Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.”
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?
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.”
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|
|Total Objective Scores||99.4%||90.1%|
|Quality, Fit & Finish||85.0%||85.0%|
|Tom’s Subjective Scores||75.2%||90.0%|
|John’s Subjective Scores||82.9%||88.3%|
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.”
Heavyweight Adventure-Touring Shootout Specifications
Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa
|Engine Type||Liquid-cooled 4-stroke Unicam 16-valve 76° V4||Liquid-cooled, 12 valve, DOHC, in-line Triple|
|Bore/Stroke||81.0mm x 60.0mm||85.0mm x 71.4m|
|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 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.|
|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|