Classic Tourer Comparo
Roadstar Silverado :: Victory V92TC :: Nomad 1500 :: Road King :: R 1200CL
MO has had a long-term Victory Cruiser for quite a while now. Just as it was time to return it to fleet services, EBass showed up on a new Harley Road King, giving us the idea to do a last-minute "Classic Tourers" shootout. With time quickly dwindling, we called BMW, Yamaha and Kawasaki. Surprisingly, they all threw bikes into the fray on short notice, and so we were soon off on a major comparative adventure. The assembled bikes include: BMW R 1200CL, Harley-Davidson Road King, Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Nomad, Victory V92 Touring Cruiser, and Yamaha Road Star Silverado. The R 1200CL seems a little out of place in this crowd, indeed, we had asked for an R 1200C with soft bags and a windscreen but BMW felt that the big CL was more appropriate.
"We road tripped it outta LA for a couple of days, covering every type of road in and around Southern California. Along the way we gained a newfound respect for these 'touring cruisers' and a new understanding for the type of person who chooses to enjoy life at a relaxed pace."
Instead of "Classic Tourers", we should have called this story "Gabe Writes a Novel". You see, MO needed to round up two additional riders to complete this shootout. You know the type -- stout and hardy pilots who wouldn't "Lay Her Down" just to keep from crashing, people capable of writing their way out of a wet paper sack, ones who could assist with the simultaneous testing of these five (err... 4 +1?) beauties. JohnnyB, more vitrolic and enigmatic than "stout" and "hardy", greatly prefers to quaff a few stouts over being thusly labelled. And he's off on a real-world money-making adventure, anyway. So he's out. Ashley? She bought a CBR150R and flew the coup to Thailand, whilst SisterMaryKim only seems to quip about getting her a purple scooter. No, these are man's bikes, and we needed stout and hardy men to test them!
So, after an extensive search, EBass graciously proffered his buddy Rami, who's the Sales Manager at Roadhouse Brand. Consider him the "Metric" cruiser aficionado to offset our own HarleyMan, Fonzie. Having just returned from a super-fun Derbi mini-motard press day, Sean figured he'd reciprocate and invite Derbi's West Coast Sales Manager, Gabe Ets-Hokin (a long-time MO reader, feedback contributor and keeper of MR.ALLCAPS) along as our second "guest" writer. Little did we know, but Rami turned out to be a shy gentle giant while Gabe (who weighs about 145lbs soaking wet) turned out to be Sean's long-lost hooligan twin, sliding sideways to every stop, drag racing us on the freeways and generally acting like an enthusiastic MOron throughout his stay at MO. Gabe's enthusiasm on these bikes turned out to be nothing compared to his zest for writing -- as you'll see below.
And so, after meeting up early one fine Monday morning, we road tripped it outta LA for a couple of days, covering every type of road in and around Southern California. Along the way we gained a newfound respect for these 'touring cruisers' and a new understanding for the type of person who chooses to enjoy life at a relaxed pace.
5th Place * BMW R 1200CL
Sean: I wasn't kidding when I wrote that "newfound respect" line. Although this BMW is, shall we say, ungainly in appearance -- and though it suffers from a generally overweight/underpowered disposition -- it still has excellent ground clearance, stellar, if a little touchy, brakes, heated grips, cruise control, AM/FM/CD stereo, comfy seat, comfy ergos and enjoys a general acceptance from the more traditional cruiser crowd. When the roads were twisty, the big 1200CL was the bike to be on: Once the yellow signs with squiggly arrows appear, the Beemer will easily walk off and hide from any other bike in this test.
So why is this bike ranked 5th out of five bikes? That's a tough question. I think it has to do with its styling and a couple of intangibles. It tends to feel a little alien -- I suppose this is only natural, in consideration of its appearance. It is very awkward to maneuver at low speeds, feeling ponderous and tippy when trying to gracefully glide through a parking lot. It also has a funky front-end feel that is easily upset by rain grooves. This wouldn't be so bad if it could compensate with a blistering 1/4 mile time, alas it is a three toed tree sloth, albiet in a group of rapid turtles.
EBass: First off, the Beemer deserves credit just for showing up in this comparo. It really was the odd man out and I give it some props for even stepping in the ring with the other more traditional bikes. That having been said, I'm gonna thrash on it anyway. What a ghastly looking creature! A word to the Bavarians: Hire some Italians in your design department! A tall bike with an upright seating position and high, wide bars, the superb seat was wasted due to the funky, tucked-under, scooter-esque leg position caused by the boxer engine. Toes are jammed just beneath the cylinders with an inch or two of clearance to reach the shifter and footbrake -- leaving your legs are claustrophobically tucked under. Worse, the bike's tendancy to "on/off" braking was hell in the canyons. The transmission seemed to hit its mark, but there was no feel at all to the heel shifter, making it hard to tell if the gear clicked in, although it always seemed to. The CD stereo offered a tinny, unpleasant sound rendering it basically worthless. On the plus side, the R 1200 sports cruise control, luggage capacity by the ton, and far and away the best pillion. Braking aside, the Beemer felt smooth in the corners and admittedly, ABS is a very good thing in traffic and/or poor road conditions. The bike was comfortable and quiet at touring speeds. Oddly enough, I can actually see how somebody could love the R 1200 -- just not me.
Fonzie: The biggest of the bunch. An alien riding machine compared to classic styling of the remaining four bikes. Alien, but with a beautiful ride. Smooth and nimble handling despite the visual size of the 1200CL. When first sitting on it and clicking out of neutral I was taken aback by the position of the shift lever -- which is tucked beneath the cylinder head of the Boxer engine -- same for the rear brake lever. Visually hidden to the rider's eye, but where one would expect to find them, although a touch too far off the fronts of the floorboards. Personally, I would swap out the rolling pin shifter peg standard of BMW's line-up -- I too often mis-shift or half-shift when it rolls over my toe.
Handlebar position and fit-to-grip is also another of the BMW quirks. With tapering grip shape and downward/inward tilting bar ends, the final hold position feels less like a grocery cart and more like a vacuum cleaner... making me consider the potential arm fatigue of 500-plus miles. During the times I rode the Beemer, I learned not to hold thumb and index finger side against the inner grip end. It's awkward, for sure.
On the positive side of the ride, the seating was stellar. Although appearing very tall, the driver standing position was spot on for this 32" inseam -- I had more trouble with the Victory in this manner. The "barstool" like ride position of the Victory cruiser was a very different ride for a cruiser. The passenger seat on the 1200CL is larger than my office chair: Having ridden two-up for a few miles in the early a.m. on day one of the comparo I was comfortable enough to sleep if I felt stupid enough to do so.
I eventually got over the sound of the exhaust when I learned how to use the onboard stereo system... the Eagles beat the sound of an onboard jet-ski any day.
Rami: This bike truly did not belong in this test. It seemed as though it was trying to be an Electra Glide with a Beemer attitude and turned out to be a contradiction that could not be pulled off. This BMW is different and requires a novel approach in order to ride well. This was the last bike I rode and my first experience was in bumper-to-bumper traffic which resulted in stalling multiple times because you need at least 2000 RPMs to let the clutch out. As a cruiser rider I felt the position was very uncomfortable. Your feet are behind you, creating a little discomfort when wearing chaps and there is no place to move your feet around over the long haul. I, too, disliked the heel/toe shifter and rear brake -- they're in an odd position and under the engine. The bike always up shifted when requested, but you had no way of knowing except for watching the RPMs drop when the clutch was let out. I was constantly shifting because I could never find a proper power band to stay with, but once I figured out how to ride the bike and forgot this was a touring cruiser, it was a very nice one. The heated grips were a nice touch once the sun went down -- as was the radio/CD player, as as you're traveling under 70 mph -- above which, it's pretty useless (without headphones, that is). Cementing it's last-place vote in my book, the windshield is just weird and created excessive amounts of wind noise.
Gabe: My least favorite was the BMW. I rode an ill-fated BMW R100S for five years and that thing taught me how to ride fast and how to repeatedly pull the top-end of a BMW motor apart. I've only ridden a little bit on the newer oil-head twins, so I was curious to see how it compared to my old bike.
The styling is just weird. I don't have to tell you that. What were they thinking? Fit and finish is terrific, and everything works well, including the radio and CD player, and you know Jesus loves you when you feel those heated grips on a cold night ride, but honestly BMW, what are your designers smoking? Please send me some.
I was surprised that the motor felt slower and buzzier than my '77 BMW. That must be because of the massive bulk the poor little thing has to schlep around, but in BMW's attempt to make it feel more like Harley they lost the unique boxer feel, even if the bike still tilts drunkenly to the right when you rev it at a stop. The motor requires one or two downshifts to keep up with madcap editors on Victorys, and that is a shame. In my mind, a $16,000 motorcycle should have more power than you can use in any situation, whether you're doing roll-on acceleration tests while lane splitting or riding in the mountains fully loaded. If the motor can't be tuned to reliably provide the torque and power necessary, lighten the bike, buy engines from Rotax or stick to making sport-tourers. Do you hear me? Yeah, I'm talking to you Dieter, get on it.
"One place BMW never drops the ball is in the braking department."
Four-piston Brembos and ABS, plus a servo-assist means you feel confident in rush-hour LA traffic. The Telelever suspension keeps your front from diving and the back from bobbing and jerking as you roll off the throttle in response to some putz in an El Camino slamming on his brakes right in front of you so he can get out of the car pool lane. Honestly, a clever yet sleezy lawyer could make a good products liability case against the other manufacturers and he'd have a point- why can't all these bikes have brakes as good as the BMW?
Beemers also seem to like twisty roads better than their competitors, and the CL is no exception. Suspension rates are nice, if a tad mushy (although I didn't have time to fiddle with the rear shock, which does have an awful lot of adjustment capability for a cruiser). Cornering clearance is generous and the standard-like floorboard placement was my favorite of all the bikes. But even though the BMW is the lightest bike here, it felt heavy because of the huge fairing and jumbo luggage.
What's with that handlebar? Are there people in Bavaria with two pairs of elbows? It is not just high, but also angles upwards. Maybe it was put on upside down? Maybe it's off of a beach cruiser bicycle? It would be the first thing to go on eBay were this my bike.
I've been reading road tests of BMW's for at least 10 years, and I've always been annoyed when testers complained about the wacky turn-signal switches, so I vowed to not make a stink about it if I ever wrote a BMW review. But when you're switching back and forth among five different bikes, it can be a little dangerous to signal left when what you really want to do is honk at Richard Head, as he merrily blasts through the stop sign in his monster truck. As a former San Francisco cabbie, Mr. Horn is my first line of defense, and Beemer horns are the H-Bomb of horns. But they're as quiet as Senate Democrats until you figure out where they hid the horn button! I know I'd get used to it if I was only riding a Beemer, but who has a Beemer as his only bike? Get with almost every other manufacturer and use standard switchgear placement before a monster truck makes a monster mash out of one of your faithful, BMW!
In conclusion, I think a Beemerphile would much prefer the R1200C with some touring accessories (or the tour-ready Montana) to this Rodan-like monstrosity. It's a nicely engineered bike, but like BMW occasionally does, the engineering answers questions nobody asks, even people with four elbows.