For riders who love sport-touring, this has gotta be the golden age. A decade and a half ago, motorcycles that could unravel a zigzag backroad nearly as well as a sportbike yet make open-road travel almost as enjoyable as a full-blown touring rig were few and far between. But today, about a dozen bikes can fulfill those special requirements. And they’re all better in every area of sport-touring performance than the best of days gone by.
Including the three seen here. BMW’s cutting-edge K1600GT has scored top sport-touring honors in our annual Ten Best awards the past two years, but it has a couple of new challengers for 2013. Triumph just unleashed the all-new Trophy SE sport-tourer, a 1215cc inline-Triple loaded with electronics and a host of other on-the-road-again features. And Yamaha has snuck back into the picture with the 2013 FJR1300, an update of the same basic machine the tuning-fork folks have been selling here since 2003. Could either of those two knock the BMW off the top step of the podium?
To answer that question, we took this trio on a three-day excursion up through California’s central coast and valleys, covering a balanced mix of freeways, scenic country roads and some of the Golden State’s finest curvature. Accompanying me were Todd Eagan, frequent CW tester and vastly experienced ex-racer, and Jamie Elvidge, longtime motojournalist and arguably the best female rider ever to scribe a word.
By the time we reached our first night’s stop in Paso Robles, things had already begun sorting themselves out. The BMW, as always, impressed with the utter smoothness of its power, an endless river of sharp acceleration that comes to life right off idle and continues unabated as the 1649cc Six shrieks its way to redline with an exhaust note that is, as Jamie described it, “entertainment in itself. I could listen to it all day.” Whether you’re in the BMW’s Rain, Normal or Dynamic power-delivery mode—all of which can be switched on the fly—throttle response and power vary slightly but always allow the 718-pound K-bike to produce dazzling acceleration.
As it should; its engine is 21 percent bigger than the FJR’s and holds a 26-percent cc advantage over the Trophy’s. The 663-pound Triumph never cuts loose with anything close to omigod acceleration but instead relentlessly doles out strong, perfectly linear power everywhere. And that, as Todd discovered, makes for a sneaky-fast motorcycle. “I often ended up going a lot faster on the Triumph than I thought,” he said. The Trophy’s engine is so manageable that the lack of any switchable power delivery system is not an issue.
The Yamaha, meanwhile, uses the Caterpillar-class low-end and midrange torque of its 1298cc inline-Four to do an admirable job of almost matching the BMW in overall acceleration, and running several ticks ahead of the Triumph. The engine’s excellent grunt is pushing the lightest bike (628 lb.) of the trio, helping overcome the fact that it’s the only one of the three with a five-speed gearbox. The ’13 FJR now has a two-position “Drive-mode” that lets the rider select Touring (softer throttle response and more-gradual power delivery) or Sport (completely unrestricted power) on the fly.
Our second-day route of mostly backroads solidified the three sport-tourers’ handling capabilities. We were mightily impressed with the Triumph, whose steering qualities are sheer perfection. Turn-in is magically light, and the steering remains absolutely dead-neutral regardless of corner speed, lean angle or surface imperfections. Combine those traits with superb suspension behavior, totally predictable power delivery and generous cornering clearance, and you’ve got a bike that’s a dream to push hard through the turns.
Like the BMW, the Triumph has electronically adjustable suspension; but while it’s part of a $1295 option package on the Beemer, it’s standard on the Trophy SE. It gives the Triumph three rebound-damping settings at both ends (sport, normal, comfort) and three preload choices at the rear (1-up, 1-up plus luggage, 2-up). Ride quality ranges from stiff but rock-solid-planted in sport/2-up to firm but still reasonably comfortable in comfort/1-up.
With the K1600’s system, which has very similar electronic adjustment options, the difference between full comfort and full sport is greater. At one extreme, the ride is nicely plush, and in the other, it is very taut but keeps the big K-bike stable and controllable in the fastest, deepest-lean corners.
Handling, however, is where the BMW and Triumph distanced themselves from the Yamaha. The FJR’s manually adjustable suspension has plenty of options (preload, compression and rebound damping up front; rebound and preload in the rear), but it doesn’t provide as much chassis control as those on the other two sport-tourers. The ride in the softest settings is comparable; but even at full firm, as Todd described it, “The bike loses its composure when pushed hard through corners and moves around any time the road surface isn’t close to perfect.”
What’s more, the front end has so much roll-steer (the insistence of the fork to keep turning into the corner) when cornering that constant firm pressure must be maintained on the inside grip to prevent the bike from standing up. If the throttle is closed or the front brake trailed midcorner, the stand-up tendency is magnified, and as the front tire wears, the condition worsens. Only when slammed really aggressively through high-speed corners does the steering become more—although not completely—neutral.
THE SEAT OF POWER
Ergonomically, all three bikes are similar but still different. The “rider triangle” (seat-to-grip-to-peg relationship) is the most relaxed on the Triumph, the tightest on the Yamaha. All these have two-position-adjustable seats, and the Yamaha even has three-way-adjustable handlebars; but no matter how anything is adjusted, the Trophy still has the best all-day riding position. Credit some of that to the SE’s seat, the most accommodating but the widest and also the tallest, even in its lowest position. Comfort-wise, the BMW slots in between the two with ergos that are marginally tighter than the Triumph’s. The K-bike’s seat is the least butt-pleasing of the three, and an optional lower seat is a “no-cost” option.
All three machines have electrically adjustable windshields, but they, too, vary widely in coverage and range of adjustment. The Yamaha’s is the lowest, whether fully extended or retracted, and the Triumph’s is by far the highest; even Shaquille O’Neal wouldn’t be able to see over the top of it when it’s fully raised. Jamie didn’t like the SE’s shield for that reason. “I usually like to look over a windshield, not through it,” she noted, “but that’s never possible on the Triumph.”
Todd agreed, except for those times when protection from wind, rain and bugs in the teeth is desirable. In that regard, the Triumph edges ahead of the BMW. Between its wide, tall windscreen, expansive fair ing and low-mount mirrors that shield the rider’s hands, the SE cradles you in a comparatively still pocket of protection. The K1600GT is a close second, the Yamaha a distant third. The FJR’s windscreen doesn’t keep as much air off the rider, and its narrow fairing provides very little hand protection.
This is just one of several reasons that, in all fairness, the Yamaha really doesn’t belong in this comparison. Overall, it’s a very good motorcycle that was the top sport-tourer on the market a decade ago. Plus, it’s $3000 cheaper than the Triumph and a whopping 10 Large less-expensive than our optioned-out K1600GT testbike. But time has marched on, and despite incremental improvements over the years, the FJR simply isn’t in the same league with new-age technowonders like the BMW and Triumph.
Those two clearly are the class of the class. The Triumph is a marvel of handling that instills rider confidence like nothing else in the sport-touring category. “More than the other two,” said Todd, “the Trophy feels like a real motorcycle, my kind of motorcycle. You get the type of feedback that makes you feel like you’re always in control. If it were my money, it’s the one I would buy.”
Nevertheless, all three of us chose the K1600GT as the winner of this comparison. Its mix of power, smoothness, handling, comfort, sophistication and user-friendliness is downright seductive. Yes, it’s more expensive, especially with the $5000 worth of options fitted to our testbike. “But most people who buy sport-tourers don’t quibble over a few thousand bucks,” said Jamie. “They’re willing to pay to get what they want.”
If what they want is the finest sport-tourer on two wheels, the BMW is—for the third straight year—the best of the best.
|2013 BMW K1600GT||
|2013 Triumph Trophy SE||
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