BMW, Honda, Yamaha | Sport Touring Motorcycle Comparison

Velocity. Luxury. Gadgetry.

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

Why do you need one of these things? Just about any bike will drag you to work, and the super sporty contenders are fine if all you do is carve up the local twisty bits. Honda's Gold Wing and its ilk will haul two people, one overstuffed Alf doll and all manner of kit cross-country as cheerfully as any family four-door. But any one of our big-bore sport-tourers will devour 400 miles' worth of all that before you deploy the centerstand for lunch-and follow up with 400 more before dinner.

Sport-touring motorcycles are tools, really. But let's say you're not afflicted with a neurobiological need to funnel vast quantities of real estate through your rear-view mirrors in a hurry. Fair warning, then; after a weekend with these three, riding from L.A. to San Francisco for a quick scrape up Mt. Tam-and some Mitchell's Mango ice cream-will sound perfectly reasonable. It's a slippery slope from there to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, for Blobfest '07 (Indescribable...Indestructible...Nothing Can Stop It!) next July.

The motorcycles themselves are considerably more logical. All three start with a four-cylinder engine displacing something to the left of 1000cc and enough fuel to cover at least 250 rapid miles. Add adjustable ergonomics and wind protection and you're in the hunt, but just. Despite these basic similarities, the BMW K1200GT, Honda ST1300 ABS and Yamaha FJR1300 AE are parked at different coordinates between sport and touring. And because stripped-down sport-touring is an oxymoron in 2006, each contestant comes with its own arsenal of technical gee-wizardry, running the gamut from helpful to hopeless and various points in between.

All three rigs aim at the same target. But like most sport tourists we know, each has its own way of getting there. Which one works best? It took us two days and 750 miles of the best and worst pavement in the bottom half of California to find out, but here's the story.

Yamaha FJR1300AE
What we have here is a very good motorcycle afflicted with a bad transmission. Blessed with a raft of carefully targeted improvements for '07, Yamaha's standard FJR1300-with a lever on the left end of the bar attached to an orthodox clutch-would have shuffled the finishing order in this deck. For anyone who knows how to wield a clutch, this clutchless version makes smooth forward progress harder than it needs to be. Roll on the throttle from a stop and it initiates forward motion with a jerk. Roll it off in low gear for a U-turn and as soon as the tach needle drops below 2000 rpm, you're coasting-and possibly falling over. A good rider can compensate, but why would you want to pay an extra $1800 over the price of the standard FJR for a "convenience feature" that's anything but? It's worth mentioning that the electric-shift system was much smoother and better behaved at the bike's press debut than it was on our test bike.

Precise throttle control helps, but the Yamaha's stiff throttle-return spring does not. Otherwise? Physically smaller than its peers, the FJR feels lighter as well, though at 687 pounds fully fueled, it's 14 pounds heavier than the BMW. Still, compact dimensions and relatively sporty steering geometry make it the most agile of the bunch, regardless of speed or situation. Careful airflow management aims hot air from the engine away from the rider much more effectively. And the Yamaha's suspension delivers a comfortably taut ride around town, though never as plush as the Honda or BMW.

Adjourn to open road and the FJR acquits nicely. There's a bit of buzz at 75 mph in fifth despite taller '06 gearing. Dual counterbalancers do an admirable job, but the 1298cc four always feels as if it would be happier with a six-speed. This year's bigger windscreen spans a broader range of adjustment, creating a relatively calm cockpit. Tall riders still get a speck of turbulence with the firm-yet-comfortably-humane seat in its upper position. Sensitive backsides wished for a better seat after two hours or so of saddle time. At that point everyone would have paid Big Dough for cruise control, or at least a lighter throttle. Though a prudent hand can squeeze nearly 300 freeway miles from the 6.6-gallon tank, we were ready for a break after 250 and ready to turn into the twisty bits.

The FJR feels progressively more agile and athletic when corners outnumber the straights. Three years ago, the original FJR was hampered by soft suspension and an inclination for dragging various hard parts on the pavement, but no more. The firmed-up suspension isn't quite as compliant as the Honda's, but it manages to keep the Yamaha chassis happy over all but the worst sort of pavement. Pegs touch down a few degrees earlier than on the BMW-a consequence of abundant legroom-but if that's a genuine hardship, get an R1.

Yamaha's admirable mix of power and feel make the newly linked FJR brakes the best in this bunch, especially with an ABS system that never intrudes unbidden. All is well until it's time to shift gears. Use your left hand or left foot; the computer clutch really is a hardship. Upshifts are slow and clumsy. And forget about thumbing quick Michael Shumacher-style downshifts before peeling off into the next bend. The YCCS system takes its time there as well, pushing shift points infuriatingly close to the next apex. Anticipate the lag and you can approximate the precision of the manual-clutch bikes, but we found ourselves shifting less and enjoying it more.

In the end, technology should solve more problems than it creates, but Yamaha's digital clutch-in its current iteration, at least-inflicts the opposite on an otherwise excellent package. As C. Tuna Everitt said more than once, "It sucks the life out of the whole thing, undermining the rest of the motorcycle literally and figuratively at every turn." And that's A shame, because most of this motorcycle is very, very good.

BMW K1200GT
Aside from its name and Corporate Origin, BMW's latest K1200GT shares nothing with the last one. Out with the old 1171cc flopped four. In with a long-haul version of the sporty K1200S, complete with A tricky Hossack-derived Duolever front end and the latest single-sided Paralever in the rear. In keeping with its latest mission, Grand Turisimo tuning pushes power and torque a bit to the left. Everything has been tuned to the touring end of the sport-touring band.

Saddle up and the BMW feels huge. It doesn't feel like the lightweight of this bunch in urban traffic. The GT fairing is more expansive than the others, though the adjustable windscreen never extends as high as the Honda's. The seat is the tallest as well, though it narrows toward the front to give short legs a straighter shot at the pavement.

Some things, however, haven't changed. The K-spec six-speed moves between first and second with the same unnerving "clack" as the K1200S, and off-idle throttle response is more abrupt than ever. Factor in heavy slow-speed steering and you have a motorcycle that's happier outside the city limits.

Reeling in desert two-lane with the cruise-control holding an effortless 80 mph, everything begins to make sense. Welcome to the First Class cabin. Gadget nirvana. With the screen deployed to maximum height, wind protection is exemplary, though tall riders will drop the adjustable seat a notch and give up a little legroom to duck the turbulence. Vibration is essentially nil except for a tingle through the passenger pegs. Set BMW's electronically adjustable suspension (ESA for short) to "Comfort" and that's exactly what you get.

According to the cockpit data display, it's 98 degrees out there-no word from the black ice warning system-and we're currently getting 47 mpg against a 40 mpg average, with 157 miles to burn, though this computer's mileage estimates are consistently optimistic. Engine oil: check. No news is good news from the sensors that track brake pad wear, and average speed is 67 mph. At that rate, the GT's 6.3 gallons of super unleaded will last an easy 260 miles, though tall testers are starting to fidget on the tapered seat by then.

It takes a persuasive shove to change trajectory in a hurry, but armed with the most cornering clearance and top-shelf Metzeler radials, the BMW manages nicely in the twisty bits. The long, tall chassis is happier on smooth, fast pavement than tight, rough stuff. The Duolever front end is less communicative than a good telescopic fork, but no less trustworthy. Set the ESA to Normal and let the suspension fidget over the occasional bump. The Honda and the Yamaha carve better up to 80 mph or so, but BMW owns the triple digits. The engine isn't as strong or as lively as we'd like below 6000 rpm, but above that it will flat dust the other two.

BMW's all-or-nothing power-assisted EVO brakes are the only serious chink in GT's technological armor. The Yamaha or the Honda generate nearly as much pure stopping power and a lot more feel. Beyond that, fit and finish are exemplary, the hard bags are the easiest to deal with after 16 hours on the road, and 100 percent waterproof. Our bike came with heated grips and a heated seat, complete with a separate switch for the passenger. Like all the others, that's a detail you appreciate a lot more halfway through 500 miles' worth of Wyoming than on a Saturday morning trip to Starbucks. But there's a catch: BMW's unconventional engineering and optional accouterments push the price of our GT to $20,785. Well-upholstered wallets won't flinch at those digits, but if your bottom line is the bottom line, there's a simpler alternative.

Honda ST1300 ABS
The best sport-tourer, as it turns out, is also the simplest. The ST1300 isn't the strongest bike here. There's no ground-breaking technology or gadgetry here, and it's not exactly sexy, either. So how does the Honda come out on top? Very simply, it covers more ground in less time, with no excess effort, annoyance or discomfort to distract you from the ride. Unlike our other two contestants, the Honda feels familiar after one trip around the block. The roomy, cab-forward riding position makes it feel impossibly compact for a 731-pound motorcycle, while the clich-smooth clutch and gearbox make penetrating the inevitable urban/suburban congestion highly simple. Thus the star of this show is Honda's big V-four. Fundamentally unchanged since its major makeover in 2003, the ST generates a flat exhaust note that alternatively impersonates the Jetsons' family sedan and the outboard-motor-from-hell. It also generates a stream of ruthlessly efficient thrust from roughly 1300 rpm above idle to the relatively conservative 8500-rpm redline.

An abundant supply of torque below 6000 rpm puts the Honda out front when the road ties itself in decreasing-radius knots. Just leave it in third and dial up the 1261cc rheostat. You can't exactly flick this much motorcycle into a corner once it's wound up and rolling. Still, the Honda inhales twisty pavement just as rapidly as the others, flowing through just about any sort of corner on the proverbial rails. Just about. A minor overdose of compression damping at both ends makes bad pavement feel worse, and BMW's GT feels more planted at felonious speeds. BMW riders can afford better lawyers. A bit less bite puts the ST brakes a half step behind the FJR's, but Honda's ABS and linked brakes keep the chassis more stable, creating a better all-weather, all-surface stopping system.

Complaints? Engine heat slow roasts your right leg around town. There's not enough fresh airflow in the cockpit on hot days. The cockpit can be noisy until you dial the seat and windscreen in to create your personal happy place. Still, negative pressure pulls you forward with the windscreen fully unfurled. Though we haven't tried 'em, Honda offers accessory deflectors that aim to refine the aero envelope. If you miss the heated grips that come on the other two bikes, you can find them there as well. Otherwise, the ST just flat works. Instruments transmit everything you really need to know, though the LED data display makes it tough to discern fuel, mileage and temperature data from behind a dark shield on a sunny day. Adjust the seat and windscreen to taste and 7.7 gallons of fuel will put an easy 320 miles between stops if you've got the bladder for it. The wide, flat seat is comfy enough to sit through a couple of tankfuls in one day. Beyond that, we're looking for a king-size bed.

Saddlebags aren't quite as convenient as what you'll find on the Beemer, but they don't bulge into the wind as much, either. The ST doesn't pop up onto its centerstand quite as readily, either, but that neat folding handle helps. Those bumpers protruding from the fairing lowers are low on sex appeal, but they'll save you some serious cash if the ST tips over in some hotel parking lot at 3:00 a.m. At the end of a day like that, we'd rather be rolling in on the Honda than anything else. None of the others generate as much of what this sport-touring business is all about with less effort. No apologies. No concessions. No problem.

At $15,099, this ABS version isn't cheap, but the fact that it sets you back $200 less than the Yamaha-and almost $5700 less than the BMW-inks the deal for us. Sometimes the best tool for the job isn't the flashiest or the most expensive. Sometimes it's simple.

Pillion Parts
When you're passenger is happy, life on the road is a beautiful thing. But since the inverse is also true, choose carefully. Our pillion pilots liked the Honda's roomy accommodations best, complaining only about reaching back too far for the grab handles. BMW grab handles are more convieniently located, and its smaller pillion pad feels firm in the morning but perfect after 500 miles. The FJR's performance depends on the size of your passenger. Though repositioned pillion pegs are a welcome change, tall types still wished for more room. Especially after lunch.

Sport Touring Electronics: Essential or Extraneous?
"It's a fine line between clever and stupid" Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap
As soon as a digital ignition replaced your points and condenser, you knew the computers were coming. CDI begat EFI, ABS and GPS, and more electronic acronyms turned up every year. Like it or not, the modern sport tourist is surrounded by some degree of electronic gadgetry. Those of you who think that's a bad thing can fire up your Enfield Bullets and shove off. For everyone else, the question of which bits of sport-touring bright-think are actually useful (and which just drain the battery) is a good one. That's what we're here to figure out.

Ergos Explained
Settling into the FJR saddle reveals the most neutral, natural riding position of our long-playing trio. Offering a paradoxical combination of the tallest seat and the least legroom, the BMW's 10.3 inches of handlebar rise make its upright posture comfy enough, though it takes some getting used to. The ST1300's ergo package leans you forward at a more aggressive angle, but factor in more legroom than the other two and it's the most humane way to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.

Off The Record

Brent Avis - Hired Gun
Age: 30
Height: 6' 2"
Weight: 200 Lb.
Inseam: 35 In.
Nobody likes sitting perfectly still for hours on end, especially in oppressive heat with nothing to drink or eat. But that summed up much of our lives with these travelers. Traveling across the country, these bikes make the worst parts of what is otherwise a rolling re-awakening of senses bearable, at the least. Pleasurable at best. Hey, we even have heated grips on two of the bikes here should the weather ever return to double digits. The Honda doesn't come so equipped, but I'll take it anyway. At the core the ST really is the well-sorted bike here. It fits my lanky structure well, and it doesn't come with GPS, electronic suspension or a computer controlled gearbox, which makes it that much more focused on the job at hand. Travel. And sporty travel at that. I'll spend the money I save on nicer hotels and libations when I get where I'm going.

Charles Everitt - Senior Editor, Motorcyclist
Age: 52
Height: 5' 10"
Weight: 168 Lb.
Inseam: 32 In.
In more ways than I'd like to admit, I'm disturbingly average, especially when It comes to my height and weight. Among these three lardy, gadget-encrusted sport-tourers, that's a supreme disadvantage, especially when I'm trying to execute an otherwise simple slow-speed maneuver such as a 180-degree turn. These things' size and weight works against me enough that I wouldn't consider buying any of them. Yes, I can appreciate the luggage- and passenger-carrying benefits of these bikes' bigger-than-average dimensions, but I'd be infinitely happier riding, say, Honda's Interceptor-especially considering the big chunk of change I'd be saving as well.

2007 BMW K1200GT

PRICE
MSRP

$20,785 as tested

ENGINE
Type l-c inline four
Valve arrangement DOHC, 16v
Bore x stroke 79.0mm x 59.0mm
Displacement 1157cc
Compression ratio 13.0:1
Transmission 6-speed
Final drive Shaft
CHASSIS
Weight (wet) 673 lb. (305kg)
Weight (dry) 635 lb. (288kg)
Rake 29.4 deg.
Trail 4.41 in. (112mm)
Wheelbase 61.9 in. (1571mm)
Seat height 32.3 in. (820mm)
Fuel capacity 6.3 gal. (24L)
SUSPENSION
Front / BMW Duolever, electronically adjustable.
Rear single shock, electronically adjustable.
PERFORMANCE
Horsepower ? @ ? rpm
Torque ? lb.-ft. @ ? rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile* 11.30 sec. @ 123.67 mph
Fuel mileage
(low/high/average)
35/47/42

2007 Honda ST1300 ABS

PRICE
MSRP $15,099 as tested
ENGINE
Type l-c 90-degree V-four
Valve arrange 10.8:1
Transmission 5-speed
Final drive Shaft
CHASSIS
Weight (wet) 727 lb. (330kg)
Weight (dry) 681 lb. (309kg)
Rake 26.0 deg.
Trail 3.86 in. (98mm)
Wheelbase 58.7 in. (1491mm)
Seat height 31.1 in. (790mm)
Fuel capacity 7.7 gal. (29L)
SUSPENSION
Front 45mm cartridge fork
Rear single shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping.
PERFORMANCE
Horsepower 114.1 @ 7500 rpm
Torque 83.5 lb.-ft. @ 6250 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile* 11.43 sec. @ 118.55 mph
Fuel mileage
(low/high/average)
39/50/45

2007 YAMAHA FJR1300AE

PRICE
MSRP $15,299 as tested
ENGINE
Type l-c inline four
Valve arrangement DOHC, 16v
Bore x stroke 79.0mm x 66.2mm
Displacement 1298cc
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Transmission 5-speed
Final drive Shaft
CHASSIS
Weight (wet) 687 lb. (312kg)
Weight (dry) 647 lb. (294kg)
Rake 26.0deg.
Trail 4.29 in. (109mm)
Wheelbase 60.6 in. (1539mm)
Seat height 31.7 in. (805mm)
Fuel capacity 6.6 gal. (25L)
SUSPENSION
Front 48mm cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear

single shock adjustable for spring rate and rebound damping.

PERFORMANCE
Horsepower @ ? rpm
Torque ? lb.-ft. @ rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile* 11.86 sec. @ 118.80 mph
Fuel mileage
(low/high/average)
32/44/40

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