THE NEW SUPER BIKES
UNREAL RIDES FOR THE REAL WORLD
BMW S1000XR DUCATIMULTISTRADA1200S KAWASAKI VERSYS1000LT KTM1290 SUPER
When the BMW R1200GS was introduced in 2004, a key designer observed that as motorcycles were getting better and faster, roads were getting worse. It's no secret that race-bred superbikes have outpaced their usefulness on public roads, not just because of their otherworldly performance but because the pavement beneath them is literally crumbling.
That’s a big part of why adventure bikes like the GS have become so popular. Add in all-day comfort, a dash of practicality, and some unparalleled versatility, and you have a bike that can do anything: “The Swiss army knife of motorcycles.”
Naturally where BMW was so successful, the competition was compelled to follow, which led to the inevitable arms race. In spite of a series of performanceenhancing upgrades, the venerable GS was eventually outgunned, not just by its adversaries but by one of its comrades. Enter the new-for-2015 BMW S1000XR, which joins the similarly fourcylinder Kawasaki Versys 1000 and the twin-cylinder Ducati Multistrada 1200S and KTM1290 Super Adventure at the sharp end of this developing adventure sports category.
To find out which one of these four bikes is best, we embarked on a threeday tour from CW HQ in the OC up the Pacific Coast, then clear across the Central California Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and back. By the time we got home we knew the lay of the land—literally and figuratively.
This is one model no one saw coming, as adventure bikes have traditionally had two cylinders. Then again, Triumph has offered its Tiger triples for some 15 years now, so a four is a logical progression.
And, really, BMW just did what Ducati did with the Multistrada 1200: slot its latest superbike engine into a more touringoriented platform. Not necessarily one suited for off-road use, however, because while the Beemer definitely looks the part of a go-anywhere adventure bike— and carries that evocative XR suffix—it’s decidedly pavement oriented.
Start with the 999CC engine, which even in tuned-for-torque form is still the horsepower king of this class. Although it uses a traditional firing order, the exhaust note sounds notably flatter than the S1000RR superbike, like a big-bang motor. Bonus points for having an electronic quickshifter that allows clutchless upshifts and downshifts and a slipper clutch that aids the latter.
Like the other bikes in this class, power output can be tailored via multiple ride modes. The optional Dynamic ESA suspension is semi-active and utilizes a bank-angle sensor that also sends info to DTC, and ABS Pro, which are a part of the optional Ride Modes Pro. We like that the electronics’ user interface is easy to understand and that the optional GPS ($799) integrates with the bike’s electronics to display a number of parameters on its 5-inch screen.
While the SioooXRis loads of fun to blast up a twisty back road, it’s not quite as pleasant over the long haul. While the rider triangle is spacious, the seat locks you in one place—you can move from side to side but not front to back. Thin padding doesn’t help. The adjustable windscreen also offers merely adequate protection in either of its two positions. But the biggest buzzkill is the incessant buzzing: There’s a narrow window around 6,000 rpm—which equates to 80 mph in top gear—where it’s tolerable, but stray too far either side of that and the grips grow larger in your hands. Plus, if your fingernails graze the backs of the hand guards (a $100 option), it feels like you’re being electrocuted!
As you’ll notice in the accompanying photos, our S1000XR was equipped with aftermarket soft luggage ($569.97 from AltRider). Because BMW North America didn’t have any factory saddlebags ($1,037) that were keyed to match our testbike’s ignition, it declined to provide any.
At $18,850 including the $2,400 premium package, the S1000XR certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it’s not the most expensive bike in this class. And as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.
□ucati Multistrada 1200S
Arguably the most familiar machine in this group, the Multistrada was updated for 2015 with DVT variable valve timing. The $17,695 base model comes standard with a huge array of features, such as DTC traction control and Bosch Cornering ABS. And our $21,294 S-model testbike adds a slew more, including a full-TFT digital dash, full-LED cornering headlights, Sachs Skyhook semi-active suspension, and a multimedia system that connects to your cell phone via Bluetooth. Our tester was further equipped with the Touring package ($1,500) that adds hard saddlebags.
As on previous versions of the Multistrada, the riding position is sporty yet comfortable. Some of my cohorts whined that the seat padding was thin and wiggle room scant, but I felt it was fine— and incalculably better than the original Multistrada 1000. The windscreen does a great job of deflecting air and is easily adjustable with one hand, even in motion.
Whack open the throttle and you’ll find the Ducati has the horniest-sounding motor, with the massive airbox between your thighs taking audible deep breaths. There is tons of torque, as you would expect from a I,198CC V-twin, but it hauls the mail on top too. At freeway cruising speeds (5,000 rpm at 80 mph) the motor gives off soothing vibes with no bothersome vibration.
But our testbike didn’t run great at first, noticeably laying down through the midrange before picking back up as the revs climbed. This was clearly an issue, considering that DVT exists to broaden the power through the midrange. We suspected it was software related and were correct: A subsequent trip to Newport Beach Ducati to have the ECU re-flashed eliminated that problem. We still wonder why the tripmeter reset itself every time we shut off the ignition on this keyless bike. As motorcycle software gets ever more complex, “version” updates will be ever more common.
The level of technology on the Multistrada rivals that of a spaceship. I happened to be riding it at sunset one evening and watched as the dash display automatically changed from a light background to dark, the buttons on either end of the handlebars illuminating. The display also changes depending on which ride mode you’ve selected, the rev-counter becoming more prominent in Sport mode.
WHILE THE S1000XR IS LOADS OF FUN TO BLAST UP A TWISTY BACK ROAD, IT'S NOT QUITE AS PLEASANT OVER THE LONG HAUL.
On one hand the Multistrada has the widest range of adjustability in this group, with four riding modes and no fewer than eight levels of traction control that can be mixed and matched. But on the other hand the Multistrada’s electronic interface is the most complicated, taking the longest time to learn how to use.
That said, the Ducati’s greatest strength is its ability to tackle any sort of road while remaining utterly undaunted. That’s where the Multistrada name (Italian for “all roads”) came from, after all. And that’s a big part of why CW chose it as the Best Touring Bike of 2015.
Kawasaki Versys 1000LT
Kawasaki might be a new contender in the adventure bike category, but its entry is not. The Versys 1000 has been available overseas for a while now and is based on the familiar Ninja 1000 model. If you recall all the accolades that bike earned, you’ll know it’s a solid platform.
Albeit a simple one: Whereas the other bikes in this comparison bristle with technology, the Versys has only ABS, two power modes (Full and Low), and three levels of KTRC traction control. The fork and shock are manually adjustable for spring preload (with a remote knob in the rear) and rebound damping (up front in the right leg only). The windscreen is height adjustable via two unattractive knobs that are difficult (if not dangerous) to operate while riding. There is no cruise control nor gear indicator (that’s a $200 option), though a little Economy emblem pops up when you’re getting good gas mileage. Other options include heated handgrips, DC power outlet, fog lamps, luggage rack, and top trunk.
Regardless of all that, the Versys is a very nice motorcycle. Throw a leg over it and you’ll immediately feel at home, like you’ve been riding it your whole life. The ergonomics are the sportiest of this lot but still all-day comfortable, with a one-piece seat that is nicely padded, though the aforementioned windscreen does buffet more than the others. It is very much a streetbike, however, as the shape of its handlebars and fuel tank are not particularly conducive to standing, and the footpegs are rubber-covered with no metal serrations. That’s no good in the dirt.
But point the Versys up a twisty back road and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a Ninja. There’s no faulting the i,043cc four, which is torquey, quick-revving, and slick-shifting, the latter aided by a slipper clutch. It’s also remarkably smooth, the bars and mirrors remaining pleasantly vibration-free until you creep up on redline. The chassis also handles very nicely and is quite composed—you have to push it pretty damn hard to expose the shortcomings of the price-point suspension.
Still. At one point in our ride, cresting Sherman Pass (elevation 9,200 feet), the road was freshly chip-sealed in places, potholed and tar-snaked in others, and the roadside trees cast long shadows due to the setting sun. That made reading the surface extremely sketchy, and while I appreciated the Versys’ sure-footed handling, I couldn’t help envying my fellow test riders with their cornering ABS.
One could point out the Versys’ lack of electronic rider aids and say that it’s dated. But you can’t mention that without also mentioning the price, which at $12,799 including standard color-matched saddlebags undercuts the competition by many thousands of dollars. In some ways, being dated isn’t a bad thing.
...POINT THE VERSYS UP A TWISTY BACK ROAD AND YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN FORTHINKING IT’S A NINJA.
KTM 1290 Super Adventure
The new-for-2015 KTM 1290 Super Adventure is the natural result of pairing the 1190 Adventure chassis with the i,30icc V-twin from the award-winning Super Duke R. But the result is much more than the sum of those parts...
It would take more space than we have here to discuss all of those details, but the thumbnail sketch shows variable drive modes, traction control, cruise control, semi-active suspension, cornering ABS, cornering lights, hill assist, and anti-engine-braking.
Shut off the electronic rider aids and the Super Adventure is an absolute hooligan, in spite of its motor being “de-tuned” from Duke R spec. We love this engine’s combination of low-end grunt, top-end zeal, and the slick shifting afforded by the slipper clutch. Turn the electronics back on and the bike feels remarkably composed, no matter the road conditions— there’s seriously no ruffling its feathers!
Austrians tend to be taller than your average American, so the riding position is rangy. Some of our test riders felt the seat was too firm and resorted to standing on the pegs for long stretches, but I thought it was fine—certainly a vast improvement over the original 950 Adventure’s picnic bench of a saddle. Some also noted that the handlebars buzzed, though nowhere near as badly as the BMW’s.
THE NEW-FOR-2015 KTM 1290 SUPER ADVENTURE IS THE NATURAL RESULT OF PAIRING THE 1190 ADVENTURE CHASSIS WITH THE 1,301CC V-TWIN FROM THE AWARD-WINNING SUPER DUKE R.
• Knows an apex and what to do with it
• Electronics easierto understand than Windows 7.0
• ADV meets SBK
• Settle in. You'll be staying fora while.
• Looks more than a little Multistrada-ish in red
DUCATI MULTISTRADA) 1200S 4
Forgetthe Cold Wing. This is the best touring bike made.
Electronic rideraids to rival the1290 Super Adventure
• It costs how much?!
• Engine mapping needed to be re-flashed to run right
• Dash display has more levels than Super Mario Bros
KAWASAKI VERSYS 100011
• Smooth, fast, comfortable
• Nicest saddlebags, with invisible mounts
• Slightly more than half the price of the others
• Features? What features?
• What do those screws on the suspension do?
•The '90s called. They want their bike back.
KIM 1290 SUPER ADVENTURE
• Most sophisticated motorcycle on the road today
• Best aerodynamics •When the road ends,
• Is “ruggedly good-looking" a compliment?
• Seat is only slightly softer than a picnic bench
• Heat between thighs
DUCATI MULTISTRADA 1200S
KAWASAKI VERSYS 1000LT
KTM 1290 SUPER ADVENTURE
Speaking of the seat, like the handgrips it’s heated, with separate controls for the rider and passenger. And the heated fuel tank is a nice touch too. Oh, you say that’s not a feature? Whatever, there’s a significant amount of heat coming off the rear cylinder and you will feel it.
We really liked the KTM’s windscreen, as it afforded the best protection of this bunch, even if the NACA duct on top made it hard to see through and it was difficult to adjust on the fly. We also appreciated the Jesse-style panniers, which, while wide, are large, don't need to be locked to remove the key, and have handy bungee-cord hooks on top.
We did have a couple of minor issues with our testbike. First, the fuel gauge magically showed the tank to be full at all times. Eureka, perpetual motion! Probably a level sensor needs to be replaced. But with 8 gallons of gas on board, we weren’t worried about running out.
Second, after the inner seal that allows the use of a tubeless tire was damaged during a routine tire change, the rear developed a slow leak. An emergency stop at Santa Barbara Motorsports resulted in the tire being fitted with a tube, which fortunately held air for the duration of our trip. In light of this development, we have to say that we prefer BMW’s tubeless system, which cleverly positions the spoke heads outboard of the tire beads. On a positive note the KTM is the only bike in this test with a 19-inch front tire, which works much better in the dirt than the others’ 17s while being only slightly less desirable on pavement.
At $20,924 including luggage, the 1290 Super Adventure is super expensive but still costs less than a fully decked-out BMW GS, while giving you a whole lot more for your money.
It might be a cliché, but which one of these four motorcycles is best comes down to the rider. If you’re on a budget, choose the Kawasaki. No apologies necessary, it’s a great bike for the money. If you’re all about sporty back-road performance, pick the BMW. It’s the superbike of the class. If you prefer something a bit more sophisticated and don’t plan to stray too far from the tarmac, the Ducati is for you. But if you want a bike that can truly do it all, you can’t go wrong with the KTM. It does everything the others can do on road, plus it’s the only one with true off-road capability. CW chose the 1290 Super Adventure as the Best Adventure Bike of 2015, and we’ll second that vote here.