2018 Big-Bore Adventure Touring Shootout - Part 2: We Do It In The Dirt
We took em down the road, now lets see how they handle the dirt
By now, hopefully you’ve already read our street installation of this two-part test. If not, STOP! Please do check it out because it outlines and dissects each and every bike in great detail, and it very well might answer a slew of questions you might have that aren’t addressed here, in the off-road portion of the shootout.
Now that everyone’s caught up to speed, where were we again? Ahh yes, how do these monstrous big-bore adventure touring rigs handle themselves when the pavement gets left behind? In Part 1, the mighty BMW R1200GS Adventure, despite being the heaviest bike here at 642 lbs soaking wet, took the top step of the podium. It was followed by the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S taking silver, with the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R rounding out the podium in third. The Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports was next and hot on their heels, but edged off the podium by a margin of just 0.3 percentage points. Then came the shootout’s sleeper contender, a bike everyone agreed worked well in any and every situation you put it in; number five in the test, but number one in many of our riders’ hearts – the Suzuki V-Strom 1000XT. The Triumph Tiger 1200 XCa finished less than a percentage point behind the ol’ People’s Champ Strom, proving itself as an ADV bike that’s come a long way in refining itself in just a short time. Last but not least, the Yamaha Super Ténéré ES brought up the caboose in our seven bike adventure-touring train.
In reality, you can’t go wrong with putting any of these ADV juggernauts between your legs, because on their own, they’re all great machines. It’s only when riding them back-to-back with one another do their strengths and weaknesses become apparent. That being said, our street portion of the test yielded final results many of us would be glad we didn’t bet on, because our already embarrassing bank account balances would have taken a hit, and they ain’t nothing to brag about in the first place. Who knew the 642-pound BMW would spank a whole class of 500-pounders? Not me. And who’d have thought the KTM, with its 50/50 on/off-road-biased tires would come third – in the street portion? Definitely not me. Take the Triumph Tiger – with all its farkles, luxuries, and creature comforts – surely you’d expect it should’ve ranked higher. The only bike that didn’t come as a surprise in its final street rankings was the Ducati – no real explanation needed there.
Riding on the street is one thing, though, and taking to the dirt is a whole ’nother ball game. I’d be more willing to bet on the final outcome here, because a bike’s shortcomings on the street could very well be an advantage in the dirt. Take the 21-inch front wheels of the KTM and the Honda, for example: They don’t do much in the way of inspiring corner carving confidence on the road, but point them at any off-road obstacle and they’ll roll over just about anything. It’s no wonder why there are so few vertically-challenged players in the NBA – the same goes for off-road wheel/tire selection. So naturally, the 1290 SA-R and the Africa Twin AS already have a leg up on the rest of the competition. Add their long-travel suspension, increased ground clearance, and dirtbike-like ergonomics into the mix, and they become even harder to compete with… But let’s not give any (obvious) spoilers just yet, because the other four bikes in this test would be damned if they didn’t go down without a fight – a good one at that.
Whereas our Part 1 street portion featured seven bikes, Part 2 only has six. We wanted to get our hands on the Ducati Multistrada Enduro, as it would fit our dirt mold of ADV bikes better than the streetier 1260 S, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t available. To further level the playing field, we outfitted each bike with Continental TKC80s – you guys asked for it, and we happily obliged. Thank you, Continental. These tires are the premier rubber of choice ADV enthusiasts the world over supply their rigs with. That, along with our own experience with them, made it a no-brainer as these 50/50 tires provide the best of both worlds.
Because we ended up having to split the shootout into two parts, most of the MO team was either unavailable due to other projects, or maybe they didn’t want to risk being the butt of crash jokes after witnessing Ryan’s unfortunate, but hilarious mishap. Hey, shit happens, and it’s all part of the fun in the end, right? What are friends good for if not for making fun of you, amirite? So, with limited time and resources, I wrangled a motley crew of my off-road riding buddies, both old and new, somehow miraculously changed six sets of tires, and before we knew it, we were hitting the trail and leaving the pavement in the rear view.
The goal for this test, simply put, was how far up shit’s creek could we take these bikes before their size and weight got the best of them (or us)? The original plan was to hit some nice, wide fire roads first to get our feet wet, and then steadily increase the difficulty of the trail to see just how much these bikes could handle. In our typical MOron fashion, that plan unraveled pretty quickly, but what happened next couldn’t have been planned any better, and soon we were having an adventure of our own.
From the point of view of each bike, in ascending order, here’s how it all went down…
Yamaha Super Ténéré ES
We don’t want to call this bike the loser, because on its own, it most certainly is not. But in our present company of bikes, someone had to finish last. The Super Ténéré’s biggest shortcoming on the street became an even bigger disadvantage in the dirt. It has a surprisingly high center of gravity, and the Super Ten isn’t even that heavy! (Relatively speaking, of course.) Full of fuel and ready to rock & roll, it weighs 579 lbs and is the second lightest bike here, weighing 25 pounds more than the Suzuki and six pounds less than the Africa Twin. The way it carries its weight, though, just feels too top-heavy, and the fairings are very bulbous, which doesn’t help its case, either. Even picking it up off the side stand requires a little extra grunt, especially when it’s loaded down with gear you’ll inevitably be carrying with you.
As a result, this made us a little timid to see how far we could push the Yamaha, at first. The Super Ténéré, however, definitely has its redeeming qualities, which didn’t really start to shine until after we were all in full dirt-mode. The Super Ténéré isn’t like a cheap date you’re likely to score with at the end of your first night together. You have to spend some time together to build some trust and mutual understanding. Only then will it let you in and start loving you back. We can respect that.
Once you figure her out, and all the pieces start to fall into place, the Super Ténéré is surprisingly smooth off-road. The 43mm electronically adjustable inverted fork and rear monoshock both offer 7.5 inches of travel, and by the end of the day, we felt the Yamaha had arguably the best suspension of the streetier ADV bikes, beating out the BMW, Suzuki, and Triumph when the going got rough. It was plush enough to float over most obstacles and keep the chassis balanced but firm enough not to bottom out and upset it.
The 1199cc parallel Twin engine pumps out 98 ponies and 76 lb-ft of nice, tractable power to the wheel, with only a mild dip in the lower midrange, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked at the dyno charts. The docile, yet still plenty potent engine character, paired with its wider handlebar and exceptional suspension feel, made handling the blue beast much easier as the day went on. The faster it got going, the better it worked. Getting there just took some time and patience.
Another small downside we encountered was with the ergonomics. Sitting down on the street they’re totally fine, but your left leg is somewhat encumbered by the large exhaust cowling, which limits your overall articulation and movement while standing. A similar issue exists on the right hand side with your heel and the center stand. Any true off-road rider will already know there are better platforms out there that’ll tackle the trail with more poise, but for the adventure rider who isn’t looking to blitz a set of whoops or really get deep in the sticks on their ADV steed, the Super Ténéré offers plenty of utility and will take you where you need to go. You’ll just have to work a little harder for it.
Triumph Tiger 1200 XCa
Of all the streetier ADV bikes here, the Triumph Tiger 1200 surprised me the most in just how well it behaved and handled off-road. Switching the ride mode to Off-Road Pro transformed the bike dramatically. A few minutes aboard Triumph’s biggest and most off-road worthy jungle cat shattered most of my preconceived notions about how it would fare. On the street, truthfully, it didn’t blow my hair back as much as I thought, and hoped it would. It took a little getting used to, but once I became acclimated, it was a totally different animal off-road.
The Tiger XCa’s suspenders are outfitted with WP-built Triumph Semi-Active Suspension – or TSAS – which senses the terrain you’re riding on and makes split-second adjustments to maintain smooth and precise suspension action. The TSAS also offers the rider a choice of two riding modes. There’s Auto mode, and there’s Off-Road mode, which allows manual adjustment of the suspension settings through the TFT display. If you’re not a savvy suspension tuner, leaving the TSAS in Auto Mode is a virtually foolproof way to enjoy the Tiger 1200 XCa’s excellent bump sticks over rough terrain. Because our group was regularly hopping on and off the six bikes, we didn’t mess with suspension settings too much. We relied on the Auto Mode to handle it for us, because going through the menus and adjusting it manually each time, let alone feeling and comparing how small tweaks affected the handling was difficult to grasp, especially when you just got used to the previous bike.
The Tiger’s six different ride modes attenuate its torquey output, traction control, and ABS to varying degrees, with Triumph’s Off-Road Pro mode cancelling the traction control and ABS in order to give the rider the most leeway when negotiating off-road obstacles. As mentioned before, Off-Road Pro almost instantly made the bike easier to handle in the dirt. As an avid dirtbike rider, the ability to get loose is a welcomed attribute, and perhaps unlike the BMW (as the two heaviest bikes in the test), this 632-pound cat is more flickable and nimble off-road with a light and balanced steering feel. On one section along the railroad tracks, I was able to consistently back the Tiger in to turns while standing with plenty of confidence transmitting through the chassis – not something I was as comfortable with on other bikes.
The Triumph, with its great road-going characteristics as well as its superior technology and creature comforts, definitely takes most closely after the BMW when it comes to this segment of motorcycles. The Triumph, despite weighing only ten pounds less, felt considerably lighter once underway.
Suzuki V-Strom 1000XT
In an incredibly impressive and stacked field of big-bore adventure tourers, it’s easy to look past the V-Strom 1000XT. This is mainly because it doesn’t exactly excel in any one particular category, but as a sum of its parts, it’s an outstanding overall package. The Strom didn’t win our street portion of the test when it all boiled down to choosing just one machine to take home and put in our garages, but there were two testers who preferred it to the almost hands-down winner, the R1200GS Adventure. Instead, the V-Strom came out as the people’s champ, and now having ridden it off-road, it’s made an even better impression.
If weight affects a bike’s handling on the street, it’s a two-fold difference in the dirt. At 554 lbs., the Suzuki is the lightest bike here, with a 25-pound advantage over its next heaviest competitor, the Yamaha Super Ténéré. A few pounds here or there usually makes little discernible difference, but 25, 30, or even 88 pounds (the difference between the Strom and the GS) is more of a night-and-day affair. After all, riding and muscling these rigs around off-road requires substantially more effort than on the street. Aside from the Honda Africa Twin and KTM Super Adventure R, the Suzuki was by far the easiest to acclimate to and ride aggressively.
Each of our testers, besides Scott Rousseau, who’s already spent a considerable amount of seat time on the V-Strom, expressed their delight in finding out how well mannered and easy to ride the Suzuki is. Its motor doesn’t win any outright horsepower wars, but it’s got more than enough snot to keep the ride exciting. Downstairs it produces plenty of torque right off the bottom, which makes tricky off-road maneuvers a lot easier. Spin the 1037cc mill up faster and it’ll pull plenty hard.
The fully-adjustable 43mm suspension is compliant for the most part, but with only 6.3 inches of travel both front and rear, it offered the least amount of bump absorption, as well as the least amount of ground clearance. It handled the choppy stuff and washboarded fire roads with no problems whatsoever, but jumps and harder G-outs ran out of stroke pretty quickly. A rider, plus 554 pounds of bike and gear will bottom out easily in stock configuration. That being said, the V-Strom moves underneath you more like a dirtbike than any of the other streetier ADVs. You can actually charge the trail rather than just navigate it.
Another thing to get used to, especially if you’re normally a dirt rider, is how the 19-inch front wheel handles, and this goes for all the bikes here shod with 19-inch fronts. On the road it steers quicker than a 21-incher, but it doesn’t knife its way through dirt, sand, and rocks as well. As an all-around on/off-road medium, however, it strikes the perfect balance. Darwyn was a fan of how well the V-Strom handled the dirt, but one thing he had to get used to was the smaller front wheel. “I felt like I was pushing the front through a lot of the softer stuff, but it felt so light you could get on the throttle and it would straighten itself out.”
The biggest advantage that the V-Strom 1000XT has over its rivals here, for most riders, is its low, 33.5-inch seat height. That number of course becomes even shorter once you swing a leg over and sit down, and as a result, the Strom becomes easier to ride, inspiring more confidence with less chance of tipping over.
Another thing to mention is the Suzuki’s ABS, traction control and braking. The TC settings have three levels (1, 2 and off) and are easily adjusted. The ABS and linked braking, however, are not disengageable from the rider’s controls, but that’s easily remedied by pulling the ABS fuse under the seat. It’s an extra (and perhaps dated) step, but it’s quick and easy. So, no harm, no foul.
Once again, the Suzuki V-Strom 1000XT proved to be an impressively solid adventure touring platform, with capabilities beyond its initial perception. The cherry on top is of course its price. Coming in at $15,145 as tested, it’s almost $1,600 cheaper than the Africa Twin (the next cheapest in our test) and almost $9,000 less than the BMW. That’s a lot of extra saved cash to spend on guacamole at Chipotle – or to outfit the Strom with goodies from a huge aftermarket list of parts to make it that much better.
BMW R1200GS Adventure
The mighty GS, the hands-down winner of our street contest, and overall beast of an adventure touring motorcycle, proved itself as a force to be reckoned with in the dirt too, but it wasn’t enough to sweep both portions of our two-part test. Whereas its 642 el-bees of pavement-pounding heft melted away as soon as the wheels started turning on the street, the same can’t exactly be said when you get this behemoth in the dirt, especially in sand or rockier terrain – and by rockier terrain, we’re talking baseball-sized rocks or bigger. A fire road is just another road as far as the R12GSA is concerned, though, and the Bavarian beast makes easy work of it, gliding over chopped-out and gravely surfaces without batting an eye. Its weight actually makes it feel more planted over the easier stuff.
With ABS and traction control turned off, it has no problem getting a little loose, either. However, if you find yourself getting too loose or sideways, you can’t forget about those two massive cylinder heads exuding from each side of the GSA’s boxer engine, because you’ll quickly realize your legs don’t have the same range of motion as they do on non-boxer-engined bikes. On more than one occasion, I stuck my leg out to dab or counter-balance only to be quickly reminded that maybe that’s not such a good idea. One ill-timed or positioned dab could easily ruin your day. Put it this way, I’m just glad I was wearing good boots. Of all the bikes in the test, the BMW was the one that was least capable of being ridden more like a dirtbike.
The GSA’s Paralever/Telelever suspension, paired with its Dynamic ESA semi-active monitoring system, which adjusts damping automatically for optimal ride comfort and overall optimum traction, worked flawlessly in the dirt. Well, so long as you’re not trying to get too crazy. This system, unique to BMW, keeps the Beemer’s chassis well balanced, planted, and more level than conventional suspension. It prevents the bike from diving or pitching fore and aft. With the ride mode and Dynamic ESA set to Enduro, the off-road specific dampening characteristics and power delivery definitely make riding the two-wheeled land yacht in the dirt an easier task.
Though the horsepower and torque curves don’t exactly show it on the dyno, the power delivery and throttle response feel much smoother in actual application, which made navigating the GS in slower, more technical terrain less of a chore. In most situations, however, the BMW performed best when you could keep your momentum up. Besides the reduced range of motion your legs have when they come off the pegs, the R12GSA’s ergonomics are still spot on, whether sitting or standing. Overall, the bike has a balanced feel.
If slaying mild single-track every now and then is what you’re looking to do with your adventure bike, the BMW R1200GS Adventure isn’t what you should be looking at. Rather, if you’re in the market for an adventure tourer, with emphasis on the touring part, with fire roads, two-track, and some double-wide trails that’ll get thrown into the mix from time to time, then this Beemer is your ticket. There’s really no other bike that I’d be happier with laying down long stretches of miles and exploring the countryside.
Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports
As we alluded to earlier, it would be obvious that both the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R and Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports would be duking it out for the top spot, but in the end, we never thought it would be so close. Taking home the silver medal in our 2018 Big-Bore Adventure Touring Shootout by just one percentage point, is the Honda. When it came time to decide which bike we ultimately liked best, two of us chose the Honda, and two of us picked the KTM. Scott, just like in the Part 1 street portion, chose the V-Strom again, with the rest of us agreeing the Suzuki was the undisputed sleeper bike. Now you might be wondering why there were only five votes but six bikes. Sean Matic, our video guy, was out there riding with us all day, but given all he had to do, he didn’t get to give each bike a proper shakedown, though he was especially eager to give the KTM a go whenever he could.
From all angles, the Africa Twin is a bitchin’ bike. It’s got a great, torquey 1000cc parallel-Twin motor, a well balanced chassis that offers a super planted feel, spot on ergonomics both sitting and standing, and in our opinion, it looks fantastic, too. Scott, who has a ton of seat time on Africa Twins, says it’s “one of the best-sorted, do-it-all adventure bikes ever produced.” And we can’t argue with that.
As one of the two ADV bikes here that most closely resemble a giant dirtbike, it’s no wonder the Honda did so well. Our adventure ride would be the first time half of our test riders would get introduced to the Honda’s DCT transmission. Just like me at first, they too had their reservations, and weren’t sure how they would ultimately like it compared to a traditional clutch. By the end of the day, though, we were all made believers, thanks to its effectiveness and ease of use.
Billy felt much the same way I did in the beginning, describing the DCT as “unnerving at first, but within a minute of getting on it, it just takes a quick second to reset your brain and then you’re like, this thing is great, with power everywhere all the time.”
One thing that the DCT transmission allows you to do off-road is focus on your line, body positioning, and balance more without the fear of stalling in a tough spot. It’s something all of us riders came to appreciate. The DCT can be engaged into either Drive mode, Sport, or full Manual. We mostly kept it in full Manual, which allowed us to choose exactly when and where it shifted. Drive mode usually shifts too early, and Sport lets you rev it out further, but will still shift automatically if the rider doesn’t tell it to soon enough. Keeping it in full Manual meant it wouldn’t accidentally shift into a higher gear at the wrong time, but the system is, in fact, pretty intuitive.
For off-road riding, the Africa Twin has its Gravel ride mode, which adjusts power, engine braking, and torque control appropriately, but we preferred to tailor our own adjustments in User mode. The AT AS also has its G button, which when pressed and held for a few seconds will increase the oil pressure in the clutch to engage it quicker for less transmission lash between your right wrist and the rear tire. Of course, the ABS is disengageable, too. With our User ride mode and these added off-road benefits set, there wasn’t anywhere we couldn’t confidently ride the Honda.
Compared to the base Africa Twin, the Adventure Sports version gets a number of upgrades including: a bigger fuel tank to carry an extra 1.5 gallons of gas, more suspension travel (9.9 inches vs. 9.1 in the front and 9.4 vs. 8.7 out back), and hence, a little more ground clearance. A larger skid plate, a flatter, more comfortable, more dirtbike-like seat for greater comfort and maneuverability, wider foot pegs, and a 3.1-inch taller windscreen complete the AS package.
The Honda’s longer-travel suspension soaked up anything we could throw at it, but eventually, we had to add some preload and slow the rebound down in the rear. Once adjusted, the chassis was butter, and each of our riders would often fight over who got to ride it next. The ergonomics were also just right, and they felt most similar to a real dirtbike, thanks mostly in part to the AT’s seat, which is long and not scalloped like the KTM’s, making moving and sliding around on it for optimal body positioning virtually effortless. The wider footpegs are also great for providing a solid platform to keep your feet firmly planted.
Another ergonomic feature that needs to be mentioned is the Africa Twin’s 86 degrees of lock-to-lock handlebar motion. Paired with the DCT, the Honda’s steering, especially in tighter, more technical spots, made maneuvering almost an afterthought. You could stand and run tight circles and figure-eights all while maintaining your balance, making you feel like Graham Jarvis out there. Jamin agreed that “the more technical the terrain got, the happier and more confident I became.”
Overall, the Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports is a solid adventure tourer. Billy believes “it feels like everything you would want from this genre of motorcycle.” In the end, though, my pick went to the KTM because the Austrian’s motor is hard to compete with, and call me “old fashioned,” but a traditional clutch and gear shifter just suits my riding style better. If we had the non-DCT Africa Twin AS, my choice may have been different.
KTM 1290 Super Adventure R
KTM has placed itself atop the large adventure bike category for many years with platforms based on decades of off-road championships from enduros to Dakar, starting with the Adventure 950 in 2003 and continuing the trend with models like the 1190 Adventure R in 2013. KTM’s flagship adventure tourer received a heavy revision in 2017, and now for 2018, it’s a real force to be reckoned with.
It all starts with the 1290’s mill, and believe me, it rips. The 1,301cc motor cranks out almost 122 hp and 75 lb-ft of torque according to our dyno, and it has so much grunt that lofting the front end in its first three gears takes little more than a simultaneous blip of the throttle and fan of the clutch. Now we’re talking. That’s not to say the engine isn’t gentle and responsive when you need it to be, though. With a motor this punchy, it’ll be rare you completely wind it out off-road. Fortunately it’s plenty well-mannered and has a nice flat torque curve with potent, yet tractable power throughout the whole rev range. First gear is also short enough that trickier sections don’t require much clutch work, if any, unless you’re really crawling.
Like the Honda, the 1290 SA-R is also pretty much a dirtbike on steroids largely in part to its longer-travel WP suspension. Also like the Honda (and Suzuki), the KTM’s suspension isn’t electronically monitored, measuring for and adjusting dampening by the millisecond. Rather, all three use traditional clickers to dial in your ride. Is it a coincidence that the top two scoring bikes share this common trait? Leaving the guesswork of adjusting your suspension out of the equation for many adventure riders is a welcomed feature, but apparently the Honda and KTM know at least part of their potential customer base will come from an off-road/dirt-riding background. The WP units, with their 8.7 inches of travel, front and rear, provided ample feel for what the chassis was doing underneath you and not once did they ever bottom out.
Switching through the different ride modes is easy, and turning off all the rider aids is, too. With ABS and traction control off, the Super Adventure is a beast, and I mean that in the best possible way. For riders able to harness its power, it’ll provide endless miles of fun and excitement. However, it’s probably not the bike you want if you’re just getting into ADV or off-road riding, because it can definitely be intimidating, and it all starts when the engine roars to life. Just a quick crack of the throttle will let you know the 1290 means business.
Ergos are nice and neutral, too. Again, very dirtbike-like, just like the Honda. As mentioned before, the KTM’s seat is slightly more scalloped, which is nice for the street, because it’ll keep you better planted when you whack the gas, and it’ll make highway riding more comfortable too, especially during the longer stretches.
Overall, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R is a killer ADV platform. It’s definitely more hardcore than the rest, but a KTM wouldn’t be a KTM if it weren’t “Ready to Race.” The beauty of the Super Adventure R is that it gives up very little streetability in favor of its off-road prowess, and it all basically boils down to the standard Continental TKC80 tires. KTM knows its customers well, and for more off-road oriented riders, the 1290 Super Adventure R is the ticket to take you truly anywhere. For those orange adventure riders who will spend considerably more time on the road, of course there’s also the 1290 Super Adventure S.
The Final Word
When all the dust has settled, you really can’t go wrong with any of these bikes, because on their own, they’re all fantastic machines. And just because we thought one bike was better than another, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will, too. Everyone is different in their size, stature, and riding ability. Being able to confidently put both feet on the ground is not overrated, and that’s why so many riders – both short and tall – almost instantly got along with the Suzuki so well.
Styling is also important, and it influences your choice heavily. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the way the V-Strom looks, but the way it rides and handles is more than enough to offset its appearance. Same goes for the BMW, but I actually dig its futuristic look. Of course, all of these bikes won’t solely be ridden off-road, just as they won’t only be ridden on-road – that’s the whole point of adventure touring. Only you know how often you’ll be leaving the pavement behind and how far up shit’s creek you think you can take these things – which, as it turns out, is pretty far.
In the end, they’ll only go as far as you’re comfortable with, but given our experience with them, they’re far more capable than we originally thought. Of course, another factor in determining which bike is right for you is cost. Not everyone can afford a $24,000 price tag – we surely can’t, not without selling vital organs, anyhow. Are we surprised how it all shook out? In some aspects, yes. Others, no. All we know is there’s a vast and beautiful world out there just waiting to be explored, and putting any one of these bikes in your garage will open the door to it.
So, where are we adventuring next?
2018 Big-Bore ADV Shoot-out – Off-road Scorecard
Total Objective Scores