Every year Motorcycle.com gets invited to the press introductions for several new motorcycles – it’s the biggest perk of our job, and the reason all of us have stuck around as long as we have! The cycle goes like this: at the end of one year or the beginning of the next, manufacturers talk a big game about a new model launch, and/or the internet goes wild with social media rumors and opinions about a new bike. In turn we, the media, can’t wait to be the first to throw a leg over said bike to see what the fuss is about. Sometimes the motorcycle in question is a dud, other times it exceeds beyond our wildest dreams. Then you get the rare model that didn’t get much fanfare but turns out to be unexpectedly awesome.
Below, the crew at Motorcycle.com looked back at 2018 and picked some of our favorite First Rides of the year. These are the machines that impressed us from the moment we thumbed the starter for the first time, and often are the bikes we seriously consider adding to our own personal garages once we get home. It’s a good thing we don’t get paid enough to actually follow through. So what do we like? We’re glad you asked…
It’s easy to forget about one of the most anticipated First Rides of the year, since it took place not long after 2018 started. The world’s moto press, including Motorcycle.com, couldn’t wait to get their grubby hands on the Ducati Panigale V4 S, and as Kevin Duke reports in his First Ride Review, it definitely didn’t disappoint. The excitement and anticipation was all rightfully centered around Ducati’s first V4 production engine (Desmocedici not included). Ducati moving on from its beloved V-Twin was news enough, but giving it a displacement of 1103cc – outside the 999cc limit for Superbike racing rules around the world – further bewildered. After riding the V4 S around Valencia, nobody seemed to care about racing rules anymore – Ducati’s new superbike left everyone, including the Dukester, awestruck.
“It’s no exaggeration to describe it [the Panigale V4 S] as one of the best sportbikes ever made, perhaps even the best,” Kevin says. “Its new four-cylinder engine is melodious and powerful, it handles with agility akin to a much smaller bike, its electronics are leading-edge and fully customizable, and it looks sensational in person.” He goes on to clarify, “In case it’s not yet obvious, let me state unequivocally that the Panigale V4 S is the best sportbike you can buy for less than $28,000. It’s packed with performance and technology that shames anything else in its price range, and the fact that its lovely Italian styling adds a certain panache is the cherry on top. It simply sets a new standard for sportbikes.”
We’re all for rooting for the underdogs. Which is why we were so happy when Brent came back from the Alta MX and MXR First Ride with a smile on his face. Then, to hear of Alta’s sudden shutdown took us all by surprise. The company was seemingly on the rise, with electric motocrossers that could actually perform. So, it’s with a heavy heart that we include Brent’s review of the MX and MXR here. It’s not only a shout out to the folks at Alta for a job well done, but also a swan song as we point our wheels towards 2019. Maybe the biggest compliment Brent could give to the Alta was the fact that it felt just like a regular dirtbike – only with gobs more torque, a little more weight, and no gears to shift through.
“All in all, I had a blast riding both the MX and MXR,” Brent says, “and I imagine you’ll see more and more of them at the tracks and on the trails as time goes on because performance-wise, they’re right there with their traditional gas burning rivals. And as far as their cost goes, for people who might still be hung up on spending over $10k for a dirtbike, let us remind you that new 450s are $9,000 or more. Plus, most people will send their suspension out to get sprung and valved for their weight and ability then, most likely, throw a pipe on too. Boom – you’re already well over $10k, if not 11.
And, that’s not to mention the time and cost of ownership when it comes to buying gas, changing oil, cleaning air filters, etc. With an electric motor, you don’t have to do any of that, let alone get your hands dirty. It’s essentially a one-time investment – the only things you’ll need to eventually replace are the tires, chain and sprockets. Additionally, think of all the new areas you could potentially ride without pissing off the neighbors… we’ve walked away quite impressed with what Alta engineers have come up with so far.”
Blurring the lines between sportbike and sport-tourer, the Kawasaki H2 SX SE is the drug you need if speed, acceleration, and covering long distances are your thing. Just ask Burns; or better yet, read his First Ride Review. Superchargers instantly make anything better, right? And when it comes to the H2 SX SE, the formula certainly works. It’s comfortable, it’s spacious, and above all, it’s downright fast, earning a 97.25% on the MO scorecard – the highest score Burns has ever given. Allow JB to explain:
“The big deal, of course, is the supercharger, and its main function seems to be to compress time and space along with air. The H2’s engine just never feels like it’s working all that hard beneath you, but past 7 or 8,000 rpm on the tachometer, speed seems to increase at a rising rate, and suddenly your faceshield is filled with corner – it’s the kind of speed that makes you grab the brakes too early… It takes a while to adjust, but after that, it’s very nice to have warp drive an eighth of a throttle twist away.”
Say what you will about three wheelers being motorcycles or not, Mr. Burns seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself while riding the 2019 Yamaha Niken along the Austrian Alps. No doubt the location was a highlight of the trip, but it was made that much better when the motorcycle(?) in question inspired enough confidence to reach peg-dragging lean angles at 8200 feet elevation on a freshly snow-plowed road. The secret, of course, is the Niken’s tilting front end, similar to what we’ve seen on the Piaggio MP3. It’s amazing how much braver one gets once you reduce the fear of tucking the front, as John explains:
“If carving corners is the basis of what makes sporty motorcycling so enjoyable, then the Niken is all about distilling that feeling and making it easier and safer for the rider to carve away to his heart’s content, under a much broader range of conditions thanks to having two contact patches up front instead of just one: The hope is that when one loses traction, the other takes up the slack long enough for its mate to regain grip. Like Mat Oxley just wrote here, finding a way to prevent front-end slides is the Holy Grail of motorcycle racing: Honda found a device called Mark Marquez, Yamaha built the Niken. Of course it’s not for racing, but you get the idea. Less stress over losing the front end, more confidence, and more room to play, says Yamaha, all adds up to more fun.”
Honda’s CRF450 is legendary in the dirt world, but for years Big Red hesitated to bring a true dual-sport to market based on its badass 450 like some of its competitors. That all changed this year when Honda completely revamped its 450 lineup, including the introduction of the CRF450L, which our man Brent got to thrash. Based on the proven platform that is the CRF450R, the L version gets lights and a plate (and some other tweaks to make it more road-worthy, read the First Ride review in the link above for the full scoop), meaning you can link up gnarly trails you wouldn’t typically attempt with a lesser machine via paved roads, all without pissing off Johnny Law. Basically, “it’ll take you wherever you want,” Brent says. Anywhere, including Packwood, Washington and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where Brent was let loose on the 450L. To say he came back gushing is an understatement.
“Overall, Honda knocked it out of the park with the 2019 CRF450L. Is it a KTM or Husky killer, not quite. I don’t think it was ever necessarily meant to be, but it seems that all the years of waiting for a Japanese manufacturer to build a 450cc dual-sport was worth it… The best part of it all, though, is that, at its core, the CRF450L is a CRF450R hiding behind a headlight and turn signals… The 2019 Honda CRF450L is the midsize dual-sport we’ve all been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.”
If an exotic location makes for an epic First Ride, then the press introduction for the KTM 790 Duke didn’t have any of that. Sure, the roads in and around San Diego county are excellent for motorcycling, but the real standout here is the 790 Duke itself. After watching our European colleagues gush about the bike a year before we could get our hands on one, we were dying to see what all the hype was about. Turns out, a year filled with watching the other kids play didn’t diminish our love for KTM’s middleweight scalpel. The 799cc parallel-Twin might be a first for KTM, but damn, it’s one hell of an engine – playful, powerful, and fun. But the rest of the package is equally as impressive, leaving Evans seriously considering how he can put one away in his own garage.
“My short time with the 2019 KTM 790 Duke has shown it to be everything I’d ever hoped it would be. As a fan of both parallel-Twins and middleweights, the 790 is the street fighter I have been waiting for.”
The ingredients for a memorable First Ride are relatively simple: First you need a good motorcycle. After that, all the other ingredients are optional. However, an epic route or dicey weather conditions never hurt. Combine all three and you have the press introduction for the BMW F 750 GS and F 850 GS, which Ryan was lucky enough to attend. Ryan was met with rain and snow as he piloted both BMWs around the Gateway Canyons Resort in Colorado, the perfect adventure backdrop for a GS-badged BMW. Both the 750 and 850 use the 853cc liquid cooled, four-stroke parallel-Twin engine, with four valves per cylinder, double overhead camshafts, and dry sump lubrication. So, why do the 750 and 850 have quite different engine characteristics? It’s all in the tuning and, we’re told, the intake and exhaust cams, which are different between the two models. Read Ryan’s complete First Ride review to get a thorough breakdown of each model. Being the off-road guy he is, Ryan gravitated toward the more dirt-oriented 850 GS, riding it 1,000-plus miles back home. His thoughts?
“I don’t want to admit I’ve been having a ton of fun on smaller adventure bikes lately, mostly because of the big orange one in my garage, but the burgeoning middleweight category is evidence that I’m not alone in the sentiment. The F 850 GS was just as adept cruising from Colorado to California as it was dealing with mud, rocks, and sand along the way.”
As far as First Rides go, it doesn’t get any more literal than Trizzle’s chance to be the first person on the planet to ride the GP2 Prototype from Kramer Motorcycles (outside Kramer’s own test riders, of course), powered by the 799cc Twin from the KTM 790 Duke. In fact, when he first rode the prototype during the Barber Vintage Festival, US journos had yet to ride the standard KTM at all. From reading the Europeans praising the 790 engine, and drawing from our own knowledge of middleweight twins, we knew it would be a fun power plant. The real draw would be how it performs when wrapped around a bespoke frame with proper suspension and brakes.
“The truth is that we really wouldn’t know,” says Triz. “Since the bike was finished just days prior to the event, the baseline settings were educated guesses I’d have to fine tune during a race weekend. That’s definitely not normal or ideal, but it’s what made the experience so memorable: being on the front lines of development for an all-new motorcycle, at one of the coolest motorcycle races/gatherings in all of the world, and actually turning heads.”
Ryan might have picked the Triumph Scrambler 1200 as one of the best First Rides of 2018 because it was so recent, but it seems like he, along with much of the rest of the world’s moto media (at least the ones who get the scrambler movement), can’t stop gushing about the bike. Not only did Triumph hit a home run with the new Scrambler (making it more Scrambler-er than before), but the ride route on and around Wim Motors Academy in Boavista dos Pinheiros, Portugal – a training school for rally-type off-road riding, roadbook navigation, and general training facility for all sorts of riders from Dakar racers to the Portuguese ISDE team – made the event that much more special. Don’t get the Scrambler 1200 XE and XC confused for adventure bikes – they’re not – but if dabbling in a little bit of everything (in ultra cool style) is your thing, like it is for Ryan, the Scramblers deliver. Let Ryan explain:
“To have a motorcycle that looks as good as these two do, and performs even a fraction as well as some of the best ADV bikes out there off-road, is an accomplishment worth noting… These bikes are another example of having one bike that can be good at multiple different kinds of riding. While it may not be the best at any of them, it was pretty damn good at everything we threw at it and looked brilliant AF while doing it. I could absolutely see myself owning this bike.”