BMW K1300S vs. Honda VFR1200F vs. Kawasaki Concours 14 vs. Triumph Sprint GT

Long distance calling

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

What is sport-touring anyway? Riding a little too fast and a little too far on roads you haven’t ridden in way too long. It’s too much bruschetta and gnocchi con pesto at Caffe Lucio. Laughing way too loud over pints of Moretti draft afterward, staying up too late debating Vale vs. Casey and Latigo Canyon vs. Ice Cream Grade. Waking up light-years from the corporate pressure-cooker in a motel bed, washing down a breakfast-buffet waffle with industrial-grade coffee and rolling out into the brittle, early-morning chill to do it all over again.

What’s the best sport-tourer? Once the sun has disappeared into the Pacific, your friends are long gone and you’re thinking about those last two hours of freeway between cold mountain road and warm garage, which one makes you take the long way home? Which one feels like a friend, no matter what, playing up strengths and ignoring weaknesses? And when one of the usual suspects suggests doing it again, which one sends you searching for another weekend’s worth of twisty lines on Google Maps instead of a good chiropractor? There’s only one way to find out: El Segundo to Santa Cruz and back, via as much twisty, underpatrolled two-lane as we can find.

Our candidates for the abovementioned title represent four factories and three countries. All have at least three cylinders and 1050cc, along with enough aerodynamic plastic and electronic amenities to take the edge off rough roads and worse weather. Despite the fact that all four skew toward the sporting side of any sport-touring continuum, they all roll out with hard saddlebags. Any one of them will inhale vast stretches of pavement in very little time with relative ease. Beyond that, they represent sport-touring ideologies that are further apart than Triumph’s UK headquarters sits from Kawasaki’s in Japan.

BMW K1300S

BMW’s latest K-spec über-four delivers everything you’d expect from the architects of modern mach schnell touring. It’s stinky fast, mildly quirky, dizzyingly complicated, more stable than the German banking system ... and pricey enough to empty the average American savings account. And 15 minutes south of Big Sur on California’s fabled Highway 1, you’ll cough up whatever they’re asking with a smile.

Despite the sportiest silhouette of the bunch, the big K is all BMW, as in one unrepentant 147-horse sporty tourer aimed directly at open-class Japanese hypersports that don’t offer optional saddlebags. Throw a leg over and you’re sitting in the S more than on it. Legroom is something less than first-class, but taller types will still be happier here than shorter ones, who’ll find the bars a long way off. Vibration is minimal in sixth gear within 15 mph of any posted freeway limit. Scrolling through the trip computer to keep tabs on tire pressure, average mpg, projected fuel range, ambient air temperature and such is amusing, but the optimistic data provides only a vague idea of what’s actually going on. Held to an unwavering 70 mph, the S is capable of putting 200 miles between fill-ups if you don’t mind the stress of rolling into a gas station on fumes. For the most part, it makes an eminently civilized traveling companion whether you’re on the road for three hours or three days. BMW’s second-generation electronically adjustable suspension goes from plush to firm to genuinely taut on the fly with a touch of the button on the left bar. Another on the right toggles the two-position heated hand grips. Wind protection is luxurious by supersport standards, but noticeably skimpy compared to the Kawasaki Concours 14’s adjustable screen.

Cue up 20 miles of smooth, flowing coastal corners and the K1300S arcs through one 70-mph apex after another like a terrain-following missile. Contrary to sporting folklore, the Duolever front end does tell you what’s going on at the front contact patch once you learn to stop worrying and trust it. Ease into the throttle below 4000 rpm and the 1300 reels in the next straight with a steady stream of reassuringly linear thrust. Loaf along in second or third if you like, secure in the knowledge that nearly 70 percent of the engine’s peak torque is available at just 3000 rpm. It doesn’t gain revs as enthusiastically as the Honda’s V4. Full afterburner mode kicks in just beyond 6000 rpm, and by 8000 it’s pulling hard. Enough to provoke involuntary contractions in that ring of smooth muscle tissue you’re sitting on, reel off mid-10-second quarter-miles at 130-plus mph and reel in that next apex quicker than you can say Semi-Integral ABS II. That eyeball-flattening immediacy makes it feel like the quickest of the bunch, even though it isn’t ... quite.

Meanwhile, a firm squeeze on the lever cues all three discs, hauling things down immediately with more power than feel, but no drama. The foot pedal controls only the rear brake, taking the pucker out of occasional decreasing-radius moments more readily than systems that insist on factoring in some degree of front brake as well. Still, the Duolever/Paralever combination maintains equilibrium between front and rear. Cornering clearance abounds, as does the reassuringly tenacious grip from those Metzeler radials. Not much to complain about. Not yet anyway...

When the corners come closer together and the pavement starts to unravel, so does most of the big K-bike’s otherwise unflappable Germanic composure. Automatic Stability Control (read: traction control) keeps you from writing a check with the throttle that the 180/55-17 rear tire can’t cash. Even so, once you’ve arrived in the land of blind rises and lumpy 15-mph corners, pulling the trigger near 9000 rpm feels like hunting ground squirrels with that terrain-following missile. Despite the diligent efforts of two balance shafts, it’s buzzy up there as well. Gear shifts are clunky, too. We didn’t recall that being an issue until we remembered that the last K1300S we tested had the optional electronic quick-shifter ($450).

A longish wheelbase and lazy steering geometry make quick progress feel uncomfortably close to alligator wrestling. Full-sized riders with superior upper-body strength have an easier time persuading the beast than Dani Pedrosa impersonators. ESA electronics order up too much compression damping in Sport mode. Pick up the pace on a stretch of rough pavement and the ride gets harsh enough to make slowing down the better part of valor. Thumb the suspenders down to Normal or Comfort and the big boy wallows around too much for us. The system is great if it works for your chosen pace, payload and road. Otherwise, it comes down to a choice between either slowing down and shutting up or just hanging on.

You can trigger a migraine trying to decide whether the K1300S is an electronically enhanced Hayabusa killer or the consummate long-distance European surface-to-surface missile. At least until you realize it’s both. And as with most advanced multi-role weapon systems, it’s imperfect and expensive. For those willing to play to its strengths, live with a few weaknesses and lay down just shy of $20,000 for the privilege, the K1300S is hard to resist. After two or three sessions of Doktor K’s 9000-rpm adrenaline therapy, resistance is futile.

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carewser
Why the Yamaha FJR1300 was left out of the competition I can't imagine. Triumph? Over Yamaha? Really?
spokexx
I test rode the Triumph Sprint GT this past weekend. Damn I loved it. Now I'm contemplating a purchase but I really don't have to. I just want to. I would say that it is a touring sport bike where as the BMW is a sporty touring bike. The Honda seems to fall into a the former catagory also and the Kawi falls into a class with the beemer. I also test rode an older K1200 ...r? gt? whatever. And Im just not a fan of shaft drive.
mfrito
Didn't you forget the FJR1300?  Just a few years ago it came in second to the Concours.
JETSKI88
Dave,

The BMW's sure are intriguing but all I ever hear is high maintenance costs and expensive repairs.  That has kept me on Kawasakis for 17 years.  Bikes and jetskis.  Reliable and powerful.  Best machines out there!
BMWDave2007K1200S
My lemon
Almost 4 years ago I bought my dream bike a 2007 BMW K1200S from Cliff's BMW in Danbury CT. After about 100 miles the bike started to lurch and jerk under 3000 RPM (tough to make right turns without pulling in the clutch and ride at low speed in 1st gear) Well the dealer did not have a fix so I did not have a problem... After repeated attempts to get it fixed finally after the start of my 3rd season they re-mapped it and it has been fine. They even did not charge me...(how nice was that after all that time to find out it was not me and the way I was riding the bike) 3 years ago I went in because my clutch chattered, slipped and would not let me take off fast. Needless to say my 0-60 MPH in 2.8 seconds bike was not. This is not my first bike and I have driven manual transmission cars for 33 years. Clutches last a very long time. I would bring my bike in and Dave the service manager, Brianna a service writer (at the time, now service manager) and Cliff the owner all said "this is normal" I don't think I have it in writing because they did not want it in the records. I went in many times and was told it is normal. The new owner also "said it was normal" at my last oil change  So no help here... so only about 50 miles later I go to trade the bike because I don't think it is normal. What a surprise that I was told I need a new clutch. It will cost me around $1000.00 for the clutch and the housing. Cliff's should have bought my lemon back and gave me a new bike. between the surging and the clutch my bike was a big disappointment and not what I paid for. With a 19K list price and I paid $17500.00 and I still have around 14 payments left. Thanks for listening and I will tell this story to whoever will let me. Needless to say don't do business with Cliff he has an insurance company now and I am sure won't have anyones interest but his at heart.
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