Moto Electronica

Less like Kraftwerk, more like makework.

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Few experienced motorcyclists take issue with anti-lock brakes and traction control. ABS and TC, their generic names, undoubtedly save lives and prevent other forms of embarrassment every day. That’s not the issue here.

Implementation is.

You see, for the three-bike "Ride There" comparison test, we spent many hours aboard the BMW R1200GS, KTM 990 Adventure and Yamaha Super Ténéré—certainly not bad work if you can get it. But a notable portion of that was pushing their buttons and scratching our heads. That's because each manufacturer takes a different approach to managing the electronic rider aids. Some of them we understood right away. Some, well, left us looking like extras from a Selsun Blue commercial. Jumping from one bike to another while photographer Jeff Allen glances nervously at the fading afternoon light made it that much worse.

We love the R1200GS, and at the risk of sounding like our Christmas lederhosen didn’t arrive fromMunich, we’ll start there. BMW’s engineers clearly sought to provide access to the GS’s suite of rider aids with as few buttons as possible, a commendable if functionally misguided desire. On the left bar, you get the ABS/ASC button, a Mode button for the multifunction display and an ESA (suspension adjustments) pushbutton. But you also have two modes of traction control (plus Off) and the option of disabling ABS completely. To disable ABS, press and hold the ABS/ASC button until the Brake Failure warning light illuminates—for this, the engine has to be running but the motorcycle stationary. To alter TC, push the button again. The first press gets you a cryptic S inside a semicircle on the multifunction display; that’s the off-road version of TC. Press the button again, and a warning triangle inside a semicircle appears; now, TC is inactive. At least all these modes remain in place as long as you don’t shut down with the key. You can stall and restart the GS without losing these settings. I know. I did that often.

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Ah, but you’re not done massaging your scalp. Our BMW testbike also had tire-pressure monitoring, which is usually nice. Except when you’ve fitted off-road tires like the Continental TKC 80s we used, which work just fine at 21 psi. Except that BMW expects you to maintain tire pressure between 32 and 36 psi front, 36-42 psi rear. When TPMS sees these low pressures, it flashes the general warning light (a red warning triangle) the entire time; there is no way to tell the system to ignore the purposefully low tire pressures. Seriously, BMW? Nobody thought of this?

BMW does better with the ESA, but it’ll take you a while to remember what the pictographs on the display really mean, and that you need to have the engine running but the bike stationary to adjust spring preload. Apparently, too, BMW doesn’t expect you to ride two-up with luggage. In the street mode displays that indicate spring-preload settings, you get one helmet, one helmet with bag or two helmets. I guess when the missus rides along, her clothes go FedEx. The Luddite in me nevertheless approves of the ability to switch down to Comfort for that last 20-mile stretch home on the freeway.

Yamaha found simpler solutions with the Ténéré’s electronics. You see the traction-control settings on a sliver of the main display near the tach, and a small, easy-to-miss button on the edge of the cluster makes the change. Setting 1 for most intervention, setting 2 for less; press and hold the button and the system is off. You can’t do it underway, but at least the process is straightforward.

So is turning off the Super Ténéré’s ABS: You can’t. Okay, you can, but it takes one of two work-arounds. One, remove the ABS fuse. Two, run the bike in gear on the centerstand for a minute or so. Wait until the ABS light indicates a fault. The poor Ténéré’s ABS computer now thinks one of the sensors has gone home early and has disabled the system. Hack to your heart’s content.

The Ténéré defaults to TC setting 1 at every engine start, but at least the two drive modes, Sport and Touring, latch beyond power cycles. Better yet, it’s possible to change drive modes easily and on the go; you just have to remember to have the throttle fully closed or the change won’t take. This strikes me as reasonable, simple and safe.

True to its basic roots, the KTM 990 Adventure was simplest of all. Of course, it has no traction control beyond what you digitize with your right wrist. ABS can be defeated when the engine is running and the bike stopped. Pressing and holding a dedicated button for 3 to 5 seconds does the deed. We noticed, however, an interesting quirk: Each time you start the engine, whether or not you turn the key off, ABS resets and becomes active. My advice: Don’t stall.

As Senior Editor Blake Conner and I stood out on Soggy (Dry) Lake watching Off-Road Editor Ryan Dudek do things to a 600-pound "dirtbike" that just, well, shouldn't be done, we quietly agreed that the manufacturers should muzzle their lawyers, ignore what must be some highly detailed verbiage in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard rulebook (Standard No. 336, Part 42, Subsection 1.A.2.3.3, no doubt) and just give us a big red toggle switch. Mark it Nanny and Go Daddy. Throw it one direction and all the safety circuits are active. Slide it the other and it's a free-for-all—Mad Max meets dohc Boxer with a chip on his shoulder and the desire to roost.

Put a locking handle on that puppy, too, so it stays right there until we, the big boys, reach up and give it a manly slap in the other direction. How hard could that be?