|BIKE - February 1999 issue|
Partial article (ST and conclusion portion) reprinted with permission from Bike Magazine. - Copyright 1999 Bike Magazine
Reproduction of this article without permission strictly prohibited
Road Test - Sport Tourers
Mostly you think about trivia: "I wish I'd brought some waterproof boots."
"Why does my visor always get scratched at eye level ?"
"When I get home I'll fix the garage door."
"What comes after the words 'Make a date in Acapulco?'"
"Who wrote the song anyway?" It's just as well you forget these things quickly.
You think about the other stuff, too. "What bike would I rather be riding right now?" and "Why is the one that I'm on so good?" Then you start counting the kilometres and trying to master the simple mental arithmetic needed to convert them into miles. Then you start thinking about warm beds and large meals. Then it's time to stop and find them.
It was 9am on Wednesday in Seville. Peterborough was an 1800-mile blast away across Spain, France and southern England. If I was going to get home safe, sane and on schedule I needed a bike with all the ingredients that makes a sports tourer.
I needed a bike that was comfy and fast, yet easy to ride, with a good tank range and a brilliant headlight. A bike that would deal with the boredom of massive motorway mileage and put a grin on my face when we got to some twisties. A bike that I wouldn't need to step off until I needed refuelling, and which would cover the best part of 200 miles between those petrol stops. When I got to a town the bike had to be nimble enough to carve through the traffic, and it has to maintain progress through the night, in all weathers. Not much to ask, is it?
I knew the Honda's VFR would accomplish the kind of trip I was making with the same kind of ease that it would also deal with a two-up ride across London or some frantic track-day action. The VFR has been the benchmark for accomplished all-round motorcycles since its introduction in 1986. Since then it's had three redesigns, culminating in the introduction of the 781cc fuel-injected version last year. But in all that time it has remained a favourite with buyers who wanted a bike that could do anything without giving the rider any excuses.
But I wasn't riding a VFR. I was riding the new Triumph Sprint ST. And the three-cylinder Triumph isn't the only challenger for the VFR's sport-tourer crown. Ducati and BMW also covet some of the VFR's sales (over 3000 VFRs were sold in the UK in '98) for the new 916-engined ST4 and the R1100S.
These four bikes represent four different countries, four different engine layouts and four different approaches to the sports-tourer concept. They are all aimed at the same slice of the market but the diversity of engineering answers is mind bending. And for the first time in years, we have a test of four of the world's finest bikes without a single in-line four in the group.
Triumph has made the most direct challenge to the VFR. The Sprint ST has been developed using the 595/955i Daytona as a starting point, but the bike's inspiration is clear. Honda's VFR wasn't far away when Triumph laid down their sports tourer design brief.
If I was going to stick to my schedule, twisty roads and scratching fun would have to wait. My destination on day one was Barcelona, 750 miles away on the northern Mediterranean coast of Spain. The first part of the ride north was going to be on motorways.
The skies were blue, but it was cold. I knew that I couldn't afford to make any unnecessary stops, so I waited 160 miles until the fuel light came on before I could stop and put on over trousers. In 80 to 100 mph touring mode the ST was doing 45 miles to the gallon.
The riding position made it easy to cover the ground, despite it feeling tauter and more compact than Honda's VFR in all respects. There is less give in the suspension and less give in the seat, but it doesn't make it less comfortable - an easy stretch to pegs and bars and a well-designed fairing means that covering distance is painless. The rider's weight is balanced between the pegs, the seat and the bars - the fairing keeps off the wind and makes a reasonable job of keeping your hands warm too.
As time and distance passed, another reason for the relaxed ride became obvious. The engine is a peach. Triumph has taken the 955 engine from the Daytona and retuned an already torquey lump for even more. On dual carriageways I could stick it in top gear and use the instant grunt to accelerate. It worked all the way from 70 to 130 before I started to fret about the Spanish police and the security of the throwover panniers.
I'm going to score the Ducati ST4 first, just because no-one else will. It's the bike I'd buy because I want a sports tourer to have the emphasis on sports. I'd happily take an ST4 to the track, where any of the others (except perhaps the BMW) would be horrible. I'd also happily take it on a longer trip with luggage (I find it comfy). But I'd concede defeat if you wanted me to take a pillion any distance - it spoils the balance. It's as loony as a 916 in its way, but more usable.
The Triumph Sprint ST is excellent. It's not just excellent for Triumph either - it's a carefully designed package that feels like a whole bike, not a parts-bin special - and it's the first Triumph that's a genuine performance and handling rival for similar Japanese bikes. Lots of power, brilliant drive on greasy roads, and the most usable brakes here. It's unruffled at speed - nailing it is like flooring a big Jag - a sense of solidity and huge urge that isn't upset by nervous steering input or jerky throttle action. Hugely impressive.
The Honda VFR800 is the big surprise: I've always liked VFR's but this one seems to have lost the integrated feel of previous models. The engine feels sporty, but the suspension's softer than ever (far too soft at the rear), and the linked brakes are one of my personal hates. I'd buy an old model VFR, but not this one.
And so to the BMW R1100S. Fast by any standards, sweet handling by most, and, umm, adventurously styled, but it doesn't do it for me. Speed and cornering ability apart, the riding experience is pure BMW, from the lurch when you blip the throttle to the unweildy controls and strange switch gear. If that's turned you on in the past, this will be the equivalent of a multiple orgasm, but if not, don't bother.
To sum up: if you think you want a VFR, buy the Triumph, and if you think you want a 916, buy the ST4. If you want a BMW, you'll already know.
(Second Opinion by Kevin Raymond)
Pillion Opinion - by Steve Westlake (5ft9in, 12 stone)
Triumph Sprint ST - Not as plush as the VFR because the seat isn't as wide and the handles are a little bit too much behind you. Second Best.
Ducati ST4 - Handles a bit far back and suspension a bit firm to offer real comfort. Not bad for a Duke, though.
BMW R1100S - The handles are hidden under the pillion seat cowl which makes them difficult to hold onto. You're also perched high.
Honda VFR800 - The VFR is only beaten for passenger comfort over long distances by the Orient Express.
The VFR has set the rules for this competition and they are simple. These bikes should be able to do everything except go trail riding.
The Ducati ST4 is a great bike, but in this competition it falls down in a few areas. The fairing isn't brilliant; the headlight isn't brilliant; it isn't as easy to ride slowly as the VFR and you'll have to decide for yourself if you'd trust a Ducati to cover the mileages that we know a VFR is capable of. But it's fantastic on twisty roads, it's fast and it's a better Ducati for most riders on most roads than a 916 or 748.
The BMW is also a great bike. Unfortunately, it's significantly slower than the VFR, and the shaft drive, torque reaction and Telelever front end mean that it's always going to be an acquired taste, whereas the VFR is a bike anyone can climb on and ride quickly. If you are looking for an alternative, especially if you plan to keep the bike for a long time, this could be it.
The VFR is an astonishing machine. It is amazingly simple to ride quickly and well, and it genuinely does do everything that's asked of it. We also know that the V-four engines last forever and the rest of the bike is built to Honda's usual high standards. Fantastic.
But - and I'm delighted and amazed to be writing this - The Triumph Sprint ST has beaten the VFR at its own game. A company operating from a trading estate in Leicestershire has built a machine that is better than the product of 13 years of refinement and all the research and development that Honda can muster. Well done, Triumph. Slap yourselves on the back then get on with developing another bike that is this good.
Particular praise is due to the engine, the ergonomics and the brakes. But the whole package gets together perfectly and it beats the Honda (often only just) in most areas. The VFR still has a better headlight, better pillion comfort and it's a Honda. If you still aren't convinced about Triumph's reliability that could be a major factor, but if the firm has put as much effort into that as they have into development I wouldn't expect it to be a problem.
- Hugo Wilson