Each year about this time, the memo makes its way from on high. “Ten Best lunch, everyone,” Mr. Editor Edward reminds us. “Gather your thoughts, review your test notes, be prepared to argue pro and con, and remember to check your sensibilities (and any firearms) at the front door.”
A restaurant is booked, usually Italian, as they seem to tolerate loud, impassioned discourse better than most. Several years back, beer and wine were banned from the proceedings–seems we’d blissfully neglect to vote on at least one class, leading Miss Elaine, our Art Dominatrix…er Director, to ask upon layout, “Are we having the nine Ten Best Bikes this year, guys, or were you into the lambrusco a little too heavy again?” Good thing in this age of electronic pre-press that X-acto knives are no longer a part of her arsenal.
Anyway, debates done, feathers unruffled, blood pressures back to normal, by the time the last of the tiramisu has been scarfed down and the final drop of cappuccino supped, we arrive at Cycle World’s Ten Best Bikes of the Year, a magazine tradition since 1976.
This year, the title-winners are an especially worthy bunch, everything from an affordable Everyman’s Motorcycle to a limited-run Boutique Bike pushing $30K. You’ll note the elimination of the Dual-Purpose category, in response to the stagnation in that class, sadly. It’s been replaced by Best Playbike, reflecting the fact that small-cc off-roaders are often the best-selling machines in a bike-maker’s lineup. The most fun, too.
Seven of the Top Tenners come from Japan, two hail from Germany and one makes its way from Italy via Sweedish roots, proof that no one country or company has a monopoly on quality when it comes to two wheels. Read on to discover the class of the Class of 2004.
Best Superbike: Kawasaki ZX-10R
One hundred and fifty-five horsepower. Ten-point-one-two seconds in the quarter. One-hundred and eighty-three miles per hour. Four-hundred and eight pounds. No matter by what criteria you judge it, the Kawasaki ZX-10R is the new King of the Repli-Racers, and thus rightly deserves to wear the Best Superbike crown. Not since 1990 and the mega-motored ZX-11 has a Kawasaki reigned in this, arguably the most competitive and prestigious of all Ten Best categories. But through its scintillating performance, its racy appearance and the level of excitement it leaves in its wake, the ZX-IOR settles that score. Whether in blue, black, orange or green, man, it’s mean!
Best Open-Class Streetbike: BMW R1200GS
Anything goes here, folks. Put a big motor in it, cut it loose on the streets, and if you’re having a good time, then you might just be riding the Best Open-Classer. BMW did just that with the all-new R1200GS, re-doing the big Boxer Twin and cutting us loose on the street. But they also cut us loose off-road. Result? Crazy good times, as the new engine spins out a free-revving 100 crankshaft horsepower, while at 500 pounds, the 1200 weighs a real 50 pounds less than the old 1150. Holy category-defying performance! Anymore dirt-worthy, and it coulda won Best Dual-Purpose Bike. A coupla more ponies, and it mighta been Best Sport-Tourer, too! Sure, anything big can win this class, but the R1200GS tops it by being almost everything to everyone. If there’s ever been a bike that could win multiple classes, this is it. Eight Best Bikes, anyone?
Best Middleweight Streetbike: Suzuki GSX-R600
Sportbikes have dominated the Middleweight category over the years, so it’s somewhat predictable that this year’s winner also took top honors in our 600 Supersport Shootout. In this game of leapfrog updates, Suzuki has gained a leg up on the competition with the introduction of an all-new GSX-R600 with sights set on reclaiming the AMA Supersport title it last held in 2002. Not only is the 2004 GSX-R600 the finest middleweight track weapon we’ve ridden this year, its high level of refinement makes it an excellent road bike as well. Perhaps the real clincher is that for all its technical advancement and improved performance, buyers are only asked to pony up a mere $100 more than last year’s machine. Sold!
Best Standard: Suzuki SV650
Suzuki’s SV650 is simply a super-versatile motorbike that anyone can sit on and comfortably ride for hours on end. Completely revised for 2003, the unfaired middleweight serves its rider well in a variety of roles, whether it’s his first bike or his 15th—and at a bargain-basement price to boot! Instead of having your pocketbook rung-out, you could be wringing out the SV’s snappy, fuel-injected, four-valve-per-pot, 90-degree V-Twin. The SV strikes an uncanny balance between feel-good ergonomics, right-there power delivery and chassis compliance that works while either flogging backroads or bogging down the lane to wrangle some munchies at midnight. Call it a dependable best friend of a bike.
Best Touring Bike: BMW K1200LT
Toppling a legend is always tough work—you not only have to be equal to the king, but demonstrably better. To best Honda’s omnipotent Gold Wing, winner of this category an astounding 15 times, BMW had to get serious with its K1200LT über-tourer. Pumping iron (okay, camshafts, throttle bodies and intake tracts) gave the LT’s fuel-injected laydown-Four the revability and horsepower it needed to hang with the “Wang” performance-wise. Creature features abound, including the ultimate co-riders’ sales closer, a heated seat und backrest. Add the smartest accessory ever fitted to a luxo-tourer, a self-deploying centerstand, and just like that, this year America’s Best Touring Bike comes by way of Bavaria.
Best Enduro: Husqvarna TE450E
All-telling comparison tests—like the enduro shootout we printed last month—have a way of spoiling a Ten Best surprise, but this Husqvarna will still shock and awe anyone who rides it. Back-from-the-dead Husqvarna marks its 101st year in business with surprise overthrow of the established enduro hierarchy (read: KTM). The TE45OE isn’t a detuned MX machine like most enduro bikes of years past, but a potently proper off-road racebike right from the start, one that can still handle trail riding comfortably. Quiet, green-sticker-legal and fast enough on the Left Coast yet agile while still being tall enough to keep its footpegs out of the nasty stuff Back East, we love this Husky. You will, too
Best Motocrosser: Honda CRF450R
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The CRF45OR might have aced this class for the third year in a row with nary a change, but Honda took a gamble and refocused the CRF a bit, making it even more exciting to ride. Now even lighter in feel, the Honda is ever closer to swirling the best traits of Thumpers and two-strokes to stand atop the motocross podium for another year. You won’t find better handling; you can’t make much better power. How will it get any better? We don’t know, but we can’t wait!
Best Playbike: Yamaha TT-R125LE
Yes, a new and fitting category for the Ten Best Bikes, with unit sales going through the roof. Just what is a Playbike? Easy: It’s a non-competition-oriented dirtbike that brings new riders to our sport—the kids, your wife, heck, your crazy Uncle George! The keyword is “fun,” the reason any of us took up motorcycling in the first place. Among all these playbikes, from 50 to 250cc, there is no better machine than the Yamaha TT-R125LE. Easy to ride, stone reliable and a breeze to start. This push-button Yamaha inaugurates a Ten Best class responsible for launching a whole new generation of motorcycle riders—even if they have to get you off their bike first...
Best Sport-Tourer: Yamaha FJR1300
With so much motor, it’s amazing that Yamaha’s FJR1300 could be late. But last year it was, arriving not quite in time for the butchery we call Ten Best “balloting.” No such trouble this year, as the FJR returns in plenty of time with the same pavement-punishing 125-bhp, counterbalanced, fuel-injected mill we’ve loved from the very beginning. Yamaha upped the techno-ante with larger, ABS-equipped brakes, and basically killed our singular wind-protection gripe by installing a buffet-free 4-inch-taller adjustable windscreen. Ally these refinements with superb luggage, superbike power, fine handling and great riding position, and nothing can touch it for eating all the pavement you care to feed it at a rate that will embarrass any other bike with saddlebags. In fact, you might say it’s comfortably the fastest by quite a margin.
Best Cruiser: Honda Rune
If at the heart of a cruiser beats a need to be noticed, then no other bike brings on the ooohs and ahhhs quite like the Honda Rune. More than simply an evolution of the GL-powered Valkyrie model, the Rune is the result of big dreams and intense focus groups. Breaking the mold of what people have come to expect of production-built Hondas, all 1832cc and 794 pounds of this $26,999 beast are about making a statement. For Honda, that would be proving its ability to enter the growing high-dollar custom market without sacrificing the reliability and serviceability its customers demand. As for Rune riders? The answer to what motivates a person to be seen on such a machine is something owners are sure to become very adept at delivering.