Photography by Brian Blades
They are neither small nor light nor simple. Their wheelbases span five feet or more, and before the first drop of high octane is pumped into their oversized gas tanks, they tip the scales at close to 650 pounds. Besides their big-inch, torque-laden engines, they have large, protective fairings, spacious, quick-detach saddlebags, electrically adjustable windshields and elaborate shaft final drives. But despite their considerable size and complexity, they can make short work of any kind of road imaginable. They devour Interstates without breaking a sweat, yet they’ll shred a twisty backroad almost as mercilessly a purebred sportbike. And everyday riding? Ha! They handle those simple tasks like it’s their reason for being.
We’re talking about the two finest sport-touring motorcycles on the planet: BMW’s K1300GTand Kawasaki’s Concours 14. In 2006 and ’07, the K13′s predecessor, the K1200GT, won Best Sport-Touring honors in CW’s annual Ten Best Bikes balloting, only to have that award wrested away by the Concours in 2008. The BMW has been updated and improved for 2009 and now wields a bigger, more-powerful engine. So the question is, can it take back that title? Let’s find out.
But first, you need to know that the playing field was not quite as level as we would have liked. Our Concours test-bike was the baseline model absent any optional equipment whatsoever, including ABS (available as a separate model). The K1300GT, however, not only has ABS as a standard feature, ours arrived outfitted with BMW’s Premium Options package that includes heated seat and grips, cruise control, Xenon headlight, Automatic Spin Control (ASC) and second-generation Electronic Suspension Adjustment (ESA II). That jacked our K-bike’s price tag from an already lofty $18,800 up to $22,245, while our Concours’ MSRP is only $13,499—a whopping $8746 difference. We did not want such a huge equipment imbalance, but that’s how the bikes were delivered, so we did our best to work around it.
For 2009, BMW gave the K-GT additional oomph by bumping the dohc inline-Four’s displacement from 1157 to 1293cc. The Concours, meanwhile, remains unchanged this year, its 1352cc I-Four retaining the variable valve timing that helps it produce prodigious power over a wide rpm range. But even though the K-bike has a 59cc deficit, it spun out more horsepower (141.1) on the CW dyno than did the Concours (133.6), with the Kawi making a little more peak torque (88.7 ft.-lb. vs. 86.0).
Ah, but when you’re in the seat, the BMW can feel like it makes a lot more power than the Concours. It screams up through the gears in a manner more befitting a repli-racer, bellowing a ferocious intake roar all the while, and top-gear roll-ons are nothing short of arm-straightening, watch-me-disappear spectacular.
There’s a reason for that spirited thrust: The GT’s overall gearing is unbelievably low for a large-displacement four-cylinder motorcycle that lists “touring” as part of its mission. At an indicated 80 mph in top gear, for example, the engine is spinning at 5000 rpm. Not only is that more like what you expect with a smaller engine, it’s about 1250 revs higher than the Concours is turning at the same speed in sixth. In fact, the Beemer’s top-gear ratio is almost as low as fourth gear on the Kawasaki, and all of the other gears are proportionately lower, as well.
Considering those gearing and power figures, we were surprised when both bikes produced practically dead-even quarter-mile, 0-to-60 and top-speed numbers; the Kawasaki simply goes about its program in a much more subtle, stealthier fashion. Even when you’re trying to make time on a backroad, both of these sport-tourers are equal, acceleration-wise. You use the taller-geared Kawasaki’s gearbox a little differently than you do the BMW’s, but you get from corner to corner just as quickly.
Out on the open road, the GT’s low gearing can be an annoyance. At any given speed, the 13′s revs are disproportionately high, so the engine always seems busy; and as you approach 75 mph, light vibration starts showing up in the handgrips and footpegs. The gearing also makes throttle response so abrupt that maintaining a steady cruising speed often requires your constant attention—unless you use the optional cruise control, which, depending upon traffic conditions, is not always a prudent decision.
No such concerns on the Concours. It motors along the highway in comparative silence, smoothness and steadiness. It doesn’t have quite as much instant snap as the BMW, but dialing the throttle open in top gear is still rewarded with stout acceleration, and snicking a quick downshift lets you zip out and around slower traffic like you mean business.
Both of these speed wagons handle curvy roads amazingly well for their bulk and size, but we have to give the nod here to the Concours. It flicks into turns with surprising ease and flows through them naturally and gracefully, always neutral, always predictable. It occasionally zings a footpeg off the pavement if you’re charging in full madman mode, but the peg simply folds up, no harm, no foul, no wheels levered into the air. The suspension is not adjustable with the push of a button like the K13′s, but it can be manually regulated to suit the prevailing conditions, and it consistently keeps the 14′s chassis under control.
At low to moderate cornering speeds, the K13 has light, easy steering and turns in nicely, even though feedback from its improved-for-’09 Duolever front end is still more vague than that of a conventional fork. But when you attack backroads with resolute aggression, the big Beemer starts feeling a bit top-heavy—a characteristic that is most apparent when you’re lifting the bike off its sidestand or pushing it around the garage. In truth, the 13 rails around all manner of turns exceptionally well, particularly if the optional ESA II is adjusted to one of the sportier of its nine possible settings, and it has generous cornering clearance; but in full-boogie, catch-me-if-you-can cornering mode, it’s just a smidgen less happy than the Kawasaki.
Even in a straight line, the Concours is a little easier on the rider than the K1300GT. Whether it’s the tires, the front-end geometry, the comparatively high center of gravity or all of the above, the BMW is very sensitive to steering inputs, intentional or otherwise. Consequently, it tends to wander a little if the rider takes his eyes off the road for a few seconds when just cruising, calling for tiny but constant corrections. Not so the Concours, which stays the course straight and true.
In overall comfort, the 13 and 14 are again very close. They have excellent rider and passenger seats, all-day ergonomics and a range of suspension adjustments that lets them cope nicely with a wide variety of road and load conditions. The BMW’s standard equipment includes four-position-adjustable handlebars and a two-position seat, while the Kawi’s seat and bars are fixed. Advantage K-13. Ditto for the BMW’s standard windscreen, which is tall enough when fully raised to function much like a big touring bike’s see-through shield, providing a pleasantly quiet, still-air zone around the rider. The Concours’ shield is shorter and never elevates above eye level, subjecting the rider to a slight head-level windblast, but that passing air creates very little buffeting.
So what we have here are two shockingly fast, surprisingly agile, incomparably versatile motorcycles. Even though they were designed in two countries half a world apart, they are remarkably similar in many important ways, and any differences between them are, in the greater scheme of things, rather small.
But there are quite a few of those differences, and their cumulative effect tells the final tale of these sport-touring wizards. There’s no question that the K1300GT is an impressive piece of Teutonic engineering that dazzles with its all-around performance. But in just about every area of on-the-road significance, the Concours either equals or surpasses it.
Really, the Kawasaki’s sole drawback is its lack of factory options, an area in which the BMW shines brightly. But we’re not testing optional equipment here; we’re testing motorcycles. Besides, with the $8745 price differential between these two as tested, you could buy a small truckload of useful accessories—or subsidize a couple of fun trips or even buy another for-real, full-size bike. No matter how you slice it, the Concours 14 is a whole lot of motorcycle for, relatively speaking, not a whole lot of money.