2008 Motorcycle Of The Year

Taking stock of a changing landscape

WORDS: Tim Carrithers

Things have changed. Anyone with a garage full of internal-combustion mouths to feed-or a mortgage on the roof over their 16-valve heads-knows that. The latest motorcycles have changed as well, but not as much as the way we look at them. Once upon a time, maybe a year ago, going for a ride was a way to plug your neural USB connection into something above and beyond the pressing realities on the home front. An escape, if you will, though we won't.

But with the economy in the tank and fuel prices way over the top, motorcycles are beginning to look less like a way to outrun those outrageous fortunes and more like a rational way of dealing with them. That whole discussion put a different spin on our inter-office Motorcycle of the Year polling for 2008. As much as some of us like to avoid the P-word, practicality looms larger here than it ever has, and it's rising up everybody's list of reasons for riding, whether you like it or not.

The wallet-wrenching realities of '08 exert more influence on The Big Picture and our Motorcycle of the Year choice than on the category awards recognizing the other eight best bikes in their respective classes. The best sportbike is exactly that. Parsimony, in this case, gets pushed downstream by more pertinent factors. Impertinence, for instance.

We've also singled out the best gear and the best new technology that make this whole thing easier, safer and a little more fun, along with the annual Greg McQuide Memorial Trophy for the motorcyclist who best embodies the unquenchable enthusiasm of its namesake. Maybe you'll agree with our picks and maybe you won't, but one thing seems fairly certain: You'll see things just a little differently afterward.

MOTORCYCLE OF THE YEAR

KAWASAKI VERSYS

What is it? What do you want it to be?

WORDS: Tim Carrithers PHOTO: Kawasaki

What is that thing? That depends. Literally? Mechanically? Practically? Don't waste your time looking in the dictionary, Versys is an amalgam of "versatile" and "system" cooked up in Kawasaki's marketing department; a portmanteau to students of linguistics. The hard parts are an unlikely mix as well, bolted up to bring us a broadband sequel to Kawasaki's '06 650 Ninja. Power comes from a more flexible version of the same basic liquid-cooled, eight-valve, 649cc parallel-twin. But once you move beyond that engine and the unassuming steel-trellis skeleton it inhabits, the Versys shares only a set of wheels with its sportier stablemate. The Ninja is a perfectly serviceable little sporting twin, but the Versys is a whole lot more than that.
Styling doesn't give away the plot. Upright ergonomics and minimal bodywork allude to post-modern urbane adventures on the cheap, but this one skirts all the tidy buyer's guide categories and transcends its parts manifest more than most anything else we could name. Where the superficially similar 650 Ninja is typecast as a beginner's econo-sport, the Versys has an irrational appeal to anyone who's tired of coloring inside the same old lines.
You're commuting? It's tall enough to provide a strategic view of threats and escape routes in the urban tableau, and agile enough to dissect 6:00 p.m. traffic with minimal stress. Feeling sporty? With most of the 650's 60-horse heard huddled in the midrange, thrust is immediate. The Versys carves up tight roads like a #11 surgical scalpel at speeds that would flummox a bargain bike's chassis. Track days? You won't be the fastest, but lever on some sticky rubber and you'll have fun. The in-laws need a house-sitter at the Kennebunkport beach compound Saturday morning? No worries: It'll inhale 240 miles of I-95 on a 5-gallon tank of regular unleaded in one painless sitting. Repeat as necessary.
Suspension is compliant without feeling mushy, and that skimpy-looking potato chip of a windscreen does a lot more than you'd think. It's not quite up for Adventures with Ewan and Charlie, but the Versys does better on a graded dirt road than a citified SUV. So pack a fly rod and reel in a few unsuspecting Moose River brookies on Sunday afternoon.
What's a Versys? It's not exactly naked and entirely too weird to qualify as a standard, supersport or sport-tourer. And it's way more than a bargain bike, though that $6899 sticker price certainly qualifies it as one. It breathes new life into an idea that started with Edward Turner's first 40-inch twins nearly half a century ago. Two cylinders. Two wheels. Add inspiration. Shake well. The result is more impressive on the road than it is on paper, in the showroom or at the curb. The most impressive thing about the Versys is what it can do. That would be just about anything, and for a lot less money than anything else out there. Call it whatever you want. We're calling it Motorcycle of the Year.

"The Versys has an irrational appeal to anyone who's tired of coloring inside the same old lines."

You're commuting? It's tall enough to provide a strategic view of threats and escape routes in the urban tableau, and agile enough to dissect 6:00 p.m. traffic with minimal stress. Feeling sporty? With most of the 650's 60-horse heard huddled in the midrange, thrust is immediate. The Versys carves up tight roads like a #11 surgical scalpel at speeds that would flummox a bargain bike's chassis. Track days? You won't be the fastest, but lever on some sticky rubber and you'll have fun. The in-laws need a house-sitter at the Kennebunkport beach compound Saturday morning? No worries: It'll inhale 240 miles of I-95 on a 5-gallon tank of regular unleaded in one painless sitting. Repeat as necessary. Suspension is compliant without feeling mushy, and that skimpy-looking potato chip of a windscreen does a lot more than you'd think. It's not quite up for Adventures with Ewan and Charlie, but the Versys does better on a graded dirt road than a citified SUV. So pack a fly rod and reel in a few unsuspecting Moose River brookies on Sunday afternoon.
What's a Versys? It's not exactly naked and entirely too weird to qualify as a standard, supersport or sport-tourer. And it's way more than a bargain bike, though that $6899 sticker price certainly qualifies it as one. It breathes new life into an idea that started with Edward Turner's first 40-inch twins nearly half a century ago. Two cylinders. Two wheels. Add inspiration. Shake well. The result is more impressive on the road than it is on paper, in the showroom or at the curb. The most impressive thing about the Versys is what it can do. That would be just about anything, and for a lot less money than anything else out there. Call it whatever you want. We're calling it Motorcycle of the Year.

MOTORCYCLIST OF THE YEAR

TONY GEORGE

Bringing bikes back to The Brickyard

WORDS: Aaron Frank PHOTO: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

What sacrilege is this, naming a car guy Motorcyclist of the Year? And not just any car guy, but Anton H. "Tony" George, President and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, founder of the Indy Racing League (IRL), a current IRL team owner and a former Indy Lights racer himself. That's a bit like awarding Lucifer a key to Heaven, no?
Before you petition for our entire editorial staff to be reassigned to Motor Trend, know that Tony George is a licensed motorcyclist, a long-standing AMA member and an experienced street and off-road rider. And, thanks to his exceptional efforts to bring MotoGP to his legendary sanctum of speed, George is certainly the most impactful person in American motorcycling this year--making him a worthy recipient of our MOTY award.
George's influence in the world of motorsports is impossible to underestimate. This is the man who oversees the Indy 500, the so-called "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," among the oldest and most prestigious racing events in the world. George also hosted the best-attended Formula 1 race ever (the 2000 USGP, which drew an estimated 225,000 spectators) and also created The Brickyard 400, the richest event on the NASCAR calendar that attracts a quarter-million fans. With a track record like this, the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix could easily become the highlight of the MotoGP calendar.
The groundwork for Indy's MotoGP was laid when the corporation began looking for ideas to celebrate the Speedway's 2009 centennial. The Brickyard's first-ever race in 1909 was for motorcycles, and George wanted to acknowledge that by incorporating motorcycle racing into the 100th-anniversary events. Speedway COO Joie Chitwood III and Senior VP of Operations Mel Harder (both of whom George is quick to credit), opened concurrent discussions with multiple sanctioning bodies, including the AMA, World Superbike and MotoGP, with the latter emerging as the obvious choice.
"We feel like we have in the Speedway a world-class venue," George says. "We pride ourselves on providing world-class entertainment, and offering motorsports enthusiasts the opportunity to see world-class events. From a stature standpoint, MotoGP belongs here."
Initial plans called for a one-time race in conjunction with the centennial celebration, but this soon evolved into an annual affair. IMS spared no expense in making this a reality, breaking out the bulldozers and radically re-configuring the Speedway's infield road course (originally built for F1) to better accommodate the 800cc, 220-horsepower MotoGP bikes.
George has likewise spared no effort in promoting the inaugural race--most significantly by inviting 2006 MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden to do an exhibition lap in front of an estimated 400,000 racing fans at this year's Indy 500.
"Demonstrating motorcycle racing in front of our other audiences builds interest for us," George says. "We have a number of fans that are fans of the Speedway itself and anything that we do here. This might have been their first exposure to motorcycle racing, and with the number of people there, I'm sure it was enjoyed by many."
More than anyone else in the world, Tony George has the power, the ability and the will to showcase the excitement of MotoGP racing before another universe of motorsports fans. He's done it already with Hayden's exhibitions, and will make an even larger impression on the afternoon of September 14th, when 18 of the fiercest machines in racing streak across Indy's iconic, brick-paved start/finish line.
Not bad for a car guy.

BEST SPORTBIKE

HONDA CBR1000RR
Faster than the proverbial bullet. Lighter than most 600s. Able to leap other bikes' dyno curves in a single bound. Honda's all-new CBR1000RR is its most superlative superbike yet. Not only did the Alpha-RR dominate the performance portion of our "Class of '08" sportbike shootout (posting the quickest quarter-mile time, the fastest lap at the Streets of Willow and amazing dyno numbers in the middle revs), but it also ruled on more subjective aspects of the test. Its effortless handling and overall ease-of-use are absolutely contrary to a machine with such devastating speed. How did Big Red do it? Relentless weight reduction (even the instrument glass was scrutinized), fanatical attention to mass centralization and plenty of good old-fashioned internal-combustion hot-rodding result in a giant step forward in literbike performance--and 2008's Sportbike of the Year.

Alternative Take

DUCATI 848
This is the kind of downsizing we can get behind! Ducati's middleweight 848 maintains the same arresting aesthetics and capable chassis as the race-winning 1098 Superbike, but with a smaller, revvier, 849cc V-twin and lower price. Lighter and more accessible than its (occasionally) overwhelming big brother, the 848 is hard to beat on the street.

BEST ADVENTURE BIKE

BMW R1200GS ADVENTURE
Once again, BMW's R1200GS Adventure is the only reason you need to chase the sunset across a half-dozen continents--Antarctica may be a bit chilly--on any sort of road or no road at all. There are faster sportbikes, more comfortable touring mounts and easier ways to get across town, but nobody builds a better ride for taking the long way. Strap on the gear, cue up the GPS and go. Then BMW upped the ante for '08 with more power, electronic suspension adjustment and a nifty traction-control system that makes putting all that power down on some shale-strewn fire road a whole lot easier at the end of an 18-hour day. You'll pay $16,350 for the privilege, $1040 for the ESA and another $365 for the TC. With the optional saddlebags, tax, license and maybe a GPS receiver on the handlebars, you're on the wrong side of $20,000. Cheap? No. The best? No doubt.

Alternative Take

BMW F800GS
A conventional 45mm fork and chain final-drive make the 798cc parallel-twin a lighter, more intuitive off-road adventurer than its iconic Boxer brethren, especially in the dirt. At $10,520, the base price undercuts a standard R1200GS by more than $4000; enough to pay for some tasty options or a quick trip to Peru.

BEST TOURING BIKE

KAWASAKI CONCOURS 14
So you've got to get someplace faraway fast. You've got lots of options, but if your preferred means of transport is a single-track vehicle, none is better than the Kawasaki Concours 14. This second-generation Connie follows the same basic formula as its namesake: Take one Ninja sportbike, season with hard luggage, shaft drive and taller windscreen, simmer and serve. But where the original Concours was based on the original Ninja 1000, this new one is based on the mighty Ninja ZX-14. So it's powerful and fast, and thus eminently suited to devouring long expanses of asphalt at highly elevated rates of speed. Perhaps best of all, at $12,899 this Japanese bullet train is priced many thousands of dollars less than its predominantly European competition. If history repeats itself, it'll still be in Team Green's lineup in 2033.

Alternative Take

HONDA GOLD WING
Riding the Gold Wing alongside the other baggers in this issue's "Long Rangers" comparison reminded us of that old adage "competition improves the breed." Because as good as it is, without any real competition the GL1800 is resting on its laurels, long overdue for a redo. Two-liter, eight-cylinder automatic anyone?

BEST NAKED BIKE

SUZUKI B-KING
Not since Yamaha's first V-Max appeared 23 years ago have we seen a production motorcycle with as much raw attitude as Suzuki's radical B-King. From its gladiator-helmet headlight to its outsized, ray-gun exhaust jutting out the back, Suzuki's badass B-King is an extrovert's dream that looks ready to rear up on its fat, 200mm-wide Dunlop and devour the doddering Prius in front of it. Unlike so many overstyled and underpowered naked bikes, however, the B-King has the muscle to back up its bad-boy posture. A barely retuned version of the Hayabusa's hyper, 1340cc inline-four puts down 161 bhp and 97.9 lb.-ft. of torque---talk about naked aggression! Combining sci-fi styling with superbike stonk, and completing the creation with comfy ergos, capable suspension and strong, radial brakes, Suzuki tops the naked bike class. Long live the B-King!

Alternative Take

TRIUMPH STREET TRIPLE
The 1050cc Speed Triple, Triumph's original streetfighter, can be overpowering in its intended urban environ---like boxing in a phone booth. The smaller, livelier, 675cc Street Triple takes less time (and real estate) to reach its fun zone, making it more satisfying for urban warfare without sacrificing any of the attitude or visual impact of the original.

BEST DREAM BIKE

DUCATI 1098R
What blasphemy is this? How could we pick the Ducati 1098R as Best Dream Bike when there are Desmosedici RRs to be had? Two reasons: 1) Built in greater numbers at a cost of $39,995, the 1098R is a slightly more attainable dream for most; and 2) we picked the sold-out $72,500 Desmosedici last year. And then there's this: Based on our highly unscientific, seat-of-the-pants riding impressions at different racetracks, we're willing to bet that the Superbike-spec 1098R would beat the MotoGP-derived D16RR in a straight fight. (If we could find a couple of willing owners, we'd volunteer to settle that score.) The key is one feature the 1098R has that every other sportbike doesn't: traction control. It's easy to talk smack about electronic rider aids until you've whacked open the throttle at the apex and felt like you've been shot out of a cannon--every turn, every lap. Better living through technology!

Alternative Take

H-D XR1200
The notion of a Harley-Davidson as Best Dream Bike isn't at all far-fetched. But a Sportster?! Allow us to explain: The XR1200 is the very dirttrack-style streetbike we've been clamoring for since the demise of the iron-barreled XR1000 two decades ago. Ironically, it's being built solely for the European market, so for the moment at least, Americans can only dream of owning one.

BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK

KAWASAKI NINJA 250R
Hard to believe, but there have been years when the humble Ninja 250 has been Kawasaki's best-selling model. What's the appeal? Low price, low weight, low seat height ... and did we mention the low price? Seriously, for some small-in-stature sportbike enthusiasts, it's the only bike they fit. So it came as big news when the little Ninja received a major makeover this year after a two-decade-plus run. The most obvious difference is the more modern look, with a full-fairing patterned after that of the Ninja ZX-6R and 10R, 17-inch wheels and petal-disc brakes. But the transformation wasn't purely cosmetic: The 250cc parallel-twin now revs to 13,000 rpm while delivering improved low-end and midrange power thanks to revised cam timing and a new 2-into-1 exhaust. The bargain $3499 machine also gets exceptional fuel economy--as much as 80 mpg if you believe the Internet message boards. No wonder they call it Team Green.

Alternative Take

KAWASAKI KLR650
Like the Ninja 250 and Concours, the KLR650 got a long-overdue makeover this year. First produced 21 years ago, this venerable dual-purpose machine received a number of upgrades to improve its roadworthiness, including a larger fairing, luggage rack and gas tank, plus a more comfortable seat and shorter-travel suspension. At $5349 it's inexpensive, and it's also cheap to operate thanks to its miserly fuel economy.

BEST CRUISER

HARLEY-DAVIDSON FXDF FAT BOB
Add this to the last few truths of which we are certain: Roll into a Saturday night anywhere from Long Beach to the Bronx or any burg in between with a traffic light. There are two kinds of motorcycles out there: the Harley-Davidson and the compromise. It's more chemical than rational. But Bob here has the sort of rational rationale that takes the door prize at this party. Don't let the Fat part fool you: He's just big-boned, more motorcycle than fashion accessory. The slotted 16-inch wheels flanking that 96-inch Twin Cam twin wear the sort of rubber that lets the boy roll around corners more readily than the average poseur. Ride hard. Bob likes it. Brembo four-pot calipers stop, and a tall sixth gear lets the Big Twin loaf along on the freeway. Soak up the ambience du jour six or eight zip codes away. Bob's down with that. He's a bike that just happens to be a Harley-Davidson. Not the other way around. That's why he's here.





Alternative Take

STAR RAIDER
Performance is the last thing you'd expect from a rakish 39-degree front end ahead of a 210/40R-18 Metzeler Marathon. Especially with 730 pounds of motorcycle balanced on a 71-inch wheelbase in between. Lucky for you there's a healthy 113-inch Yamaha twin in there too, along with a stout aluminum frame and great brakes. Radical chic and civil road manners? What more do you want?





BEST DIRTBIKE

KTM 690 ENDURO
Dual-sport bikes traditionally come in two flavors: two-wheeled SUVs that barely get the job done off-road or MXers with license plates that barely get it done on the road. Leave it to KTM to break that mold with one motorcycle that can truly do it all. The 690 Enduro is the dirtiest sibling in the new LC4 family that also includes the Duke III streetbike and SMC supermoto. Developed for the Dakar Rally, the Enduro boasts an innovative layout with its airbox above the engine and gas tank under the seat. Fuel-injected, it comes with three maps that let you tailor power output to suit conditions or run on low-octane fuel like you might come across in Mexico. Its 10 inches of suspension travel is a couple inches shorter than that of a purpose-built dirtbike, but it's more than capable off-road. At $8898 the 690 Enduro isn't cheap, but considering everything it can do, it's like having two bikes for the price of one.





Alternative Take

SUZUKI RM-Z450
Suzuki's four-stroke motocrosser warrants mention not because it's the best of its breed--Honda's CRF450R has won most of this year's shootouts-but because it's the first mass-produced, fuel-injected MXer. So say goodbye to messy jetting changes and hello to letting electronics do the work for you. After all, racing is hard enough already.

BEST NEW TECHNOLOGY

PIAGGIO MP3
Yes, it's a scooter. A three-wheeled one at that. But Piaggio's highly innovative, double-front-wheel architecture makes the MP3 more fun than any step-through has a right to be, able to make sportbike-mounted squids bleed through the ears in a tight, downhill canyon blast.
The MP3--available in 250, 400 and 500cc flavors--leans just like a Desmosedici, giving you all the flying-above-the-road thrills of a conventional motorcycle. But its two-wheeled, independently sprung, double-disc-brake front end delivers unprecedented cornering confidence. You can brake like a madman, then slam the thing over like Ben Spies, all without untoward risk to life, limb or skin.
Great though this front end is on a scooter, we believe its true potential lies in bigger, butcher, more-mainstream motorcycles. On a tourer, sport-tourer or even urban-naked bike, this ingeniously engineered setup might just help make motorcycling safer--and more socially acceptable.

Alternative Take

VECTRIX ELECTRIC MAXI-SCOOTER
It's smooth, it's quiet, it's clean and it's all-electric. It's also a fully realized, beautifully engineered way to laugh past every gas station, with its penny-a-mile energy costs, 60-mph top speed and 25- to 40-mile range. There's even a three-wheeled, MP3-like version in the wings, for those who think Futurama is a documentary.

BEST NEW PRODUCT

FORCEFIELD BODY ARMOR
Place a soft, flexible Forcefield Sport back protector alongside the stiff, hard-shelled competition and you'd never imagine it achieves the highest-possible Level 2 CE protection rating. Though its product might look less substantial, Forcefield claims its exclusive combination of Armorflex outer skin and Nitrex internal foam actually absorbs impact more evenly and disperses shock more uniformly than the conventional plastic/EPS/aluminum-honeycomb competition. The protection we demand is there, but what really earns this product this honor is the fit--this is the most comfortable back protector we've ever worn. The low profile fits under the snuggest riding gear, venting through both layers of armor keeps you cool, and the flexible structure conforms exactly to your body so it doesn't shift or slide while you shimmy around the bike. Forcefield has expanded its product line to also cover your chest, arms and legs. With protection this comfortable, there's no excuse not to don it before every ride.

Alternative Take

WIKI DESIGNS WIKISHIFT PHOTOCHROMATIC FACESHIELD
Few things are more annoying--or dangerous--than a tinted faceshield after dark. Except, maybe, squinting due west through a clear visor at sunset. Wikishift isn't the first photochromatic shield, but it's the first that really works, transitioning from clear to full dark in as little as 20 seconds, with less temperature sensitivity and greater durability than other brands. Almost one year later, ours is still doing the job.

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • 4
  • |
  • 5
  • |
  • 6
  • |
  • 7
  • |
  • 8
  • |
  • View Full Article
Enjoyed this Post? Subscribe to our RSS Feed, or use your favorite social media to recommend us to friends and colleagues!

*Please enter your username

*Please enter your password

*Please enter your comments
Comments:
Not Registered?Signup Here
(1024 character limit)
Motorcyclist
  • Motorcyclist Online