Sprint ST
MCN Triumph ST / Honda VFR800 / Ducati ST4 Comparison - December 1998
- by Andy Ibbott
Honda price cut helps old master beat Triumph and Ducati rivals

Honda's VFR800 has fought off its Ducati and Triumph rivals to keep hold of its sport tourer crown - but only because Honda has knocked £1000 off the retail price.

The VFR, Ducati's ST4 and Triumph's new Sprint ST are all very capable machines, but value for money is one of the biggest buying factors - and the Honda is currently the cheapest of the trio.

Under the firm's Black and White scheme, which ends on January 31, a new VFR costs £7695. It usually costs £8675, but there is increasing speculation Honda will extend its scheme and keep prices as they are now.

The Sprint ST costs £7999 and the Ducati pitches in at £8650.

But whether price is a priority or not, one thing is for certain - whichever one of these bikes you choose, it'll be a good 'un!

Triumph is the latest firm to enter the battle for the sports tourer crown with the Sprint ST and for a first attempt it is right on the money. The legendary VFR hardly needs an introduction, while the ST4 is a more powerful version of the firm's successful ST2.

How the power is developed and each engine's very unique characteristics are the biggest differences you'll find between these three excellent bikes.

Torque and power curves - click to expand

Triumph's top triple has the best of both worlds. It is both torquey from low down, like a twin, and has a good top end, like a four. On the road it actually feels a little flat and uninspiring and you only realise exactly how strong the motor is when you out-drag the VFR in an uphill blast.

Honda's smooth V4 is slightly more peaky in its new 800cc, fuel-injected guise. The motor needs to be revved a little harder but that's even more fun thanks to the gorgeous roar from its air induction.

Get the motor spinning above 7000rpm and you'll never feel the need to fit a loud pipe. Drive is still good from the bottom and you can let the revs drop as low as 2000rpm in top without too many problems.

But if it's character you want then you won't get any better than the 916 motor which sits in the steel trellis frame of the Duke. There are loads of pleasant rumbles and whirrs with a little bit of vibration to remind you that what's pushing you along has a little soul.

To get the best from the engine you really need to keep the revs between 6500 and 9000rpm, where there is a definite surge in fun. And this "power band" displays the sportier nature of the Ducati.

All three bikes handle very well, though a little suspension tweaking is required on the ST4 to bring it to the same level as the others on bumpy roads (see separate story, end).

Each bike has characteristics quirks. On fast, smooth 110mph-plus corners, the Sprint displays a small but noticeable shimmy, when the bars start to shake very slightly.

This is a result of the Triumph's quick-steering ability. A different tyre would cure the wobbles, but almost certainly at the cost of turning speed.

Honda has managed to make the VFR stable in every situation and, while it never excels in any one area, it does everything well - and that's one of its biggest strengths.

With the rear suspension altered the Ducati has the sportiest feel of the three.

The chassis is taut so it can take full advantage of the legendary 916 engine. It has that typical Ducati "steers-slow-turns-fast" feeling where you need a lot of steering effort to get the bike to turn.

While each bike is levelpegging in performance and handling, the Triumph has the edge when it comes to braking. Though the factory has chosen not to fit the brilliant setup from the 955i superbike, the ST's four-pot brakes are superb. They don't make as much power but still have more than enough to cope with the demands from the re-tuned 955i engine.

The Ducati's stoppers are just as good for outright power, but the more the bike is thrashed the more the lever travel increases. They never lose their ability to stop the bike, but an adjustable lever would be a definite bonus once the going gets hot.

The Combined Braking System used on the VFR has its good and bad points. To get the best from the system you need to use the front and rear levers at the same time - which defeats the object. Also, it's unnerving using the rear brake as it activates the front, too. A better system would be to link the front and rear brakes from the front lever but leave the rear to just operate the back end.

Perhaps the most important area for a sports tourer is comfort and the ease at which the controls can be accessed and all these bikes are capable of touring all day on either motorways, fast A roads or tight and twisty B routes.

Climb on the ST4 and it feels lithe and ready for action. The position of the bars and footrests are just about perfect. It has a sportier seating position than the other two so you get more feedback.

Both the VFR and the Sprint ST have a more "sit up and beg" riding position, more typical of a sports tourer. Both are comfortable, but the Triumph has a longer reach to the bars than the other two.

Wind blast off the screens on the bikes is acceptable and none of them feel any better or worse than the others if you're of average height. But taller riders will find the Ducati's screen directs more wind into their shoulders, but it's not unbearable.

All three bikes have little quirks which could be improved on.

On the Triumph the clocks have a wrap-around effect. It look great, but bright sunlight makes some of the dials hard to read. The white-faced rev-counter is a bonus, but the speedo, in black, is hard to read, particularly when you flick your eyes from one to the other. Getting your finger to the clutch lever is also a bit of strain as it's too far away from the bar, though you soon adapt to it.

The ST4's sidestand is an improvement over the one found on the ST2. It's easier to reach and use, but it still flicks up if anything but the whole weight of the bike is on it. It's a safety feature to stop you riding off while it is down. But it could lead to you dropping it while parked if you aren't careful. A beefier clutch would also help as it felt fragile after a week of abuse.

And Honda needs to junk or modify the VFR's linked braking system. The new 8--cc engine has also sacrificed too much low-down grunt for top-end power and the rear shock needs a wider range of adjustments for sportier adventures.

Specifications Comparison
Specification comparison
Article mini - inserts (2)
ST4 Needs Tweaking
Ducati's ST4 can't match the handling prowess of the Triumph Sprint ST or the Honda VFR800 without setting up the suspension for hard road riding.

This is something we didn't get time to do at the world launch in October, when we said the rear shock was unable to cope with committed riding on bumpy roads.

With more time available we set the sag - the amount of spring compression taken by the bike's weight - to 10mm without anyone on board and 30mm with a 10-and-a-half-stone rider.

This is also a good way to find out if the spring is strong enough for your weight. If you set it to 10mm without the rider and then can't get a range of between 25 and 35mm with a rider on board, you'll need a different spring.

The rebound damping was bumped up by three-quarters of a turn and the compression half a turn from the stock setting.

Now the bike handles well on all types of surfaces and in certain conditions even has a slight edge over the Honda and Triumph as the set-up is stiffer.

Look for added extras
All three of these bikes can be decked out with loads of luggage to boost their touring potential.

Triumph and Ducati both have factory-made luggage kits available which are colour-coded to your bike. triumph has priced the panniers-only kit at £500, including the fitting kit. The price for the complete set including top box hasn't been fixed, but expect to pay around £300 on top.

The Ducati kit is surprisingly cheaper. The panniers on their own will set you back £489, but once you add one of the two different top boxes it becomes more expensive. A 40-litre top box costs £256 or the 50-litre option costs £299. All prices include fitting kits.

Honda doesn't offer an official kit for the VFR, but loads of firms make kit for this popular model.
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