Pitting the ultimate expression of soccer mom adventurism in the form of Honda’s VFR1200X against the top tier off-roader in Triumph’s ever-increasing line of Explorer models is audacious, if not a little bit irrational. But ever the astute brain trust of intrepid motojournos, we rose to the occasion and Sherlock Holmes’d our way to a few rather elementary discoveries.

2016 Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa Review

First of which is that when visually comparing these two bikes – the heaviest ADV bikes on the market – it seems apparent the Explorer would be the better ADV bike and Honda the better road bike. But after having ridden both, we’re of the opinion the Explorer bests the VFR in both categories – by a wide margin in the dirt, and not much less significantly on the pavement.

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Top Photo: The Explorer’s variety of electronics is accessible via the left-handlebar-mounted switchgear and viewable in the digital readout. There’s a lot going on, but once you’re accustomed to the operation, it’s easy to manipulate the settings. Bottom photo: Compared to Triumph’s cluster, the Honda’s is rudimentary, dear Watson.

A major contributing factor to the Explorer’s advantage is its bevy of electronics. These digital whizbangs come at a cost (the XCa comes in $4,800 more than the VFR) but the price difference doesn’t impact the ScoreCard in the Honda’s favor enough to change the outcome. The VFR’s only nod to technology is its combined ABS and switchable TC, but if it’s intended to be more an on-road, rather than an off-road, bike where’s the cruise control?

Not only does the Explorer XCa have cruise control, but also heated hand grips, heated seat, electronically adjustable windscreen, tire-pressure monitoring, electronically adjustable suspension, hill-hold control, and ride modes.

“The ride modes really do alter the Explorer’s character,” explains Evans Brasfield. “On my first stint in the dirt, I forgot that the mode defaults to Road when the ignition is turned off. So, I swapped bikes with Tom and took off to find the Explorer almost unrideable in the dirt. The power delivery was abrupt, and the engine kept bogging down in the slippery stuff because of the traction control. I stopped after a little while to complain, and was suitably mocked for failing to switch back to Off-Road mode. After doing so the XCa was much easier to ride. Doh!”

If ever a graph didn’t tell the whole story, it’s this one. The Honda bests the Triumph everywhere below 7500 rpm, but you’d never know it when riding the two.

If ever a graph didn’t tell the whole story, it’s this one. The Honda bests the Triumph everywhere below 7500 rpm, but you’d never know it when riding the two.

The Honda is heavy, feels heavier than its weight, but under-weighs the class porker Explorer by 13 pounds (612 vs 625 lbs). It’s a mystery then why the Triumph feels more powerful on the street – maybe it’s a gearing thing? The Explorer has always been a top-heavy fella, and this one’s no different, but the big Tiger just seems to carry its weight well, and certainly feels faster than the Honda.

“Where is that V-4 character we all love so much?” asks Brasfield. “Feels like way less than just a neutered VFR1200F. Did they leave off a cylinder or two?” Personally, it feels like the most uninspiring V-4 I think I’ve ever ridden. Which sums up our overall opinion of the VFR-X’s engine performance.

Even then, however, the Honda exhibited throttle jerkiness that had us all complaining during this ride as well as the initial shakedown in JB’s First Ride Review. “Response is immediate and a bit abrupt; new Euro 4 emissions conformity probably doesn’t help,” reported Burnsie a couple months ago. “It feels like A mode on bikes that offer different ride modes, but on the X there’s no B or C. I actually got used to the immediate power delivery after riding the bike a while, but it was a trait Duke and Troy both mentioned first after riding the X for the first time.” On the other hand (snicker), the Trumpet’s RbW throttle felt as natural as an old-timey cable-operated one.

The VFR1200X is confusing. High handlebars seem clumsy, and the bike’s wide tank is a lot to wrap your legs around when seated, and uncomfortable when standing. Street pegs with non-removable rubber inserts underline the VFR1200X’s pseudo off-road acumen.

The VFR1200X is confusing. High handlebars seem clumsy, and the bike’s wide tank is a lot to wrap your legs around when seated, and uncomfortable when standing. Street pegs with non-removable rubber inserts underline the VFR1200X’s pseudo off-road acumen.

Among the variety of changes Triumph made to the Explorer line for the 2016, improved airflow is supposed to be one of them. What we discovered, however, is the large pocket of still air behind the electronically adjustable windscreen (usually a good thing) allows for a significant heat exchange between the Triumph’s fuel tank and the rider’s crotch.

“The engine puts off so much heat that I thought I’d accidentally turned the heated seat function to high,” Brasfield observes. “It wasn’t. At low speeds when riding in the dirt, standing on the pegs, my knees got hot where they were contacting the tank. Since the temperature was about the same as during our dirt ride last year, and I was wearing the exact same riding suit, I point my finger at the Triumph’s engine or the redesigned fairing. The crotch heat really interferes with my desire to like this bike.”

This image sums up the whole shootout. It must have been staged, because the Honda was never this close to the Triumph, especially in the dirt. Note the airflow I’m maintaining between my man bits and Explorer’s fuel tank. It’s hot!

This image sums up the whole shootout. It must have been staged, because the Honda was never this close to the Triumph, especially in the dirt. Note the airflow I’m maintaining between my man bits and Explorer’s fuel tank. It’s hot!

When it came time for a little off-road action, it was all hare and tortoise. Put the Triumph in its Off-Road ride mode and it automatically adjusts suspension, switches off ABS to the rear wheel, softens power delivery, and reduces TC (turning it completely off is an option). The XCa then drops the road-biased Honda like the British Pound following the BREXIT vote.

“The Triumph’s a hugely impressive motorcycle for all its amazing electronics, and all of it probably works stupendously when you figure out how to use it all,” says IT editor Burns.

While the Explorer XCa has an unfair advantage against the VFR-X, last year’s Explorer XC model mostly held its ground against more similar competitors in our 2015 Ultimate Sports-Adventure-Touring Shootout. Considering all the upgrades that come with the new XCa model, we expect the Triumph’s top-of-the-line Adventure-Tourer to give the likes of BMW’s R1200GS Adventure and KTM’s 1290 Super Adventure a real run for their money. Do we smell another multi-bike adventure-touring shootout in the works?

The VFR1200X does sport a cool single-side swingarm, and we can kind of overlook the omission of cruise control, but a 2016, 612-pound, $15k bike without radial-mount front binders…?

The VFR1200X does sport a cool single-side swingarm, and we can kind of overlook the omission of cruise control, but a 2016, 612-pound, $15k bike without radial-mount front binders…?

We’re fans of Triples, and we’ve always contended that the 1215cc inline-three powering the Tiger Explorer made for a fantastic road engine. With the new ride modes, and electronically adjustable suspension, we can say the Explorer makes for an equally good off-roader, at least within its respective weight class. Steering on the Explorer is slower than on the VFR, but the wide handlebar allows you to exert extra influence over the side-to-side transitions when necessary.

Electronic suspension is sweeping its way through all high-end motorcycles, and here’s why. “Being able to adjust the damping character on the fly broadens the bike’s utility,” explains Evans. “For most riding, Normal feels, well, just about right. However, get on a rippled interstate, and being able to dial on the limousine ride makes the miles roll by in a pillow of feathers. Come to a winding section of road, crank the firmness up to sport. Although you never forget that you’re on a big, heavy machine, the XCa handles quite tautly.”

Comparable to the Honda, the Tiger Explorer wears an always fashionable single-side swingarm, but is also outfitted with engine guards, sump guard, large CNC-machined footpegs, and pannier brackets.

Comparable to the Honda, the Tiger Explorer wears an always fashionable single-side swingarm, but is also outfitted with engine guards, sump guard, large CNC-machined footpegs, and pannier brackets.

Whereas the Explorer is a firmly planted competitor to BMW’s and KTM’s ADV offerings, Honda’s VFR-X seems more of a wayward adolescent that doesn’t quite know its place in life. When it comes to best explaining the VFR’s purpose, JB has the correct analogy.

“A friend of mine just bought one to replace his old ST1300, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re after, it’s an excellent choice; it’s kind of a modern ST with Adventure styling and better off-road capability,” says Burns. “Just like the old ST, it’s excellent at inhaling big long sections of pavement while barely breaking a sweat.” Keep in mind the “better off-road capability” is in comparison to an ST, which is only minimally better than a Gold Wing in the dirt.

Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout Scorecard
Category Honda VFR1200X Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa
Price 100% 76.5%
Weight 100% 97.9%
lb/hp 96.4% 100%
lb/lb-ft 100% 91.6%
Total Objective Scores 99.4% 90.1%
Engine 88.8% 92.5%
Transmission/Clutch 77.5% 82.5%
Handling 77.5% 82.5%
Brakes 77.5% 87.5%
Suspension 77.5% 90.0%
Technologies 72.5% 92.5%
Instruments 78.8% 95.0%
Ergonomics/Comfort 82.5% 92.5%
Quality, Fit & Finish 85.0% 85.0%
Cool Factor 77.5% 90.0%
Grin Factor 65.0% 87.5%
Tom’s Subjective Scores 75.2% 90.0%
John’s Subjective Scores 82.9% 88.3%
Overall Score 83.1% 89.3%

Although Burnsie and I were the only two to fill-out the official ScoreCard, the winner of this shootout was a unanimous decision among the three of us (including Evans), with Burns throwing in a caveat for a bike that didn’t participate in this shootout.

“Despite the engine heat, the Explorer XCa leaves the VFR in the dust – both literally and figuratively,” says Brasfield.

“Neither of these would be my choice for the simple fact that they’re the two heaviest bikes in the class,” says Burns. “I can see the Honda’s appeal if you’re a big purist, since it really only gives you the bare-bones TC and ABS and little else, including no CC.

“If I was 6’6 with a Nordic goddess gf, I’d have a long look at it,” says JB, now referring to the Triumph. “But for 5’7 lonely me and the same money, I’d have to look at the bike I picked in last year’s ADV slugfest, the Ducati Multistrada. It has all the same features in a much svelter package, and it’s dead sexy too.”

An epic view always helps soften the blow when it comes time to tell Burns he’s wrong about a motorcycle. Actually, he did chose the Triumph over the Honda on the ScoreCard, but you never know what you’re gonna get with that guy.

An epic view always helps soften the blow when it comes time to tell Burns he’s wrong about a motorcycle. Actually, he did chose the Triumph over the Honda on the ScoreCard, but you never know what you’re gonna get with that guy.

Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout Specifications
Honda VFR1200X Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa
Engine Type Liquid-cooled 4-stroke Unicam 16-valve 76° V4 Liquid-cooled, 12 valve, DOHC, in-line Triple
Capacity 1237cc 1215cc
Bore/Stroke 81.0mm x 60.0mm 85.0mm x 71.4m
Compression Ratio 12.0:1 11.0:1
Peak hp 108.2 @ 8000 rpm 116.3 hp @ 8500 rpm
Peak Torque 80.3 lb-ft. @ 6000 rpm 75.2 lb-ft @ 7700 rpm
Fuel system PGM-FI electronic fuel injection Ride by Wire, fuel injection
Final drive Enclosed Shaft Shaft
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed, wet, multi-plate hydraulically operated, torque assist
Emissions Meets current California Air Resources Board (CARB) and EPA standards. Euro 4 compliant
Frame Twin-spar aluminum frame Tubular steel trellis frame
Front Wheel Wire-spoke 32 spoke, aluminum rim, 19 x 3.0 in.
Rear Wheel Wire-spoke 32 spoke, aluminum rim, 17 x 4.5 in.
Front Tire 110/80-R19 120/70-R19
Rear Tire 150/70-R17 170/60-R17
Front Suspension 43mm inverted telescopic forks with hydraulic damping, preload and rebound damping adjustment WP 48mm upside down forks, rebound and compression damping adjustment on fork caps on XC, electronically adjustable damping on XCx and XCa, 190mm travel (or 168mm on low seat version)
Rear Suspension Pro-Link with gas-charged damper, preload and stepless rebound damping adjustment WP monoshock, rebound damping adjustment on XC, electronically adjustable semi active damping on XCx and XCa, 193mm wheel travel (or 158mm on low seat version), hydraulic preload adjustment on XC, automatic preload adjustment on XCx and XCa
Front Brake Dual 310mm discs, Combined ABS Twin 305 mm floating discs, radially mounted monobloc Brembo calipers, 4-piston,switchable ABS
Rear Brake Single 276mm disc, Combined ABS Single 282mm disc, Nissin 2- piston sliding caliper, switchable ABS
Seat Height 33.5 inches 33.0-33.7 in., Low seat version: 30.9-31.7 in.
Wheelbase 62.8 inches 59.8 in.
Rake 28.0° 23.1º
Trail 4.2 in. 3.0 in.
Measured Weight 612 lbs. 625 lb.
Fuel Capacity 5.68 gallons 5.3 gallons
Tested Fuel Economy 37.0 mpg 41.8 mpg
Available Colors Pearl Black Crystal White, Matt Khaki Green, Lucerne Blue
Warranty Transferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty; extended coverage available with a Honda Protection Plan. Two years, unlimited miles

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  • DickRuble

    OEMs TAKE NOTE: you can forget to put an engine in a frame, or even brakes, BUT, you shall not be forgiven for omitting the bleeping F)*)(j$*# CRUISE CONTROL. Got it? CRUISE CONTROL.

    • Alexander Pityuk

      In this case they kind of forgot to put all three.

  • Gruf Rude

    I loved my Hondas back when Mr. Honda was still alive and running the company. Now, their street bikes all seem to have been designed (badly) by the automotive division. Sigh.

    • sgray44444

      When I started riding in the 90’s, I was a fan of Honda. My first five bikes were Hondas. They used to make interesting motorcycles. These days, between the funky styling, over-engineering, and high cost, there really isn’t much to see. I would still like to own an XR650L (which was designed back then, no surprise). The Africa Twin looks decent on paper.

    • Jay F

      I’ve owned 3 Honda’s (2 Shadow Cruisers and a CBR 954) and regret selling 2 of the 3.
      Now I ride a VStrom and I’d love an Africa Twin. I would NOT sell the VStrom but rather add the next one ot the stable.

  • Vrooom

    Disappointing end product out of Honda. It’s not that hard to make a good adventure tourer, but smooth throttle response is a big start. The whole on/off switch gets old.

  • JMDonald

    Honda Honda Honda. WTFO?

  • Starmag

    “the ultimate expression of soccer mom adventurism”. Ouch, the truth burns.

    The Triumph is both a pig and an eyesore, and it won! Good thing Honda has the Africa Twin.

  • SRMark

    I still like a bike I can pick up.

  • Jay F

    The Tiger was my “OMG must have” bike, but after hearing of all the problems people have with stalling and issues requiring remaps, I’m glad I didn’t.
    Personally I think the real ADV Touring shootout would be between the Suzuki VStrom and the Honda AfricaTwin (and maybe the Yamaha Super Tenere). They both seem to be extremely reliable, standard Japanese bulletproof engines, virtually no upkeep, and fun to ride.

    • hANNABONE

      I have the Super Tenere #227. Waited patiently and boy am I glad I did. It is such a do it all bike. I HOON on it and can cruise cross country on it. It is so much better than either of these two offerings. I’m keeping it. I do have the hots for a new FJR tho’.! And yes you are correct…they are bullet proof and require gas, oil, tires. Unbelievable scoot.

  • Andrew Capone

    Congrats to JB for your promotion to IT Editor!

    • http://motorcycle.com/ Tom Roderick

      If he could get his computer started, he’d thank you.

      • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

        May be he should give me a call. :)

  • Patriot159

    I just don’t see the Honda selling well enough to stay around, unless many will want an ADV styled Sport Touring bike that’s not as good as several other options. I like these genre bikes but this Honda may be my least favorite out of the bunch. Now the Africa Twin on the other hand…very tempting.

  • DickRuble

    I don’t get the ergo complaints on the Honda. The rider’s position is identical on both bikes, according to cycle-ergo. The throttle response and weight are my only concerns about the Honda. It has ABS. I don’t care for it but I’ll take it. If throttle response can be addressed somehow through re-mapping, it is a very attractive long range touring bike.

  • DickRuble

    “…After doing so the XCa was much easier to ride. Doh!” .. and not a single puddle in sight.. Sigh…

  • Scott

    The Tiger 800 XRx/XCx is better than both of these.

    I sat on an African Twin yesterday. No cruise control and still too heavy.

  • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

    RE no cruise control(no radial brakes too) on the honda: Honda always does that. Want a F6B with ABS? Nope. You’ll have to buy a GW and not a base one either. The F6B didn’t have cruise control right away either. The ST1300 doesn’t have cruise control either. It’s like they have some arcane bottom line no one can decipher and they’ll delete the craziest things from a bike that should be de rigueur in the 21st century. I mean, as of 2007, ABS is standard on all BMW motorcycles, which are 50 state bikes too. This complete thinking escapes Honda and other Japanese motorcycle brands.

  • ADB

    Though Adventure Bikes seem to be today’s best sellers, some of us will never get it. I just can’t imagine fighting 600 lbs. on a dirt trail. You know, KTM now makes a street legal 350 four stroke enduro that only weighs 236 lbs….. Just sayin…

    • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ james lagnese

      Depends. I don’t really do dirt, but I like the GSA because I am 6’5 and a lot of bikes just don’t work for me ergonomically. I have an RT, which is second best, but something like a 650 or smaller for the street, nope. I’m like a shriner riding a minibike.

  • Brent

    Why anyone would want to tour on a 600lb bike is beyond me…. I have a VFR1200F and I couldn’t imagine being any heavier than that….

    • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ Jim Lagnese

      depends on the ergonomical requirements and if you can’t imagine it, may be it’s because you never rode heavier/bigger bikes. FWIW, the VFR would be uncomfortable at best for me.

      • Brent

        List of bikes I’ve owned… Buell 1125cr, sprint st 1050, z1000, concurs 14, vfr 800/1200.

        I’ve rode them… I’d just stick some risers and different rear sets on a bike vs dealing with that ridiculous weight. For me that weight takes the joy and safety net out of riding for me

        • http://www.mymotorrad.com/ Jim Lagnese

          Not gonna work for me. I had to put risers and peg lowering kit on a RT to make it work for me.

          I came from cruisers to a RT, which is less than six hundred pounds and I find that a really light bike. BTW, a C14 is almost seven hundred pounds.