SuperBike - March 1999
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from the article "Power Rangers" by Dan Harris comparing the 1999 Ducati ST4, Honda VFR800, Triumph Sprint ST, and BMW R1100. Below are the ST and Conclusions sections.
**** Article reprinted with permission * Copyright SuperBike 1999
Sprint ST ranking chart
To see the rankings of all four bikes (ST,ST4,VFR800,R1100RS) click here.
The last Triumph I tested was the T595 and at the time I admitted not being particularly impressed with any of the Triumph range. For me the Daytona T595's biggest problem is that the factory insist on classing it as a sports bike and because they have publicly pitched it against the likes of the FireBlade, I am obliged to test it against super sports bikes. Against this kind of opposition the T595 is woefully inadequate. It's too heavy, way too bulky, slow, quirky and ponderous.
The Sprint on the other hand has been aimed squarely at the sports-tourer market. In fact Triumph have gone further, they've been brave enough to focus the Sprint's sights on the bike that's considered to be the mother of versatility, Honda's VFR.
Brave or foolish? That's the question really and let's face it, given Triumph's track record so far and the pretty much universal accolades that Honda have enjoyed, not many would bet on it being the former.
The first time I saw the bike out-doors in the flesh as it were, the alarm bells started ringing, not ringing in dread mind you but rather cautioning me not to prejudge the Sprint. The thing that struck me the most was that Triumph had managed at long last to carve some of the bulk off the bike. It looked leaner and trimmer than any Triumph that had gone before, and the messy, even ugly 'double-barrel' section frame used on the 509/595 series had been replaced by an extremely neat, tidy clean-designed twin-spar anodised chassis. I'm not a huge fan of single-sided swingers either; they compromise rather than complement pure performance with their extra weight and inherent weakness versus double-sided swingers. Then again I have to say that on sports-tourers, where pure performance considerations are balanced against styling and pragmatic considerations, they're somehow more appropriate. Certainly on the Sprint the single-sider simplifies and softens the rear of the bike and adds to the distinctiveness of the overall package by complementing the uncluttered frame design and supplementing the soft and flowing lines of the front.
Progress on styling cohesion and visual ergonomics are one thing, what was really important if the Sprint was to get even close to the VFR was that it performed exceptionally well both in its touring role, and when playing the part of a sportster. While the former has always been familiar territory for the Hinckley factory, all too often they've struggled to deal with the basic elements that determine whether a hike performs well or not.
Has that all changed? Well yes actually. As a confirmed sceptic and general disliker of Hinckleys pre-l999 range of products it came as something of a shock to discover that the Sprint is a seriously good bike. Not just average good mind you but ferkin' excellent.
It's difficult to pick out a single part of the bike that's caused such a dramatic transformation because pretty much everything has been improved. Perhaps the most surprising leap in sophistication though relates to the engine. The powerplant is utterly brilliant, and perfectly pitched for a sports tourer because it produces grunt exactly where this genre of bike needs it - in the mid-range. It's so strong in the middle that it completely decimates the opposition including the V-four Honda and V-twin Ducati but there's more. Although the drive is abruptly curtailed at the top by the rev-limiter, up to that point it's still developing steam-train-like power but the most impressive thing is the fuelling.
In the past I've found 595 engines to be frustratingly reluctant, this one couldn't be more different. It seizes enthusiastically on any throttle opening at pretty much any revs, driving cleanly from low, low down in the range right up to the red-line with an almost fanatical ardour. Okay so it's no R1, but judged in the right context, against the other sports tourers it demonstrates an ebullience and verve that the others can only dream of. Am I going over the top? Maybe, but I'm pleased that the Hinckley factory have finally come up with a development that works, is competitive, and that not only matches the opposition, but beats them.
The other generic problem that Triumph have had with their range is that their bikes have been ergonomically weak. The riding position on the Daytona T595 for example is bizarre. Not only does it shove your feet way forward, but the large distance between the seat and the bars forces you to stretch over the tank. It's like sitting on the ground with your legs outstretched trying to touch your feet. It's ironic that the sports-tourer Sprint's riding position is more neutral, that it doesn't lock you in position as much as the 595 which gives you more flexibility to ride the bike hard.
Then there's the handling. Well actually this is something that, with a few notable exceptions, Triumph have been pretty good at getting right so it didn't come as much of a surprise to discover that the Sprint works quite well. That is, it works quite well as a sports-tourer. You see, the fact is that Triumphs are basically just too heavy, and there's not that much scope for trimming weight. With the full-blooded T595 sportster this was a problem because against the likes of modern sportsbikes you just can't give away kilograms. Because the Sprint is a sports-tourer though, and not competing against the creme of contemporary sports hardware, this isn't so much of a problem. Besides, the Sprint carries its weight better than any Triumph that's gone before.
If there's a weakness in the Sprint's handling make-up it's that the forks are a little on the soft side. That's something that could be fairly easily cured though, and I'm sure that, in Triumph's inimitable mix 'n' match style you could use the springs from the Daytona T595.
As someone who believes that the best long-term way to 'help' and 'support' a marque is to tell the truth about their products (rather than allowing them to live under the illusion that they're good) I'm over the moon that the Hinckley factory have produced such a well-rounded bike.
Pre-'99 Triumphs were so mediocre that it needed something pretty exceptional to change my mind about the marque. In the Sprint, Triumph have come of age. At last they've produced a bike that not only utilises their resources and machine characteristics best, they've also upped the ante in all departments. They've improved power and engine characteristics, shed bulk and aimed their efforts at the only end of the market where they had any realistic hope of inflicting damage - the sports-tourer end.
The Sprint isn't just a good bike in its own right either, because Triumph have done the unthinkable - they've deposed the benchmark VFR800 and taken the top sports-tourer slot. Bearing in mind how long the Honda's been at the top, and considering the resources the Japanese factory devoted to updating the VFR800 in 1998, that takes some doing.
Sonic's Boom ( rebuttal by Sonic to Dan's comments)
I WASN'T AS ENTHUSED WITH THIS bike as much as Dan. While it does everything he says it does on the box, it just feels a bit - I dunno - rough and ready and rather bland next to the ST4 and infamously smooth VFR800. It's the best-looking bike on this test by a country mile, especially the swoopy lower fairing and aggressive nose snout. But while the motor picks up nicely from 5,000rpm and promises loads, it's a promise that - for me at least - isn't delivered and the Sprint always leaves you wanting for more. More power, more handling, just more character all round. The level of finish appears very high and the cockpit is really well thought-out, giving you three neat little mirrors of your helmeted head on the move. I'd really like to ride the Sprint again two years from now when it's had a good bit of refinement thrown at it. After all, the VFR has just got progressively better year after year and certainly in this competition, the ST4 makes better use of its 916 donor motor than the Sprint with its T595 transplant. Having said all that, however, the Sprint is a wholly capable motorcycle and within the guise of sports-tourer, works fine. It's just a bit....flat, I think. Yup, that's it.
The Ducati's strong and practical touring side has been built on a sporting heritage which permeates the whole bike - hence the impressive performance figures, nimble handling, low centre of gravity and punchy engine. In contrast the BMW has the feel of a bike that has been built with the Autobahn firmly in mind with the sporting element of its character tacked-on almost as an after thought. I'm not saying that one approach is necessarily better or worse than the other, you just have to ask yourself quite how much touring you really plan to do and decide from there how much emphasis you want to place on a bike's sporting or touring credentials.
When you start to compare the ST4 against the VFR and Sprint a whole different set of questions arise because a whole different set of attributes come into play. Both the Triumph and Honda are more practical, even sanitised and as such they are capable of filling the sports-touring role that little better than either the Ducati ST4 or the BMW R1lOOR.
Although the Ducati is the most sporting orientated of the four bikes on test, when pushed I'd have to say that the Triumph for all its extra concessions to the god of versatility still has the edge in the sporting arena. The BMW is too far down the touring road to be seriously considered as a multi purpose machine (in this company at least) which leaves the Honda. Well for all its much vaunted multi-role capabilities the Honda isn't quite as complete a machine as the Triumph. The Sprint matches the VFR point for point in almost every respect except one. In terms of engine performance, specifically tractability the Triumph is leagues ahead, and the beauty of this particular facet of superior performance is that it's desirable, not just in terms of the bike's sporting ability, it also hugely beneficial for powering out of potentially risky situations when riding two-up and fully-loaded on the open road. Triumph not only have the best lightweight sports-tourer on the market, they've taken that accolade by beating one of the best all-rounders ever, Honda's VFR800. Now that's impressive.