Lightweight Tourers Comparison

Smiles Through the Miles

Sportbikes are great, but they'll break your back on a long ride. Full-dress tourers are a pain to hustle around the canyons. What weapon to choose when you want to combine some fun with serious mileage?

Let's see, we want serious ground clearance, good handling, sticky tires giving good feedback, combined with enough tankage for at least 200 miles between refills, a fairing that gives enough still air to hide in during a rainstorm with enough space to pack that overnight bag and a camera. Oh, and maybe room for a passenger too. And a heater would be nice, too, for those snow-capped mountain passes (think we're kidding? One of the bikes here has one). The three machines reviewed here, BMW's R1100RT, Honda's ST1100 and Kawasaki's Concours are all long-legged highway mile eaters, aimed squarely at the sport tourer who wants to cover miles and enjoy them too. They share a common mission: To put fun in any day or weekend long ride. Lets call it smileage.

3. Kawasaki Concours

 Kawasaki describes the Concours as spirited. The powerful (we dyno'd it at close to 100 bhp) 1000cc engine is certainly not lacking in top end punch -- Kawasaki's liquid-cooled, DOHC four-valve inline-four Ninja motors have a reputation that is second to none in this arena. With the Concours' tuning biased toward mid- to upper-rpm performance, it's perfectly suited for the sport side of the equation.

If winding backroads are the mainstay of your tour's itinerary, then the Kawasaki rules. Its combination of performance-based engine, firm springing and damping rates, Dunlop K700 series Sport Radials, and sporty riding position form an excellent handling platform that eats up both high-speed sweepers and sinewy mountain curves. The semi-floating dual front discs and powerful twin-piston, single action calipers inspire late braking confidence, even with fully loaded saddlebags and passenger. Generous ground clearance allows you to attain impressive lean angles, especially for such a large bike (585 pounds dry). At speed the Concours hides this weight well, feeling light, nimble, and very responsive to rider input at the bars. The smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox is a delight to use, and its ratios help keep the high-revving engine in the powerband. Shaft effect is not too obtrusive, but is noticeable during spirited riding with the bike fully loaded for touring.

 Unfortunately for the Concours, though, many tours spend time on the Interstate. And it's here that the Concours suffers from it's sport-bike tuning and engine/frame design. The Concours' Ninja-based motor is buzzy, really buzzy. And the high-tensile steel diamond frame utilizes the engine as a stressed member. As a direct result of this design, way too much of the engine's vibration passes through to the rider, quickly fatiguing hands and arms. As the revs climb, so does the intensity level of engine buzz, escalating to an annoying point where it can even be felt through the footpegs.

Sporty ergonomics serve to further diminish long-range comfort. The handlebars are too low and too far forward, forcing the rider to support an excessive amount of weight on his wrists. Grips are too small in diameter. Add engine vibration and the result is hands, arms, and shoulders that begin to tingle after just a few short miles, and plain go numb well before the 7.5 gallon fuel supply needs replenishing, which on the Concours will be around the 210 mile mark.

For both rider and passenger the seat is one of the roomiest, most comfortable saddles that we've ever had the pleasure of spending hundreds of miles in. Seat-to-peg relationship is good, even for taller riders, and the wide, rubber-covered footpegs provide good support. Windscreen protection is excellent also, although the top lip of it is curved to reduce turbulence, producing a distorted view. Shorter riders may find this distracting. Rearview vision out the mirrors is superb, providing a wide, unobstructed view of traffic behind.

Touring amenities on the Concours include easily removable saddlebags which attach and detach with just a flip of a latch, and are each large enough to hold a full-face helmet. When the saddlebags are removed, special color-matched side panels can be snapped in place to hide the bags' mounting points. A small parcel rack is found under a removable cover behind the passenger seat and is flanked by two flip-out bungee hooks. Lockable glove compartments are located on the inside of the fairing to either side of the instrument cluster, and the large, flat fuel tank can easily accommodate a tank bag. Fit and finish on the Kawasaki is good, and it received numerous compliments for its clean, integrated styling.

Around town and open highway drive-ability is acceptable; the 32mm Keihins carburate flawlessly from idle to redline with no hiccups or flatspots. Quick to warm-up, you can ride away almost immediately from a cold start on half choke. The big four-cylinder revs freely, but a distinct lack of low-end torque, coupled with the Concours heft, makes low-speed handling a bit cumbersome. The only adjustments available on the 41mm forks are for spring preload, with both spring and four-way rebound damping on the rear Uni-Trak® shock.

For commuters, ample luggage space allows you to carry all those important necessities to work. The powerful engine and strong chassis make quick work of rush hour. And you'll arrive all smiles on a quick jaunt to that overnight backwoods hideaway if your route allows you to take winding backroads.

Kawasaki's Concours still defines the word "Sport" in the Sport Touring class. Heavily biased towards high-performance, this bike's roots are firmly planted in its Ninja heritage. The Concours has changed very little since it first appeared in 1986, spawning COG, the Concours Owners Group, and a healthy aftermarket along the way. Ultimately, its age makes it pale against the likes of newer sport-tourers like the BMW R1100RT and Honda ST1100.

2. BMW R1100RT

 BMW's boxer twins just keep getting bigger. The progression started when the R1100GS outsized its progenitor, the R1100RS. Now the R1100RT is the biggest -- and heaviest -- boxer yet. Not that weight will stop the BMW aficionados.

Prime mover of the new behemoth is BMW's 90hp (claimed, we measure a peak power of 78 bhp) 1100cc opposed twin, whose familiar air/oil cooled cylinders stick out from beneath the all enveloping bodywork. Underneath the recyclable plastic bodywork (We didn't test it by putting it out at the curb on garbage day), the engine acts as the main frame member, and as a mount for the wishbone-type telelever front suspension and one-sided paralever rear suspender. Bosch Motronic electronic fuel injection and a catalytic converter round out the specs. Colors, according to BMW, are Glacier green, Sinus(!) blue and Siena red metallic.

How does it feel on the move? You definitely know there's a twin cylinder down there. The level of vibration is never bad, just omnipresent at highway speeds. Overtaking power is available in spades, though some bottom end torque has been sacrificed (compared to the GS model) in the quest for highest power output, since the RT has the same engine as the sport-styled RS model. Even so, it takes a high mountain pass, or very high-speed highway (hey, no speed limits in Montana right now) to faze this twin.

Vibration from the twin, while always present, is never intrusive and never gets annoying. Also easy to forget is the telelever front end. It's different from anything else on the road, but the only time it is noticeable is under braking, when less dive is present than telescopic forks.

Additional cost options include luggage liner bags (a boon for swift packing in motel rooms) and an anti-theft system. However, we have to say that BMWs seem to be one of the least stolen motorcycles around (We can hear the sound of keyboards clicking here, as hundreds of readers immediately respond with tragic tales of absent beemers).

The all-encompassing fairing is multi-functional, providing a lockable hiding place for radio, speakers, handwarming vents, and adjustable windscreen, knockoff mirrors and turn signals and an auxiliary power take-off point. It also encloses the rider information center (oil temp and fuel gauge). Plus, the front of the fairing sticks out far enough to cover the ungainly (but effective) front suspension wishbone. The unconventional suspension is governed by a single shock absorber and spring mounted in front of the engine. The fork tubes themselves are flexibly mounted at the top fork yoke, and serve merely as convenient connections to the handlebars.

The hard saddlebags are easy to mount and dismount, convenient to use, but lack one important thing -- enough space to park a large full face helmet (mediums fit). We can't imagine paying the sizeable price for this huge sport tourer, and then not having anywhere to safely keep our lid when the bike is parked. The luggage lids will oh-so-nearly close when you put a helmet inside, but not quite. Slap on the wrist to BMW.

Three sizable Brembo discs bring the Sinus blue whale to a halt with alacrity (as in completely fuss-free and surprisingly quickly). On loose surfaces, the second-generation ABS takes over with little fuss -- sometimes you don't even know it's working. And when you don't want to stop, the 6.6 gallon tank will carry you 300 miles, with care. The seat ceases to be comfortable long before (actually it's good for a couple of hours).

The electrically adjustable windshield ceases to be a gadget in wintertime then becomes a necessity. You simply can't, once you're used to it, remember what you did without it. Press the handlebar-mounted button, and the 'shield levers itself up from the fairing. As it rises, wind pressure gradually lessens on your chest and as it reaches the top of its arc, the roar of the wind disappears. At the top of its travel, the shield is still low enough for the average rider to see over it, in case of rain.

BMW's radio isn't as impressive. Given the total redesign of the RT's bodywork, it's surprising that the radio is such a blatant afterthought, stuck into a sideways-facing locker in front of the fairing. It's inaccessible while the bike is moving because -- says BMW -- its locked cover must be closed before driving away -- although BMW promises bar-mounted radio controls in the future. At anything above town riding speeds, the speakers are all but impossible to hear while wearing a full-face helmet. BMW does offer optional helmet radio hookups, and it's the only way to go for sound on a motorcycle.

The standard heated handgrips are a real journey extender on short, winter days, and work much better than the heater ducts in the fairing. When the sun goes down, hitting the 'bar heater switch raises your endurance by another couple of hours.

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