The Ultimate Touring Cruisers

Check out which motorcycle we have selected to be the ultimate touring cruiser in this month's issue of Motorcycle Escape!

Say the words "motorcycle touring," and the second thing to come to mind--after you wonder why you actually spoke aloud at the command of a motorcycle magazine--might be the image of a Honda Gold Wing, loaded to the gunwales, pointed at some distant horizon. You'd be right to envision this bike, of course, but it's not the whole picture. Riders go touring on all sorts of bikes: massive dual-sports, high-strung sportbikes, fairingless retro-sports and, yes, cruisers.

In an impressive galaxy of bikes that could go touring you'll find, fairly far along the austerity/ostentation trajectory, these bikes: luxury tourers based on cruisers. They're stylish and comfortable, ready to travel thanks to handlebar mounted fairings and a host of amenities, including a radio/CD/CB, cruise control and standard hard luggage. If we can have heated grips and seats and antilock brakes, so much the better.

Out Of The Box
Seems the touring cruiser lives in a zero-sum world. Just as Honda's Valkyrie Interstate bowed out here comes BMW's R1200CL. You might latch onto the fact that it's based on the R1200C and assume, incorrectly, that it is little more than a C with bags and a funky Electra Glide-from-Germany bar-mounted fairing. In fact, BMW comprehensively tweaked the R-C underpinnings to better suit the bike for touring.

Although the basic 1170cc, four-valve-per-cylinder Boxer is held over from the R1200C series, it's received a host of big and small changes. Revised Bosch electronic fuel injection includes an automatic fast-idle circuit--no more fiddling with the "choke" lever--while the ignition side gains plug-mounted coils. The so-called Oilhead is tuned for maximum torque, which explains why it's rated at only 61 horsepower--and delivered a pathetic 52.2 horsepower on our SuperFlow CycleDyn dynamometer. (Other Oilheads produce 75 to 90 horsepower, for cryin' out loud.)

Following the pancake twin and the hydraulically operated, single-plate dry clutch is a new six-speed transmission. (The other R1200Cs retain the somewhat clunky five-speeder.) An ultra-tall top gear is supposed to reduce vibration and improve fuel economy--a worthy goal given the bike's meager 4.5-gallon tank. BMW tweaked the R-series chassis as well, beefing up the rear subframe for the standard hard luggage and increasing suspension travel. You just know the spring and damping rates have been juggled to accommodate the extra heft over an R1200C. Our test unit punished the scales to the tune of 724 pounds wet; some of the blame going to the new fairing. Yep, it's odd-looking, but it moves a lot of air. What seem like bolt-on kidneys are actually useful fairing lowers, intended to redirect air that sneaks beneath the main fairing. Supplemental coverage comes from a pair of chromed cylinders just below.

The basic $15,990 CL comes with the luggage, Integral ABS, wiring for a radio and heated grips. The Classic version adds the actual radio and CD player (that consumes a patch of the right saddlebag) and heated seats for $16,490.

An Old Standby, Still Spry At 100
Harley-Davidson is too busy celebrating its centennial to fuss with new product for 2003, and that's fine with us. The Electra Glide Ultra Classic (or FLHTCUI) is merely a special 100th Anniversary paint scheme and a CD player in place of the old cassette. (Just updated from 8-track, we're told.)

Although the Electra Glide name dates back to 1965--a time when Harley renamed its bikes by the addition of a shocking new technology, like electric starting or suspension--the important date to us is 1999. That's when Harley replaced the FL-series bikes' 1340cc Evolution engine with the far superior 1450cc Twin Cam 88. The new powerplant runs better and more reliably than any stock Evo and, thanks in part to the electronic fuel injection standard on the Ultra, has superlative manners.

The remainder of the FLHTCUI's running gear is familiar fare. That TC88 engine is rubber-mounted to all but eliminate transmission of the 45-degree V-twin's inherent thrashing and mated to a clunky-if-positive-shifting five-speed transmission that pays off to a belt final drive. The Harley's suspension is stone-simple and shy of travel, but the bike's great heft (840 pounds wet) and generous front-wheel trail (a whopping 6.2 inches) keep the bike from ever feeling nervous.

At $21,065 in the special two-tone Anniversary paint, the Harley is the most expensive in this test, but it wants for little. That fee includes everything but spoke wheels, a security system and a free pass to Harley's Parts and Accessories catalog. Speaking of which, the Electra Glide comes with massive aftermarket support. Anything you could ever want--from fuzzy dice to wake-the-dead exhaust systems, chrome windshield trim to big-bore kits is available at the swipe of your credit card.

A Familiar Venture
Stand a few feet back from Yamaha's Royal Star Venture and you might get the impression that this is an Electra Glide done with a liquid-cooled V4 instead of a pushrod twin. Not true, actually; that's just Yamaha's way of making the bike seem familiar, of placing it in easy context. Really.

For 2003, it's business as usual for the Venture. Introduced in 1999, the Venture uses the basic Royal Star 1294cc, 70-degree V4 that at one time shared DNA with the mighty V-Max powerplant. It's a smooth, sweet, if slightly underwhelming powerplant that produces a cat-like purr at low loads and a subdued throb when hard on the throttle.

Chassis-wise, the Venture is the state of the art of touring cruisers, just bigger. It's heavy--887 pounds wet--and has the longest wheelbase of the group by two and a half inches. Next to the defunct Valkyrie Interstate, the Venture isn't too outsized, but it looms large over the BMW and positively towers over the Harley. Who knew?

We're accustomed to seeing Japanese motorcycles as the value leaders, but the Yamaha is actually more expensive than the BMW--a 2003 Venture goes for $16,399, while the blacked-out Midnight Venture (something we used to call going out for another keg in college) will set you back almost 17,000 clams.

Are We Packed, Yet?
You begin to understand these bikes only when you take them touring--really touring, not some around-the-block, circuit-of-the-Starbucks shindig. And we did.

Prior to departure, we packed--and packed well. You've heard our complaints about the Yamaha's luggage before: For such a big bike, there's not a great deal of capacity, plus the latches and stays are known to be fragile. (We proved this, as Emasculator Elvidge managed to jam the Venture's tail trunk stay in the auto-lavanderia's parking lot in Loreto.) Although outwardly similar, the Harley's luggage is actually a bit superior; we particularly like the side-hinged trunk. Both the Harley's and Yamaha's crates will hold two full-face helmets.

BMW has been building bikes with luggage for years, and the CL's kit is pretty good. We're not in love with the side-firing saddlebags--without liners it's common to have your stuff spill when you pop the lid--and the top box, whose shape was impolitely compared to certain food-keeping appliances, will not hold two helmets.

Ouch, That Hurts
Once on the road, the bikes' personalities emerged quickly, particularly with regard to weather protection and ergonomics and success in these areas is something we consider essential.

Harley has been making touring rigs a long time and it shows. The Electra Glide fit everyone. One of us wished for a bit more room between the saddle and handgrips, but it was more a passing thought than an ongoing desire. Yamaha gave the Venture a similar riding position, just in 115-percent scale. There's more room from the cushy seat to the broad floorboards, and the tiller-like bar is comparatively low and far away from you. Taller riders will appreciate this setup, although one of our testers complained of backache after only a few miles in the Venture's saddle.

And then there's the BMW. It is, to use a simple declarative, weird. The bar ends are high and improbably flat, like some strange beach-cruiser bicycle's, and the diminutive floorboards are high and far back. You can blame the Boxer engine if you must, but there's just not much room in this configuration to provide proper, foot-forward ergonomics. Only our cruiser-newbie tester found any semblance of comfort on the BMW, claiming the more upright body position was preferable to the slouch.

Cruisers typically place you in a position that puts a lot of weight on the saddle, and touring cruisers, by definition, tend to do this for long stretches of time. Again, the BMW received scorn for its comparatively rock-hard seat--"soft touch" covering and electric heating notwithstanding--and odd ergonomic layout. The other two are pretty much a wash; both the Harley and the Yamaha have deep, softly appointed seats with sufficiently firm underpinnings so that you're never resting right on the seat pan. Good form here.

How you sit on a cruising-tourer is only slightly more important than the wind and weather protection afforded. Once again, the BMW cuts its own trail. That Electra Glide-like fairing is massive, and seems even more so from the saddle--dare we suggest the Harley actually feels compact by comparison? It's not the best at deflecting the wind, though; you get a good shot of air right at the upper shin where there's a gap between the lower edge of the demitasse lowers and the cylinder heads. As a result, the bottom half of the rider's space feels awfully drafty, a benefit only in sweltering heat.

Allow us an entire paragraph on the demerits of BMW's unique windscreen design. First understand that we received the taller of the two options, and that none of us is exactly ready to play in the NBA. That said, we all hated the V-slit screen. Imagine riding on a twisty road. You look straight through the notch most of the time, but you must peer through the upraised "bat ears" to see through the corner. Lean the bike over and the wing disappears from view--thank goodness. But if the next corner is going the other way, you must look back through the opposing raised section until you lean the bike well into that turn. And on it goes, with the pointy parts of the screen forever poking into and out of your view. Annoying is way too tame a description. Try again, BMW. Soon.

Once more, the Harley and the Yamaha are nearly tied, with the Ultra providing a shorter stock screen that most of us can see above without too much trouble and that provides very good wind protection with minimal buffeting. Moreover, the Harley's lowers are larger and closer to the rider, so his shins and feet are better protected. And there's the added bonus that you can remove these lowers without too much trouble, making the Harley the best for hot weather. (With the lowers in place, prepare to be boiled like a lobster when you're in traffic.) Overall, the Yamaha is close, with slightly less protection from the main fairing and more from the unpardonably tall windscreen. (Recall that our Alaska trip in 2000 gave us cause to chop the screen en route, and although a similar fate was averted in Baja, there was much talk...) As such, the Venture offers a slightly quieter ride at the expense of a big push of wind on your back and the necessity of always looking through the shield. Yamaha does offer a lower shield as a $161.95 option.

If you're keeping score, for this category it's Harley ahead by a nose and the BMW a lonely third.

What Is Your Motivation?
Getting there in comfort is high on the touring-cruiser's requirements list, but we must not forget about getting there quickly. And in a large category that we're happy to boil down to performance, it's the Yamaha all the way.

And how could it not be? The Venture packs the most power--76.9 horsepower --from the middle-sized engine by dint of carrying around an extra pair of cylinders. But there's more to the Venture's appeal than the extra pots; the V4 hums along the main road with a subdued purr and virtually no vibration evident to rider or passenger. It packs just enough roll-on power to make downshifting an option, something that cannot be said for the Harley and doubly not so for the wheezy BMW. When you're on a charge, the liquid-cooled engine seems more than willing. Yes, we'd love it if Yamaha had given the Venture all the beans you find in a can of V-Max, but in this crowd it's fine, thanks.

In years past, Harleys have come in for appropriate criticism when the topic of horsepower came up. No longer. Although not overly potent--our bike produced 59.4 horsepower and 69.9 foot-pounds of torque--the Ultra seemed sprightly most of the time, the exceptions including long, steep grades tackled with heavy loads. We encountered a handful of occasions when we wanted more juice and, perhaps, a bit more rev range so we didn't have to row the Harley's hefty, clunky (though positive) gearbox. The Motor Company has worked hard on civilizing the fuel injected Twin Cam 88. It starts right up, runs smoothly and returns decent fuel mileage. (On our trip, the Harley averaged 33.4 mpg over more than 2000 miles. The BMW was best at 38.1 mpg average and the Yamaha worst at 32.1 mpg. (A note about the BMW: We verified that the bike's speedometer reads unusually fast, leading us to believe the odometer might be optimistic as well. Literally, your mileage may vary.)

Now it's the BMW's turn in the barrel. Although by the numbers the R1200CL isn't so far behind in power, the bike feels dog-behind slow. Not just under harsh conditions, but pretty much all the time. What's worse is the super-tall sixth gear, which simultaneously saps roll-on performance while inducing a terribly annoying throb from 70 to nearly 90 mph. In our view, BMW needs to pump up the horses, recut some shorter gears and generally go back to the drawing board with this setup.

Now That You've Accelerated, What're You Gonna Do?
Fast is good, but good-handling and fast is better. In this respect, all three of these behemoths do amazingly well.

With the oldest chassis and the least advanced running gear, the Harley might be expected to hold up the caboose position. No way. Although the suspension tends to work in short, slightly spastic strokes--hurting the ride over choppy pavement--the bike gives back superior confidence and the air of utter unflappability. It turns when you ask it to turn, it has commendable cornering clearance though the BMW has vastly more--and it is perhaps the best balance of straight-line stability and apex-searching fun. On a wish list, we'd include longer travel, more adept suspension and brakes with better feedback; they're powerful but as numb as Uncle Lester.

Somewhere in the dark, cigarette-smoke-filled rooms of Yamaha engineering, someone decided to make the Venture the cush-king of the category. That's a fine idea, but in the flesh it costs the bike a few points. Overall, the Venture feels soft, right on the verge of floaty, with feedback from the front end coming in for the lion's share of complaints. Most of the time, you can tell what the front tire is doing, but then sometimes, for no apparent reason, you'd want to see if the bolts have fallen out of the handlebar mounts. Although the Harley bottoms its suspension with greater vigor than the Yamaha, the Venture does it more often. Maybe we need to whip that boy called compromise--on the flat, open road the Venture is the ride king, but it loses composure when you really start to push the pace.

Circular reasoning has once more put us in the BMW's saddle with a perplexed expression. Here are the high points: The BMW's chassis feels the most taut, with the most suspension travel and sophistication. Our heavier riders praised the R1200CL's resistance to bottoming, while the wispy types complained of a coarse ride over some surfaces. Its steering is a mixed bag. You can make the R do what you ask, but the combination of a curiously fat front tire and the Telelever's inherent numbness intercepts signals from the contact patch. Hello, who's there? While the BMW's brakes are the most powerful here, their Integral ABS makes them inscrutable. Pull a bit on the front-brake lever and you get almost no braking. Pull a bit harder and--wham!--the bike hits the metaphorical brick wall. Things are better with the oddly placed pedal, but even after a couple thousand miles none of us felt at home with BMW's Next Greatest Technology.

Good News, Bad News, Get The Checkbook
We're not the type to pull punches, so here it goes: Take a pass on the BMW. Even the most ardent Beemophiles will find little to love with this underpowered, overweight Boxer. It has its moments, for sure, but the package simply fails the critical tests. It's too slow to be fun, is too quirky to be an easy step-up model and, despite its lowest-in-test price, can't be considered a good value.

That leaves the Harley and the Yamaha on the top two steps of the podium. This is not an easy decision, but we're going to give the nod to the Yamaha by a tortilla-thin margin. Why? It's overall the most sophisticated, a position hard-earned by the excellent (yet totally down-to-earth) engine and an overall level of refinement that the Harley can't quite match.

It could go the other way. Each of us declared the Harley to be the personal favorite, with the usual mealy-mouthed excuse of personality and "originality" overcoming power and suspension shortcomings and the higher price. Where the Venture can be shy and retiring, the Harley is out there, your best bud ordering another Negra Modelo and a big bowl of guacamole. You may have a headache in the morning, but at least you'll remember what you did the night before.

Comparison Chart
Bike:BMW R1200CL CustomHarley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra ClassicYamaha Royal Star Venture
Suggested base price:$16,490$19,760 ($21,065 in 100th Anniversary garb)$16,399
Standard colors:Capri Blue Metallic, Mojave Brown Metallic, Pearl Silver MetallicLuxury Blue Pearl, Luxury Rich Red Pearl, White PearlBeach Sand Tan/Raspberry Metallic
Standard warranty:36 months, unlimited mileage12 months, unlimited mileage60 months, unlimited mileage
 
Engine
Type:Air/oil-cooled opposed twinAir-cooled 45-degree V-twin Liquid-cooled 70-degree V-four
Valve arrangement:OHV, 4 valvesOHV, 2 valvesDOHC, 4 valves
Displacement:1170cc1450cc1294cc
Bore x stroke:101 x 73mm95.3 x 101.6mm79 x 66mm
Compression ratio:10:18.9:110:1
Carburetion:EFIEFI4, 32mm
Transmission:6 speeds5 speeds5 speeds
Final drive:ShaftBeltShaft
 
Chassis
Wet weight:724 lb.840 lb.886 lb.
Seat height:29.3 in.27.3 in.29.5 in.
Wheelbase:64.6 in.63.5 in.67.1 in.
Rake/trail:33.5 degrees/7.23 in.26.0 degrees/6.2 in.30.0 degrees/4.96 in.
Front tire:150/80-16 tubelessMT90B-16 tubeless 150/80-16 tubeless
Rear tire:170/80-15 tubelessMT90B-16 tubeless150/90-16 tubeless
Front brake:2, four-piston calipers, 12-in. discs, ABS2, four-piston calipers, 11.5-n. discs2, two-piston calipers, 11.7-n. discs
Rear brake:Two-piston caliper, 11.2-in. disc, ABSFour-piston caliper, 11.5-in. discTwo-piston caliper, 11.8-in. disc
Front suspension:BMW Telelever, 5.7-in. travel41mm stanchions, 4.1-in. travel41mm stanchions, 5.6-in. travel
Rear suspension:1 damper, 4.7-in. travel2 dampers, 3.7-in. travel1 damper, 4.1-in. travel
Fuel capacity:4.5 gal.5.0 gal.6.0 gal.
Instruments:Speedometer, tachometer, odometer, tripmeter, clockSpeedometer, odometer, tripmeter, tachometer, fuel gauge, voltmeter, oil-pressure gauge, ambient air-temp gaugeSpeedometer, odometer, tripmeter, fuel gauge, clock
 
Performance
Fuel mileage:38.1 mpg, average33.4 mpg, average32.1 mpg, average
Average range: 171 miles, including reserve167 miles, including reserve192 miles, including reserve
RPM at 60mph, top gear:285026202950
200-yard top-gear acceleration for 50 mph, terminal speed:NANANA
Quarter-mile acceleration:NANANA


Riding Positions

Andrew Cherney
Height: 5'8"
Weight:155 pounds
Inseam: 31 inches
Pet Name: El Vaquero

I'm convinced this class of motorcycle is the closest thing to a car, but I was happy to have such room on a trip of this length. BMW's CLC got all the looks, but the bike's top-heaviness and surreal fairing make for unpredictable riding. A buzzy powerplant and a jerky ABS don't inspire confidence either, which is a shame because the CLC's steering is agreeably nimble. The Yamaha is smoother and tracks more predictably than its plump profile would have you believe, but the luxury liner of choice for me was the "Ultra Glide," with ergos that fit me perfectly. Its smooth, rangy powerband is unimpeachable, and my only complaint was lack of stopping power. I can't justify one of these behemoths in my personal garage, but I wouldn't say no to taking one on another high-mileage stint. Comfort can be addictive.

Marc Cook
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 190 pounds
Inseam: 32 inches
Pet Name: Chorro

Every time we switched bikes, the Harley followed the BMW, and I can't imagine a better way to emphasize how good the Harley is. And how badly BMW missed the mark.

The Harley's Twin Cam 88 engine isn't overpowered, but it felt like a Pro Stock dragster compared to the utterly anemic BMW. And although the Yamaha is smoothest, the Harley felt like a blender after the lumpy, shuddering Beemer. Where the Harley's handling was light and reassuring, the BMW's was clunky and odd. In every way besides suspension compliance and outright braking power, the Harley waxes the BMW. Game over.

Jamie Elvidge
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 135 pounds
Inseam: 34 inches
Pet Name: Poquita

It's no secret I'm fond of the Yamaha. I've put more than 25K miles on the bike since its release in 1999, and I consider it an excellent touring mount. However, each time it rolls out against the Glide it comes up a pinch short. It's an apple and orange thing--and an intended juxtaposition in my opinion. One is nebulous and comfy as hell, while the other is hard-edged but sweetly predictable for its honesty with the road. There are riders for each. I would take either bike to Alaska and back. (Have, in fact.) The BMW, on the other hand, was a donkey bringing up the rear of this photo-finish horse race. Its short legs, finicky gate and overall lack of majesty left me unimpressed. If I were to buy one? It would be the Yamaha, for its Cadillac-like ride and groovy retro-style. You could also blame the reverse snob in me. I'm just not ready to follow.

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