Do these motorcycles offer false promise? Are they merely the SUVs of motorcycling with bold names and no balls? “Ténéré” is a remote part of the Sahara Desert, while “Explorer” implies nomadic intent, “Multistrada” says “I can do it all” and “Stelvio” is perhaps the greatest twisty road on Earth. Those are big statements from the respective marketing departments of each brand. Does reality live up to the hype?
Earlier this year, we set out to see which of three more-dirt-capable Open-class adventure bikes ruled the roost (“Ride There,” February 2012). The new Yamaha Super Ténéré took top honors over the BMW R1200GS and KTM 990 Adventure after demonstrating that it offered the best balance between off-road riding and being a great all-around commuter and sport-tourer.
At the time, the brand-new Triumph Tiger Explorer was not yet available, and we didn’t feel that the Multistrada and Moto Guzzi fit into the branch-bashing, rock-crawling and whoop-hopping that test had in store. But since then, the question kept coming up: “How would the Yamaha stack up against these other players?” As we’ve pointed out in the past, a lot of people buy ADV bikes more for their versatility and comfort than for off-highway chops.
So this time we change the rules: Which machine provides the best performance, versatility and comfort on the blacktop while still delivering a respectable measure of off-highway competence so you can at least keep your dreams alive?
Our testing route took us north of Los Angeles into the mountains adjacent to Sequoia National Forest. In addition to loads of highway riding, we traversed terrain ranging from pristine, freshly paved winding asphalt to completely neglected, pothole-strewn backroads to long sections of washboard dirt and sand.
Since adventure bikes stole their identity from the big-bore racing motorcycles that once ruled the deserts in the Paris-Dakar Rally, we thought it would be interesting to invite the top American finisher in last year’s South American Dakar event, Ned Suesse, for his take on this class. As a KTM 990 Adventure and 950 Super Enduro owner, he gets it. Also along for the ride was occasional guest-tester John Volkman, a 990 Adventure owner and former expert/pro-level racer on dirt and asphalt who many moons ago worked as development rider for a major manufacturer.
All four of these machines displace around 1200cc, but the variety of engine configurations provides a unique mixture of power delivery characteristics. The Ducati is built around an 1198cc V-Twin, the Moto Guzzi has a longitudinally mounted, 1151cc V-Twin, Triumph is packing a torquey, 1215cc inline-Triple and Yamaha’s Super T relies on an 1199cc parallel-Twin.
Each machine also utilizes electronic systems including traction control and anti-lock brakes; the Ducati and Yamaha add multiple power-output maps. Our Multistrada came equipped with the Öhlins electronically adjustable suspension system, which you can’t appreciate until you spend multiple days hopping from road surface to no surface.
Electronics are here to stay, but turning them off sometimes is mandatory. For those folks who want to ride off-highway, all four bikes have TC systems that can be switched off, and three allow ABS to be easily shut down. The Ténéré earns a strike against it because its ABS has to be tricked to be defeated.
“For me, the electronics are excessively complicated and intrusive,” said Suesse. “One of the things I love most about motorcycles is simplicity, so while I understand the reasoning to include these tools, I resent that they are so difficult to set and disable.”
Once we broke through L.A.’s atmosphere and started orbiting California’s high-desert mountains, we began to get a greater sense of each bike’s strengths and weaknesses.