Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout

Tom Roderick
by Tom Roderick

2016 Honda VFR1200X vs. Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa

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.

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.

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.

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!

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…?

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.

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

CategoryHonda VFR1200XTriumph Tiger Explorer XCa
Total Objective Scores99.4%90.1%
Quality, Fit & Finish85.0%85.0%
Cool Factor77.5%90.0%
Grin Factor65.0%87.5%
Tom’s Subjective Scores75.2%90.0%
John’s Subjective Scores82.9%88.3%
Overall Score83.1%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.

Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout Specifications

Honda VFR1200X

Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa

Engine TypeLiquid-cooled 4-stroke Unicam 16-valve 76° V4Liquid-cooled, 12 valve, DOHC, in-line Triple
Bore/Stroke81.0mm x 60.0mm85.0mm x 71.4m
Compression Ratio12.0:111.0:1
Peak hp108.2 @ 8000 rpm116.3 hp @ 8500 rpm
Peak Torque80.3 lb-ft. @ 6000 rpm75.2 lb-ft @ 7700 rpm
Fuel systemPGM-FI electronic fuel injectionRide by Wire, fuel injection
Final driveEnclosed ShaftShaft
Transmission6-speed6-speed, wet, multi-plate hydraulically operated, torque assist
EmissionsMeets current California Air Resources Board (CARB) and EPA standards.Euro 4 compliant
FrameTwin-spar aluminum frameTubular steel trellis frame
Front WheelWire-spoke32 spoke, aluminum rim, 19 x 3.0 in.
Rear WheelWire-spoke32 spoke, aluminum rim, 17 x 4.5 in.
Front Tire110/80-R19120/70-R19
Rear Tire150/70-R17170/60-R17
Front Suspension43mm inverted telescopic forks with hydraulic damping, preload and rebound damping adjustmentWP 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 SuspensionPro-Link with gas-charged damper, preload and stepless rebound damping adjustmentWP 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 BrakeDual 310mm discs, Combined ABSTwin 305 mm floating discs, radially mounted monobloc Brembo calipers, 4-piston,switchable ABS
Rear BrakeSingle 276mm disc, Combined ABSSingle 282mm disc, Nissin 2- piston sliding caliper, switchable ABS
Seat Height33.5 inches33.0-33.7 in., Low seat version: 30.9-31.7 in.
Wheelbase62.8 inches59.8 in.
Trail4.2 in.3.0 in.
Measured Weight612 lbs.625 lb.
Fuel Capacity5.68 gallons5.3 gallons
Tested Fuel Economy37.0 mpg41.8 mpg
Available ColorsPearl BlackCrystal White, Matt Khaki Green, Lucerne Blue
WarrantyTransferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty; extended coverage available with a Honda Protection Plan.Two years, unlimited miles
Tom Roderick
Tom Roderick

A former Motorcycle.com staffer who has gone on to greener pastures, Tom Roderick still can't get the motorcycle bug out of his system. And honestly, we still miss having him around. Tom is now a regular freelance writer and tester for Motorcycle.com when his schedule allows, and his experience, riding ability, writing talent, and quick wit are still a joy to have – even if we don't get to experience it as much as we used to.

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2 of 32 comments
  • Jason Jason on Aug 04, 2018

    I just got wiped out on my pan so was looking at the CT for the shaft and seating position. The only reason I wasn't getting a new pan was because they get very warm. so im reading this thinking damn I will have to get the tiger till I saw the heat bit. screw that I don't see the point of cooking your nuts

  • Mack Knife Mack Knife on Jul 29, 2020

    The Honda is $4800 less and for that if you can't put on something like an MCCruise that is easily as good as what the Triumph has, a few tweaks on the suspension and still have enough left over to max out the extended warranty and pay for all the fuel you can use then shame on you. The with the money left over, pick up a great seat, a new helmet and enjoy the rides.

    It never fails, compare two bikes, one costing about a 1/3 less than the other and then complain the lesser cost bike doesn't have things not everyone wants. As for weight, sorry, both are heavy and the Triumph is the heaviest.

    The throttle? Are we all fearful of adjusting the throttle cables (yes, ride by wire throttles have cables). Its a simple matter of adjusting the cables that actuate the ride by wire portion of the throttle. It takes all of 5 minutes but reading the owners manual is beyond the scope of complaining.

    The heavier bikes Honda made, the ST1100 and ST1300 were called pigs. Today they command top dollar and are sought after in the used bike market. A few year old Triumph Tiger 1200? Oh, the one with the "exploder" engine? No thanks.