Things have changed again since we rolled out our picks for the best motorcycles of 2008, and not for the better. But you didn't come here to rehash the bad news, so have a look at the flip side. Most of the people who should know say we're not out of the woods yet, but the worst recession since WWII is on track to turn around toward the end of this year. Whether that happens on cue or not, we've changed too. Priorities are coming into sync with what the wisest among us have known all along. People are a whole lot more important than things. And since you can't have everything, choose the things you can have very carefully. For captains of industry and bone-weary foot soldiers in this summer of our financial discontent, one thing seems clear...
Ideas are the real currency. Good ones-the wheel, Post-It notes, penicillin, indoor plumbing, knee pucks, reinforced concrete-transcend the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Brainstorms rolling in on two wheels have less sociopolitical impact, but the manufacturers that bring them to market rise to the top, in the showrooms of America as well as our MOTY rankings. The practical, functional and stinky-fast electric motorcycle is closer to reality than ever. Crossplane crankshafts, traction control, track-worthy anti-lock brakes and gearless hydro-mechanical transmissions are here now. Ideas-all new or newly recycled-change things.
Thanks to the power of such positive thinking, riding a motorcycle is still a time-honored antidote for bad news poisoning. And, up ahead, hope for the future lives on the strength of good ideas. Regardless of whether you ride for basic transportation, pure recreation or a bit of both, something-or someone-here should help you keep the faith. So have a look, see what you think, and keep your chin up. These days, that's the best idea of all.
Motorcycle Of The Year
Redefining the inline experience
There's nothing new under the sun, and indeed, there's nothing new under the fairing of Yamaha's latest YZF-R1. Cadillac introduced the first crossplane crankshaft to automobiles in 1923, and such cranks have motivated everything from Moto Guzzi Grand Prix bikes in the '50s to Valentino Rossi's present-day YZR-M1. You'd never guess as much the first time you ride the '09 R1. The crossplane engine feels, sounds and accelerates so different than any other inline-four that you can scarcely believe it isn't some cutting-edge innovation. If the crossplane crank works this well, why wasn't it adopted years ago?
Who would have guessed the simple act of shifting two crankpins 90 degrees would have such a dramatic effect on engine performance and character? The reconfigured crankshaft and irregular, "long-bang" firing order fractures massive power pulses into smaller chunks that arrive less violently at the rear contact patch. The benefit is felt immediately at the twistgrip, letting you get into the throttle earlier and harder with less likelihood of unpredictable rear-wheel slides-or sky-surfing high-sides. Controlling a liter-bike's overwhelming output has never been easier than on the new R1.
Improved traction management isn't the only upside to the crossplane design. Reduced crank shake and a counter-rotating balance shaft make this the smoothest ride this side of a Honda Gold Wing, and the syncopated exhaust note rivals any Latin twin. The chassis is likewise inspired by Rossi's M1, incorporating a MotoGP-derived bottom-link suspension capable of channeling all that added available traction. Painted, polished and pieced together like a high-end luxury car, the R1 is one of the most finely finished motorcycles of any category this year.
Modern sportbikes are engineered so close to the edge of the performance envelope that we're conditioned to expect incremental changes: a shaved pound here, an added pony there. It's almost unimaginable that any sportbike could surprise us with a novel riding experience that realigns our understanding of what a liter-class sportbike is, and what one can do. The 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1 is exactly that sort of bike-which is why it's our Motorcycle of the Year.
Motorcyclist Of The Year
The real American idol
It's been years since American race fans have had a home-country hero to root for on the World Superbike stage. This is what makes Ben Spies' both-barrels-blazing entry into the 2009 championship so exceptional. As of this writing, only seven rounds into his rookie season, Spies had already broken Doug Polen's 18-year-old record of six consecutive poles and won seven of 14 races, putting him just 53 points behind Noriyuki Haga in the championship chase. To accomplish so much so soon, working with an unfamiliar team on an unproven bike, is remarkable. To dominate on racetracks he had literally never seen before-even challenging circuits like Phillip Island and Monza-is almost unfathomable. In a world where American hegemony is fading, Spies reminds us that we're still capable of greatness.
Spies hails from Texas, like Polen and another former World Superbike Champion, Colin Edwards, and he embodies the same Wild West virtues of strength, purpose and unyielding confidence. These are essential traits for taming a 200-plus-horsepower motorcycle while fighting off 20 of the best riders in the world, all gunning for a podium spot. Spies isn't a trash talker-he's not much of a talker at all, in fact-and you'll never hear him make excuses or cast blame. Even when bad luck strikes-such as when he was punted off-track twice in his first SBK race at Phillip Island; when he crashed while challenging for the win at Valencia and Assen; when he ran out of gas in the final turn at Monza; and when his shift linkage broke at Kyalami-he remains unfazed. He just brushes off his shoulders, puts any upset behind him and, more often than not, exacts revenge by dominating the next race. It's becoming his signature.
Always collected, always classy, gracious off the bike and fiercely competitive anytime the visor is down, Ben Spies, World Superbike racer-and, we hope, 2009 World Superbike Champion-is the best thing to happen to American roadracing in years, which is why he's our Motorcyclist of the Year. Thank you, Ben. In a year full of bad news, you've given us something to cheer about.
Best middleweight sportbike, anyway... Kawasaki's ZX-6R went from being the runt of the litter in '07 to the big dog at the park in '09, with alpha-dog styling and a bite to match. A comprehensive overhaul (including engine, chassis, suspension and bodywork) led to a massive 25-pound weight reduction and added power across the board. The all-new engine is seriously potent-especially in the midrange-making every corner exit feel like blast-off at Cape Canaveral. Silky-smooth throttle response and a buttery transmission make releasing all those ponies easier, and a race-ready slipper clutch, Showa's innovative Big Piston Fork and powerful Nissin brakes give the Ninja a distinct advantage on the racetrack. Take into account that, at $9799, it's the least expensive purebred in the pack and it's easy to see why the ZX-6R is our Sportbike of the Year.
You can look at the new-for-'09 Ducati 1198 two ways: as a 100cc larger version of the acclaimed 1098, or as a mass-produced version of the 1198cc 1098R on which Troy Bayliss won the 2008 World Superbike Championship. Though the price went up $500 this year to $16,495, that's still less than a 999 cost in '03.
Best Naked Bike
Score one more for the boys from Borgo Panigale. Ducati's sawed-off Streetfighter is the latest in a long line of stunners from the famous Italian motorworks, marrying true superbike performance with better-than-Monster ergonomics to produce the ultimate naked bike. There's nothing more we can say about the 1098cc V-twin, one of the most charismatic and satisfying engines ever inserted between two wheels. With chassis geometry carefully optimized to suit the unique demands of the naked architecture, and a seat that you actually want to sit on for more than a few minutes at a time, the Streetfighter sets a new standard for standards. For everyone out there who ever said they'd buy a Ducati superbike if only they weren't so bloody uncomfortable, well, that excuse just expired. Ducati might never sell another fully faired superbike to a street rider again.
Hallelujah! For decades, fans of Harley-Davidson's evergreen XR750 dirt-tracker have been begging for a street-going replica, but all they've ever gotten is an orange-and-black Sportster. Granted that's what the new XR1200 is as well, but it's a vastly improved Sportster, with a 90-horsepower engine featuring downdraft induction. Ironically, it took The Motor Company's European importers to make it happen.
Best Touring Bike
Kawasaki Concours 14
Maybe you absolutely have to get from the Santa Monica Pier to Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market overnight. Maybe it's the pure, twisted joy of covering 1137 miles in 17 hours. Either way, the Concours 14 is still an affordable version of Kawasaki's 186-mph 700 Series bullet train: infinitely easier to park, more fun through the twisty bits and it still corners on rails. Essentially a more comfortable ZX-14 with removable hard bags, optional ABS and adjustable wind protection, the Concours puts an honest 150 horsepower to the pavement with a shaft-drive system that keeps all that power from pushing the chassis around. That's muscle enough to dispatch slow-moving traffic in 2 seconds, or cover a quarter-mile in 10.52 at 130.5 mph. Either way, accurate fuel delivery equals seamless acceleration. And the Concours' slipper clutch makes your next corner entry just as smooth.
Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide
The beauty of Harley's '09 'Glide is that it only looks the same. Beneath that timeless exterior, the Twin Cam 96 engine lives in a simpler steel frame that transforms road manners with more rigidity than its forefathers. The vibration-canceling rubber engine mounts and 2-1-2 exhaust are new. So are those 28-spoke wheels and 180mm Dunlop D407 rear tire.
Best Adventure Bike
After six months and 5000 miles, the smaller, simpler F800GS got around its bigger boxer brother. In the end, it happened on a nasty, rocky excuse for a trail that dives off the pavement in San Francisquito Canyon. Armed with a Rotax-built parallel-twin that refuses to stall, better front-end feel and enough dexterity for the tight bits, this one leaves the heavyweight champion behind. On the other side of the tach, there's enough thrust to reel in miles of 80-mph fire road. The 2/3-scale version of Munich's best-selling omnivore inhales the worst commute in L.A. without gagging, with a little weekend tour for dessert. All it asks in return is a gallon of mid-grade unleaded every 45-50 miles and a little chain lube. The $4000 you didn't spend on the R1200GS could finance a pretty nice expedition, which sounds like more fun than watching Ewan and Charlie on TV. Again.
BMW R1200GS Adventure
What do you do with 530 pounds of XXL German eccentricity? Just about anything you'd like, really. BMW has sold more than a half-million copies of the big GS since 1980 for that simple reason. You'd really like six bikes in the garage but there's only room for one? This is the one.
Do you sense a hint of Honda RC212V in Aprilia's new RSV4? That's no coincidence. The Italian engineers studied all manner of engines for their new World Superbike contender, and came to the same conclusion that Honda-along with Ducati and Suzuki-came to for their MotoGP bikes: The V-4 configuration works best. Yes, Ducati beat the others to the punch with its Desmosedici RR, but that limited-edition model sells for $72,500. The Aprilia will sell for less than the base-model Ducati 1198 when it goes on sale here later this year-and there's an uprated Factory version to rival the 1198S as well. Meanwhile, the RSV4 has been winning various overseas sportbike comparisons, so we can't wait to ride one stateside. But we're going to have to, and you'll have to wait to buy one too. So color the RSV4 forbidden fruit. And color it our Dreambike of the Year.
Though BMW's all-new S1000RR hasn't been quite as successful as Aprilia's RSV4 in this year's World Superbike Championship, it's probably only a matter of time. The Germans claim their new superbike will be the most sophisticated available when it goes on sale later this year, with a fly-by-wire throttle, advanced traction control and race ABS. We're holding our breath...
Best Bang For The Buck
With the same steel-trellis frame and compact engine as the 2008 MOTY award-winning Versys and the popular Ninja 650R, the ER-6n is destined for success. It looks strikingly similar to the fire-breathing Z1000 naked bike, but it's cheaper, lighter and less likely to land you in jail. That's not to say the ER-6n is boring-far from it. The ER's peppy 649cc DOHC parallel-twin and light handling make it every bit as fun as the Ninja, yet its upright ergonomics mean it's almost as comfortable as the Versys. A low seat height and a lower $6399 price tag put this edgy streetfighter within reach of cash-strapped riders, and 48-mpg fuel economy and conservative tire sizing makes for affordable operating costs. Despite its economical price, the ER-6n hasn't been diluted with discounted components, and its reliable, rubber-mounted, fuel-injected, engine offers seamless throttle response plus plenty of power to keep you entertained in the twisties.
At $5299, Kawasaki's KLX250SF is the least expensive production supermoto you can buy. A bigger front rotor, 17-inch wheels and ample suspension travel transformed the KLX250S dual-sport into this road-eating mini-monster. Excellent fuel mileage aside, this little thumper is a blast to ride-especially on one wheel!
It's somewhere between affliction and obsession. Turn a red light green and some of us-we know who we are, and so does the DMV-devour the next city block, freeway on-ramp or quarter-mile, leaving a trail of smoking rubber to punctuate the moment. Yamaha understands, which is why it builds the Star V-Max. There are quicker ways to cover 1320 feet of pavement on two wheels, but there's nothing like the 110 lb.-ft. kick in the tighty-whiteys from this 1679cc V-four. Unlike your average chrome-plated tribute to the swing era, Mr. Max isn't afraid of showing a little high-tech skin: fly-by-wire throttle, variable-length intake stacks, die-cast aluminum frame ... you get the idea. Technology cured 'Max's chronic cornering anxiety as well, elevating him to the top of the Saturday-night food chain. But omnipotence begets benevolence. So go ahead and look. You can't touch this.
Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle
Muscle. The name isn't subtle. Neither is the look or the sound. They're perfect. Hence last summer's coming-out party for the latest liquid-cooled twin-cam Revolution twin at the Infineon Raceway drag strip in northern California. If 105 horsepower doesn't sound like much, pull the trigger on this herd and get back to us.
For years, sportbikes have used stacked transmissions to shorten the length of their engines from front to back. Now, Husaberg has come up with something even more unconventional. The Swedish engineers flip-flopped the crankshaft and tranny, so the former is now on top of the latter, with the cylinder jutting forward at a near-horizontal angle. This orientation positions the heavy crank smack-dab at the bike's center of gravity, so it has less effect on roll, pitch and yaw-and in turn, handling. The most common remark heard from test riders was how much the four-stroke single (which is also offered in a 575cc version) handles like a much lighter two-stroke. As bizarre as this configuration seems now, we'll probably see more like it in the future, because recent Kawasaki patent drawings depict sport, dirt and ATV engines that are surprisingly similar.
"Supercross Superbike" we called the 2009 Honda CRF450R in our First Ride, and that's a fitting description. Where motocross bikes are usually only slightly changed from year to year, Honda pulled out all the stops, giving its off-road flagship fuel injection and an all-new chassis that epitomizes the concept of mass centralization.
Best New Technology
Honda Combined ABS
Other manufacturers have developed anti-lock brake systems for the two-wheeled set, but they all pale in comparison to Honda's new C-ABS (Combined Anti-Lock Brake System), available on the 2009 CBR600RR and CBR1000RR. Sure, the sophisticated, linked system adds $1000 to the price tag and 20-plus pounds, but it's worth every penny and ounce to have optimum braking performance at all times. With a natural lever feel and none of the bizarre pulsing exhibited by some other makers' ABS, Honda's system is so un-invasive that you'll never know it's there until you need it. Grab a handful of brake on a wet or dirty road, and you're rewarded with complete composure and smooth deceleration. Honda's C-ABS offers controlled braking at the threshold of wheel lockup-something even expert-level riders are hard-pressed to match, and only after several attempts on dry pavement. In the real world, you only get one chance.
Ducati Traction Control
Last year, DTC (Ducati Traction Control) debuted on the $40,000 1098R, making it the first production sportbike to be so equipped. This year, DTC trickles down to the $21,795 1198S. That alone would be impressive, but the eight-position-adjustable system was actually improved for '09, to the point that it functions seamlessly. Bravissimo!
Best New Product
Gopro Motorsports Hero Wide Camera
Since the days of the Newman Sinclair 35mm Auto Kline, motorcyclists have been strapping video cameras to their bikes in an attempt to capture the riding experience. Recently, YouTube videos have undergone a dramatic increase in quality, and we're willing to bet it's because of the new GoPro Motorsports Hero Wide Camera. The Hero is the easiest camcorder we've ever used, with a 170-degree lens that captures video in 5-megapixel clarity, with clear sound to boot. Included with every camera is a plethora of adhesive mounts to fit the curvature of your helmet, gas tank, fairing or fender. Just buy batteries, borrow the SD card from your digital camera and you're ready to record your next hot lap of Laguna Seca, run up Deal's Gap or thunderous cruise down Main St. at Daytona Beach. The compact design is waterproof, shockproof and holds up to crashes well. Don't ask how we know...
Bazzaz Performance Z-FI Traction Control
Traction control-it's not just for factory Superbike racers anymore. The plug-and-play Bazzaz Performance Z-Fi traction-control module adds fully tunable traction- management capability to most any late-model Japanese sportbike for just $995. No other aftermarket component enhances safety and performance as profoundly, making the Z-Fi a shoe-in for recognition here.