2005 Sport Touring Comparo
BMW R1200RT :: Buell Ulysses :: Honda ST 1300 :: Honda Interceptor ABS :: Yamaha FJR1300
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.