Sport RiderFebruary 2000
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The Centerstand Quartet
Four concepts of what a sport-touring motorcycle should be. But which one is best ?
HOW CAN FOUR MOTORCYCLES competing in the same category be so different? Take a look at the engines of our sport-touring combatants: a boxer twin, a V-twin, a V-4 and an in-line triple. Check out their frames:two of the bikes have aluminum-beam frames with single-sided swingarms, one has a steel trellis frame and conventional swingarm and one utilizes a combination steel and aluminum deal with an alternatitve front fork. Now consider their origins: Germany, Italy, Japan and England.
The sport-touring class, by virtue of not being as performance-driven as the all-out sportbike category, is a haven for things.. .well, different. Hard numbers aren't as important as concepts such as comfort and cruising distance - although it's difficult for us to not look at these bikes from a distinctly sporting view-and this puts more manufacturers on an even keel with regard to design and execution.
So what do these bikes have in common that might define them as sport-tourers? Well, they all have centerstands (for you hard-core types, a centerstand is similar to a racestand but it's attached to the bike), and each one has some form of fuel injection. Three of the four are available with optional hard bags and all are intended to gobble up miles of twisties with ease.
A look at the specification sheets for our four sport-tourers - BMW R1100S, Ducati ST4, Honda VFR800FI and Triumph Sprint ST - shows just how deep the differences among them go.
The BMW is powered by the latest version of the R-model boxer twin. More compression, a new exhaust system (with a catalytic converter) and revised fuel injection give the S-model some more ponies. (What's that you ask? Why did we choose the S over the sport-touring RS model? Because we're sportbike freaks, that's why.. .and the S-model comes with bags and a centerstand, and that is good enough for us.) BMW's Telelever alternative to the fork handles front suspension duties, and a lone linkless shock works the single-sided swingarm, which incorporates the shaft drive to boot. A combination of die-cast aluminum and steel pipe structures makes up the frame and the engine is utilized as a stressed member. Our test unit was fitted with the optional ABS (Antilock Brake System), and a touring package which consisted of a taller windshield, a higher bar and hard saddlebags.
Ducati's ST4 is essentially an ST2 with the more-powerful 916 mill. A steel trellis frame connects the steering head to the V-twin desmo engine, and the swingarm pivots in the rear of the crankcase, leaving the engine as a stressed member. The Ducati has the most up-to-date suspension of our bunch, with the Marzocchi inverted fork and rear shock fully adjustable. Our test unit came equipped with the optional hard bags, which will be made standard equipment for year-2000 ST4s.
The Honda VFR800FI, based on a sportbike from many moons ago, could be considered the sportiest of the group. Its RC45-derived, gear-driven-cam, V-4 engine resides in a pivotless aluminum-beam frame with a single-sided swingarm. Suspension consists of a preload and rebound adjustable shock in the rear, and a preload-adjustable-only fork up front. The Interceptor is graced with Honda's LBS (Linked Braking System), which activates both front and rear brakes with application of either the front lever or the rear pedal. Hard bags are not available as an option for the Honda.
Triumph's Sprint ST features the 955cc transverse-triple motor of the Daytona 955i with different camshafts and exhaust, revised fuel injection and cast pistons working in steel liners (as opposed to forged pistons and coated aluminum liners for the 955i). The engine is housed in an all-new aluminum-beam frame with a single-sided swingarm. The fork is adjustable for preload only, and the rear shock has a remote preload adjuster to go with its rebound-damping clicker.
This is what the touring part of sport-touring is all about-racking up miles in comfort and with ease. The BMW's seat, while wide and having the right density, has a distinct forward tilt that forces your butt up against the gas tank, splaying your knees around the bulbous bodywork. And while the taller bar on our test bike was great, the seat/bar/peg relationship gets all screwy because you end up sitting so far forward. Wind protection on our taller-screen-equipped R1100S was the best of the bunch; the windblast was felt only at neck level and above. The boxer twin vibrates the most of the four bikes, especially under acceleration. And our test unit had a peculiar surging vibration between two and three thousand rpm, noticeable mostly around town. But on the highway this rev band - which translates to between 60 and 70 miles per hour in top gear - was uncannily smooth.
The Ducati has the narrowest cockpit of the quartet, as you'd expect with a slim V-twin. Our testers noted that it's a fair reach to the ST4's bar, with a bit of weight placed on your wrists. And while the ergos are definitely the raciest of the four bikes, it's still plenty comfortable for a long haul. The Ducati's fairing offers decent wind protection, with gusts being felt only on our rider's shoulders and higher. The 916 mill provides perfect primary balance characteristics and is nice and smooth, provided you avoid lugging the engine in the upper gears. Attempting to roll the throttle on at less than 4000 rpm will get the whole show shaking like thrasher McQuide's knees must have been after he crashed the ST4 in a gravel-strewn corner.
The ergonomics of the Honda are similar to that of the ST4 with the VFR's seat having marginally better support and being a bit roomier. One tester noted the VFR is "ergonomically correct," with the seat/bar/peg relationship falling into place naturally. Wind protection on the Honda is slightly less than the Ducati's, with the wind-blast hitting the rider in the upper chest area. The VFR800FI offers exceptional smoothness from the V-4 mill, although it has a tendency similar to- although not nearly as bad as - that of the Ducati. Lug the motor in the higher gears and it gets the shakes.
Triumph's Sprint is definitely a bike you sit in rather than on. The wide seat combines with a fairly long reach to the bar and high pegs to give a semi-racy but roomy and comfortable feel. Riders measuring more than six feet tall will feel a bit cramped; the fairing sides extend back far enough to interfere with a taller person's knees. The low windscreen offers wind protection similar to the VFR but the extra width of the Sprint's screen provides a bit more coverage of your torso. And the Sprint ST is vibration-free aside from a slight tingling in the bar felt at excessive highway speeds. Our thrashers noted more than once that they hit the triple's rev-limiter without realizing the motor was spinning so high.
Gauges and control layouts of our foursome vary as wildly as the countries the bikes originate from. The BMW's simple gauges consist of just a tachometer and speedo (in addition to the usual lights and odometers), with a large LCD clock just below. Since it's the sporty Beemer, we'll overlook the absence of a fuel gauge, although each bike in the remaining trio has one. The Ducati offers a smafl LCD panel just below the dial gauges which incorporates a clock, a bar-type fuel gauge and a temperature gauge. The setup is a bit low on the dash and requires that you look away from the road quite a bit to see what's what.
Similarly, the Honda's gauge package has an LCD panel off to the side of the dials, and in addition to a bar-type fuel gauge and clock, the VFR's temperature gauge toggles between engine and ambient temps. The Triumph gauges are more old-school, with dials for fuel and engine temperature. The fuel gauge on our unit read pathetically low all the time (showing a half tank shortly after we had filled up), but this is not typical of other Triumphs we've tested. The Sprint's LCD clock is recessed too far into the dash to see in the daylight and it's a bit small to read quickly.
And finally, who will have to stop for gas first? Surprise! The BMW, with its smallish tank and mediocre mileage figures, will be dry in approximately 185 miles. The VFR will last slightly longer with a range of 209 miles, while the Ducati and Sprint riders can log about 240 miles each before a fuel stop (the Ducati due to its extra large tank and the Sprint by virtue of slightly better mileage figures).
Well here we are, all loaded up with luggage and facing a bunch of canyons. Which of our quartet did we prefer when it came to corner-carving ?
"The BWW may well be the sleeper of the bunch," noted one of our thrashers, and indeed, it was a pleasant surprise to jump on the Beemer. The Telelever front suspension functions well, coping with pretty much anything we could throw at it. And the linkless rear shock absorber similarly performs admirably, with no shaft effect felt when under power. Our only complaint is a high-speed-damping harshness that can't be dialed out as there is no adjustment for compression damping at either end. Once settled into a corner though, the longitudinal crankshaft helps make the BMW superstable and confidence-inspiring. The remote rear preload adjustment is a nice touch, as the spring can be tightened in seconds (with no tools) for a passenger or heavy baggage.
The German bike's controls are well laid out, aside from the funky turn signal switches. We're not impressed with having to use our right hand to initiate or cancel the signals - it's busy enough with brake and throttle work, thank you very much. Clutch and brake levers fall to hand comfortably and the foot controls are well-placed; all are adjustable. Our test bike was equipped with BMW's ABS, which saved our bacon a couple of times. The Telelever suspension eliminates front-end dive under braking and it's hard to judge just how heavy-handed you need to be to use the excellent brakes without that as a reference. It would take a while to retrain your senses to judge braking with the R1l00S. But in the meantime, we heard the front brake's ABS servo cycling more than once when we inadvertently braked too hard. The ABS system, while a quantum leap better than previous BMW designs, still cycles a bit too abruptly when it activates. This results in an almost complete release and reapplication of the brakes. Following the initial cycle, however, there is little detectable variation in braking force unless the surface characteristics change abruptly.
The 1100cc mill delivers a fair punch, although it's the least powerful of the four bikes. A lack of midrange compared with the others leaves the BMW rider wanting to use lots of revs to make up time, but this adds to the twin's vibration and quickly wears thin. Our testers often found themselves using a higher gear than was appropriate to ease the buzziness in the bar, and instead exploiting the excellent chassis to maximum effect. Using the higher gear also pays off because downshifting results in a definite lurch (thanks to the longitudinal engine layout), unsettling the chassis entering turns.
Ducati's ST4 has the potential to be the best handler of the bunch, with its fully adjustable suspension and 916 heritage. But with the geometry tamed from its racer cousin, the steering feels noticeably sluggish, leading one tester to comment, "It's like steering under water." One feature of the Duke we took advantage of was the adjustable rear ride height. Raising the rear of the bike to steepen the steering head resulted in somewhat quicker steering, but it was still on the heavy side. Switching to the Dunlop D205s from the standard Metzelers (see "Hiking Boots" sidebar, page 60) remedied this somewhat, but the Duke remains the heaviest steering of our quartet.
The ST4's controls include an older-style Brembo brake master cylinder, and this caused us a bit of grief. As delivered, our Ducati had a mushy front brake; enough so that we sent it back for servicing. It was returned with somewhat better feel but the lever still came too close to the bar for our tastes. Attempting to adjust the lever caused the brakes to drag slightly, resulting in our man being stuck in the road with the front brake totally locked when the dragging turned into full-on brake application.
The 916 V-twin motor, being the most powerful and best sounding, won our hearts almost unanimously. The power is crammed to the upper end of the rev-band however, and the motor is geared a tad tall. This makes a couple of downshifts necessary to get into the meat of the powerband when passing. And that in itself is a bit of a chore, as the Ducati's tranny is on the notchy side-not to mention it's practically impossible to find neutral at a standstill.
The Honda VFR800FI gets most of our thrashers' votes for handling, although it's down to nitpicking between any of the four scoots. It is the lightest bike in the test, in addition to positioning its weight well, and this makes up for the suspension's lack of adjustability. Large bumps will unsettle the chassis more so than say, the BMW, but otherwise you'd be pretty hardpressed to find many handling faults with the Interceptor. The LBS works heaps better than on the Double-X. It feels like there's more front bias than what's found on the bigger bike, which may simply be due to the VFR's lighter weight. The front brakes require a fair pull to get heavy-duty stopping power and the rear pedal feels a bit wooden. However, both binders slow the bike exceptionally well. And speaking of the brakes, we were pretty disappointed with the clutch and brake-lever positioning; they're both somewhat high and the clip-on shape prevents any adjustments from being made.
The V-4 engine provides power about on par with the BMW, albeit in a much smoother manner. Still, the VFR has a noticeable hesitation when getting on the throttle midcorner, a typical fuel-injection glitch that is not nearly as noticeable on the other three S-Ts. And while the increase in jam over the VFR75O is welcome, a bit more midrange would be appreciated- a downshift or two is necessary to get some serious ponies going. The gear-drive whine combined with the half-a-V-8 rumble provides a sound you either love or hate, and hard acceleration gets a throaty roar from the exhaust (which is a bit on the loud side).
The Triumph Sprint is definitely the tourer of the bunch, although it fares admirably well in the handling department also. It's possible to stay with the lighter VFR in the twisties but the Sprint rider is definitely putting a bit more effort into it. The fork is severely under-sprung and this causes a midcorner wallow when the Sprint is pushed hard. Bumping up both front and rear preloads (the rear with the remote adjuster, a nice addition) helped matters considerably. But some stiffer front springs are in order, especially if extra luggage or a passenger are on-board. Brakes are among the best in the test, easily on par with the VFR stoppers, especially when the extra weight of the Sprint is considered.
Powerwise, the Trumpet got everyone's vote for its exceptional smoothness and spread of power. The fuel injection is the most sorted of the bunch, with hasslefree power delivery at lower rpm, along with a strong j midrange and top-end. While peak power is almost on par with the Ducati ST4, a smaller spread makes it seem a bit less potent than the Italian V-twin at higher revs. We did encounter a small problem with the Sprint: On hot days, the engine would bog and almost die in traffic. And it was hard to start when the motor was hot.
This is one of the toughest tests undertaken by the SR wrecking crew. Generally, a winner emerges throughout the testing process, with the thrashers clambering to get on board one particular bike all at once. Not so with our centerstand quartet. Each bike performs well overall, considering the context of the test, and it comes down to details in the end separating the winners from the losers.
The BMW, while extremely capable on both sport and touring fronts, is thwarted in a big way by its buzzy motor. It's also the most expensive of the four machines, and by a big chunk if you include the ABS brakes. The Ducati is the dark horse of the bunch. It has an excellent motor and chassis but a lack of reliability. (We popped a head gasket on our test unit.) And a lack of some refinements keep it from being our pick.
Everyone raves about the VFR800FI being the "perfect motorcycle" and how it "does everything well." As a touring bike, the Honda is just not quite on par with the rest of our quartet. The sporty riding position, and (especially) the lack of hard luggage place it squarely at the "sport" end of the sport-touring spectrum. And even in that context it's not heaps ahead of the other bikes in this test. The Sprint ST is obviously the more touring-oriented bike in our foursome, but we were surprised at how well it justifies the "sport" part of its moniker. While definitely on the plush side and requiring the right touch, the Trumpet holds its own when the road gets twisty by virtue of its rheostat-like power-band, deceptively good handling and superb binders.
Perhaps the best compliment to the Sprint is this: Our man, aboard the Triumph and returning home late from two full days of testing at Willow Springs (about an 80-mile trip), actually wants to go exploring, wants to take the long way home - only on the Sprint ST.
In the end, the British have done it right by using essentially standard technology - a transversely mounted engine in an aluminum-beam frame with regular old brakes and suspension (single-sided swingarm excepted). When you think about it, that stuff's been around for a while now, constantly being refined and developed. It makes great sportbikes. And guess what? It makes great sport-tourers too.
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