California Adventure Tour | Coyote Ugly

Putting an unlikely quartet of traveling bikes through the wringer on a high-mileage adventure tour of California

Now, you've probably never seen a rotting coyote carcass come to life and lunge toward you as you're rolling up a highway at sixty-five, but I have. And it didn't look pretty. Or smell nice.

And this wasn't a case where you can just say, "oh, well, sh*t happens when you're on a tour," because your friends don't just swerve across their lane, stick out a boot and kick up massive road kill every other day of the week.

Then again, everything about this touring test seems a bit off. Let's start with the bikes. Here we are comparing an iconic luxury tourer, Honda's Gold Wing, the sporty Kawasaki Concours 14, BMW's venerable enduro, the R 1200 GS, and a prototypical touring cruiser, Harley's bad-ass Street Glide. The riders testing this unlikely assortment of bikes are just as divergent. Editor Andy Cherney would be smiling just as big if he were on a 1968 Vespa—the guy will tour on anything, as long as it has two wheels, a motor and a seat. Me? I'm the picky one. The best touring bike not only needs to get me there, it needs to get me there fast and comfortably and with the greatest amount of panache available. Dave Russell retired in his early 50's, following 20 prosperous years at Apple Computer. He's now a hard-working connoisseur of high-end sport bikes, sailboats...and tequila. Our fourth, Marc Cook, is a kind of hands-on rocket scientist. A super strain of the MacGyver breed, and one of the smartest guys I know. At least so I thought, until I watched him punt a dead coyote at freeway speed.

From his seat on a grassy berm alongside famed Highway 1 in Central California—where he's rocking to-and-fro, clutching a torqued ankle and nearly exploded knee—Cook explains the situation like this:
"I was just trying to point it out..."

Um. Well, you did a nice job. We all saw the coyote. It was especially visible when it was about three feet in the air, spinning like a big furry Frisbee, spraying bits of rotting flesh toward the rest of us.

We all have a good laugh over this, of course, there in the best place in the world to be: on the side of the road, with friends, bikes and miles and miles left to go.

The Players
How did we choose such an odd, yet intriguing assortment of motorcycles? Well, we wanted a comparison where we not only put hardware through the wringer, we explored the very essence of the bikes we were testing. Not so much to see which of them was the "best," and so on, but to see, perhaps, which touring approach makes the most sense. Is one method of touring more efficient than another? More conducive to enjoying the fruits of the open road?

With that in mind we spooned through the crème of each touring class and came away with four highly capable mounts. The BMW R 1200 GS is a bike designed to take you to Timbuktu. Literally. First introduced in 1980 with an air-cooled 800cc parallel twin, the GS line has had over 30 years to evolve, including shifts from Monolever to Paralever suspension, chain to shaft drive, air-cooling to oil. After numerous variations, the "big" GS became a 1200 in 2006.

BMW has hardly let its GS line rest for a single model year, constantly implementing and refining the machines in its intent to produce the world's best adventure tourers. To this day the large-displacement GS models have no real competitors, even after the recent release of Ducati's much-anticipated 1200 Multistrada, which has proven to be more of a star on the street than as a dual sport do-it-all. The beauty of the GS is its ability to do a lot of everything, and do it extremely well. For 2011 the GS power plant receives the DOHC engine treatment of its race-bred sibling, the HP2, giving it a little more punch.

A BMW flat-twin enduro rolling with a 103ci (1688cc) V-twin Harley Street Glide? Seven-point-nine inches of travel versus a mere two? Well, why the hell not? The Street Glide might not get you across the Kalahari, but it will get you just about anywhere else as long as there's pavement involved, and you'll get there in style. As you probably know, the H-D crowd racks up very respectable mileage on the touring rigs, and they do it traveling all around the world, not just in the good ol' US of A. True, the tough-guy Street Glide might not be as comparable as, say, the Ultra Classic Electra Glide in this crowd, but we're examining the essence, remember? Inside every Ultra is a Street Glide just waiting to get out.

This particular Glide was wielding a PowerPak upgrade, which bundles the Twin Cam 103 with ABS and H-D's Smart Security System. It's a special-order, factory-installed option for some 2011 touring models, while it comes standard on the Road Glide Ultra and Electra Glide Limited. The Street Glide utilizes Harley's redesigned touring frame, which is a night/day experience from the twitchy chassis of yore.

Honda Gold Wing. Check. What would any touring comparison be without the poster bike for touring comfort and efficiency? Originally released in 1975 as the GL1000, the Gold Wing line has thrived, thanks in part to Honda's slow hand with improvements. However, despite its cult-like following, the Wing's uncannily smooth flat-six mill, and upgrades of options such as ABS, Navigation and even Air Bags, the current version of Honda's two-wheeled luxury liner is feeling a little long in the tooth; it's been streaking around in this configuration since 2001. As with the BMW GS in the enduro market, the famed Gold Wing stands unchallenged in the arena of opulence. At least for the time being. In the next year or so we'll see a bold, new BMW LT, followed by an even more futuristic Gold Wing.

To round it all out, we invited the big, sexy Concours 14 ABS to the party. Built on Kawasaki's powerhouse ZX14 sportbike chassis and drivetrain, the C14 is screaming fast compared to the rest of the bikes we are riding, with all kinds of technical accoutrements to stylize your experience. There's K-ACT ABS choices to make, KTRC traction control to consider engaging... even a KIPASS card-type key, which you have to remember to keep on your person at all times in order to fire the keyless ignition. That's a lot of K-smart for any bike, giving the Concours 14 the allure of a librarian with a thong-line. And she rocks it, especially on smooth, fast, flowing back roads with no troopers in sight.

Getting There
These bikes may seem all apples to açaí berries on the surface, but when you think about it, they all share the same intention. They exist to get you there. Not to the burger shack, not to the racetrack, not to the job on Monday morning. These bikes were created to get you there. It's not the place you arrive, but rather the place you are while you're on your way.

If you're a motorcycle traveler, you know what I'm talking about.

Of course this particular BMW, this Harley, this Honda and this Kawasaki will each get you there in a totally different way. I liken it to eating. Touring riders are foodies. What we really enjoy is being hungry—not being full. So, each of these bikes offers its own flavor and texture. The visceral experience we enjoy—or don't—on the way to being full. Is one heartier? More succulent? More satisfying? Darned if we aren't going to find out. That is, as soon as Cook's Advil kicks in and we can get him aboard and moving toward our lunch stop so I can stop using food metaphors.

Best Plans = No Plans
The only thing we'd decided in our planning for this trip was that we wouldn't plan. We'd left Los Angeles, and we needed to be back in four days.

We were heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway when do-gooder Cook kicked his coyote, just getting up to speed on the magnificent section that runs from Cambria to Monterey Bay. It's possibly the most fabled section of road in the world; certainly, it's one of the most photographed. Unfortunately, such beauty breeds lust among tourers of all sizes, and here, there are more RV's and dawdling day-trippers than you can count.

It was a good place to begin testing the bikes' passing abilities. As expected, the Concours is king in that regard. Don't even need to snick down a gear, just crack the throttle a smidge, and go. All of these machines are toting big guns, however, so not a one is a slouch in the passing department.

Right away we're learning there is a huge difference in the road feel between these bikes. In a normal comparison you're jumping from one bike that's—at the least—living in the same universe as the next bike you'll be riding. Not here. Jumping from the BMW, say, to the Kawasaki, or the Harley to the BMW, is like waking up a different sex. It's interesting, but a bit of a rude surprise. The GS came to us with knobbies, a bad choice for a high-mileage road tour, but not a deal-breaker, simply because the bike's attributes seem able to overcome just about any impediment, be it the road surface or the rider. However, it did make for a creepy riding sensation, and was especially enhanced if you'd just gotten off something with high-speed tires, like the Concours with its Bridgestone BT021s.

All the little eccentricities are becoming increasingly obvious as we switch back and forth. The Gold Wing's ergos, with that big engine invading leg space, make you feel like a poodle begging for a biscuit. The GS, with its low pegs and wide handlebars, creates the sensation of rushing headlong, arms-wide-open into the action. The Harley has a nice seat and those kick-back ergos feel pretty relaxing—until you reach about 45 mph and the turbulence coming off the bike's fairing starts jangling your head around. Exhausting! Slipping onto the Concours after a couple of hours on any of these other machines is like slipping in a slick pool of high tech sex. Yum.

Of course ergo-feel is subjective, and depends somewhat on a rider's bodily dimensions, but universal things, like peg-to-bar proportion, seat density and angle, wind protection and adjustability, can really make your ride comfortable. Or not. A windshield like the Street Glide's will tire anyone out, even the Energizer Bunny. All of the other bikes utilize adjustable windshields—a slick feature for any long-haul tourer—with the C14 and Wing winning honors for ease and range of adjustability. The GS shield adjusts manually, which cost it some points, but then again, who wants the potential headaches of an electric windshield when you're bouncing your way through Paraguay?

Alone, At Last
By late afternoon we've finished terrorizing Central California, including a dicey free-for-all through the crowded streets of San Francisco. Now we're getting there. Highway 1 north of San Fran is one of the best riding roads in the world, and you won't find the RV set out here, at least not trundling along in force. You will find a challenging array of corners and surfaces, as the spindly highway clings to a ragged edge of earth that's constantly being clawed by the churning Pacific.

Here is where we could let the bikes fly. For all of us, the handling characteristics of a motorcycle can be something that makes or breaks the package. We're too old to be hooligans, but we like how it feels when our bike becomes a knife, etching perfect lines through the landscape. In the tightly tangled turns of the Northern California Highway 1, where the road surface is often cracked and pitted, the GS is king. Even with those damn knobbies, the bike feels like a mountain goat with a rocket strapped to its ass.

Everyone also appreciates the Kawasaki's abilities in the twisties, but it's big and sharp and harder to gather up than the BMW, plus it demands some tiptoeing until you get used to all that K-STUFF. The Gold Wing is magically agile for its heft, and can be ridden very aggressively, just as long as you're aware of its cornering limitations, which can go from floorboards to OMG in an instant. The Harley? You know, it does pretty well keeping up in the tight stuff—lots of torque, and even better ground clearance than the Honda. Get into the bumpy stuff, however, and you'll be Googling chiropractors in the next town. Two inches of travel is never a good thing, at least not this far from the white-hot spotlight.

Of course what goes fast, must slow down. All of the machines, despite their huge differences, sport ABS, which came in handy during the moments when our ride turned safari, as it seemed to, often. For example, just after dusk on the first day, we came upon two bobcat kittens playing in the middle of a single lane road. I was just going to run them over, until I figured out they weren't housecats. Then there was the wild boar Russell nearly took out with the Gold Wing while we were buzzing across Skaggs Spring Road from the coast. There were no complaints about any of the braking systems, though Kawasaki's "Co-Active" setup, where the rider gets to choose between two modes of linked braking, was not the favorite. We preferred "standard" mode, where less linking effect is felt on initial lever actuation over the "high-combined," mode intended for straight-line and two-up riding. The H-D and Honda also used linked braking, though it was less of a brain-bender than the Kawasaki's system. We really appreciated that the GS does not use linked brakes, and a push of a button allows you to disengage its ABS.

Downieville, California, on Highway 49, is the high point of our trip, both literally and figuratively. This little gold rush town tucked in the crags of the Sierra Nevada is touring candy. All roads leading in or out of the area are sublime, and for the most part, empty. We roll into Downieville just before dusk, reeling from a mix of sensory overload and spent adrenaline, and happen into a little motel called the Carriage House Inn, with rooms so close to the Yuba River you can skip rocks right from your balcony. We all agree, this is motorcycle touring: spending a long, fantastic day blasting through one postcard-perfect scene after another to end up at the doorstep of a cheap, clean, charming motel in the middle of nowhere. That night, on a deck strewn with party lights, we sucked down cerveza and tacos like animals, probably spitting little bits of salsa as we rushed our words, reliving our day.

The Results
The days roll by so quickly when you're doing what you want to do. And then you wake up on the last day of your trip and all the hooks back home: the job, the bills, the family, are pulling you down the highway toward reality. The last day of a tour is rarely the best, and such was the case for us.

There was bad food, straight roads, sweltering heat...even flaring tempers. The Honda's transmission was starting to jump gears, and the knobbies on the BMW had become nibbles. Here's where a bike has to have just the right balance of amenities, performance and comfort to keep you in your happy place. I mean, any bike can be fun in ideal circumstances, but the best touring bike will shine in celestial environs, as well as hellish ones.

Not surprisingly, we all agree that the BMW, overall, is the best traveling bike. It's neutral in every category of performance, from engine response to handling to seating position, which translates into a bike that doesn't get in your way, no matter what you throw its way. It's a great choice of motorcycle for any rider, especially those of us who ache to turn off on every other dirt road...and don't care so much about listening to Lady GaGa while riding. But you'll need some money.

The BMW with goodies like ABS, heated grips, saddlebag mounts, hand protection and onboard computer will set you back something like $18k. Our next favorite machine will set you back a little less, at $15,300. Did I mention the Concours 14 is sexy? Sometimes that's worth paying for, and in this group, it also happens to be the cheapest form of seduction. It got the highest mpg as well, but also the lowest (imagine that), ending up with a 37.8 average after 1400 miles, second only to the BMW, which finished with an average 39.9 mpg.

The Concours is amazingly fun to ride, especially if you keep it in its element. The same could be said for the Harley, which we all love like a favorite uncle, but wouldn't necessarily buy if we were looking for an adventure or long-distance mount. As a comfortable, take-no-prisoners tourer to get you to Sturgis or Daytona...or even down the Baja Peninsula to ferret out some fish tacos, the Street Glide is a fine choice, though it does sport a not-so-stylish price tag of $18,999 (and 37.6 mpg), and that's before the gotta-have-it PowerPak option.

It's the Gold Wing, however, that carries the stiffest entry fee—a whopping $26,599 for the Audio Comfort Navi XM ABS version we tested. It also got the worst fuel mileage at 33.6 mpg, so you'll pay a smidge more for gas. However, and not because of its beauty, the Gold Wing still reigns as the ultimate high-mileage road tripper. Just ask Cherney, who had to split off early from our group and ride 500 miles in 7 hours to catch a plane. He wasn't on the Gold Wing. But he wished he were.

Sound like they're all winners? Damn right, but we knew that going in. Don't tell the brass, but we were just looking for an excuse to ride. Because we all know the answer to the question of which bike makes the best tourer.

It's the one you're on.

Tech Spec
2011 BMW R 1200 GS
Price (As tested): $18,390
Type: Air/oil-cooled Flat twin
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1170cc, 101 mm x 73mm
Valve train: DOHC; 4 valves/cylinder
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Fuel system: EFI
Transmission: 6-speed, single-plate dry clutch
Final Drive: Shaft
Overall length: 87.0 in.
Wheelbase: 59.3 in.
Wet weight: 504.9 lbs.
Seat height: 33.5 in.
Rake/trail: 25.7 degrees / 4.0 in.
Front tire: 110/80 R-19
Rear tire: 150/70 R-17
Front brake: 305mm dual discs
Rear brake: 265mm disc
Front suspension: BMW Telelever; 41mm diameter, 7.5 in. travel
Rear suspension: BMW Paralever; 7.9 in. travel
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.

2011 Harley-Davidson Street Glide
Price(As tested): $22,283
Type: Air-cooled, Twin Cam 103 V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1690cc, 98.4 mm x 111.1mm
Valve train: Pushrod-operated overhead valves
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Fuel system: EFI
Transmission: 6-speed Cruise Drive, multiplate wet clutch
Final Drive: Belt
Overall length: 95.0 in.
Wheelbase: 63.5 in.
Wet weight: 822 lbs.
Seat height: 27.1 in.
Rake/trail: 26 degrees / 6.7 in.
Front tire: 130/80-18
Rear tire: 180/65 - 16
Front brake: 300mm dual discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear brake: 300mm disc, 4-piston caliper
Front suspension: 41.3mm telescopic fork; 4.6 in. travel
Rear suspension: Air-adjustable damper; 2 in. travel
Fuel capacity: 6.0 gal.

2011 Honda Gold Wing ABS/XM/NAV
Price (As tested): $26,599
Type: Liquid-cooled, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1832cc, 74mm x 71mm
Valve train: SOHC; two valves/cylinder
Compression ratio: 9.8:1
Fuel system: EFI
Transmission: 5-speed, plus electric reverse
Final Drive: Shaft
Overall length: 103.7.
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Wet weight: 895-928 lbs.
Seat height: 29.1 in.
Rake/trail: 29.15 degrees / 4.3 in.
Front tire: 130/70R-18
Rear tire: 180/60R-16
Front brake: 296mm dual discs, 3-piston calipers
Rear brake: 316mm disc, 3-piston caliper
Front suspension: 45mm cartridge fork; 5.5 in. travel
Rear suspension: Pro-Link single damper; 4.1 in. travel
Fuel capacity: 6.6 gal.

2011 Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS
Price (As tested): $15,299
Type: Liquid-cooled, inline four
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1352cc, 84.0mm x 61.0mm
Valve train: DOHC, four valves/cylinder
Compression ratio: 10.7:1
Fuel system: EFI
Transmission: 6-speed
Final Drive: Shaft drive
Overall length: 89.4 in.
Wheelbase: 59.8 in.
Wet weight: 679.1 lbs.
Seat height: 32.1 in.
Rake/trail: 26.1 degrees / 4.4 in.
Front tire: 120/70 ZR-17
Rear tire: 190/50 ZR-17
Front brake: 310mm dual discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear brake: 270mm disc
Front suspension: 43mm inverted telescopic fork; 4.4 in. travel
Rear suspension: Tetra-lever; 5.4 in. travel
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal.

2011 BMW R 1200 GS
2011 Harley-Davidson Street Glide
2011 Honda Gold Wing ABS/XM/NAV
2011 Kawasaki Concours 14 ABS
"I need a much bigger belly to find myself comfortable on the Wing."