Blink and you’ll miss it. There’s not much to see even if you’re looking: just another tangled ribbon of dirt or broken, weedy pavement winding away from a forgettable country two-lane. Maybe there’s a weathered, wooden sign with some cryptic Forest Service cipher like 7N01 or 6N24. Maybe there’s only a rutted break in the underbrush. Either way, you’ve blown by hundreds of them en route to somewhere else. But from the seat of the right motorcycle, you can spot a good one 100 yards away. Because right around that bend, just out of sight, is a little slice of heaven.
From the minute it arrived, BMW’s F800GS looked like just the right motorcycle for all the wonderfully horrible little routes most of America couldn’t care less about. Good pavement, bad pavement or no pavement at all, it’s at least 80 lbs. lighter and $3500 less expensive than the archetypical R1200GS, gets phenomenal gas mileage and, with a set of street-legal knobbies levered on, is less likely to stumble on the sort of terrain that would give your average Rocky Mountain Goat a nasty case of shin splints. BMW Motorrad has had that lucrative little chunk of real estate pretty much to itself for the past few years, but not anymore.
Enter Triumph’s Tiger 800 XC, as in “cross-country,” bolder brother of the new Tiger 800. Even a quick glance tells you it has nothing at all to do with Hinckley’s previous Tigers. Another reveals a load of superficial similarities with BMW’s mid-size GS: 21-inch front and 17-inch rear wire-spoke wheels, 45mm inverted fork, molded clear-plastic windscreen, steel-trellis chassis, cast-aluminum swingarm. The differences between Triumph’s interpretation of the perfect do-it-all middleweight and BMW’s are right there in Phantom Black and Alpine White.
The biggest mechanical divide lies between the 798cc Rotax-built parallel-twin hanging in the BMW’s frame and Triumph’s own 799cc triple. Both lumps provide foundations for other engines in their maker’s respective lineups. Both have been specifically configured for all-surface duty. Either one will take you (almost) anywhere you’d like to go. But while the German twin is methodical, efficient and admirably effective most of the time, the carefully massaged long-stroke version of what powers Triumph’s 675cc Daytona and Street Triple encourages a more enthusiastic approach to everything on the map.
Easing out of the luxuriously appointed MC M.C. garage for a little stream-of-consciousness exploring, the BMW sounds and feels exactly like what it is: 68 percent of Das Boxer. Practical. Purposeful. Determined. As sporting street transport, it’s somewhere between dull and boring. Meanwhile, a thumb on the Tiger’s starter incites what sounds like a hive of riled-up hornets. Take the time to listen and what comes out of each bike’s exhaust tells you a lot about its mechanical soul—or lack thereof.
Feeling taller, longer and narrower between your knees, the GS mutters through any urban landscape with a deadpan power delivery, inevitable German efficiency … and about the same riveting excitement as Friedrich Nietzsche at a church picnic. Still, what it does, it does well. Aside from sticky shifting and a less-than-sumptuous seat, there aren’t many practical nits to pick.
That same hard-headed, left-brain approach reveals a few more flaws in the Tiger’s persona. It runs hot in slow going. A touchy, occasionally grabby clutch and lean off-idle fueling add up to stalling unless you leave green lights with a few more revs. Our XC came with a faintly spongy front brake and without ABS; add $800 for that option if you’re so inclined. Still, the Triumph is more than a match for the BMW as practical daily transport.
Sitting taller than the Tiger—even with BMW’s soft standard saddle--the GS feels more like
Narrow enough to pass for a single, BMW’s dry-sump parallel-twin uses a swivel con-rod ben
The GS’s instruments offer a more complete range of data than the Tiger’s, but the handleb