High Speed Low Altitude: Sport Touring in Death Valley and Beyond - Comparison Test

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Touring vs. Honda VFR1200F DCT vs. Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS vs. Triumph Sprint GT.

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Unless you have too much time on your hands, you probably weren’t looking for another oxymoron to add to classics like “giant shrimp,” “boneless ribs” and “loners club,” but here’s one anyway: sport-touring. That’s a fine contradiction in terms if ever there was one.

Think about it: “Sport” lives at one far extreme of the street-riding spectrum, “touring” resides at the other. One involves wearing out the sides of the tires on curvy backroads aboard the fastest, lightest, raciest things on two wheels; the other is all about extended trips in great comfort with lots of stuff along for the ride, size and weight be damned. They are polar opposites, designed for entirely different tasks.

You might logically conclude, then, that never the twain shall meet. But, of course, they can—and do—meet, as the four motorcycles here attest. The Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Touring, Honda VFR1200F DCT, Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS and Triumph Sprint GT all intersect that long, long road between sport and touring, but each does it in a different place, each in a different way. Whether by compromising some degree of sportiness for the sake of pleasant touring or sacrificing a bit of over-the-road opulence to allow as much deep-lean potential as possible, they all get the job done. And as we will soon see, they do it very well—each one differently, but well nonetheless.

Instead of comparing every possible bike in this market segment, we chose only these four—for good reason. The Concours is the reigning class of the class, having won Best Sport-Touring honors in CW's annual Ten Best Bikes awards ever since its arrival as a 2008 model. All of the Kawi's previous competitors are either unchanged or extinct, and the Ducati, Honda and Triumph are the only new entries in the category. So, why tread old ground when you know the results won't change?

Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Tour

The Ducati Multistrada 1200 S Tour is powered by a dohc, 1198cc, 90-degree V-Twin.

This foursome offers an intriguing variety of displacements and layouts with their four-valve-per-cylinder engines, as well as in other aspects of their overall designs. The Concours is a dohc, 1352cc inline-Four, the Triumph a dohc, 1050cc inline-Three. The Ducati is powered by a dohc, 1198cc, 90-degree V-Twin, the Honda by a sohc, 1237cc, 76-degree V-Four. They all have six-speed gearboxes, but the VFR’s Dual Clutch Transmission is shifted not by foot but either automatically or via thumb-and-finger paddles next to the left handgrip. The Conc and VFR have shaft final drive, the other two use chains, and all are equipped with anti-lock braking. The Multistrada has electrically adjustable suspension, and both the Concours and the Duc are fitted with traction control and adjustable power delivery. Three of the bikes come standard with detachable hard saddlebags; the Honda’s are available only as an option.

To sort out these all-road warriors, Editor-In-Chief Hoyer, Road Test Editor Canet, Associate Editor Cernicky and I saddled them up and motored off to the stark, desolate beauty of Death Valley. Our chosen routes to there, while there and from there were convoluted, designed to expose these versatile machines to a revealing mix of long, straight, open highways, tight, twisty canyon roads and just about everything in between. Great fun, in other words.

Before we even reached our first night's destination, the rustic Furnace Creek Ranch, we'd already figured out that these are four impressively fast motorcycles. The Ducati has the most spirited engine, its Testastretta 11-degree V-Twin reacting to just about any throttle application with instant and meaningful acceleration. In the most aggressive (full power with sport delivery) of its three selectable power modes, the Multistrada responds more like an anxious 1198 repli-racer than a relaxed touring bike. "This engine's favorite thing to do is change rpm," noted Hoyer. Engine response can be softened by switching to full-power/smooth-delivery mode; and when traction is at a premium, the third mode retains a smooth delivery but cuts peak power by about a third. In all modes, the engine runs smoothly above 3000 rpm but chugs and shudders below that point.

Considering that the Multistrada is 157 pounds lighter than the 654-lb. Kawasaki and makes just 6.5 fewer horsepower (126), we were surprised when both bikes turned virtually identical quarter-mile numbers. But that’s typical of the Concours, one of the most sneaky-fast motorcycles ever built. “Just twist the grip and you’re instantly in the express lane,” says Cernicky.

Thanks to its variable valve timing, twin counterbalancers, comparatively tall gearing and 90-ft.-lb. torque output (the stoutest of the group) that peaks down at 6500 rpm, the 14 rarely lets you know it’s working very hard—until you either glance down at the speedometer or notice nearby objects whizzing past in a long, continuous blur. The engine is silky-smooth with consistent, unrelenting power that just keeps hurtling the bike down the road. Plus, the lower, heavier Kawi is way easier to launch than the taller, lighter, wheelie-prone Ducati, further explaining the two machines’ nearly identical dragstrip performances.

“Launch” also is the keyword in understanding why the most powerful bike of the bunch, the 145-hp, 613-lb. Honda, posted the slowest quarter-mile E.T. but the fastest terminal speed. The DCT’s automatic clutch engagement prevents the rider from storming off the line at higher rpm in concert with carefully modulated clutch slippage, so precious tenths of a second are lost while the engine spins up into the more-productive area of its torque curve. This lag is exacerbated by ECU programming that mutes the flow of power at lower rpm in the first two gears until the revs climb above 5000. So, those factors, along with 52 lb. of extra weight—added by the auto-shift hardware and optional saddlebags, centerstand and laminar windscreen deflector—conspired to make the DCT a full second slower in the quarter than the standard-shift VFR1200F we tested in the April, 2010, issue.

Once the VFR/DCT hits its stride, though, it’s a bullet. In the upper half of its rpm range, it pulls hard, enough so to outrun the other three while bellowing a MotoGP-like exhaust note.

No such electronic restraints on the Triumph. Despite having 300cc less displacement than the Kawasaki, 150 fewer cubes than the Ducati and the lowest hp output of the four, the Triple performs competitively in every way. The GT is only a couple of tenths and one measly mph slower than the Duc and Conc in the quarter-mile, has the second-best top-gear acceleration and gets the best fuel mileage by almost 5 mpg. Its power delivery is dead-linear from the basement to the penthouse, and throttle response is as quick and crisp as that of any motorcycle on the market today. “It’s a fabulous engine,” said Hoyer. “It has torque everywhere and in every gear, and it snarls right up to redline.”

Triumph Sprint GT

The Triumph Sprint GT is powered by a dohc, 1050cc inline-Four.

Too bad its transmission isn’t as lovable. The GT upshifts acceptably but is stiff and notchy when downshifting. The Multistrada and Concours both have slick-shifting boxes, and the Honda’s tranny is another story altogether. When it’s shifted up, down, manually or in either of its two automatic modes (“D” for Standard, “S” for Sport), the action is magically smooth and seamless—but not at slower speeds and lower rpm. Shifts down there are noisy, clunky and exaggerate the VFR’s considerable driveline lash. And during tight, full-lock turns, the clutch suddenly disengages at walking speed, leaving you without propulsion to help maintain balance; when that happens, even skilled riders usually have to dab a foot to prevent the VFR from tipping over.

We also were disappointed in the Honda’s backroad handling. On its own, an unbagged VFR seems a competent, stable carver of corners, but when running with these superbaggers, it struggles to maintain the pace. Up to about eight-tenths of cornering aggression, it works very nicely, managing to arc through the turns gracefully despite slightly heavy initial turn-in; after that, the 1200 starts moving around on its suspension and increasing its resistance to turning, particularly while trail braking. Toss in a slippery seat cover that lets you slide around too easily, and you have a bike that’s not as confidence-inspiring as the others when pushed really hard.

This isn’t the case with the rest of these bikes, all of which cope with fast twisties almost as well as many card-carrying sportbikes. The Concours in particular is wondrous in this regard, hiding its mass effectively enough to slice and dice through the turns with remarkable finesse. “On our fastest runs on the tightest roads,” wrote Hoyer, “the 14’s chassis behavior was dead-predictable and fully composed.” Canet agreed, noting that the Conc had “nice, neutral steering and a very planted feel, even on the bumpier roads we flogged.”

Cernicky also was impressed by the Kawi, which he labeled “an amazing motorcycle,” but with his all-out, corner-hacking riding style, he was a bigger fan of the Ducati’s handling. The ’Strada’s pushbutton-adjustable suspension allows it to cope with a wide range of riding conditions, and its extra couple inches of wheel travel let it skim over most bumps and potholes almost like they weren’t there. Plus, it has a wide, tubular handlebar that affords the rider a great sense of control, even on extremely tight corners and cobby road surfaces.

For the rest of us, the Duc didn’t feel as firmly planted on faster corners as we would have preferred. It pitches fore-and-aft quite a bit on its long suspension, a trait magnified by the V-Twin’s plentiful compression braking and abrupt throttle response, even in soft power-delivery mode. What’s more, the centerstand’s huge, upswept tang won’t let you get the ball of your left foot on the peg, so it’s difficult to keep your boot from slamming into the pavement through hard left-handers. “To me,” wrote Canet, “the Ducati felt more like an adventure-tourer than a sport-tourer.”

All of this led Hoyer, Canet and me to agree that our favorite bike for pure backroad bombing was the Triumph. The GT is rock-solid in the turns, with the most precise and assuring steering feel of the group, and in flickability is second only to the Duc, but with greater composure. More than the other three machines, the Triumph feels and acts and even looks like a slightly oversized sportbike with saddlebags and a more-relaxed riding position.

But in overall comfort, the GT is no match for the Concours. Whether on arrow-straight Interstates or zigzag backroads, on fresh, glass-smooth blacktop or patch-and-pothole-infested secondary roads, the Kawasaki is the easy chair of the group. It offers the best seat, the coziest ergonomics, the second-best suspension and the greatest overall protection from the elements, thanks in part to its electrically adjustable windscreen. “The Kawi has the most wind buffeting of the bunch when the screen is in the low position,” reported Canet, “but it’s easy to find a sweet spot with the electric control. I liked it full-up when riding in the cold, mid-height much of the time and down when attacking the sport roads.”

Honda VFR1200F DCT

Honda VFR1200F DCT

The Honda VFR1200F DCT is powered by a sohc, 1237cc, 76-degree V-Four.

In some aspects of comfort, the Ducati gives the Kawasaki a run for its money. The Multi’s Öhlins suspension can be “tuned” on the fly for a cushy ride, allowing the Duc to suck up road imperfections better than the rest. With its wide handlebar and comparatively low footpeg placement, it has ergos much like those of a standard bike.

Where the Ducati falls short is in its abruptly stepped seat that locks the rider in one position, and in wind protection. There are no fairing lowers, and though the windscreen is easily manually adjustable, its effect is largely the same in all positions. It provides better protection around the rider’s head than its smallness might indicate, but it’s so narrow that a steady blast hits shoulders and arms unobstructed.

Overall, the Sprint isn’t quite as comfy as the Kawasaki or Ducati, but it allows more rider movement than does the Multistrada, with slightly lower pegs and higher bars than the Honda. The suspension is taut without being harsh, and the ergos provide what Hoyer called “the best sporty-side-of-the-spectrum riding position.” The sportbike-like windscreen is non-adjustable, but we all thought it got the job done quite well. “It’s just right for my 5-foot-10 physique,” said Canet, “striking a good balance for wind protection, unobstructed vision and little buffeting at helmet level.”

So did the VFR’s windscreen provide decent protection without much buffeting, no matter if the $250 accessory laminar deflector seen in the photos was in place or not. The suspension does an excellent job of isolating the rider from the bumps and thumps of the road, and the seat is nicely padded. But the seat’s slippery cover and forward slope constantly cause the rider to skate forward against the back of the tank. And compared to the other three bikes, the VFR has the highest footpegs and lowest handlebars, resulting in a riding position more likely to tire wrists and knees during long days than would occur on the three other sport-tourers.

In other areas of travelworthiness, the saddlebags on all these machines are simple to mount and dismount, the Kawasaki’s the easiest in a dark parking lot, the Ducati’s the most difficult. The Concours’ bags not only are the most capacious, they’re the best at sealing out water and dirt. “Operation of the Concours’ bags is tops,” said Hoyer. “They make the Ducati and Triumph bags seem flimsy and fiddly by comparison. The Honda’s are almost as good but smaller and not quite as easy to use.”

As far as packing those bags is concerned, the Concours’ generous 1172-lb. GVWR allows a 518-pound load capacity, sufficient to accommo­date two pretty large occupants, a full tank of gas and enough gear in the bags to keep both travelers fragrant for several days. At 427 lb., the Honda’s permissible load is the lightest, with the Triumph (507) and Ducati (451) slotted in between.

So, as you have seen here, each of these fascinating motorcycles puts its own special spin on the sport-touring concept, from a basic, no-frills approach to a bike with enough electronic features to intrigue the geekiest computer tech. But which one is the best tool for a category that forces compromise? Which of these four does the most and concedes the least?

It’s not the Honda. We’ve spoken highly of the standard-transmission VFR1200F since its introduction late last year, but this DCT “bagger” comes home in fourth place. This is a great motorcycle in its own right, with a gritty, powerful engine, a pleasant ride, top-quality fit-and-finish and excellent handling—up to a point. And no, the DCT shifting was not a critical factor in our decision; if we had used the standard-shift model, the outcome would have been the same.

The VFR may simply suffer from an identity crisis. “It’s listed in the ‘Sport’ section of Honda’s website,” wrote Hoyer in the logbook, “yet it’s too big and heavy to truly attract sport riders. And as we found out on the road, it’s difficult to ride aggressively, particularly with the saddlebags loaded.” Plus, it only becomes a viable sport-tourer after the addition of those accessory bags, which add $1400 to a bike that already lists for $17,499.

Third place goes to the Multistrada, a fast, fun and versatile V-Twin with superb backroad and long-ride potential. But it also has just enough quirks and shortcomings to bump it down in the rankings. You get a lot for your money with the Ducati (ABS, multi-mode power delivery, electrically adjustable suspension, traction control, etc.); but it’s just a fiver short of 20 Grand, so you also have to give a lot of money to get it.

Kawasaki Consours 14 ABS

Kawasaki Consours 14 ABS

The Kawasaki Concours 14 is powered by a dohc, 1352cc inline-Four.

“Sprinting” to the finish comfortably in second is the Triumph. It’s the little engine that could, a bike that runs easily with the big dogs despite having the smallest motor. The GT is a solid, satisfying, no-nonsense, no-frills performer that can allow exceptional backroad strafing one minute and decent open-road motoring the next. And at $13,199, it’s the least expensive of the four, $2400 below the Concours and almost 7 Grand less than the Multistrada. Measured with a bang-for-the-buck yardstick, the Sprint GT is solid gold.

But when the criterion is the entire panoramic picture of sport-touring, the bike that stands tall above the rest is the Concours 14. It cruises the open highways in day-after-day comfort, assaults the twisties with the vengeance of a racer, accelerates like it’s being pushed by the hand of God and provides enough on-the-road amenities (including trip data, a tire-pressure monitor, an ambient temperature readout, the easiest-to-use heated grips, even a fuel-economy mode) to make any passage more enjoyable.

Clearly, Kawasaki got it right back in 2008 with the original Concours 14. So far, no one else has done it better.

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