BMW R nineT vs. Harley-Davidson Roadster vs. Triumph Thruxton R vs. Yamaha XSR900 - COMPARISON TEST

Four retro roadster motorcycles that are something more than an accumulation of parts

I was raised to believe that motorcycles are an accumulation of parts. My father, a racer in every sense of the word, has built countless examples of them. He pushed every last one to their limits and, on a bad day at the track, crashed them, all without forming an emotional connection with a single one. They were parts. And easily replaceable ones at that.

four riders standing with their retro roadster motorcycles
These four motorcycles vary in terms of specification but are similar in their ability to bring a smile to your face.Jeff Allen

What my father didn't realize is that motorcycles can be more than that. They can be the things that light a fire inside of you—that make even the simplest commute seem special. Certain motor­cycles can stir your soul in such a way that you miss them every moment you're not out riding them. And smile when you are. That, to us, is what heritage-inspired bikes like the BMW R nineT, Harley-Davidson Roadster, Triumph Thruxton R, and Yamaha XSR900 are.

These are also four very different motorcycles, we know. Motorcycles that you’d have a hard time squeezing together into one category, and motorcycles that you can’t compare solely based on outright performance. And who says you have to? Bike A might stop better than bike B, but does it make you feel as alive as bike C when you throw a leg over it?

BMW R nineT on-road action
BMW's R nineT may lack a little character when compared to the other bikes in this test, but is otherwise tough to discredit, with great brakes, solid chassis, and a smooth, predictable power delivery.Jeff Allen

BMW’s R nineT is the perfect example of how important the balance between those points is. From the looks to the seating position, it is exactly what BMW intended for it to be—an homage to the past and something that performs with the aptitude of a modern motorcycle. Fueling is smooth, the suspension a nice balance between supportive and stiff, and the chassis feels better the harder you push it. Add to that a seamless transmission and brakes that are strong, despite some play in the first bit of travel, and you have a bike that doesn’t give up much in terms of performance.

The feel is special. You sit flat on the R nineT and look down on its rounded tank with classic BMW badges, which work with the flat-twin engine to transport you back to that boxer twin that sat in your garage when you were a kid. The engine torques you to the side like its ancestors would, but, aside from that small bit of character, the bike seems somewhat dull.

BMW R nineT front section details
It also looks sharp...Jeff Allen

Which brings us back to the issue of emotionally stirring, and the fact that none of our test riders walked away completely rattled by the nineT’s presence. Like flat twins of yore, it has that quietly assuring nature, but in this bike it’s a little too quiet. And the high polish of this package perhaps smoothed out too many of the bumps in personality we enjoy in a bike like this.

Add in an MSRP of $15,095 (more than BMW’s own super naked, and only just less than its literbike offering) and it’s clear you are going to have to really want what it has to offer. Yes, it’s stylish and performs well, but does it have a personality as bold as its price tag? Not exactly.

Harley-Davidson Roadster on-road action
Harley-Davidson Roadster may lack ground clearance and not have the same level of performance as the Triumph Thruxton R or XSR900, but it is an emotionally stirring motorcycle. We like that.Jeff Allen

Harley-Davidson’s Roadster suffers from almost the exact opposite problem. Its twin-piston front brake calipers clamping 11.8-inch discs provide admirable stopping power, sure, but aren’t even close to what, say, the Thruxton R’s brakes are. And while the 43mm inverted fork and emulsion shocks provide a nice ride with modest road-holding performance, testers described them as, “Lacking comfort in rougher sections of road.” Couple that with a chassis that’s not as stable as any others in this group, notchy transmission feel, limited range, and even more limited cornering clearance, and you have a bike that nobody wants to ride, right?

Wrong. That's because we here at Cycle World are humans, and humans tend to put emotions over practicality, especially in a class like this. And, oh, if the Roadster isn't an emotional thing—its slammed drag-style bar and wide-spread footrests putting you in a riding position akin to a board-track racer. This motorcycle turns you into something other than a nine-to-fiver commuting home from work. Pair that to the V-twin's charming little rumble and you have a motorcycle that's something more than the sum of its parts. More than the sum of any Sportster's parts, we'd argue.

Harley-Davidson Roadster front wheel details
As an example of its performance level, brakes are good on the Harley-Davidson Roadster, but don't offer nearly as much stopping power as the brakes on the Triumph Thruxton R.Jeff Allen

Sure, the Roadster's aforementioned footrests are placed in the absolute worst position for putting your feet down at a stop—you will hit your shins. You might even almost fall over when you catch them on your pant leg as you try to get the kickstand out, but you'll forgive the bike for that. Forgive its performance for what it offers in style and attitude.

Regardless of how different the Roadster is from a bike like the XSR900, there’s a hint of similarity too, both bikes having been built around a previously available platform but with pieces that change its overall presence and feel.

Yamaha XSR900 on-road action
Like the FZ-09 it's based off of, Yamaha's XSR900 wheelies. Really well.Jeff Allen

In the case of the Yamaha, I don’t feel like those pieces do much for adding personality or tapping into the Tuning Fork brand’s history. Sure, you could draw connections to three-cylinder XS models of the late ’70s/early ’80s, though that connection is lost but a few miles down the road. This bike’s personality comes mostly from its sporty behavior.

There’s no flat-twin pull or V-twin thump, but the clutch is great, there’s more power to play with through the rev range, and the sportier chassis makes quick work of a canyon road. The only real negative is wooden-feeling brakes that have an aggressive initial bite, too.

Yamaha XSR900 instrument details
Design elements like this LCD screen are nice, too. Even if not truly retro.Jeff Allen

The FZ-09’s big downside—soft suspension—has been addressed via revised fork and shock, and the result is a bike that actually now starts to feel stiff, if not geared more toward sporty riding than stints down the freeway. The seat is stiffer as well but shaped better than the FZ-09’s and altogether more comfortable.

I’d argue that the XSR900 is still not all that comfortable, while Associate Editor Sean MacDonald would say that the Triumph Thruxton R is actually the more uncomfortable bike of the two thanks to an elongated tank that has you stretched out over the front of it.

Triumph Thruxton R on-road action
It's hard to argue with how well the Triumph Thruxton R handles.Jeff Allen

Outside of that, however, he and the rest of the test riders agreed that the Thruxton R is one hell of a motorcycle—one that finds a happy balance between performance, style, and attitude. The R has the best brakes of the group, its suspension feels very controlled through its travel, and fueling is buttery smooth. Triumph has hid its electronic rider aids well but at the same time made them easy to adjust. Little elements like the backlit digital display on the analog gauges are a nice touch too and highlight Triumph’s ability to sneak modern elements into a classically styled package.

Triumph Thruxton R engine details
The "high-output" version of Triumph's new 1200cc twin actually lacks a bit of top-end punch, but is overall a real gem, with good torque down low and smooth power delivery.Jeff Allen

You can ride the Triumph fast down a twisting section of road with utter confidence and only a small hint of heft, or cruise it happily down the freeway. And chances are you’ll be smiling regardless. Sure, at $14,500 it’s not all that much cheaper than the BMW and quite a bit more expensive than the XSR900. Personality doesn’t come cheap.

These motorcycles were not actually meant to go head to head. They are, however, all worth looking at if you’re interested in something that kicks you square in the feels.

Of course, there’s a chance you might not even be cross shopping these models. If you’re interested in the Thruxton R, you may have looked at the R nineT, but if you’re interested in the XSR900, you’re unlikely to have considered the Roadster. And that’s fine; these motorcycles were not actually meant to go head to head. They are, however, all worth looking at if you’re interested in something that kicks you square in the feels.

They are also all proof that some motorcycles are more than an accumulation of parts. And while each will speak to you in its own language, they will speak to you. Which language you understand best will be the only thing that dictates the direction you go. For us, it's the way of the Triumph, but for you it could be the performance-minded XSR900, classic-feeling Roadster, or seamless R nineT—all great parts.

BMW R nineT studio side view
BMW R nineTCourtesy of BMW
PRICE $15,095
DRY WEIGHT 464 lb.
WHEELBASE 58.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 31.6 in.
1/4 MILE 11.30 sec. @ 118.02 mph
0-60 MPH 2.9 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.0 sec.
60-80 MPH 3.0 sec.
HORSEPOWER 96.5 @ 7610 rpm
TORQUE 74.3 lb.-ft. @ 6090 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 30 ft.
60-0 MPH 120 ft.
Harley-Davidson Roadster studio side view
Harley-Davidson RoadsterCourtesy of Harley-Davidson
PRICE $12,344
DRY WEIGHT 550 lb.
WHEELBASE 59.6 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 31.4 in.
1/4 MILE 13.61 sec. @ 96.38 mph
0-60 MPH 4.7 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 4.5 sec.
60-80 MPH 5.1 sec.
HORSEPOWER 65.4 @ 5910 rpm
TORQUE 69.7 lb.-ft. @ 3770 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 33 ft.
60-0 MPH 129 ft.
Triumph Thruxton R studio side view
Triumph Thruxton RCourtesy of Triumph
PRICE $14,500
DRY WEIGHT 469 lb.
WHEELBASE 55.4 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.0 in.
1/4 MILE 11.66 sec. @ 115.45 mph
0-60 MPH 3.1 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 3.1 sec.
60-80 MPH 3.0 sec.
HORSEPOWER 87.4 @ 6750 rpm
TORQUE 75.0 lb.-ft. @ 3730 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 31 ft.
60-0 MPH 126 ft.
Yamaha XSR900 studio side view
Yamaha XSR900Courtesy of Yamaha
PRICE $9,990
DRY WEIGHT 409 lb.
WHEELBASE 56.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.6 in.
1/4 MILE 11.07 sec. @ 122.33 mph
0-60 MPH 3.0 sec.
TOP GEAR 40-60 MPH 2.8 sec.
60-80 MPH 3.3 sec.
HORSEPOWER 102.8 @ 9980 rpm
TORQUE 59.4 lb.-ft. @ 8460 rpm
BRAKING 30-0 MPH 34 ft.
60-0 MPH 128 ft.