Sport-Tour 2006

BMW K1200GT :: Triumph Sprint ST :: Yamaha FJR1300AE

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Yamaha FJR1300AE
$15,299 ($15,599 for the 2007 model)

Tired of shifting? Carpal tunnel got ya down? Don't worry bucky, Yamaha thinks they have the answer. Meet YCC-S, Yamaha's chip-controlled shifting.

As Gabe reported when he first rode the 2006 FJR1300AE, Yamaha devised YCC-S not as an automatic transmission for newbies, but as a way to make riding in low-speed situations easier on the rider. There's no CVT or torque converter here; just an electric shifter that can be controlled from the handlebar or from the adjustable foot lever and a small device that engages and disengages the clutch in concert with the shifter.

We decided to test the YCC-S-equipped machine to see how practical such a device was in actual touring and commuting work; we told our testers to regard it as an option, and not judge the entire bike on the functionality of one feature.

In any case, there were other changes for 2006 designed to make the FJR more exciting to ride and easier to live with. They started with the motor. It's an aluminum-block, liquid-cooled, 16-valve inline-four that uses some R1-derived tricks like stacked transmission shafts to achieve a very compact package. That's quite a feat, considering its ceramic-coated 79mm bore and 66.2mm stroke give it 1,298 healthy cee cees. Fuel injection is quite electronic, and two gear-driven counterbalancers keep things smooth enough to rigidly mount the engine. Widely-spaced gearing permits a five-speed gearbox, and the taller-geared for 2006 final drive is a clean, quiet shaft. The radiator, fans and ductwork are redesigned to cut down on hot air reaching the rider, in hopes it will reduce hot air coming from FJR internet message boards.

The chassis seems mostly the same as 2005; there's not much wrong there. It's a big twin-spar aluminum item, but the rear subframe has been made stronger and narrower (to reduce the width with bags mounted) and given a lift handle to help put the 593-pound (claimed 2007 model dry weight) creature onto its centerstand. The swingarm has been lengthened by 1.3 inches to improve handling, giving us a 60.6-inch wheelbase.

"Suspension and brakes are what's expected of a flagship machine."

In the back is a linkage-equipped monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound damping with 4.8 inches of travel. It's got a two-position adjustment lever for quick preload adjustments. The front forks are conventional (and fat!) 48mm jobs with 5.4 inches of travel, adjustable for preload, as well as for rebound and compression damping.

Brakes are similar to the Triumph's -- dual four-piston calipers and 320mm discs in front with a 282mm disc in the rear -- except that they are linked (the front brake lever works the rear caliper and vice-versa), and ABS is standard on both the top-of-the-line AE as well as the more basic FJR1300A. Deluxe.

If those aren't enough features from the engine and chassis, Yamaha's product-planning people piled plenty more on top of it all. The fairing is all-new, with sharper styling and better venting, and includes adjustable side and windscreen ducting. The windscreen is now larger and still electrically-adjustable (although it still returns to the low position automatically when you take the key out), and for 2006, the seat has two positions as well. A small glove box in the fairing can be opened with the key in the bike, and there's a 12-volt outlet in there to run your toaster oven (note: toasting snacks while riding can lead to loss of control and possible injury or death from hot melted cheese burns. Please refer to Joy of Cooking for more cooking safety tips) or other gadgets. Passenger footpegs have been moved down and forwards for comfort, and the instrument panel is all new as well, featuring an instant fuel economy gauge as well as air temperature and gear position. Nice. Locking, detachable hard luggage is, of course, standard.

Rock the FJR off its centerstand and swing a leg over. You'll find a bike that is low (with the adjustable seat set to the low position, even stumpy-legged Gabe can happily flat-foot the bike), with a broad, comfortable seat and a nice reach to the bars. "The additional leg room for the rider is a nice improvement over last year," said a happy Pete. The bike is heavy, but has a low center of gravity that makes it manageable. The passenger seat is as wide, roomy and well sculpted as the rider's.

Switch the key on so you can appreciate all the gadgets and amenities. The instrument display is nicely laid out and features all kinds of information. The grip warmers use a rheostat, which means you have more options than the three-position `freeze, burn or cook' that the BMW's controls offer, although Al thought it would be better positioned six inches further back. The storage compartment in the faring with the 12v outlet is supremely useful, especially when Gabe is moving his satellite radio from bike to bike, or when Pete needs to charge his much-used Razr. Why doesn't every bike have a standardized power outlet, we wonder?

Firing the big motor fills the air with the sound of that great big inline four, which warms quickly and responds precisely. Too precisely, we'd say; at low RPM the abrupt throttle response and shaft drive conspire to overwhelm the modulating powers of the computer-controlled clutch, making starts and low-speed trolling lurchey. As the motor warms up, the rider doesn't; Yamaha's redesign of the fairing, with extra attention to heat management really works. There's no more of the heat that once roasted the rider's inner thighs.

"With plenty of torque and all that horsepower, you hardly need a gearbox at all"

On the freeway, the FJR is as comfortable as a sport tourer should be. Pete noted his "knees rarely felt stiff and cramped as they did on the '05 model", and Jack declared the Japanese machine provided a "very cozy riding environment" for him. Wind protection is also good, especially with the adjustable screen all the way up in the highest position, but Pete thought it could be better, given the extra material and redesign. He was expecting a greater improvement over the 2005 model, or at least a screen that stayed in position after the key is turned off.

The electronically-controlled clutch is a strange thing, and hard to get used to, but there's no problem with the gearbox. It's as slick-shifting as we've come to expect from a Japanese machine, and the gear ratios are well spaced enough so none of us complained about the lack of a sixth gear. With plenty of torque and all that horsepower, you hardly need a gearbox at all, although the solidly-mounted engine's buzz is noticeable at higher RPM. But at highway speeds, the FJR's rider and passenger are sitting on comfy seats, protected by a good windscreen and enjoying a smooth motor that's ready to make a quick pass at a moment's notice without downshifting, and "quick" turns into meteoric when you do click down a cog.

Once out on a two-lane, twisty road, the FJR gets the job done competently enough. With that big frame and good suspension, the bike feels well-equipped to handle most cornering situations. However, it does "suffer ground-clearance problems when it's time to wind the bike through the canyons at a spirited pace" according to Pete. Jack also found it a bit lacking; "It seems kind of long and lanky in the tight corners...not as enjoyable to ride in the tighter stuff." Without the Sprint's light weight and the Beemer's technological tricks, the FJR's bulk, driveshaft and long wheelbase let you know that it's no Supermoto, even though it's a lot more confident and nimble than you might think. The brakes are also good, with sufficient power and feel, and no hint of the ABS system until you try to skid the tires.

The big Yammie is a very good product, with a competent, all-around feel that understandably endears it to its owners. Jack said that "in general I really like this motorcycle", and Al decided to adopt this big silver bike, riding it daily until Yamaha politely asked for it back the week before Christmas. It has a great (if a little buzzy) motor, is comfortable, durable and (see sidebar) cheap to own. So what's the problem?

Here's the thing about the FJR: the price tag for near perfection is a bland feel, and we think that's what kept most of the testers from making the Yamaha their first choice. It handles well, has great build quality and exceeds Jack's "need for speed", with a mile-wide powerband and a responsive motor. But the soft suspension and user-friendly features take the edge off the bike. Is it the ultimate all-around machine that will satisfy any kind of touring itch you might have? Apparently, not quite.

2007 BMW K1200GT
$19,025 ($20,665 as tested)

If money were no object...

Don't you wish? If cost were truly not a factor, what would your ultimate ST bike be? It would have as powerful an engine as possible, right? And a massive, rigid aluminum frame? Comfy accommodations for two? A fairing that could shield you from a force-10 hurricane?

If that's what you want -- and you have $20,000 in large, sequential bills in one of those fancy aluminum briefcases -- have your driver take you to the nearest BMW dealer. There you will find the K1200GT, which might be the ultimate sport-tourer, at least until the new Kawasaki Concours14 hits the road.

To fulfill everyone's notion of the ultimate ST machine, BMW's engineers started out with the much-revised powerplant from the K1200S. It's a departure for BMW, an actual transverse-mounted inline four that slants the cylinderbank forwards for a low center of gravity. This is not your grandfather's K-bike: the last K1200S we tested made 144hp and 85 foot-pounds of torque at the rear wheel on the MO Dynojet Dynomometer. To make all that thrust, it uses a fairly conventional design, with very oversquare 79mm by 59mm bore and stroke figures, a four-valve cylinder head, dual overhead cams and extra-spicy 13.0:1 compression. A counterbalancer smooths things enough for the engine to be solidly-mounted in the frame. Power is sent to the wheel via a six-speed gearbox and Paralever -- which uses a clever double-jointed design to minimize the up-and-down shaft-jacking effect -- driveshaft.

"You will find the K1200GT might be the ultimate sport-tourer"

The motor is bolted into something BMW rediscovered not too long ago; a frame. The composite-aluminum item is beefy but not too heavy; the entire machine weighs in at 622 pounds full of gas (claimed). The driveshaft unit is suspended by a linkage-less conventional shock (the on-the-fly adjustable ESA unit on our bike can be added on for a mere $800) with 5.3 inches of travel. In front, the wheel is held by a Hossack-style fork that BMW calls "Duolever"; it works similar to the Telelever system on the R-series bikes, isolating braking forces from the suspension action, which means steering geometry stays about the same under braking or when going around a bumpy corner. Wheelbase is 61.8 inches between the 120/70-17 front radial tire and 180/55-17 rear. Braking duties are attended to by four-piston calipers with 320mm floating discs in front, and a two-piston caliper with a 295mm disc in back, with BMW's integrated anti-lock system standard equipment.

But that's mostly the same as the K1200R roadster and K1200S mega-sportbike we've already tested. This GT is different by offering all the touring amenities without adding too much weight. Huge fairing with adjustable windscreen? Oh yes. Immense color-matched sidecases? Of course. Integral anti-lock brakes with servo-assist? Mmm-hmm. Big passenger seat and luggage rack? Hey, this is a sport tourer, right? An info-packed instrument display is included as well, which tells you all kinds of things, like time, temperature, gear position, engine temperature, fuel remaining, mileage and brake-pad wear. If that's not enough, the handlebars are adjustable by loosening a couple of screws, and a lower seat is available at no charge, although they probably make you give the higher seat back.

"The options list for this machine boggles the mind."

The factory offers a navigation system, electronic suspension adjustment, traction control (not available until next year sometime), heated seats and grips (with the passenger seat getting its own on-off switch, proving BMW engineers are married), xenon headlamps, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring, and an alarm, among other things.

Our test unit came equipped with ESA, heated seats and grips, cruise, and an accessory tank bag big enough to hold Pete and Gabe with room left over for Jack's huge head.

The K-bike's styling may not be sexy, but it is imposing, bold and distinctive. That slab-sided fairing makes the bike seem larger than it is, making little guys like Gabe a little scared when pulling the bike off its centerstand. Once on two wheels, the bike feels lighter, but be careful rolling it around; those brakes barely work with the motor off.

Swing a leg over and it feels like you've settled onto a piece of very expensive and comfortable European furniture. Gabe thought the seating was "more cramped" than he expected, but the bars were adjusted all the way up when we got the bike. After figuring out how to get at the tool kit -- which consisted of two star-bit wrenches and a reversible screwdriver -- we loosened the clamp bolts on the handlebar and dropped them down to a comfortably low, sporty position. Pete liked that a lot, calling it the "simplest and yet most functional feature on the GT". Like adjustable clutch levers, we think more bikes should offer this adjustment.

The key goes on, and after the electronic start-up dance from the instruments, we can fire the K up. It does so easily, with that characteristic, yet quiet, inline-four whine that wouldn't sound out of place coming from a Japanese supersport. Vibration, which seemed more intrusive on the K1200R and K1200S, is very mild, especially compared to the FJR when the tach goes over 5,000rpm. The clutch action is "flawless", according to Pete, but still requires greater-than-average effort to work, "making it harder to finesse". However, the transmission is very good, although those used to Japanese gearboxes will find it a little more tactile, with plenty of clunking and feedback.

"Moving out onto the road, the BMW impresses the rider with its smooth, quiet operation."

"I kind of like to hear a little bit of engine noise to let me know I'm riding a motorcycle. Is that really a problem, though?" asked Jack, used to his ancient and not-so-smooth R100GS. Low-speed operation is easy and pleasant; Gabe found the big grey bike to be "a real pussycat until you twist its tail".

When you do, the front end lurches upwards and incredibly high velocities are easy to achieve. There's a perceptible soft spot around 6,000rpm, but once the tach needle passes the number eight, "the power comes on strong and hard", says Pete, reminding the rider he is mounted on the most powerful motorcycle engine BMW has built to date.

At high velocities, the motor remains pretty smooth, but you'll still get a buzz -- or at least feel one through the bars and pegs -- when you see close to five digits on the tach.

Luckily, comfort is very good, so vibration is not really an issue. The bar-seat-peg relationship is as good as it gets for spending long days in the saddle for either rider or passenger, and wind protection is excellent indeed. The adjustable seats, in addition to being perfectly shaped and padded are also electrically heated, with individual controls for front and back.

They're clearly intended for a very cool climate; Jack complained they needed more adjustability beyond high or low: "even the low-heat setting became just too warm... the ambient heat from the grips and saddle might melt the polar cap." There's no pleasing some people. At least the windscreen stays in the position you select for it after you remove the key. It also delivers excellent wind protection over a broad range, although Pete discovered a weird airflow when the screen was in the lowest position that would snap his head to the side if he turned it against the flow of air.

It surprised him, as the smooth aerodynamics offer no hint of such sneakiness when the rider looks straight ahead. Comfort is important on a sport tourer, as the ostensible purpose of such a bike is to make the boring parts of a trip bearable until the road starts to bend. But when you do get to the bends, you are in for a treat; the BMW is an excellent-handling motorcycle with a motor to match. The Hassock-type front end is the same as its brother K-bikes, and although low-speed steering is vague and heavy, once the pace is upped the front suspension works brilliantly, ironing out bumps and staying rock-steady on all kinds of roads, allowing a rider to hustle the bike around like it's a much lighter machine. Gabe thought it "felt top heavy", but the other testers loved it, declaring it had the best blend of steering ease, stability and response, especially in high-speed corners.

The ESA suspension adjustment is as useful as it is luxurious. Let's face it: we've all left our suspension misadjusted because we were too lazy or busy to get out the tool kit, measure static sag and do all the other things we know we should do. And we've also all had an "Oh Crap!" moment caused by an overladen bike dragging hard parts or wallowing uncomfortably in a turn. Well, if you can pony up the extra $800 -- and we highly recommend you do -- suspension adjustment is as easy as calling your personal shopper. Preload can only be adjusted when the bike is stationary, but the damping can be set for `sport', `comfort' or `normal' riding with just a touch of the ESA button while you're rolling. Once dialed in, the different settings actually do what they say, delivering a soft, cushy ride on the freeway, a firm, controlled ride when you're getting on it, and a nice balance when you're commuting or running around town.

"If money is no object and you need the very best motorcycle in its genre, the K1200GT may be it."

We wish the technology used in the brakes was as transparently useful as the ESA. Like all the servo-assisted brakes on BMW motorcycles, these need to have the engine running to get the full effect, not unlike a car with power brakes, so be careful rolling this bike around when the motor is off; you'd be amazed how much momentum even a slowly-rolling 600-pound motorcycle has. It goes without saying that motor-off downhill `slow races' should be avoided with this bike, although it might improve your chances of victory (or an ambulance ride). With the motor running, Pete said the "brakes are incredibly powerful but lack feel...if they could engineer some sensitivity back into these rotor-crushing binders, they would be some of the best on the planet." Gabe also noted the slower response as the servo kicks in.

However, just like the heavy-feeling suspension, a good rider can brake confidently and quickly, no matter how heavily-laden the bike or how hot the brakes get. We'll concede that subtle brake feel is worth sacrificing on the altar of safety, although we think the next-generation assisted brakes from BMW will let you have power, sensitivity and instant response. The ABS shows little sign of itself unless it's working, which is as it should be. The EVO system -- which activates the rear caliper when the front brake is used, but only the rear caliper when the back brake is utilized , governed by computer-controlled proportioning valves -- is also seamless. None of our testers even noticed the linked system.

Although it doesn't offer the nimble athleticism of the Triumph, or the friendly nature of the FJR, the Beemer is still a great sport tourer, able to hustle along a winding road like a mountain goat, soar at triple-digit speeds all day long on the Interstate, or be light and manageable enough to make a friendly commuter. It's the kind of bike that stuns onlookers with its bold appearance and warps the minds of its riders and passengers by being faster, smoother and better handling than you'd expect. Is it cheap? No way. Is it a hard-core sport bike? Keep looking. But if money is no object and you need the very best motorcycle in its genre, the K1200GT may be it. Did our testers agree?

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