no exception. We've spent a lot of time on it here at MO, with a comparison in 2004 against the Kawasaki Concurs, and a new model launch in of this current V-Tec equipped version.
With 98.5 HP and a claimed dry weight of 595 pounds, it's hard to see what is so exciting about the Interceptor on paper. But VFRs have always been more than just sums of their parts; fans rave about a certain balance that seems almost magical. Would that magic be enough to beat the fancier bikes with all their creature comforts and gadgets?
Yamaha FJR 1300 ABS
"They'd get so freakin' angry" said Gabe, recounting his experiences selling Yamahas. "These middle-aged sport touring guys, who were so used to being able to scoop up discounted motorcycles for pennies on the dollar, when they realized there was no way they could even see an FJR 1300 before they bought one, much less haggle over price. They'd be lucky if they could get away with paying MSRP without a mark-up."
And yet, Yamaha sells out of their FJRs every year. And when a used one hits the market, it commands freakishly high resale values and is sold in hours. Why are they so popular?
Value. For just $13,199, the customer gets a smooth, powerful, 1298cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, DOHC, in-line four-cylinder motor that makes 127.8 HP in a rigid aluminum chassis, along with hard bags, and adjustable windscreen, and other features indespensible to Sport Touring. We've loved this bike in the past, and in fact it won last year's Sport-touring comparison. Would the introduction of the new BMW and the wild card Buell overshadow the FJR's overall competence?
Meet the ladies of MO
We'd like to thank the long-suffering wives and friends who sacrificed a perfectly good holiday weekend to come and ride with us to San Francisco.
They endured many long miles of malfunctioning heated seats, high-G turns, fried foods and stories about Sean's boats and tropical fish.
Natalie Alexander is an enthusiastic riding companion who enjoyed riding on the back of the five bikes. This is probably because she can't see over Sean.
Paula Straw is the veteran of thousands of miles riding behind Jack on his venerable BMW R100GS, on paved and dirt roads. Women usually don't like monikers like "ass of steel", so I will refrain from using it. Oops. Cindy P. is a friend of photographer Alfonse and hails from Java. She had a great time on the ST bikes.
Erika B. works as a City planner in Simi Valley when she's not hangin' with our Million-mile man, Managing Editor Pete Brissette. She also seemed to enjoy the experience, although it was her first time riding on motorcycles!
Feature Editor Ets-Hokin was dateless throughout the trip, which meant he spent more time than the rest of us on the VFR. He swears up and down that he's married, although we've never seen his wife. Shades of Waiting for Guffman say we.
Thanks to all of you for sacrificing your vacation and hinies in the name of scientific research. We hope we can count on your patience, good humor and charms next year!
This year, the staff at MO decided to take passengers along, as we know many of you frequently carry passengers, or at least purchase a sport-touring rig with passengers in mind. It's hard to get a spouse behind a $15,000 purchase he or she won't want to ride on, after all.
After rounding up our guests, we pointed our steeds towards the California coastline for a trip to San Francisco. This trip is a common test for Sport Tour shootouts, for good reason. It provides all the roads you might encounter anywhere, from flat, straight, boring interstate crammed with rush-hour traffic to deserted, twisty two-lane roads along the cliffs not unlike the ones you see in car commercials, mostly because they are the roads used in car commercials.
"...The subjective test of which motorcycle the tester would actually buy if he had a real job..."
After over one thousand miles of varying pavement, we got back to MO and reviewed our notes.
We decided to evaluate the bikes in four categories: passenger comfort, handling prowess, touring capability (a combination of rider comfort, range and cargo capacity/ease of use), and the subjective test of which motorcycle the tester would actually buy if he had a real job and could afford such a thing.
We awarded points based on how the tester ranked the bike in each category: six for first place, four for second, three for third, two for fourth, and one sympathy point for fifth place.
So now, after almost 5,000 evaluation miles, we present, in descending order, the contestants in our 2005 Sport Touring comparison.
Fifth Place: Yamaha FJR1300 ABS
"I'm not coming out!" Gabe's shrill voice emanated from the MO washroom, where he had locked himself in. This was an issue because MOMaven Ashley J Hamilton had just ridden her bicycle from Santa Monica and had to pee very badly. Gabe had run out of valium earlier in the day and was worried about angered FJR1300 owners -- who tend to be bitter, middle-aged firearms enthusiasts -- breaching the security system at the MO compound.
The FJR1300 defeated all comers last year handily and now finished a distant last, with just 57% of the points the winner garnered. What gives?
There is no question: the FJR is an outstanding motorcycle. Let's start with the motor. The overbuilt, 1,298CC liquid-cooled engine is both smooth and tourquey. Sean declared it "easily the fastest bike in this group." Pete called it "incredibly powerful", and Gabe loved the way it feels like it "pulls hard in any gear, at any RPM, without shuddering, buzzing or breaking a sweat."
The MO dyno revealed 127 HP and 91 foot-pounds of torque at the rear wheel. Even though these numbers are down a bit from the 2004 we tested, (possibly due to this FJR being a German market bike) this is enough power for even the most jaded moto-journalist.
Clutch and gearbox garnered praises as well, adding to Yamaha's building reputation for Swiss watch-like reliability and build quality. "Flawless shifting and clutch" opines he-of-a-billion-shifts Pete, and Gabe loved the "buttery" feeling from the gearbox.
We enjoyed the R1-derived brakes, which delivered wicked good stopping power and feel, as well as ABS seamless enough to be described as "flawless" by Gabe.
"We all loved the handling, too: "rock solid", said Pete, and Sean lauded the FJR's ability to stop and turn like the slightly lardy sportbike that it is."
Gabe loved the way the FJR "flows" in and out of turns, aided by its rigid chassis, stout suspension and wide, tall bars. Those bars add to what was basically a pretty comfy ride.
So what's the problem? The FJR is lacking the character to overcome the nits and flaws our testers noted. Both Sean
and Pete didn't like the footpeg to saddle relationship: And that sporty chassis comes at a price for the passenger too: Natalie complained it was "less roomy than the BMW and cramped, at least with Sean aboard." Also, engine heat coming out from under the tank and fairing and roasting delicate bits was noticeable when the ride went inland and the outside air temperature rose.
In this company, the FJR's stellar handling manners are a bit outmatched. Even though Gabe and Pete liked the FJR's neutral and light steering, Sean was more critical, noting that the BMW and Buell were better handling, without the FJR's higher center of gravity and slower steering response.
Finally, we all couldn't help but notice that once the rider got the windscreen at just the right angle, shutting the bike off would reset the screen to it's "down" position.
It's a nit indeed, but today's ST buyers are demanding folks, and this type of thing could be a deal-breaker with the nav system and seat warmer crowd. The FJR needs to be better next year to move to its deserved place, and we hope the 2006 additions of electric grips, standard ABS and electric bar-mounted paddle shifter (!) will get it there.
The FJR certainly has a lot going for it: rock solid handling (a close second to the VFR in terms of over-all handling performance), an incredibly powerful motor, flawless shifting and clutch and powerful but linear brakes. Unfortunately, as I ride more or get older, I want a little more from a bike that has "touring" somewhere in its description. What I mean by that is a windscreen that I don't have to reset every time I turn the bike off as well as a little more wind protection, better ergonomics with respect to foot peg to saddle relation (my knees would get stiff after a couple hours of non-stop riding) and maybe a little more detail in the cockpit (ambient air temperature perhaps?). There really isn't too much that's "wrong" the FJR rather it's nit-picking. In fact one could say that the FJR is the perfect blend of the VFR and the ST 1300: Great engine and handling with just enough rider and passenger comforts to go on a long weekend trip.
"The FJR certainly has a lot going for it ..."
One drawback to note on the FJR was what seemed like an inordinate amount of heat that would creep up from the engine and unfortunately spend most of its time circulating around my crotch area. For anything other than a cold evening ride home this would quickly become an annoyance.
The FJR is easily the fastest bike in this group, able to walk off and hide from the others in a straight line. It also stops and turns well enough. That extra speed will come in handy for shortening the time spent in its less-comfortable saddle which suffers from a seat-to-peg relationship that's just a bit too tight for my long inseam. Its adjustable windscreen is nice touch, but it'd be a whole lot nicer if it would stay where you put it after you switch off the bike.
Some would say the FJR is "rock solid" and a close second to the Interceptor for overall handling honors. I say they're overlooking quite a bit of the FJR's slower transitional responses, greater weight and much-taller center of gravity. I also believe that the Buell Ulysses and possibly the BMW R1200RT can out handle the FJR when the going gets twisty. I also feel the need to complain about the heat that gets blown onto your right thigh. It provides a nice warm spot on a cool evening, but any other time, it just plain cooks your inner leg and the thought of spending a long day in its saddle while touring Death Valley? Well, let's just say I'd rather eat dirt.
Ok, so why am I bagging on the bike that's won every MO Sport Touring comparo that it's participated in? I guess it's because the FJR suffers from appliance-itis. Its engine note is less than inspiring and its over-achieving output simply isn't enough to overcome this inline four's basic lack of character. I'm sorry Yamaha, you make great bikes and the FJR is no exception. But it just doesn't "do it" for me anymore.
Fourth Place: Honda Interceptor
$12,498 ($11,499 MSRP + $999 Honda Saddle Bags)
If it's him in front and her on the back, (or vice versa) there's going to be a problem with our next contender. You're probably sick of reading about how great the Interceptor is on a twisty road.
But if we all had passengers, the Interceptor would have been the bike to be "stuck" on, rather than a pleasant spot to pass a few hours.
We'll start with the engine, the heart of what makes the Interceptor so polished and distinctive at the same time.
The motor isn't particularly powerful, with 98 HP and 53 foot-pounds of torque, but the power it does make is very easy to use and flexible. And the exhaust note?
"At first I thought it was a cheesy marketing gimmick" said Gabe about the wild growling that comes from the airbox and exhaust when the V-tec system kicks in at about 8,000RPM, "but I never got tired of hearing it." That a powerplant can feel so refined, yet still have character is a testament to Honda's immense, yet caring, engineering department.
Handling is the next best thing about the fire-engine red sporty tourer. Pete says "the VFR handles as good as or better than many sportbikes available," and he's correct. With aggressive chassis numbers and a relatively low claimed dry weight of 483 pounds, the Interceptor can be tossed around like a sportbike. "The Interceptor makes every other bike in this test feel like it has a hinge in the middle of its frame" according to Sean, and Gabe could see no reason to disagree. "It's a sportbike with hard luggage that is marginally comfortable for long distances", said the wordsmith, stating the obvious.
So why are we in fourth place? The VFR is not really that much more comfortable than a sportbike, especially for the passenger. "You have to lean forward or your head gets buffeted" said Natalie after a long highway stretch, "I think it's more a bike for the rider, not the passenger." For that rider, expect ergonomics that "feel similar to a CBR 600 F4i", according to Gabe.
That made Sean wish for more leg room, but he wishes everything had more leg room. For long distances, the Interceptor just doesn't have the comfort of the other bikes in this test, even if it does "walk away and hide" from its elephantine brethren on the really squiggly bits of road.
"If you're looking for a day-tripper, distance commuter or a solo weekend tourer, the Interceptor has a lot to offer."
The accessory luggage is also very good, with solid, high-quality construction and as much capacity as the other bags. But you pay a price for those cool ray-gun exhausts, as the bags have to stick way out to the sides. This is a problem when lane-splitting and when the passenger is mounting the bike. "I'd rather split lanes on the ST 1300" said Gabe, who lane-splits as much as he can.
If you're looking for a day-tripper, distance commuter or a solo weekend tourer, the Interceptor has a lot to offer. But after about 300 miles the seat begins to dig in, your knees cramp, and you start to look jealously at other bikes. In this company, this motorcycle can't measure up to the luxury and features offered by the BMW and ST 1300, or the comfort (for rider and passenger) of the Buell. It beat all comers in handling, but was dead last in passenger comfort and touring capability. So why did odd duck Gabe make it his second choice for a bike he'd buy? "I cherish the sporty handling and cool sound, and I prefer shorter riding days anyway. I could put up with the discomfort for three or four hundred miles, especially with an improved seat." The VFR is a great motorcycle, but we think there are better choices for sport-touring as we know it.
Where the BMW leans to touring, the VFR, as many already know, is much more about the sporting side of touring. Bottom line: the VFR handles as good as or better than many sportbikes available. And if shorter distances with a flare are what someone wants than it's hard to beat this bike, even more so when riding solo on your little adventure. Speaking for my passenger on this trip and probably the other passengers as well, it simply isn't the way to go if you want to have a travel partner who isn't used to aggressive riding positions. Otherwise the Interceptor has a lot of qualities that endear it to the open road: Premium saddlebags, a highly refined engine, fuel injection, transmission and brakes. Combine all these with great styling and the Interceptor can go for miles. It's hard to describe the handling on this bike without using the term "on rails." The great throaty growl from the airbox and superior handling traits make this bike one of the all-time greats so long as it's a solo trip. Most passengers would probably appreciate something with a little more thought for them.
Where I still a single man, the Honda Interceptor would be the sport touring bike for me. However, my lovely wife Natalie didn't exactly find the Interceptor's passenger accommodations to her liking and the fact that I couldn't help but to wring its neck every time I got hold of its throttle, meant that she spent way too much time with her eyes screwed tightly shut and a stifled scream stuck in her throat. She did however note that it has a "totally bitchin'" intake sound. I think the handling is pretty bitchin' too. The Interceptor makes every other bike in this test feel like it has a hinge in the middle of its frame. Ridden back-to-back with pure sportbikes and streetfighters, the Interceptor gives away nothing other than a bit of ground clearance, while offering very good comfort, good looks and a stunning soundtrack, coupled to its legendary confidence-inspiring nature.
Does this mean that the Interceptor is perfect? Hardly: it needs more legroom, better passenger accommodations and a 1,200cc V-5 with an extra 40LbFt of torque. If it had those things, it would be perfect. Wait a second; doesn't that sound a lot like the ST 1300? Ok, so just adding size and torque isn't enough. It would definitely have to retain the current Interceptor's mix of handling and character and avoid the overgrown scooter feel and Hoover vacuum cleaner sound of the ST.
Third Place: Buell Ulysses
$12,490 ($11,495 MSRP + $995 Buell Saddle Bags)
The washroom door came open a crack, and Gabe's beady eyes peered through the gap. "Third place?" he asked, cautiously. "I guess that's not as bad as winning or second..." He went back to his desk, grabbing Al's last bag of Cheet-os from the freezer. (Try them frozen! They're amazing! --Ed.)
It's remarkable that an "Adventure Tourer" or "Adventure Sportbike" or whatever this thing is beat two recognized Sport Touring benchmarks. It seems to us that Buell was able to come up with a bike that offered all the essentials required, without overloading -- or over refining -- the motorcycle.
"The motor is great."
With 87 HP and 71 foot-pounds of torque from the long-stroke, Sportster-derived engine, wheelies happen almost as often as shifting does, especially with a passenger on the back. Power is available in any gear, which makes the long, rangy bike fun to squirt from corner to corner. "I found myself doing wheelies without meaning to" said Gabe, and we're not sure if unexpected wheelie-ing is a good or bad thing.
That 1200 motor is hideously torquey, maybe a bit too much; if you like too much of a good thing, it's a motor purpose-built for your tastes, as long as you can live with the slightly wonky fuel-injection and sticky throttle our testers noted.
Shifting the re-designed, "dog ring" gearbox is noticeably easier and smoother than previous Buells, but it can't touch the glossy smoothness of the Japanese competition.
A good motor is no fun without a good chassis to take it through the turns. The Buell's unique fuel-in-frame design results in a light, compact and rigid design that elicits absolutely no complaints from any of our testers. It feels like a slightly heavier XB9R with bouncy, long-travel suspension.
That long travel is where we get the complaints. Pete called the ride height "ridiculously tall and very cumbersome" and watching the Straws mount the bike was entertaining, to say the least. "Bring a ladder" says Sean: with the hard luggage sticking way out and the stratospheric seat height, shorter riders and passengers risk embarrassing parking-lot tipovers if they aren't careful. But the advantage is 6.5" of ground clearance. With all that suspension travel, and the plush ride, bumpy pavement or graded, unpaved fireroads will hardly slow you down, something no traditional Sport Tourer can offer. In today's SUV-dominated transportation market, just having the capability to go off-road, to have that rugged, "do-anything" look, is enough to sell a bike.
Is that enough to beat out the other rides? Sorry, Buell, you'll have to build something a little more traditional for that. Although it tied for first place when it came to what the testers would buy with their money, it scored in the middle pretty much everywhere else. It's a competent, do-it-all bike that has a lot of character, is great to ride and has a very comfortable seat. But it's too bare-bones, too raw to beat more refined and luxury-packed bikes like the BMW and Honda's ST 1300.
Gadgets, Gizmos and Necessities
No car these days above the basic economy level is available without such devices as heated seats, multiple cupholders and power outlets, navigation systems and satellite radio receivers. This is starting to creep into the motorcycle world as well.
How much stuff do we need on our bikes? Some things we could do without; Sean would rather have heated seats and grips than an ambient temperature gauge, and he complained the cruise control on the BMW worked no better than the sticky throttle on the Buell.
On that Buell, Gabe and Sean loved the twin 12V cigarette lighter-type accessory plugs that should now be standard issue on all motorcycles. Aside from the Derbi GP-1 scooter, this is the only US model we've seen with such a feature, although the 2006 FJR will also have one in the glove box. The BMW's plugs are useful, but only if you have BMW jacks on your accessories. Since so many of us have 12V adaptor-equipped cell phones, GPS, laptops and other gizmos, this is something we should be seeing on everything motorized. They wired up temporary 12V sockets on the four other bikes, but they were inconvenient and tended to work intermittently because of vibration and poor location.
Every bike here except the Ulysses had anti-lock brakes, and they were remarkable in that they all worked well enough to be unnoticeable. The BMW even had power-boosted brakes like a car; these worked much better than those we complained about on BMW's K 1200 S. Anti-lock brake technology is becoming as prevalent as fuel injsction, at least on bikes in this price range. And since they don't interfere with the day-to-day enjoyment of thee motorcycles, their added safety should be welcomed by most riders, especially those that commute in the rain.
"This $750 option lets you move between nine different settings to adjust for load, passenger and riding style."
Another must for a motorcycle designed to carry passengers frequently is a remote preload adjuster to allow easy changes to static sag and even rebound. This is a feature we hope will appear on every bike in the near future, as proper suspension setup can prevent ill-handling that can lead to a crash. The Buell and Hondas have easy-to reach knobs, as does the BMW, although the BMW one-ups the others by offering the very useful ESA push-button suspension adjustment. Not just a gimmick, this $750 option lets you move between nine different settings to adjust for load, passenger and riding style.
The FJR just offers a lever to slip between "hard" or "soft", which is still better than nothing. Lesser machines just offer the standard ramped adjustment collars, requiring crawling around with the little hook wrench in the vinyl bag under the seat so we can scar our knuckles adjusting the shock. And how many of us will actually go to all that trouble? And that's the difference between gadget and tool: if it's something you use every day, and it makes your life safer, easier and more fun, it's a useful accessory.
Where the BMW is loaded with goodies, the Buell is almost the definition of bare-bones touring in this group. But everything else about the Buell outshines its lack of amenities. Although kind of a wild-card for this comparison, the Ulysses can hold it's own in many areas that the others shine in.
The engine is the heart of the beast on this unit. It's what makes the bike so much fun to ride. Smooth and powerful can get you a long way, and the Buell has those qualities in spades. Throttle response is a little rough at times and can require a seasoned hand to operate smoothly with all that torque on tap from the word "go", but once you're used to it any sense of being unrefined quickly disappears.
With the intended use of the Ulysses being both on and off road, a requisite amount of suspension travel has to be built in. Two things are noticeable about this: Ride height is ridiculously tall and very cumbersome. Secondly, with so much travel, braking seems to suffer. Buell typically has some of the most confidence inspiring brake set-ups on the market. But with the soft springs up front (again by design) it's difficult to get the sense that you can really haul this bike in from speed and make your intended stop.
Putting 17" tires on the Ulysses was a brilliant idea. Great handling is almost second nature, especially with the motor-cross style handlebars that offer a lot in terms of steering input. One thing I would like to see in the future for the Ulysses is an increased amount of steering lock. Passenger accommodations are roomy to say the least. When the luggage rack/backrest is on, guests aboard the XB12X can sit back and ride with plenty of room and comfort. (Note: some passengers said it wasn't really that useful -- Ed.) If the optional saddlebags are attached, they make great grab handles for your passenger. Speaking of the luggage, the Buell's might be the best here, at least in terms of capacity. Although a little bulbous, they are capable of holding a helmet with plenty of room to spare. As a final note, the transmission is allegedly improved by way of an all-new dog ring design with helical cut gears. This is said to lead to a quick shifting tranny. Perhaps this particular Ulysses missed the boat when it came time to receive updated shifting because I couldn't tell any difference from it to any of the '05 model Buells I had ridden. The transmission was typical of Buell bikes.
"The Buell Ulysses, Honda ST 1300, and BMW R1200RT are clearly the most comfortable bikes in this test. However, only the ST 1300 and Ulysses handle like proper motorcycles..."
The Buell Ulysses, Honda ST 1300, and BMW R1200RT are clearly the most comfortable bikes in this test. However, only the ST 1300 and Ulysses handle like proper motorcycles and only the Buell combines comfort and handling with a playful character and do it all capability that the others can't touch. Surely it doesn't look as comfortable as the Honda ST 1300 or BMW R1200RT, but it has the most comfortable seat and best passenger accommodations of the bunch. It also has a roomy, neutral riding position that never gets old and a nice throb from the old V-twin which helps to keep your blood circulating and your brain entertained. Of course, it can't match the wind protection of the other bikes, and it lacks the heated grips and seat of the BMW, but it carries a ton of gear and handles like a dream. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a couple of glitches that would be startling to find on any of the other bikes in this test. The engine detonates under load in hot weather, regardless of the fuel grade used. I suspect this is due to Buell using lots of ignition advance and relatively high compression in an attempt to squeeze adequate power from that anvil of a motor.
It also has a sticky throttle, which will maintain whatever setting you dial-in, even after you take you hand off it. This might be a little scary for some riders and is totally unacceptable for a modern motorcycle, but I found it to be a great poor man's cruise control none the less.
Why, oh why would I ever pick this imperfect device as the winner of this comparo? For the exact same reason I'd pick an XB-9Sx over a CBR 600RR in a practical middleweights shootout. Simply because the Buell is more fun to ride. The only complaint I heard from any of our testers was that the Ulysses was just too tall for guys under 5'10". Every tester noted that it was very comfortable and very fun to ride and they haven't even had a chance to ride the thing off road, where it is a hoot and where the other bikes in this test are simply hopeless.
Second Place: Honda ST 1300 (ABS)
Perhaps Honda believes in the adage: "If it ain't broke don't fix it."
The ST 1300 is still the same comfortable, reliable, smooth running package from last year. And that certainly isn't a bad thing. In this lot, the ST 1300 sat very high on our list in terms of overall touring aspects and did so by blending various qualities into one, refined unit.
It's got lots of stuff to satisfy even the most picky sport-tour junkie.
The comprehensive cockpit includes all kinds of readouts and dials, including ambient temperature. The seat is great: plush and wide, yet supportive. The windscreen and fairing do a great job too: Pete said that the "electronically adjustable windscreen on the ST 1300 offered the greatest range of height adjustment while also being the easiest to look through. Life is good behind the windshield."
Motor and transmission also leave little to be desired. The engine is more powerful than Gabe expected, with 111 HP and 83 foot-pounds of torque on tap.
"It's remarkable in its unremarkable-ness. It gives you lots more power than you'd think from a bike like this, but with such eerie silkiness you'd swear you were in a small, low-flying jet."
Sean says it "does great wheelies", and Pete just described it as "ultra smooth". Like the VFR, the ST 1300 takes advantage of the V-four's melding of two-cylinder and four-cylinder engine characteristics. The transmission, coupled to a faultless hydraulic clutch is five speeds of delightfully slick, typically Honda shifting.
With a twin-spar, aluminum chassis, handling is great for a bike weighing in at a claimed 648 pounds, but you can't hide that mass completely. Pete thought that "the ol' ST needs to shed a few pounds, to say the least", but he still said it "handles as good as any bike in the test". Gabe loved hustling it through the great sections of twistie coast road south of Big Sur: even though it felt " a little porcine", it could still "pick up its skirts and dance, the 18" front wheel giving it extra stability and the nice brakes giving confidence to a rider controlling 800 pounds of hurtling Sport Tourer." Sean appreciated the ST 1300 after riding BMW's ST, saying it "feels like a normal motorcycle, making the bike a bit more confidence inspiring than the BMW."
The luggage and passenger seating are nice too. Pete was impressed by the locking, integrated luggage, and Gabe noted the ST 1300 was easier to lane-split with than the Interceptor with luggage. "The seat was fine", said passenger Cindy, and there were no complaints from anybody else about the soft, wide passenger seat.
"Fine" won't make you a winner with such stiff competition, though. The ST 1300 has a few sore spots for our testers, mostly involving a windscreen that either blasts the rider's helmet from the front when it's too low or "when riding solo, if the screen is all the way up too much wind circulates behind the rider causing him or her to be "pressed" into the handlebars." Also, none of us liked the weight of the big bike, although we understand that's a plus for those of you who like a little more "tour" than "sport", and Pete described the transverse V-four's exhaust note as a "Hoover vacuum cleaner sound."
But those are really minor nits to pick. How could such a refined, reliable, competent machine lose to the more expensive -- and less powerful -- BMW R 1200 ST? The main reason the Honda finished second instead of kicking the new kid on the block back to Berlin is its bland lack of character. The ST is memorable in its unmemorable-ness. A wonderful bike indeed, and a grand choice, especially considering what a value it is, but overall competence won't cut it any more. Acuras are great, but passion inspiring? The ST 1300 doesn't quite have what it takes to open our hearts -- or wallets.
Perhaps Honda believes in the adage: "If it ain't broke don't fix it." The ST 1300 is still the same comfortable, reliable, smooth running package from last year. But that certainly isn't a bad thing. In this lot, the ST 1300 sat very high on my list in terms of overall touring aspects and did so by blending various qualities into one, refined unit. For instance: faultless clutch and transmission, perfect fuel injection, powerful and linear brakes, wide and comfortable saddle for both rider and passenger alike, a comprehensive cockpit, ultra smooth and torquey engine and lastly but most importantly the best wind protection of any of the five bikes in the test.
The electronically adjustable windscreen on the ST 1300 offered the greatest range of height adjustment while also being the easiest to look through. Life is good behind the windshield. Unfortunately it still needs a little refinement for airflow. When raised to the highest level buffeting becomes a problem, especially when carrying a passenger.
"Perhaps Honda believes...if it ain't broke don't fix it"
When riding solo, if the screen is all the way up to much wind circulates behind the rider causing him or her to be "pressed" into the handlebars. After enough mileage this is more trouble than it's worth and finding the optimal screen position becomes of utmost priority. Additionally, the ol' ST needs to shed a few pounds, to say the least. One of the biggest drawbacks to this unit is its heft. It simply needs to lose weight. But when all is said and done this Honda handles as good as any bike in the test, has sufficient and well-designed luggage, great passenger accommodations, excellent brakes, a powerful motor and traditional Honda reliability.
The ST 1300 offers electro gadgets galore but to be honest, I'd rather have the BMW's heated grips and seat than the ST's digital temperature display which lets you know why you're shivering but doesn't do a damned thing to help you alleviate the problem. Or, how about the ST's fuel mileage computer? I'd gladly trade that gadget for the BMW's cruise control, or the Buell's sticking throttle (which stays where you twist it and works at least as well as the BMW's computerized system). On the other hand, the ST's front end feels like a normal motorcycle, making the bike a bit more confidence inspiring than the BMW. It also runs like a Swiss watch, with none of the Buell's overheating, detonation or glitchy controls. Though it does great wheelies and hides a truly powerful engine, the ST still comes off as a bit boring. In fact, the ST is the easy winner of any Consumer Reports type evaluation. Like most of MO's readers, I hate Consumer Reports.
Vanilla? It's one of my favorite flavors, and the Honda's wholesome goodness shines through like a trip to Haagen Dazs. Even though it is a massive bike, the ST is approachable like a scooter and is in fact the easiest to just hop-on and ride to the drive-through liquor store. Of course, you might get laughed at by the winos and chicks will definitely want to ride on any of the other bikes in this test before they ride on this big Shogun Scooter look-alike. If coolness is less of a concern than value, the ST is the closest bike in this test to BMW's R1200RT, though the Honda is less expensive and probably more reliable.
The Winner: BMW R 1200 RT(ABS)
$20,720 as tested ($17,490 MSRP + $750 ESA, + $1450 Radio/CD, + $215 Trip Computer,
+ $270 Heated Seat, + $50 Oil Level Warning, + $35 Clear Turn Signal Lenses)
"Victory belongs to the most persevering." -Napoleon Bonaparte
I know ol' Boney didn't ride a Beemer, because his teeny little legs wouldn't be able to touch the ground, but that quote is perfect to capture the zeitgeist of BMW's finally conquering its long-time rival, the Honda ST. BMW has never beaten Honda in a MO Sport Touring comparison, so this must be sweet indeed. It's not surprising; Sean predicted it would win a Sport Touring comparison in his initial ride in March of 2005.
BMWs have always been idiosyncratic bikes, acquired tastes for the cultured and sophisticated moto-elite. This new R 1200 RT changes that. It's a smooth, refined, comfortable and luxury feature-packed machine that gives up little performance to lighter, more sport-oriented bikes, and has few quirks to make it unattractive to those used to other brands.
"The motor is a real treasure."
Although it still has that wet-fart BMW sound, it makes 99HP and 78 foot-pounds of torque, great power for an air/oil-cooled twin, especially considering power loses from the shaft drive. The Buell's much cruder engine musters 12 less HP, and doesn't offer the smooth transmission and refined, powerful brakes. It also doesn't offer the grand wind protection of BMW's immense windscreen. As Pete puts it, "life behind the windscreen is good", and Gabe loved being able to fill his head with evil liberal propaganda from NPR, even at 80+ MPH.
Handling is great, with the nice broad handlebars giving lots of leverage, and the Telelever front suspension soaking up bumps without diving on the brakes. Sean preferred the traditional front end of the ST 1300, but none of the other riders noticed the slightly numb feel. You can get going down a curvy road at 90% of a sportbike pace, with the CD player blasting (as long as it's not too bumpy!) and the heated seat warming your buns. The shaft drive is unnoticeable, and the optional ESA works very well, although the "comfort" setting is "too soft even for the Interstate", according to Gabe.
At last, we have a BMW for the masses: a bike with broad appeal and no weird quirks. The passenger seat was universally loved and all the electronic gizmos worked well together, although we couldn't figure out how to turn off the passenger's heated seat. "I thought I was having hot flashes" said Erika at a gas stop. The luggage worked well, once you learn how to work it. It's a motorcycle that needs a good owner's manual and dealer orientation, but satisfying to learn. BMW has built a winner, and for those who don't blanch at dropping over $18,000 on a motorcycle, it's a wonderful choice.
"I can totally see why legions of sport tourers swear by BMW RT series motorcycles"
The Beemer seems to take the "touring" side of sport touring quite seriously. It has all the amenities I find myself wanting the more often I think about these types of bikes. Heated seat (including the passenger mount), heated handgrips, cruise control, stereo system with a CD player, electronically adjustable windshield, 12v outlets (albeit BMW specific) and lastly, electronically adjustable suspension. The RT is just about the most comfortable bike in the group, both for rider and passenger alike but the Buell definitely gives it a run for its money.
The saddlebags, although not at the top of the list for capacity, are still the best. They're seamlessly integrated onto the bike and take little more than a hot breath to detach from the bike. Every OEM could take a lesson from BMW when it comes to saddlebags. But here again, the Buell is a close second and depending on individual needs the Ulysses may be better than them all. Braking though, is most certainly owned by the Beemer. The brakes on this bike are nothing short of powerful. They feel like you've clamped a 20-ton press down around the rotors. Yet they're completely manageable at any speed you care to modulate them. They never have a "wooden" feel to them and they certainly don't require much effort at the lever.
The engine is, as usual, smooth and exceptionally linear. The motor received quite a boost in horsepower for 2005. It's a quick bike but it doesn't have a perceivable mid-range smack or particular boost of torque. Passenger accommodations are, as mentioned before, superior. With one of the widest and most plush passenger saddles in the group, my girlfriend was the most relaxed on the R1200RT.
On the down side, somehow, for all the engineering that probably went into the windscreen design, somebody at BMW forgot to find out what it's like to actually look through. Oddly shaped, it does a good job of deflecting airflow and never created too much buffeting but even at it's highest position I felt like the top line of the screen was a little too intrusive to a clear view. Ultimately what I found myself doing was either putting the screen down just far enough so that I could see well past the top of it or lowering completely. There is just something not quite right about it. Lastly, even though it does have the added convenience of a CD player, it's useless. The player skipped so horribly, even over the most sedate imperfections in the road that it proved to be more trouble than it's worth. So, if you can enjoy the stereo system, which is excellent, without the CD player you'll be happy.
I get it. Really, I do. I can totally see why legions of Sport Tourers swear by BMW RT series motorcycles. I was completely blown-away by the improvements BMW made to this new R1200RT (much lighter, much more powerful, much better looking) and gave it a glowing review at last April's RT/ST intro. My opinion hasn't changed much since then, but my assessment of its relative strengths has. You see, now that I've ridden it back-to-back with "normal" motorcycles, I notice that the RT's front end feels a bit wonky. That's not to say it is hard to ride or makes me worry about it falling off, it just feels needlessly weird and if I had to choose a bike to hustle through an unfamiliar road, I'd pick something with regular forks. Once you've been in the RT's saddle for more than fifteen minutes, the weird feeling fades and the rest of the bikes shines through. As an only bike, the BMW's front end shouldn't concern potential buyers and the rest of the bike makes a damned fine sport tourer, with an excellent combination of comfort and handling. Of course the other bikes in this test offer similar comfort and handling for a lot less money.
For my money...Sean Alexander - MOron
36 Yrs Old, 6'2", 204 Lbs. Favorite Fried Food: Chicken Wings
No doubt about it, if I was buying a sport tourer it'd be the Buell XB-12X Ulysses. After spending time on all these bikes, the Buell is the one I'd buy.
It needs nothing more than a larger windscreen for long distance highway cruising and nothing at all for any other type of riding you're likely to do. Passengers love the thing too, once they've climbed a ladder and are safely perched on its passenger seat.
As an added bonus; passengers can hardly tell when you're pulling a wheelie, since the Ulysses has that long-travel suspension which makes them think it's just the shock squatting under acceleration.
So you ask: "What about the BMW R1200RT or the Honda ST 1300?" That's an easy one to answer. Both are supremely competent sport touring appliances, but (unlike that dead scientist in 'Top Secret') I don't ride appliances.
"Ok, so what about the Interceptor? It has tons of character and handles like a sportbike." True, the Interceptor makes me smile large. Unfortunately, it doesn't please my Sport Touring companion and its sharper focus requires a bit more energy and leads to more rider fatigue after a long day in the saddle.
"Yeah, but you picked an Adventure Tourer as a better Sport Tourer than the bike that's won every other MO Sport Touring shootout since its introduction... (the Yamaha FJR 1300) ...and to make matters worse, you picked the FJR last this year, why the flip-flop, Mr. Alexander?" Hey, it's not a flip-flop. I never picked the FJR as a winner in our past shootouts, I was merely out-voted. This year, I did a better job of brain-washing my fellow testers. Seriously, the FJR is a fantastic motorcycle, but our Euro test unit suffered from excessive heat blowing onto the rider's crotch and legs and an inline-four power plant that felt like well... an inline-four, only without that wailing inline-four soundtrack.
If I were an Acura kind of guy, I'd dig that ST 1300. That's no dig at Acura or the ST 1300: it's a really good motorcycle, and my brother owns two Acuras. He digs them: he hates dealing with broken stuff, because he tries hard to break stuff. But I like a little more charisma. But not too much: a Sport-Tourer should be a little more staid and luxurious than the Supermoto- with-hard- luggage-and-a- comfy-seat that is the Ulysses experience.
The FJR is more like it, with an entertaining engine and some nice features and handling. But in this company, it lacks the useful features a bike this heavy should have. If you are going to give me 600 pounds of motorcycle, I want some luxury features to go with it, especially if I'm writing a check in the teens. Also, with new competition as charismatic as the Ducati ST3, Triumph Sprint, and BMW RT and ST, bland (yet copious) power and decent handling won't prompt the tight-fisted from plunking down their IRAs on a sight-unseen bike.
Which leaves the Interceptor and the BMW. An odd pairing for number one and number two, no? I spent the most time on the Interceptor, riding back to Los Angeles alone after the holiday weekend. It really is a comfortable sportbike with luggage. And if I was forced to have but one bike, this would be it. It's really as polished, smooth and competent as the thousands of reviews over the last 20 years say it is. Luckily, I will never have to confine myself to just one bike.
That's why I picked the BMW as my choice if I had to spend my own money. It is almost the perfect Sport Tourer, even if it has the image of Grandpa's Buick Regal in a thong. It is light, handles wonderfully at a sporting pace, makes all the power I need, and has features -- like the excellent sound system and cruise control -- that I didn't realize I couldn't live without. In fact, the first night we had the bike I decided to ride it to Oxnard -- about a 120 mile round-trip -- to dinner, just to enjoy that luxury and performance. Any motorcycle that truly invites you to ride it deserves special notice, and that's why I liked it so much.
I did ride this shootout and have more opinions than how uncomfortable the bikes are with a backpack.... the luggage afforded me a passenger and opinions this time and here they are.
The Honda ST 1300 is my new best friend - the BMW did give this bike a run for the vote, but despite the comforts of heated seats and handgrips (great for the passengers too, I know), the ST 1300 wins me over with a smoother transmission, a larger and optically clearer windscreen, lower saddle height (even in BMW's low position), less gimmicky feel and lower center of gravity (I believe).
The Buell is the worst - I will never buy a bike that I can barely step over.... road-weary or not, this bike is a beast to move around on. Lock-to-lock turning radius is nearly an entire football field, which blows chunks for urban navigation let alone my own garage.
I'll cut to the chase: All things considered, it's hard to beat the value offered by the Buell. It may be slightly out of place in this sport touring comparison: with its lack of wind protection or heated anything, rudimentary gauge cluster and somewhat firm saddle the XB12X Ulysses doesn't look the part. But when price is factored into the equation (and it always is) it gets harder to discount the Buell as a sport touring candidate. For all that it lacks in the company of the others in this test it more than makes up for in character, engine performance and price.
The Buell's handling in the tighter stuff, even with loaded saddlebags and a passenger is nothing to sneeze at and freeway cruising is a cinch, even without a substantial windshield.
Certainly the activity of getting on and off this bike is cumbersome with the added suspension travel, to say the least. But with the ability to meander down fire roads or even less accommodating surfaces, I can learn to live with a less than perfect "climb aboard" procedure. Even adding the $1,200.00 or so for the full luggage system still doesn't impact price enough to make not me consider the Buell at the top of list for my purchasing abilities.
With a torque monster for an engine that will keep me doing wheelies day in and day out, light steering, roomy accommodations and a great set of luggage, the Ulysses could easily become my "any day to anywhere" motorcycle.
This is a first for MO. Never has a BMW so completely stomped the competition in a large shootout. It's a nice thing to see, and well-deserved. It demonstrates that BMW is perhaps beginning to figure out that to expand market share, they will have to start building bikes with broader appeal, without the odd and aggravating quirks that drive cross over buyers away.
We at MO wonder how much of it had to do with the fact that we had passengers along, something we don't do as much as we should on our shootouts.
We'd love to hear from you, to see if it adds a needed dimension to our comparison and if you think we should include passengers more often.
It's also nice to have five bikes and not have any that are particularly awful to ride. Only the Interceptor was purposefully avoided by those with companions because of the passenger seat. It's not really that bad: compared to most sportbikes it's heaven, with its humane footpeg placement and nice big nylon grab rails. But the other bikes offer such nice passenger seats it's no contest.
Like any comparison, you should use our feedback to inform your decision, and not take it as gospel truth. Yamaha fans will love that R1 feel of that whooshing 1300CC four, and if you've had an old ST 1100 for years and love it, the new ST 1300 will knock you out. But the BMW's touring excellence -- and sporting competence -- made it a clear winner for those of us at MO.
We award points in reverse of the ranking, with an extra one point bonus for first. Six points for first, four points for second, three points for third, two points for fourth, and a single sympathy point for fifth, so nobody goes home empty handed, like a middle school track meet.
|Honda ST 1300||1st||5th||4th||4th||11|
|Honda Interceptor ABS||2nd||3rd||5th||2nd||12|
|Honda ST 1300||2nd||2nd||2nd||2nd||16|
|Honda Interceptor ABS||3rd||5th||5th||5th||6|
|Honda ST 1300||3rd||5th||4th||5th||7|
|Honda Interceptor ABS||1st||1st||1st||1st||24|
|Honda ST 1300||2nd||2nd||2nd||3rd||15|
|Honda Interceptor ABS||5th||5th||5th||5th||4|
|Touring||Sporting||Passenger||Bike I'd Buy||Totals|
|Honda ST 1300||16||7||15||11||49|
|Honda Interceptor ABS||6||24||4||12||46|