Honda ST1300 ABS, BMW R1200RT, Yamaha FJR1300, Kawasaki Concours 14
There are strange things on the road between Loope and Markleeville an hour or three shy of midnight. Us, for instance. No moon, just a few billion stars above Monitor Pass and the sort of pitch-blackness normally found inside a cow. And what looks like a brown feral bathroom rug waddling through the high beams in a set of 60-mph switchbacks. This is not touring. Not the traditional AM/FM, his and hers, rolling sedan chair, opulence uber alles American idiom, anyway. We don't have enough time, patience, polyester or even the right motorcycles for that. Thank God.
The steady infusion of go-fast technology, various manifestations of digital virtuosity and really nice hard luggage present us with four stunningly capable ways to get from pillar to post. All in (nearly) palatial comfort at the sort of speeds you never discuss at a Highway Patrol picnic. Two-wheel rapid transit has come a long way since BMW introduced off-the-rack sport-touring with the original 70-horse R100RS in 1976. We've come a long way since last year, for that matter, mostly because some deviant at Kawasaki figured the 175-horse ZX-14 was the perfect foundation for a sport-tourer. Make that rabid transit.
Massively stable once it's turned, the Honda feels just plain massive till then.
Our other players are ostensibly unchanged, but launching the Concours 14 into the mix demolishes what remains of a status quo. Hold on for a second while we watch twisty-road proclivities ratchet up the priority list. We shuffled the deck as well, ordering up a BMW R1200RT boxer in place of the less-graceful K1200GT four, then opting for a standard Yamaha FJR1300 instead of the automatic-clutch version that underwhelmed us in '06. Honda's ST1300 ABS returns with a fresh coat of silver paint. Is that enough to win this year? Will we make it past the suicidal deer, unmarked 20-mph corners, radar traps and flirty waitresses bearing bacon-wrapped double-bacon cheeseburgers intact to pick a winner? Yes, we did. But it took 1200 miles and a great smoldering sinkhole in the travel and entertainment budget. Let's hope you people are worth it.
Honda ST1300 ABS
When ruthless efficiency isn't (quite) enough
The difference between first and fourth in this game depends entirely on how you decide to play. As a meticulously refined, seamlessly proficient mileage-disposal unit, Honda's ST1300 remains peerless. But measured against faster, lighter, stronger competition, last year's winner had a hard time hiding the fact that it hasn't seen more than a fresh coat of paint since 2003. That's the bad news.
Refined and proven over millions of miles just about anywhere there's pavement and super-unleaded, the ST is 99.44 percent free of the little annoyances that turn into huge ones at the end of a 600-mile day. Honda's airtight approach to going long may be short on personality, but those who appreciate being able to cover that distance painlessly with just one stop for fuel really couldn't care less.
The broad, flat seat adjusts to accommodate tall or short types and provides ample fidgeting room solo or two-up. Comfortably sporty accommodations tilt you forward more than the BMW or Yamaha, with a nice view of the superbly useful and intuitive data display. No toggling around to get from ambient air temp to the tripmeter...it's all right there, along with a nifty pushbutton headlight adjuster that's a bona fide blessing on tricky mountain roads after dark.
Paired with a tough, linear hydraulic clutch and cooperative five-cog gearbox, the 1261cc V-4 is the next best thing to nuclear power. Dial up as much as you need from 1800 rpm. It's pure, steady thrust that just tapers off after all 114 horses come online at 7500. With power spread evenly across 6500 rpm, shifting is mostly optional. Accompanied by that signature Outboard Motor from Hell soundtrack, the ST is smoother than all but the Concours at a quasi-legal 85 mph.