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