Adventure-Tourer Comparo

ad*ven*ture n. 1. a. An undertaking or enterprise of a hazardous nature. b. An undertaking of a questionable nature, especially one involving intervention in another states' affairs. 2. An unusual or exciting experience. 3. Participation in hazardous or ex

Photography by Joe Bonnello

Adventure generally resides in the adventurer's adrenal glands, but this particular mission qualifies on all counts. Whatever you call them--adventure-tourers, ber trailies or just bloody weird--we assembled a representative quorum of the biggest ones at Motorcyclist's headquarters: BMW's R1200GS (our 2004 Motorcycle Of The Year), KTM's aptly named 950 Adventure, Suzuki's obliquely named DL1000 V-Strom and Triumph's reworked-for-'05 Tiger 955i. All aspire to places you wouldn't take your run-of-the-mill streetbike; North Africa, for instance, or the Yukon. Or Hill Street between First and Eighth Ave. in Los Angeles. They're all different answers to a very important question.

That said, how do you get away from the thundering hordes of nomadic bikers, boaters, spelunkers, golfers, etc. in '05? The answer is simple: Go where they can't--or won't--follow. We're not antisocial. We just need a little extra personal space once in a while.

Still, with only a handful of days to burn, the Sahara desert was out. This would be a stream-of-consciousness trip. And if there were adventures to be had, we'd have 'em. These are adventure bikes, after all, motorcycling's omnivores. We can go wherever we want. Almost. CHP-barricaded offramps are a really bad idea. The same goes for the habitat of various endangered species, or any trail Malcolm Smith might classify as neat. The theory was this: Jammed surface streets would lead to slots between lanes of stalled freeway traffic, which would eventually lead to quaint country roads--which would then become stretches of two-track dirt roads that would magically morph into actual dirt trails way up high in the San Gabriel Mountains. We'd ride. We'd have adventures. We'd play off-roader at Jim Hyde's 42 Bar Ranch for a day or two. We might even stop off at nearby Willow Springs International Raceway for a few hours. And we'd get to know these do-everything streetbikes better than ever.

But the first and most formidable hurdle was the L.A. Basin itself.

Thru TrafficWe plow through the most patently ridiculous traffic in America everyday, sometimes on pavement rough enough to impersonate downtown Baghdad. So believe us when we say these are the very best commuter tools in the business. After too many miles too close to the pavement on sportbikes and cruisers, these things are a revelation: You sit up straight, boots planted a comfortable distance beneath butts, with 30-plus inches of seat height affording a commanding view of traffic. BMW and Triumph have even included height-adjustable seats for the inseam-impaired. Wide handlebars provide sufficient leverage to dart away from impending Oldsmobuicks and avoid ending up underneath. Those plastic hand-guards--most substantial on the KTM and BMW--are good at keeping your hands warm. They're even better at fending off oversized SUV mirrors jutting into one's path while you're threading between miles of gridlock. And aside from a little spilled latte inside one Lincoln Navigator, they're cruelty-free.

Dealing with all manner of vehicular turpitude reveals much. On the KTM, traffic-choked stretches of pothole-riddled misery become a sort of urban enduro. At 507 pounds wet, it is the lightest of the bunch, nearly 40 pounds lighter than the Tiger. For those with a 34-inch minimum inseam, commuting on the KTM is the modern version of every 7th-grade-boy's dream: riding to school on a '71 Bultaco 250 Pursang. Except no Pursang ever made 89 horsepower or hammered up Interstate 5 at 85 mph. More so than the others, the KTM is decidedly skewed toward dirty adventures. As such, it needs a committed rider who never whines about the moderately cruel seat, skimpy fairing protection or footpegs that buzz at 80 mph. If the engine dies at a light, smile and punch the starter button. But if you're not on the KTM when the pavement ends, you'll wish you were.

When the job at hand is to keep moving in stagnant traffic, the Triumph is a more practical tool. No surprise there. Triumph's (and Suzuki's) engineers reworked an existing street machine to address this particular market segment; their counterparts at KTM and BMW started with clean computer screens. So beneath the Tiger's faux feral orange exterior throbs the domesticated three-cylinder heart of a commuter. Making more points with smoothness than strength, it flows happily through traffic between 4000 and 7000 rpm. Revs don't build quickly, but twisting the Tiger's tail produces satisfying propulsion accompanied by a delicious growl all the way to 9500 rpm.

The Tiger's sportier steering geometry makes avoiding urban obstacles--Laurel Canyon craters big enough to swallow an 18-pound turkey, or a 19-inch front wheel, for instance--easier than on the lighter V-Strom. But softer springs at both ends mean the Tiger heaves over genuinely rough stuff with less composure than we'd like. Plush? Yes. Precise? Not exactly. Suzuki's V-Strom rides on soft suspension, too, yet it's slightly more poised over hostile urban real estate even if it is a little more difficult to turn. Meanwhile, the BMW GS rolls through Hollywood with the confident precision of Rommel's Afrika Korps: powerful, and taking everything in its considerable, seven-league stride. Confronted by an obstacle it can't roll over or around, the GS's servo-assisted EVO brakes stop hard enough to make anything less feel like your kid-sister's Schwinn Pixie.

Freeway ConfinementAll the signs say they're freeways. But for most of the people who waste an average of 93 hours every year there--or so says a recent Texas A&M University report--the Los Angeles freeway system is actually one huge, cunningly disguised parking lot. Unless you're on a motorcycle. No worries--we're getting good at this SUV mirror-slalom thing. Here, the more firmly suspended, more crisp-handling KTM and BMW are slightly better than the semi-cushy Triumph and Suzuki. The V-Strom's tiny throttle-response hiccup between 3000 and 4000 rpm hurts it in these environs.

After a few miles of this two-wheeled swervery our valiant quartet breaks into the open and settles into the 80-mph flow. Scan the mirrors for encroaching CHP. Marvel at the dexterity of an aspiring supermodel in an '05 Corvette applying lip gloss and driving like Dale Jr.

If you could flip through our notes, the Suzuki might seem like the first-class cabin at this point. Room: plenty. Wind protection: good, though a little turbulence short of great with the screen in its tallest slot. Repositioning it requires a Phillips screwdriver, an Allen wrench and above-average mechanical fortitude. Still, the 'Strom cockpit is calmer than the Triumph's. Although slightly less protective, the BMW's windscreen adjusts sans tools. Back to the V-Strom. Suspension: commendably humane and easily adjustable. Seat: broad, flat, soft and comfy.

After that, the BMW's firmer, more logically contoured saddle is the place to be. The BMW's a little buzzier above 80 mph, though, and its spastic LCD fuel readout can't decide how much gas is left. All four bikes carry sufficient fuel for 200 miles of exploring, and a conservative throttle hand can squeeze out another 40 or so.

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