BMW F800GS vs. Triumph Tiger 800 XC | MC Comparo

Out of Bounds

Blink and you’ll miss it. There’s not much to see even if you’re looking: just another tangled ribbon of dirt or broken, weedy pavement winding away from a forgettable country two-lane. Maybe there’s a weathered, wooden sign with some cryptic Forest Service cipher like 7N01 or 6N24. Maybe there’s only a rutted break in the underbrush. Either way, you’ve blown by hundreds of them en route to somewhere else. But from the seat of the right motorcycle, you can spot a good one 100 yards away. Because right around that bend, just out of sight, is a little slice of heaven.

From the minute it arrived, BMW’s F800GS looked like just the right motorcycle for all the wonderfully horrible little routes most of America couldn’t care less about. Good pavement, bad pavement or no pavement at all, it’s at least 80 lbs. lighter and $3500 less expensive than the archetypical R1200GS, gets phenomenal gas mileage and, with a set of street-legal knobbies levered on, is less likely to stumble on the sort of terrain that would give your average Rocky Mountain Goat a nasty case of shin splints. BMW Motorrad has had that lucrative little chunk of real estate pretty much to itself for the past few years, but not anymore.

Enter Triumph’s Tiger 800 XC, as in “cross-country,” bolder brother of the new Tiger 800. Even a quick glance tells you it has nothing at all to do with Hinckley’s previous Tigers. Another reveals a load of superficial similarities with BMW’s mid-size GS: 21-inch front and 17-inch rear wire-spoke wheels, 45mm inverted fork, molded clear-plastic windscreen, steel-trellis chassis, cast-aluminum swingarm. The differences between Triumph’s interpretation of the perfect do-it-all middleweight and BMW’s are right there in Phantom Black and Alpine White.

The biggest mechanical divide lies between the 798cc Rotax-built parallel-twin hanging in the BMW’s frame and Triumph’s own 799cc triple. Both lumps provide foundations for other engines in their maker’s respective lineups. Both have been specifically configured for all-surface duty. Either one will take you (almost) anywhere you’d like to go. But while the German twin is methodical, efficient and admirably effective most of the time, the carefully massaged long-stroke version of what powers Triumph’s 675cc Daytona and Street Triple encourages a more enthusiastic approach to everything on the map.

Easing out of the luxuriously appointed MC M.C. garage for a little stream-of-consciousness exploring, the BMW sounds and feels exactly like what it is: 68 percent of Das Boxer. Practical. Purposeful. Determined. As sporting street transport, it’s somewhere between dull and boring. Meanwhile, a thumb on the Tiger’s starter incites what sounds like a hive of riled-up hornets. Take the time to listen and what comes out of each bike’s exhaust tells you a lot about its mechanical soul—or lack thereof.

Feeling taller, longer and narrower between your knees, the GS mutters through any urban landscape with a deadpan power delivery, inevitable German efficiency … and about the same riveting excitement as Friedrich Nietzsche at a church picnic. Still, what it does, it does well. Aside from sticky shifting and a less-than-sumptuous seat, there aren’t many practical nits to pick.

That same hard-headed, left-brain approach reveals a few more flaws in the Tiger’s persona. It runs hot in slow going. A touchy, occasionally grabby clutch and lean off-idle fueling add up to stalling unless you leave green lights with a few more revs. Our XC came with a faintly spongy front brake and without ABS; add $800 for that option if you’re so inclined. Still, the Triumph is more than a match for the BMW as practical daily transport.

The rev-happy triple carves a quicker, more enjoyable swath through the dreaded Wednesday-morning commute. It’s perfectly content to meander along on a whiff of throttle, or lunge out of trouble with a big handful. Despite carrying 7 lbs. more than the GS, the XC feels lighter on its feet around town. It shifts gears with less effort. Above 5000 rpm, every handful of throttle stirs up satisfying acceleration, accompanied by rising four-part harmonies from an increasingly insistent hornet squadron. Though it pulls as dutifully as the twin down low, the triple is much more responsive anywhere on the tach face, happily digesting regular 87-octane unleaded instead of the pricier 89-octane mid-grade BMW recommends. To its credit, the GS is capable of wringing 50-plus miles from every gallon when you’re feeling economical.

That’s enough to go 200 miles between fuel stops, assuming your gluteal pain threshold is calibrated for 3 hours on a narrow, scantily upholstered seat that can induce monkey-butt in 59 minutes. There’s not much in the way of passing power at 70 mph in sixth, and wearisome high-frequency vibes begin to intrude at 75. The rider is carried higher and farther forward, so there’s less room for long arms between the handlebar and seat. Concise inseam? Opt for the optional “low” version. Over in the plus column, the GS’s trip computer lets you toggle through a broader selection of relevant data on its LCD panel without squinting or steering with one hand. Wind protection is marginal on both bikes, and the BMW’s windscreen is a notch below that. Heated handgrips—part of our 800’s Standard Package, along with ABS and that nifty trip computer—are second only to hot coffee on cold mornings, but they’re not so hot without handguards, which will add another $165 to the bottom line. Meanwhile, the Triumph is a comfortable enough place to spend a day or three. Noticeably smoother between 70 and 75 mph despite spinning 500 rpm faster, the counterbalanced triple can be nearly as stingy with the petrol, and its relatively luxurious, height-adjustable seat only starts to wear thin after the second or third tank.

Roll off into your favorite tangle of bends and the Tiger takes charge. Armed with a broader band of convincing acceleration from 6000 rpm to the 10K redline and quicker, more accurate steering, it snaps in and out of the most diabolically technical corners in less time with less effort. While its engine is busy winning all those little corner-to-corner sprints, the Triumph’s chassis remains calm and composed, even at a pace that has its Bridgestone Battle Wing tires struggling for grip. The BMW can match that pace as long as you’re willing to work for it. Just keep the tach needle in its happy place between 7000 and 8500 rpm and bully a longer, lazier chassis that kneels on its squishy fork every time you squeeze the front brake.

The order changes once you delve into one of those less-traveled ribbons of dirt or crumbling blacktop. Then, things get a little more … interesting. Despite significant advances in motorcycle engineering and brochure writing, the 500-lb. dirtbike is still an awkward oxymoron. Either bike will go further and faster on more technical terrain once shod with suitable off-road rubber. As delivered, both of our mid-sized adventurers were happier on some mix of rough pavement and 4x4-friendly trails, but the BMW was more capable where Jeep Wranglers fear to tread.

Carrying fuel in a molded plastic tank under the seat makes the GS feel narrower between your knees and lighter than it really is. This is a good thing. Dry-sump engine architecture helps put 9.6 inches of daylight between vulnerable bits and heartless terrain vs. the Tiger’s 8.1 inches; that could be the difference between gliding over that next rock/log/rut and bashing into it. The German bike’s suspension copes with genuinely evil terrain a bit better, and its incremental power delivery helps that rear Pirelli get a grip in the slipperier stuff. But as good as it is in the middle of nowhere, the BMW always manages to paint the ride an apathetic shade of beige everywhere else.

The Tiger feels huge at first, especially with a full tank of gas. Burn a gallon or so and it shrinks a half-size. Quicker steering counteracts most of that top-heavy feel. An obliging triple that makes 96 percent of peak torque at 2900 rpm takes care of the rest. On top of that, there’s more room to move around, which means you’re more likely to be standing up on the pegs as God and Gaston Rahier intended when another evil crevasse tries to inhale the front wheel. For those who’d rather stand anyway, a crafty adjustable clamp moves the handlebar 8.5mm higher and 18mm forward for dirt use. That hair-trigger clutch is either aggravating or powerful motivation to carry just a little more speed up the next shale-infested climb. It’s also one more reason to like the GS if you figure pavement is just a quicker way of getting to the dirt without tie-downs and a pickup truck.

For everybody else, choosing between these two comes down to that stuff that pulls you out of bed ahead of the alarm on a Saturday morning faster than a whiff of Starbucks Gold Coast Blend. The same stuff that makes you ride to work in the rain when there’s a perfectly good car in the garage. Psychopharmacologists call it dopamine. We call it fun. Triumph’s new Tiger 800 XC serves up more of that deliciously addictive stuff on just about any surface than the BMW F800GS. The fact that it’s a little faster, a lot more comfortable and conspicuously less expensive seals the deal. So if you’re looking for something to reconnoiter the oft-overlooked roads that can paint a big, goofy smile on your face, ride the Tiger.

Off the Record
Tim Carrithers
Age: Forty-Thirteen Weight: 16 stone
Height: 5'15"  Inseam: 35 in.

Though the BMW R1200GS may be my favorite motorcycle of all time, I usually recuse myself from any discussion of its little brother by citing our irreconcilable differences. Less, in this case, is exactly that.

After surviving roughly 37.5 near-death experiences on ye olde liter-sized Triumph Tiger, I had my doubts about the allegedly more dirt-worthy 800. Not anymore.

This one only tried to hurt me once, and that was because my right hand wrote an 80-horsepower check the rear Pirelli couldn’t cash. The fact that Triumph’s 494-lb. mallet didn’t drive me into the ground like an XXL tent peg says more about what it does right than anything else.

I’ve ridden the Tiger with proper off-road rubber. It’s still short on ground clearance and adequate undercarriage protection. But unlike the F800GS, the 800XC is fun to ride almost anywhere. Spend the grand or so you save buying British on a few off-road requisites, and who knows? This one has the potential to bump the R1200GS off the top of my list.

Off the Record
Brian Catterson
Age: 49 Weight: 215 lbs.
Height: 6'1" Inseam: 34 in.

First things first: These two adventurers are not dirtbikes! Yes, they’re smaller and lighter than an R1200GS, but they’re still twice as heavy as a proper motocrosser. You don’t know what “out of shape” means until you’ve got a 500-lb. “dual-sport” crossways on a singletrack trail, surveying the local fauna and (very sharp) flora for a soft place to land! As some dirty guy named Harry once warned: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” And those of his steed.

With those caveats in place, I like both of these bikes for different reasons. The Triumph’s three-cylinder engine has soul, and if I were in the market for a two-wheeled Range Rover, it’d be my first choice.

If I were looking for a two-wheeled Jeep, however, I’d pick the BMW. It’s no KTM Adventure, but it’s almost as capable off-road. The “little” GS may never equal its big brother’s globe-trotting capabilities or otherworldly popularity, but it’s no less worthy of the letters on its flanks. And of your attention—it definitely got mine.

2011 BMW F800GS | Price: $13,075
BMW's twin-cylinder pump puts out a bit more torque from the bottom up. Effective? Absolutely. Exciting? Not so much. The GS is actually stronger through the midrange, but those revs build gradually and power production tapers off beyond 8200 rpm.
Tech Spec
Engine type:  l-c parallel-twin
Valve train:  DOHC, 8v
Displacement:  798cc
Bore x stroke:  82.0 x 75.6mm
Compression:  12.0:1
Fuel system:  EFI
Clutch:  Wet, multi-plate
Transmission:  6-speed
Frame:  Tubular-steel trellis with aluminum swingarm
Front suspension:  Marzocchi 45mm inverted fork
Rear suspension:  Sachs shock with remote adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake:  Dual Brembo two-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
Rear brake:  Brembo single-piston caliper, 265mm disc with ABS
Front tire:  90/90R-21 Pirelli Scorpion Trail
Rear tire:  150/70R-17 Pirelli Scorpion Trail
Rake/trail:  23.1°/3.6 in.
Seat height:  34.6 in.
Wheelbase:  62.1 in.
Fuel capacity:  4.2 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty):  487/462 lbs.
Measured horsepower:   74.5 bhp @ 8200 rpm
Measured torque:   50.9 lb.-ft. @ 5500 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile:   12.36 sec @ 107.20 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph:  3.3 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.):   54/36/44 mpg
Colors:  Orange, white
Available:  Now
Warranty:  2 yrs., unlimited mi.
Contact:  BMW of North America
P.O. Box 1227
Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677

The BMW's sculpted seat carries you farther from the ground, describing a more compact triangle between hands, feet and butt than the Triumph's. Compact riders wish the earth was closer, while tall ones wish the seat and bar were farther apart.

2011 Triumph Tiger 800 XC | Price: $10,999
Don't let the 10,000-rpm redline fool you. This new triple makes nearly as much torque as its twin-cylinder opponent for the first 5000 rpm. More horsepower and a more eager persona take it from there, laying down a decisive advantage above 8100 rpm.
Tech Spec
Engine type:  l-c inline-triple
Valve train:  DOHC, 12v
Displacement:  799cc
Bore x stroke:  74.0 x 61.9mm
Compression:  12.0:1
Fuel system:  EFI
Clutch:  Wet, multi-plate
Transmission:  6-speed
Frame:  Tubular-steel trellis with aluminum swingarm
Front suspension:  Showa 45mm inverted fork
Rear suspension:  Showa shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake:  Dual Nissin two-piston calipers, 308mm discs
Rear brake:  Nissin single-piston caliper, 255mm disc
Front tire:  90/90R-21 Bridgestone Battle Wing
Rear tire:  150/70R-17 Bridgestone Battle Wing
Rake/trail:  23.1°/3.6 in.
Seat height:  33.3 in.
Wheelbase:  61.7 in.
Fuel capacity:  5.0 gal.
Weight (tank full/empty):  494/464 lbs.
Measured horsepower:   79.2 bhp @ 9300 rpm
Measured torque:   48.6 lb.-ft. @ 7700 rpm
Corrected ¼-mile:   12.07 sec. @ 111.13 mph
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph:  3.1 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.):   48/38/41 mpg
Colors:  Black, orange, white
Available:  Now
Warranty:  2 yrs., unlimited mi.
Contact:  Triumph Motorcycles America
385 Walt Sanders Memorial Dr. #100
Newnan, GA 30265

Triumph's lower seat and pegs come at the expense of ground clearance, which only matters in the dirt. The net result is an instinctive riding posture with more room where it matters, plus easy adjustments for seat height and handlebar position.

Sitting taller than the Tiger—even with BMW’s soft standard saddle--the GS feels more like a bona fide dirtbike for those accustomed to such things.
Narrow enough to pass for a single, BMW’s dry-sump parallel-twin uses a swivel con-rod beneath the 360-degree crankshaft to kill primary and secondary vibration, keeping it smooth below 6000 rpm.
The GS’s instruments offer a more complete range of data than the Tiger’s, but the handlebar clamp isn’t adjustable for off-road excursions and that potato-chip windscreen offers little protection.
The Tiger’s engine rides closer to the ground, helping it flick quicker into paved corners. On the flipside, vital organs like that low-slung catalytic converter are vulnerable to hostile terrain.
Essentially a stroked version of the Street Triple 675, the Tiger mill is more energetic on the pavement, and thanks to crafty fuel-ignition mapping, more tractable than you'd think in the dirt.
The Triumph’s instruments are less intuitive than those on the BMW, but an adjustable riser that carries the handlebar 18mm forward and 8.5mm higher for dirt use makes up for that.